While Google’s excellent Nexus 6P and Android 7.0 Nougat have tempted me, I’ve stuck with the iPhone, and have likewise been testing the new iOS 10 for the past few months. Here are the features that I think put it over the top.
Note: Google is rumored to be announcing Pixel-branded successors to today’s Nexus devices—the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X—any day now. So anything is possible.
As you may recall from Apple Stays the Course with iOS 10, iOS 10 is essentially review-prooff and is pretty much inevitable. No, Apple doesn’t have the same hard-line position on software updates that Microsoft has adopted with Windows 10, but only just barely: It’s a fact of life that the vast majority of iPhone and iPad users update to the latest iOS version very quickly. So unlike Android 7.0 Nougat, which is out in the real world on only a handful of devices, there are probably already millions of people using iOS 10.
Many of those people—perhaps even most of them—will flock to the new Messages features, which lurch drunkenly from the insipid to the silly, in my opinion. I don’t care about—or for—such things. Or for Siri, at all. Or for Apple Maps, which yes, I’m sure has improved markedly. I don’t care.
No, this list is all about the things that have in fact impacted my usage of the iPhone and to a lesser-degree the iPad. Most of them are small, subtle improvements, yes. But I think they add up to something important in aggregate.
So, in order of importance.
Flashlight intensity. This is easily the most wonderful change in iOS 10 because it fixes a problem we’ve all had: You’re in a restaurant or other dark place trying to read a menu or other item that’s filled with too-small or non-constrasty text, and you pull out your phone, enable the software flashlight, and instantly fill the room with the light of 1,000 suns, annoying everyone around you. In iOS 10, this is fixed: When you hard-press on the Flashlight icon in Control Center, a menu pops up, giving you Low, Medium, and High Intensity choices. Why on earth doesn’t every smartphone work like this?
Raise to wake. Starting with the iPhone 6S lineup, the Touch ID sensor on Apple’s devices works so fast that many users complained they were never able to read lock screen notifications. So now iOS 10 has added a raise to wake feature (that yes, was available on other systems already): When you lift the phone off the table, the screen comes to life, giving you time to see what happened. This is just common sense, and it works nicely.
Night Shift. Like other mobile OSes, iOS 10 provides a night mode, called Night Shift, that removes blue light so that your eyes can adjust and be rested, and you can sleep better. This feature is particuarly well-done in iOS 10, and is scheduled so you never need to enable it manually. But you can if you want to: There’s a huge new Night Shift button in Control Center (see below) now too.
Remove (many) built-in Apple apps. As I wrote in Apple Stays the Course with iOS 10, this system is the only modern OS that doesn’t separate Home/Start from an All Apps view. And that means that many people create a “Crap” folder where they hide all the stupid Apple apps no one wants to see, let alone use. Well, you’ll probably still need that folder, sorry. But Apple finally lets you remove (not really delete, as you can get them back) many (but not all) of the mostly-superfluous apps it bundles with iOS. (Some apps, like Clock, App Store, and others can’t be removed.) Amazing!
Clear all Notifications. If there’s anything more useless than the Notifications panel in iOS, I haven’t seen it. In previous iOS versions, you could only remove notifications per-day or per-app. Now, in iOS 10, you can long-press on the Clear (“X”) button at the top of the list and choose “Clear all notifications.” And clean up all that useless junk.
Swift Playgrounds. This one is only available on iPads, but Swift Playgrounds is the first mobile app I’ve seen that actually makes learning software programming fun. And it really works: I’m only partway through the surprisingly thorough game—er, lesson list—and it’s quite impressive. Plus it’s free, assuming you overlook the $400 or more you spent on that iPad. (Why Swift Playgrounds isn’t available on the web or Mac is unclear, but I suspect this is about selling more iPads and making the iPad seem more productive and interactive.)
Useful widgets. Like most users, I began accessing iOS’s Today screen and its list of app widgets by mistake. And in previous versions of iOS, I was unimpressed: This was clearly just Apple’s lame attempt at duplicating Google Now. But now it’s gotten kind of useful. You can access it more easily, for starters, by swiping right from the Home or lock screen. And you can customize it with the apps you want—Outlook, Cortana, whatever—reorder the widgets, and remove all of Apple’s default choices. Come on, you’re surprised by that.
Quicker camera access. Yes, Windows phone users, I know. The iPhone does not have a dedicated camera button, meaning that “pocket to picture” still remains the one key remaining strength of that dying platform. But Apple has made it much easier to get the camera quickly. When you pick up the phone, the screen now comes on, as described above in “Raise to wake.” Then, just swipe to the right. Voila! The camera app launches. That’s just as easy as pressing a hardware button, I think. I know. Sorry.
Control Center changes. One of the tough things about any touch-centric UI is that you need to swipe around a lot to see what does what. In iOS, you access volume, brightness and other system controls by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, and not down from the top as on Android and Windows Mobile (which combine these quick settings with notifications). This UI is called Control Center, and in iOS 10, it’s been improved in a number of ways, not the least of which is that media playback controls have been moved to second panel, which you get to by swiping to the right. And if you’re using HomeKit, there’s a third panel for home automation controls. Nice.
The things that have always worked. Beyond the improvements introduced in iOS 10, Apple’s mobile OS has long gotten many things right, and I appreciate the stability, reliability, and consistent performance of this system when compared to Android especially. But there’s so much to like about iOS, like the excellent text selection and cursor placement capabilities, which just makes the day-to-day more pleasant. (There’s also plenty to complain about, of course.) And of course, iOS 10, unlike Android 7.0 Nougat or Windows 10 Mobile, is available to everyone on modern i-devices, at isn’t burdened by the dark purposes of your wireless carrier. Seriously, you have to love that.