iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 review: iPhone revolution, iPad evolution

Apple spells out the significance of its new iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 updates right in the release notes. iOS 14 “updates the core experience of iPhone” thanks to redesigned widgets that can be placed anywhere on your home screen and a new App Library feature for managing app overload and organization. iPadOS 14 is a bit less grand in scope, with Apple saying that it “introduces new Apple Pencil features and redesigned apps that take advantage of iPad’s large multi-touch display.” One marks the biggest shift for the iPhone in years, and the other continues to augment the creativity and productivity power of Apple’s tablets.

For both platforms, the new software includes a long list of improvements to Messages, Maps, the Music app, Siri, and more. And Apple continues its quest to put privacy at the center of everything, with new protections for your personal data and indicators that reveal just how often apps are accessing your device’s camera, microphone, or even the clipboard.

But first let me touch on something that’s equally important to new features: performance and reliability. Apple shipped iOS 13 in tatters last year, quickly releasing iOS 13.1 (with bug fixes aplenty) just five days later, and I’d say things didn’t feel truly stable and dependable until a couple more updates after that. Despite what feels like a sudden rollout, iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 seem to be in a much better place out of the gate. I’m still encountering the odd bug on occasion — widgets not refreshing when they should, minor visual glitches, and so on — but I haven’t come across any showstoppers. In day-to-day use, it’s all solid.

Widgets and App Library

Android users: it’s time to let your iPhone friends have their moment. Apple previously dipped its toes in the widget waters by letting you add them to the left-most “Today” panel, but with iOS 14, the company is going all-in. You can now put widgets wherever you want across all of your home screens. You can pick between small, medium, and large sizes, and each app can have several different categories of widgets. (For example, NBC News has dedicated widgets for top headlines and the latest COVID-19 stats.) Apple’s menu for picking a widget is elegant, but it’s not always obvious how to actually add widgets to the home screen. You also can’t readjust the size of widgets after placing them; if you decide a larger or smaller version would fit better, you’ve got to go through the process of adding it again. I hope Apple fixes this soon because it’s rather confusing that the “edit widget” option doesn’t include resizing.

I’m a big fan of widget stacks, which let you pile multiple widgets on top of each other so you can quickly swipe between them. If you don’t want widgets strewn across your home screen, this lets you find one perfect spot for a bunch of them. You can go one step further and make “smart” stacks that automatically rotate the visible widget based on the time of day, your location, and your typical usage patterns.

Developers need to update their apps to offer the new style of widgets; if you were already using some older ones, those now get second-class treatment and are still restricted to the Today view. (New widgets can still be placed on the Today screen, too, if you prefer.) Despite the short-notice release of iOS 14, new widgets are already starting to show up for OneDrive, Wikipedia, Todoist, Merriam-Webster, and a growing number of apps. I think app makers will be more enticed to create widgets now that they’re a bigger part of the iOS experience.

And then there’s the new App Library, which attempts to bring order to your iPhone home screen — even if you’ve never managed to do so yourself. Swipe to the right-most page and you’ll find Apple’s collection of categorized folders, which group all of the apps on your phone based on App Store metadata. You can’t change or customize what’s in each folder, and that’s annoying since Apple’s categorization can result in some very strange combinations. Why is the Phone app in “social” instead of “utilities”? Pocket Casts gets thrown into “information and reading,” while Apple’s Podcasts app goes in the more sensible “entertainment” folder. Every App Library collection comes off feeling like a hodgepodge, which drags down the helpfulness factor of the whole concept. Thankfully, you can just swipe down for an alphabetical list of every app on your phone.

Folders and lists aside, I love the ability to punt apps off my home screen and move them to the App Library without fully deleting them. And you can also set newly downloaded apps to automatically show up in the App Library (and alphabetical list) without demanding space on your home screen like they used to. All by itself, that’s a big win for keeping things tidy.

If there’s ever been a time to blow up your home screen and rethink the way information and apps are laid out on your phone, this is it. Try something new, and stick with it for a few days. If the experiment fails, you can always put everything back right where it was. But widgets and the App Library can make interacting with your iPhone feel considerably more efficient.

