Thoughts on iOS 11

27 June 2017

It is that time of year again. And that time of month: the public beta of iOS 11 is out which means I can download and test it out having registered with the Apple Beta programme. Every year I give the new software a test run on my main phone and, contrary to popular belief, things have been just fine. That does not mean I condone installing beta OSes on primary devices; all I am saying is that that has not had a negative effect in my experience so far besides a minor glitch here and there, such as when pulling up the control centre or a delay on 3D Touch.

Last year I was not all that excited with the largely cosmetic updates that came with iOS 10, but the changes Apple has brought with the OS this time are significant. And there are so many peppered around the system that I felt the company's picks to showcase on WWDC were somewhat baseless. It was wonderful that they showed off the new App Store and control centre but why did they not bother to mention, for example, the new instant access to via the lock screen with iPad and Apple Pencil?

In any case, here is a collection of my thoughts on new features that I personally liked best in iOS 11. I will likely not install the beta this time since I have important data on my device that I cannot risk corrupting or deleting or subjecting to equivalent treatment, but these are the reasons I await the Gold Master release come September.

The lock screen—notifications pane merger

Apple has decided to make the lock screen and the notifications pane one and the same. As a result you will almost always stare at a cleaner lock screen unless you have no notifications and a tiny swipe up will show you notifications now as opposed to reaching out to the top of the screen and pulling down.

This is generally a good move since reaching to the top of the screen is troublesome as phones are getting humorously large nowadays. Apple seems to have recognised this (at last) because this is not the only change geared towards controlling the phone from the bottom half of the screen: the video player built into the system now has the scrubber at the bottom rather than at the top.

Some reports suggest that notifications cannot be accessed with a swipe as before which is disturbing but, hopefully, this is just a beta bug. Also, the lock screen rotates to landscape mode even on 4.7 in devices. This can be a good thing or a bad thing based entirely on personal preference.

All-new control centre

I have called for a revamped control centre for three years. It is finally here and it does not disappoint me. The new control is now fullscreen, dark and filled with customisable buttons. The customisation only goes so far as picking your own buttons (with some standard, compulsory defaults like WiFi, bluetooth and airdrop). Night Shift, thankfully, no longer has an unnecessarily large button and toggling mobile data via control centre is now possible.

However, I wish developers will be able to do more with control centre than just providing toggle switches. Perhaps we will see that in future versions of iOS but this will do for now. The possibility of pulling up the control centre and hitting the camera button to launch a non-stock camera app is one of the best parts about the new set-up.

File browser

Android has had this one for ages but iOS is finally getting a file browser. Whether this will lead to misuse of the OS remains to be seen but I am sure Apple has taken precautions for that (why else would they take nearly a decade to include a file browser in an OS?) To make things even better, the new has integration with Dropbox and certain other cloud storage services. The old iCloud Drive app will probably be pulled now.

I am curious to see how Apple is integrating this with iTunes on macOS because, so far, it has been somewhat gimmicky. The file view on iTunes only shows the first folder and no nested ones and, further, does not let you move files into any folders whatsoever. For instance, to transfer files to TexPad on my iPad for LaTeX I need to first transfer them via iTunes to the root of the TexPad app and then into the correct folder via the app itself on iPad.

Drag-and-drop, move multiple apps

Drag-and-drop across the board on iPad is simply brilliant. It makes iPad so much more of a computer now. Tim Cook is known to be an iPad fan so his push for making it as capable as a computer has taken a starkly different route when compared to Windows and one that, in my opinion, ensures the iPad remains a distinct yet capable device.

Drag-and-drop on iPhone does not seem to exist outside the Files app but, along the same lines, moving multiple apps around on the home screen is now possible. Click and hold to select the first app (the famous jiggle mode) and then click other apps to mass select and move. This is good although having label-free dock icons now seems like an unharmonious step.

An even better Notes app

Apple Notes is an app I use a lot alongside Reminders. (I am still mostly a stock app user because I do not yet see the need to seek third-party replacements.) With iOS 9 Notes got an unexpected boost to become a key competitor to Evernote, OneNote and the like. However even with iOS 10 the odd skeuomorphic design language form yore was somehow stuck in with no justification. Now iOS 11 introduces background choices for notes.

However the updates are more than cosmetic this time: a document scanner has been built into, support for Tables has been added as well besides a new monospaced typeface and an sleeker albeit minor redesign, and, best of all, clicking on the lock screen with Pencil will automatically start a new note: perfect for iPad note-taking. For some reason the Calendar and Reminders apps have been ignored for three years in a row but they still get the job done. Hopefully that will change soon; the calendar in particular badly needs support for natural language input.

Screenshot markup, QR reader and Siri typing

There have been some minor updates that rather took me by surprise. People apparently take screenshots on iPhone all the time (I thought I was in the minority) and now Apple has a handy tool that collects screenshots as you take them and lets you mark them up and share them right away or swipe to save them without sharing.

There is also a QR code reader built into the camera app that also intelligently responds to the content of the QR code, from simple links all the way to logging you into a network using data from the QR code. Also, Siri can now respond to typed questions rather than just spoken ones which makes Siri considerably more useful, particularly when you feel uncomfortable standing in a public space shouting at your phone.

A miscellany of updates

Besides major upgrades and changes iOS 11 also brings in small tweaks that make a considerable difference in everyday use. The volume HUD that would block the screen (I confess I actually liked that) is now tinier and exists at the top-right corner out of direct sight. supports GIFs, FaceTime supports live-photo style screenshots, and the system plays FLAC audio out of the box.

While the Siri upgrades are unlikely to affect Google Now much (or Alexa or Cortana for that matter) other software updates are likely to affect third-party developers. Depending on your requirements you may not need, say, Documents by Reddle anymore; QR code reader apps will certainly feel the blow; Evernote and Bear and other note-taking apps will also be affected since now does almost everything (it only lacks proper, multi-tiered organisation).

One other tier of apps that may feel the effect of iOS 11 are password managers. Apparently iOS 11 now has keychain built into the OS so other apps can retrieve from it natively too, just like Safari. Of course if you have non-Apple devices your preference may remain 1Password, Last Pass etc. but those who use only Apple devices will benefit from quicker sign ins.

Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Vimeo are also being affected now that single sign-on has been stripped from iOS (at least on the betas so far). That means Tweetbot, my Twitter app of choice, will have to build a share sheet integration or risk losing users to the stock Twitter app. The same goes for the other social networks although, not being on Facebook, I am not entirely familiar with the current status of its app. It will be interesting to see if this move will also be replicated by the disappointingly named ‘High Sierra’ version of macOS.

Apple services must go international

There are other minute tweaks nobody will notice like the automatic smart quotes, instead of the old dumb quotes, being made the default system-wide. One feature from macOS that has made it to iOS is a comprehensive (perhaps even app-wise) storage overview with suggestions on how to increase storage space through deletions and cloud storage, all as single click fixes. This is a welcome addition to people with low capacity devices (particularly the 16GB iPhone 5S that iOS 11 still impressively supports). The new photo and video formats being introduced with iOS 11 that will ensure they occupy less space than before are also great improvements.

However Apple's own services have sadly seen far lesser use internationally than they should have. There are huge markets for Apple Pay and I cannot think of a single reason why the company has not yet moved to several countries around the world. If payment services are hard to build what about Apple News? Even Maps seems to know little of the world outside America's borders. It is impressive that Apple has grown so large without effectively penetrating several markets, India being perhaps the largest, so there is great room for improvement going further and I hope they expand sooner rather than later. Maybe with iOS 12? Or maybe we will have to wait till the next big overhaul for any such gift from Apple.