Apple iOS 8 review

Last year’s iOS update brought the biggest upheaval in iOS’s short history and a dramatic shift in design ethos. iOS 8 aims to build on that overhaul, bringing more polish to what many considered a rushed job. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this year’s updates are less dramatic, but as usual there’s no shortage of small upgrades to absorb. Read more: Apple launches iOS 8 at WWDC 2014.

Perhaps the change that’s most noticeable in day-to-day use is the new keyboard: QuickType finally kills off the bubble-based suggestions that appeared in iOS 7 and earlier releases and replaces them with three suggestions in a bar that appear immediately above the keyboard.

Apple iOS 8 preview

The system learns as it goes and can predict one or two words ahead; we found it made a big difference to text entry speed. Having the suggestions closer to the keyboard and in a larger format makes them quicker to select, and the extra choices mean you don’t have to worry about being so precise with your typing.

Apple iOS 8 preview: third-party keyboards

Perhaps more important than these enhancements, however, is the fact third-party keyboards will be allowed in the App Store for the first time. If you still don’t like Apple’s offering, you’ll be able to install SwiftKey or Swype instead (both have confirmed they’re developing iOS keyboards).

The Notifications Center has also received significant updates, including the introduction of interactive notifications and widgets, allowing users to act directly on incoming emails, accept or decline calendar invitations, reply immediately to text messages and so on. These will be available on the lock screen, and third-party developers will be able to take advantage.

Apple iOS 8 preview

There’s a handful of small updates concerning messaging, contacts and email, too. A new microphone icon next to the iMessage field lets you send quick recorded audio messages, and the multitasking view makes use of the previously dead space at the top of the screen to display recent contacts. Meanwhile, the Mail app builds in a slightly improved set of gesture options, adding a flag button to the left-swipe menu and the ability to mark emails as unread with a swipe to the right.

It doesn’t stop there, though: Siri can now be activated with a “Hey, Siri” when the phone is plugged in (to help drivers keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel). The camera gets a timelapse mode, and the integrated photo editing tool has been hugely improved, with more control over cropping and rotation, and a greater array of exposure and colour adjustment tools included.

Apple iOS 8 preview

Then there’s the new Health app, which harvests the health data collected by other apps – calories, BMI, body temperature, cholesterol and so on – and displays it on a dashboard, complete with stats and graphs. To allow this to work, developers will need to use the HealthKit framework, which allows data to be shared not only with the Apple Health app, but also with other third-party health apps.

Apple iOS 8 preview

Apple iOS 8 preview: behind the scenes

These changes are all welcome, but what will likely make a bigger difference in the long run are the improvements Apple is making behind the scenes to enhance the overall user experience. For instance, the introduction of app extensions is a huge change, at last giving developers the chance to extend the reach of their apps outside the sandbox.

With an app extension, Evernote, say, might be able to offer a clipping service directly within Safari. Keyboard extensions will allow app developers to switch from the default layout; share extensions will allow users to share data from an app to any online service, not just those selected by Apple, as in iOS 7.

Continuing the open approach, Touch ID will now be available to third parties, so you should soon be able to pay for more than just apps with your fingerprint. Then there’s Family Sharing, which will allow up to six family members to share apps, music and movies without having to use the same Apple ID.

Apple iOS 8 preview

Owners of MacBooks and iMacs will appreciate the extension of Airdrop to the desktop, as well as the ability to answer calls and receive text messages in OS X. Spotlight is also set for a revamp; it will become a hub for internet searches and local device searches.

iCloud Drive, meanwhile, will remove the perennial problem of duplicate files created by apps using the Open In command. Previously, opening a file created by one app in another meant effectively sending a copy of it via the share menu. With iCloud Drive, apps will be able to save a single instance of documents to iCloud, where they will be available for editing by other apps. This change is long overdue, but since it relies on third-party implementation we haven’t yet been able to test it.

Apple iOS 8 preview: room for improvement

So far, so good, but it isn’t all rosy for iOS 8. Most notably, we have concerns over stability and performance. While we were testing beta 2, we frequently experienced occasions when our iPhone 5 test handset locked up and became completely unresponsive. This close to launch, that’s a major concern.

Apple iOS 8 preview

The keyboard implementation needs attention, too. Although it works well, there are occasions when the suggestions don’t appear above the keyboard when they should. Type into the search field on the Google Mobile website, for instance, and nothing appears. The same happens with apps – no suggestions appear when searching Twitter or Spotify. Surely it should work universally (except in URL, email and password fields).

We also hope it won’t be left to app developers to implement the new third-party keyboard changes. When iOS 7 arrived, developers had to update their apps in advance, otherwise the old-style keyboard continued to appear; it’s going to be a mess if this remains the case in iOS 8 with third-party keyboards.

Apple iOS 8 preview: verdict

Despite this, iOS 8 is a highly promising update. As usual, it delivers lots of small tweaks as usual, plus a handful of larger changes that will benefit users immediately. The ability to share app purchases with the kids should make a huge difference, and we can’t wait to see what SwiftKey has in store with its upcoming iOS keyboard replacement.

What we’re really excited about, however, is the way Apple is opening up iOS and making it more accommodating. For a long time, owners of Android devices have been able to boast of more flexibility and freedom; it seems that Apple is at last responding to this, giving users and developers the tools they need to move its ecosystem to the next stage. iOS 8 won’t put the two ecosystems on the same level, but it signifies a new era for Apple – one in which we’ll need to rethink a few of our prejudices and preconceptions.

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