With iOS 14, your home screen will only remain a stale grid of apps if you insist on keeping it that way. Before, I had all of my essential apps on my first home screen and then a giant array of categorized folders on page two. That’s probably more organized than a lot of people get! But I’ve done away with the folder screen entirely and am determined to make searching for apps in Spotlight (just swipe down on any home screen) become second nature. But you don’t have to start from scratch like I did; if you just want to cut down on the clutter and hide pages of random apps, iOS 14 makes that easy, too.

Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t given the same treatment to iPadOS; there, these latest widgets can still only be placed in a sidebar on your first home screen. Despite the vast amount of working space, you can’t put them anywhere else. This limitation is baffling to me, but I’m guessing it’s one of those cases where the company just ran out of time. Hopefully we’ll get more widget freedom in a later update or, worst case, when iPadOS 15 comes along. Also strange is that the App Library is completely nonexistent on an iPad, so you’re still stuck having to find a home or folder for every app on your device. It’s frustrating that one platform is getting such a welcome, helpful tool for keeping things organized, and the other is being left without it altogether. Clearly these features weren’t as much of a priority as the new Apple Pencil functionality that I’ll cover later.

Messages

iMessage remains the iPhone’s top app, and this year Apple is trying to flesh out a richer chat experience with inline replies, mentions, and the option to pin conversations with anyone you want (including groups) at the top of Messages. But I think the company overthought some of the user experience elements.

You can pin up to nine conversations to the top of Messages.

For example, pinned conversations take up a ton of space in the messages list since those people show up as enlarged avatars at the top of the screen. Seeing text bubbles appear there whenever a new message comes through still feels a little foreign, and unless you just received a message, all you usually see is just that person’s avatar — so you lose context for where those conversations left off unless you tap into them. This isn’t an issue with the regular messages list.

I’m sure some people will prefer the clear visual separation, but I wish Apple had offered a choice between the supersized avatars and keeping the old view with pinned conversations just… pinned at the top of the heap, as expected. Mentions and inline replies work well, and I appreciate that you can now fine-tune notifications for busy group chats so that you’ll only get them when mentioned.

New defaults

It’s been a long time coming, but iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 let you choose your own default apps for email and web browsing. Developers need to update their apps to be eligible, but several of the big hitters (including Chrome, Gmail, Microsoft Edge, Outlook, and others) have already done so.

Once you’ve switched the setting, your preferred app will load instead of Mail or Safari whenever you click on an email link or URL. It works as promised, but after feeling the freedom of switching these defaults, I’m hoping Apple gets more open next year and lets us pick new favorites for messaging, music, and more. Currently, there’s a bug where your defaults will switch back to Apple’s apps if you reboot your device, but I assume that’ll be fixed soon.

Compact notifications and picture-in-picture

Yes, it really took until iOS 14 for Apple to stop incoming phone calls or FaceTimes from covering up the entirety of your screen. But finally (it’s appropriate here) you’ll no longer be abruptly pulled out of whatever you were doing — whether it was scrolling Instagram or playing a game — when you receive a call.

You can answer or reject a call right from the compact notification. Swiping down on it will bring you into the regular, full-screen call interface, where you can access the number pad and other settings. Swiping up will dismiss the call. There’s a small learning curve to the swipes, but these new compact notifications are less disruptive and a huge improvement over the old way. Siri also shares this compact view, and developers can add it to their apps (like Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) so you won’t have to worry about those aggravating screen takeovers anymore. The more compact design of call notifications thankfully extends to iPadOS 14.

iOS 14 also picks up picture-in-picture mode, which was already available on iPad. If you’re watching a video in Safari or an app that supports the feature, you can multitask and use other apps while the video continues playing in a corner of the screen. You can resize the PIP window and move it to whichever corner works best. If all you care about is hearing the audio, just swipe the video off the left or right side of the screen and you’ll still get the sound. Picture-in-picture is useful for entertainment, but it can also be used for FaceTime. Now you can shrink the video call and still see who you’re talking to if you need to check an email or text message. It’s a genuinely useful feature to have on iPhones with big displays.

Music

The Music app in iOS and iPadOS 14 gets a new default tab, Listen Now, that has personalized sections like “Top Picks” and “Made For You” and the usual recommendations based on your listening history. Music also has a much better layout on iPad now, with a sidebar for quick navigation and full-screen lyrics (for Apple Music tracks). Search for Apple Music subscribers is more convenient, as there’s a new top row for quickly getting to albums, playlists, and other filtered results.

