It's tempting to think of iOS 8 as a more polished version of iOS 7; when you first install the update, there's no visual cue that anything is different. But iOS 8 packs a long list of new features, some of which we're still digging up weeks later. But what else is really new and worthwhile here? After thoroughly testing out the new OS, there were four such features that really stuck out.
I’m not fond of dictating my texts, yet I find the new quick audio feature in Messages to be addictive.
Activated by holding down the microphone icon, the feature immediately starts recording an audio message, which is then sent by sliding your finger up on the screen. If you misspoke (or are having second thoughts about drunk voice-texting your ex) you can use the familiar leftward swipe gesture to delete it before it sends. I suspect that once people try it, the tap, hold, and flick-to-send routine will become familiar.
Sending audio text messages isn’t for every situation—it’s still awkward to dictate messages while standing in line at Chipotle—but there are a lot of lazy situations in which it’s perfect. I found using it around the house, audio being a lot more convenient when doing chores. And because it doesn't transcribe the note into text like Siri, there's no need to correct spelling, which is especially nice when you're behind the wheel.
Making texting even easier is the predictive text capabilities of the new keyboard. It's one of the most noticeable new additions, thanks to the hard-to-miss row of words it appends right above the keyboard.
The QuickType feature—which lets you a few letters and tapping a word, typing a few more letters and selecting another—is a toss-up. Some might like it, while others might ignore it in favor of the way they've always typed on iOS. The place really comes in handy, however, is when replying to incoming messages.
For example, my wife sent me a few questions from the store and instead of having to type the answers, the choices were pre-populated. For the times messages are utilitarian in nature, the predictive text will be your best friend. Answering questions will be a delight, plus the predictive element learns how you speak to different contacts and tailors the responses accordingly. In this regard, messaging with iOS 7 will feel like a huge chore once you’ve used iOS 8.
After six years the App Store has seen its fair share of criticism. It’s also pretty clear the App Store is too big too do a good job and make everyone happy. The updates made to it in iOS 8, however, are pretty nice.
Visually, icons are bigger and items are spaced a little better, but overall it remains similar. The biggest complaint—which Apple is trying to address—is discoverability. Third-party apps make the iPhone experience. In iOS 8, surfacing new apps in the App Store feels a lot easier.
Google's Play store has a similar problem: Once you highlight dozens of apps in different ways, the results can be overwhelming for users. One way the iOS 8 App Store tries to change this is by making it easier to drill down into specific interests.
There’s a new "explore" button now which combines previous efforts into one area. Front and center under explore is apps "Popular Near Me," while the categories underneath help to separate the sub-division out more. Tapping "Music," for example, produced a long list including "Apps For Learning Music," "Lyrics," and "Radio." All very different types of apps that still fall under the broad music category.
Another subtle, but helpful addition is under the search button. Without typing anything, the first thing you see is a list of trending searches. This has already proved useful, not to mention interesting. Revision: Once you search for something, the store displays a list of items related to your query, further improving app discovery.
The tweaks might seem small, but they could be enough to help people find apps they might not have otherwise.
Spotlight finally feels like it’s reached the level of maturity it was destined for since its introduction. Integrating things like App Store searches, iTunes music, nearby places, and news rounds out the search box nicely.
In practice, it’s the first time I feel like I have a go-to place on iOS to quickly type things and at least get close enough to what I’m looking for. I was concerned Safari had too many desktop metaphors to be a useful mobile browser, but in combination with Spotlight’s new capabilities, the two work well together.
Spotlight in iOS 7 often came up short, focusing mostly on local search. Now in iOS 8, if I search for an app I need, it doesn't matter if it's on the phone or not because Spotlight will find it on the app store if it's not local. Same for music, it doesn't matter if a song is in my library or not because searching will still find it in iTunes.
The important improvement in Spotlight is that I don't have to think about whether I need to search online or locally on my phone because the two are much more intertwined now.
I’d still love to see more refinement and work on Spotlight going forward, but in practice it’s much more useful than it’s ever been before.
[Image: Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns]