iOS 15 — Maps is shockingly good and Safari is not

ios 15 beta hands-on review
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It's hard to be pithy when you're talking about iOS 15. Apple's iPhone software, available to everyone in the form of a just-released public beta, packs in a variety of features — some of them high-profile, other lost in the shuffle and overlooked iOS 15 additions as a result.

So I hope I can be excused for carrying on and on about all the changes in this update during my iOS 15 public beta hands-on. Between new capabilities, enhancements to old favorites, and shared features with other Apple OS updates, there's a lot of ground to cover. And even then, I felt like I've barely scratched the surface. 

Still, no matter how many words one could drape around a software update preview, the two most persistent questions you're asked are always the same: Which new addition is the best one in this update? And what could have benefitted more from more time on the drawing board? After spending some time with the iOS 15 developers preview, I have some pretty strong opinions on the best and worst the beta has to offer.

iOS 15: Maps is the best

You could make the case that either FaceTime or Focus — two of the more noteworthy changes in this iOS update — should stand out as iOS 15's finest features. I will admit that both are impressive, based on what I've seen. FaceTime adds some key improvements like spatial audio and a more organized grid view, while also incorporating a new SharePlay capability for watching movies and listening to music with far-flung friends. Focus promises to reduce potential distractions by filtering out notifications and incoming messages so you can buckle down and concentrate.

As good as these additions are, I use FaceTime rarely and not always voluntarily. From my initial testing, it seems like the iOS 15 improvements will make me less disdainful of Apple's video chat app, even if I'm not yet ready to embrace it. I think Focus has the potential to be a real game-changer, but we're going to need to spend some more time using the retooled video chat app to reach a more definitive conclusion.

ios 15 beta hands-on

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

No, the feature that has caught my eye is the one I use more or less all the time, and one that I regularly rely on to get me from Point A to Point B: Maps. The navigation app sees some wonderful improvements in iOS 15, and that's before I've had a chance to really test out the new transit features or new AR-powered capability in which Maps provide interactive walking directions. What I've already seen is impressive enough.

That'd be the 3D mapping details Apple has added to Maps — at least in the San Francisco area where I'm doing most of my testing. Local sites like Oracle Park, the Ferry Building and SalesForce Tower are rendered in exquisite detail. You'll also see more accurate roads — now gray instead of yellow — and even trees alongside the streets that accurately reflect where real trees are.

I've done a lot driving around the past few days and the new driving view in Maps has proven invaluable. It switches to a street-level perspective when you approach particularly complicated stretches of your journey — think interchanges where overpasses criss-cross each other. The driving view in iOS 15 Maps kept me on-course and headed toward my destination.

ios 15 beta hands-on

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I know Maps has a bad reputation from the days when Apple was breaking free of Google's mapping data with mixed success. But I feel that iOS 15's version is another step toward putting that reputation in our rear view mirror.

iOS 15: Safari takes some getting used to

To call Safari iOS 15's worst feature is, arguably, a bit harsh. But it's the change I like the least and the one that's going to take the most getting used to.

Safari is getting streamlined across Apple's various software platforms. For iOS 15, that means a new design that's better suited to the iPhone's limited screen space. And that means Apple has decided to shrink down the tab bar and move it to the bottom of the screen where it's in easy reach of your thumb. 

ios 15 beta hands-on review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The only trouble is that my brain still expects the tab bar to be up top. So often, when I launch the browser in iOS 15, I'll spend a moment or two staring stupidly at the top of the screen wondering where the URL went too. Even worse, sometimes I'll just start impotently tapping the place where I think the tab bar should be before I remember that I'm living in iOS 15's new and not necessarily improved world.

Like I said, it takes some getting used to, especially the fact that you can jump to open tabs just by swiping left or right. That's a potential time saver, but I also imagine inadvertently shifting screens when my finger accidentally drags across my iPhone screen. Speaking of tabs, this new design also accommodates Group Tabs, a feature I'll likely appreciate more once I upgrade my MacBook Air to macOS Monterey. Right now, staring at the gird layout of grouped-together tabs on my iPhone's screen, the phrase "This ain't it, Chief" keeps echoing in my mind. We'll see if that fades over time.

iOS 15 outlook

The good news for Apple is that I've uncovered more hits than misses during my time with iOS 15. We also need to remember that this is a beta, and that if you find features that don't feel fully fleshed-out just yet, there's a long time between now on the fall release date for the full version of iOS 15.

With that in mind, then, my current strategy is to see if I can get used to a world with an upside-down Safari and take comfort in the fact that my Maps experience looks like it's going to be much better when iOS 15 hits a full release.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.