Apple Music can now show full-screen lyrics, and search is more useful.

I’m an Apple Music subscriber only because it comes with my Verizon wireless plan, and I largely ignore the service on my iPhone, preferring to sync my own music files like the old days. My favorite thing about the Music app is actually the refreshed now playing screen, which has a background of shifting colors that match the album art of whatever you’re listening to. In early iOS 14 betas, Apple really ran wild with vibrant colors. The effect was super eye-catching and made albums feel more alive. But the final version leans more into subdued tones, which might have been done to improve accessibility.

Maps

Many of us aren’t currently traveling very often, so that has a way of making new Maps features feel less valuable than in years past. But Apple is still paying the app a fair bit of attention with iOS and iPadOS 14: Maps has added cycling directions and will now guide riders along bike lanes and bike paths. It’ll also show you a ride’s elevation, whether the streets on your route will be busy, and you’ll get a heads-up if there are steep inclines or stairs along the way. At the outset, cycling directions are available in New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and several cities in China, but Apple has promised that many more areas will be added over the next few months. Look, I can’t ride a bike, so I can’t speak to whether Apple’s suggested routes are sensible or overly convoluted. But the company is starting small with cycling in part to get it right.

Maps also now features electric vehicle routing, so your trip will include charger station stops. In a bid to keep pace with Google Maps, Apple has also added curated recommendation guides for things to do and places to eat in popular cities — once we eventually get back to doing that. And as of iOS 14, you’ll start seeing alerts for speed cameras and red light cameras. Another nice touch is that you can now quickly use your iPhone’s camera to help improve your location and orientation in Maps just by pointing it at nearby buildings. This is useful in urban cities where tall buildings can mess with GPS reception, making it harder for the app to tell which direction you’re facing or exactly what intersection you’re near.

App Clips

App Clips make it possible to use certain functionality of an app without downloading the entire thing. If developers adopt this new iOS 14 feature, you’ll be able to do stuff like pay for street parking, order food for takeout, rent a scooter or e-bike — all by using just the necessary sliver of the full-size app you’d normally need for that purpose. App Clips can be shared through messages, incorporated into QR codes, or launched from the web, and they’ll temporarily stay in your App Library in case you need them again or decide to install the entire app. They also support the “Sign In with Apple” feature that lets you hide your actual email address and other personal info.

App Clips give you just the part of an app that you need to get things done.

Since we’re still in the early days of iOS 14, the selection of apps that’ve integrated App Clips remains very sparse. I’ve been able to test Panera Bread’s, which you can access by searching for the chain in Apple’s Maps app and picking your preferred location. Tap “order food” and you’re brought into an app-like experience that lets you select items from the Panera Bread menu and buy them using Apple Pay. The clip remained in my App Library so I could get back to ordering if I got distracted by something else on my phone. It was about as seamless as it could’ve been, and I’m hoping that other restaurants and coffee shops support the feature soon.

Last year, Apple sent the iPad on its own course by renaming its software to iPadOS and adding new features designed for the tablet form factor. For iPadOS 14, instead of rethinking the home screen as it’s done on iPhone, Apple wanted to make the Apple Pencil more useful than ever before.

It starts with a new feature that Apple calls Scribble. It allows you to write into any text field on your iPad with the Pencil, and that writing is automatically converted into typed text. You can also select your scrawled handwriting in an app like Notes and copy it as plain text for easy pasting elsewhere.


iPadOS can now automatically convert your handwriting to typed text.

All of this works extremely well, and more often than not my handwriting carried over into plain text without any glaring mistakes. Apple’s handwriting recognition isn’t infallible, though. If you’re in a hurry and write messy, you’ll probably need to fix some things. Scribble comes with its own new gestures for manipulating text with the Pencil, like scratching out a word or sentence to erase it or circling a phrase to highlight it. You’ll get those ones down in no time, but other gestures — like pressing and holding the Pencil tip down to create more space for handwriting or drawing a vertical line to separate or connect words — are easier to forget.

More of Apple’s iPad apps now have a sidebar for quicker navigation.

iPadOS 14 also adds sidebars to a number of apps including Music, Photos, Files, and Shortcuts, which in turn makes using all of them more efficient and productive. The sidebars might seem like a minor thing, but they give the iPad more of a Mac-like feel.

Search has been redesigned in iPadOS 14 with a new compact interface that better ranks the most relevant results, makes it faster to search the web, and allows for in-app search for apps like Mail, Messages, and Files. Launching apps from search is quicker, too, which is something that I increasingly find myself doing since there’s no App Library yet.

One area of iPadOS that remains unchanged is multitasking, which still feels more complicated and less cohesive than it should. Apple needs to refine how multitasking elements like split-screen and Slideover come together. The company decided to punt on shaking anything up this year, but I hope evolving the iPad’s multitasking is in the cards for next fall.

Privacy

For years now, Apple has worked to bolster the security and privacy of iOS and give customers greater control over how much apps can glean from their iPhone. iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 put an even greater focus on transparency, with new color indicators that appear in the upper right corner when apps are actively accessing your camera (green dot) or microphone (yellow dot).

After updating, you’ll quickly notice a new permission request when an app “would like to find and connect to local devices on your network”; this is required for smart home apps to communicate with gadgets around your house and for apps to cast to your TV, for example. You’ll even see a small banner at the top of the screen whenever you paste something into a text field, telling you where the copied text originated.

I think the microphone and camera indicators are terrific additions and should always be there, but I wish Apple would let you configure or toggle off these other prompts — at least the clipboard ones, which have struck me as a little overboard in my time using iOS 14.

Another neat new privacy trick is the option to grant apps access to your approximate location instead of the usual pinpoint accuracy. Obviously, you’ll want to keep the regular permission in place for an app like Waze or Uber, but does Tinder or your favorite weather app really need to know your exact location? Probably not. I’m already limiting a lot of apps to this new approximate setting, and it feels good.

Lastly, you now have control over what photos in your library an app can see. When an app like VSCO asks for access, you can pick specific images you plan to edit or grant access to your whole camera roll. I’m still generally giving most photo apps full access, but it’s a nice tool to have if you want to get more granular than the all-or-nothing choice Apple offered before. If you accidentally choose an individual album and instead want to give an app full privileges, you’ll have to go to settings and find that app to change its photo access.

Later this year, app developers will have to start creating “report cards” that clearly lay out what kind of data their apps collect. And Apple plans to continue making it harder for advertisers to secretly track you across apps, though it’s giving the ad industry a few extra months to adjust to the coming changes. For now, you can still see all the ad trackers that Safari has blocked on any website.

iOS 14 marks the biggest change to the iPhone’s software in years. At least, it does if you want it to. Taking advantage of widgets (once more become available) and App Library can legitimately improve the day-to-day experience of using your iPhone, opening up new ways of keeping things fresh and personalized to whatever suits you. If you ignore those new features completely, it’s still worth updating to iOS 14 for the less annoying call notifications, the richer Messages app, and other additions like picture-in-picture.

iPadOS 14 doesn’t radically shake up the user experience in the same way, but it continues building on the strengths of Apple’s tablet lineup. Scribble turns the Apple Pencil into more than just a tool for drawing or retouching photos, and apps now put the iPad’s bigger screen real estate to better use with sidebars and pull-down menus. The end result is an iPad that feels more productive than ever, even if it still comes with the same little issues that can limit its appeal as a laptop replacement for some people.

There’s more that I didn’t touch on much here, including Apple’s brand-new Translate app for iPhone — a solid first effort that will likely cut into Google Translate downloads. The Home app has seen a handful of improvements, like suggested automations when you add a new device to your smart home and adaptive lighting for smart bulbs. AirPods Pro have picked up a trippy spatial audio feature that tries to replicate surround sound. And Apple has continued to make strides in accessibility: there’s now a headphone accommodations setting that can tune audio output to your hearing, and iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 can add VoiceOver support even for apps that don’t have it baked in.

Unlike iOS 13, which shipped in a buggy state, these latest updates are mostly stable and dependable for everyday use. The release came sooner than expected — without a new iPhone to showcase these new features on — but perhaps that’s for the best. More than most updates before it, iOS 14 shows how Apple’s software can breathe new life into the hardware you already own.

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