A new version of Apple's iPhone software is here — at least if you're a developer — and iOS 16 introduces a number of changes to the mobile platform. But how many of iOS 16's many promised enhancements are welcome ones?
A fair number, as it turns out, at least based on what we've heard and seen so far. It's early days for iOS 16, as a public beta of the software update won't arrive until July and a full release isn't slated until the fall. But based on Apple's WWDC unveiling, there's plenty to like about this iPhone software update.
It would be wrong to characterize iOS 16 as an overhaul of Apple's mobile operating system, though there are an impressive number of changes introduced in this update. Rather, it's more accurate to say that the new features should make the iPhone easier and pleasurable to use — at least if they live up to Apple's advanced billing.
Following the WWDC preview for iOS 16 and reviewing the overview on Apple's website, these are the iOS 16 features and enhancements that caught my eye. (For additions that are more off the beaten path, we've also got a look at iOS 16 hidden features.) I'll certainly revise this once I've had the chance to try the iOS 16 beta for myself, but I definitely have some first impressions based on what Apple has revealed so far.
If I were to tell you that Messages was the most popular built-in app in iOS, you'd probably agree... if you weren't already busy using Messages to text your friends and family. So it's no surprise when Apple includes new features in Messages with iOS updates. You've got to keep the customers satisfied, after all.
What is surprising is how useful the changes in iOS 16 Messages should be, whether you're a causal user or a hardcore blue bubble-head. iOS 16 will let you edit text messages just after you send them, which will be welcome to the 99% of the known world who have ever fired off a text only to realize seconds later that there's horrible typo in there.
Generally, I find myself sending two messages in rapid succession — the first initial message, followed by hasty corrections to all the errors introduced by my clumsy typing. iOS 16 Messages should eliminate that second text, while adding other useful capabilities like marking message threads as unread so you can go back and review them later and unsending recent messages. (Now my after-school carpool message group will never have to read the text about what I'm making for dinner that I meant to send to my wife.)
iCloud Shared Photo Library
Another feature I expect lots of iPhone users will turn to is the new iCloud Shared Photo Library, which promises an easier, more engaging way to share photos with friends and family. The feature set seemingly mirrors similar capabilities that Google offers, but it's still going to be a welcome addition for iPhone users who just want an easier way to share their photos with each other.
iCloud Shared Photo Library lets you share pictures with up to five other people, and you can set up a shared library by selecting photos from a certain date or by highlighting the faces in the photos you want to share. When your shared library is set up, you'll be able to share photos directly from the Camera app, which should remove one of the hurdles to getting photos in a shared album. Everyone has the same permissions to add, edit and delete.
I figure iCloud Shared Photo Library is going to trigger a lot of iCloud storage updates, though it's unclear how much of a shared library comes out of your storage allotment. Nevertheless, it seems like the photos that used to sit on your camera roll are going to find their way out into the regular world in iOS 16.
Customizable lock screen
Apple's decision to let you customize the lock screen is easily the most-talked about change in iOS 16, probably because it paves the way for an always-on display feature in the iPhone 14 Pro this fall. Still, while I like the idea in concept, I'm not sure how much I take advantage of it in reality.
Much will depend on using the iOS 16 bet and seeing how adding widgets to the home screen actually plays out — are they helpful or distracting? I can see experimenting with different fonts and color scheme on the date and time, but I don't envision spending a lot of time on that. Apple even promotes the fact that you can set up multiple lock screens and switch between them, which frankly sounds like a bit too much effort to put into this sort of thing.
I'm happy I'll have more control over the lock screen, but as a set-it-and-forget style of phone user, but I don't see myself spending too much time experimenting with switching around my lock screen
Live Activities on the lock screen
There is a new kind of notification coming to iOS 16 and the redesigned lock screen that I'm decidedly more excited about, and that's Live Activities. I think it's going to be a great addition for sports fans.
As described during the WWDC keynote, Live Activities alert you to exactly what the name would apply — a live thing happening now. And since it's live, the notification remains on your lock screen, updating as the situation changes. Think a baseball score updating with every run scored or inning change. That's an improvement over the constant barrage of notifications you get from live sports these days.
Live Activities covers more than just sports, of course. It can tell you the status of an Uber or Lyft ride you've booked without requiring you to unlock your phone and launch the relevant app. Food delivery services can take advantage of Live Activities, too.
I like the fact that in iOS 16, Apple recognizes that not all notifications deliver the same kind of information; Live Activities takes a step toward addressing that.
Focus is moving to the lock screen in iOS 16, as well, in the sense that you'll be able to connect your particular Focus mode — work, personal or whatever — so that your lock screen reflects what you're trying to accomplish. This is where setting up multiple lock screens come in handy.
I'm not the world's biggest user of Focus on the current version of iOS, and maybe that's a reflection of not wanting to take the time to manage and maintain different Focus modes. iOS 16 could possibly address that, by promising a streamlined setup that lets you quickly designate the apps and people you want notifications from. I'm also intrigued by the addition of Focus filters that promise to weed out distracting content from Calendar, Messages and third-party apps, so that your work and personal modes are more distinct.
Multiple stops in Maps
Apple continues to fine-tune its Maps app, and as a fan of iOS 15 Maps, I say the more new features, the better. Two iOS 16 additions sound particularly promising, and the first is the ability to add multiple stops along your route.
You can add a stop in iOS 15 if you want to throw in a gas station detour during in a route, but multiple errands are much trickier in the current version of Maps. iOS 16 will change that with support for multiple stops. Even better, because you can sync up directions between your Mac and your iPhone, you can research all those stops on your Mac's bigger screen and then send them to the iPhone when it's time to hit the road.
Transit cards in Maps
I don't always commute, but when I do, I try to use public transit. Already, Wallet lets me load up my transit card onto my phone, but as of iOS 16, I won't have to leave Maps to check the balance on that card or to add funds to it if need be. And I'll know when my funds need replenishing, as Maps will include the cost of using public transit when calculating out a route in iOS 16.
I don't own an Apple Watch, and don't really have plans to, owing to a lifelong aversion to wristwatches, smart or otherwise. But that doesn't mean I can't be envious of Apple Watch-wearing people in my life who can use that device's Fitness app for tracking fitness goals and keeping tabs on activity.
My envy, like my excuses for not getting in shape, will be a thing of the past with iOS 16's arrival. The iPhone's getting a fitness app of its own that will tap into the phone's sensor to measure steps and distance traveled. You'll be able to tie in third-party apps, as well for an estimate of calories burned during your workout.
Apple clearly hopes that the arrival of Fitness on the iPhone will prompt people to take the plunge on buying one of the best Apple Watches once they see the fitness- and health-tracking tools available to them. But even if you just stick to the iPhone, the Fitness app should be a helpful and healthy addition.
Advances in tech often have unintended consequences, so it's nice to see Apple address one of the biggest drawbacks to shareable location data with Safety Check. The feature allows someone who's trying to escape an abusive relationship reset system privacy permissions; it also puts restrictions on Messages and FaceTime. From the looks of Safety Check screens, there are a more granular sharing and access management tools as well for less dire moments.
Safety Check is one of those features you hope you don't have to use, but the fact that it's easy accessible makes iOS 16 a valuable upgrade.
Count me among the many iOS users who turn to Notes to jot down quick thoughts, manage shopping lists and outline ideas. I've even used the app to write a Tom's Guide article or two when my iPhone was the only device at hand. (I... do not recommend tapping out hundreds of words on your iPhone's keyboard.)
It's going to be easier to get started on a Note in iOS 16, as Apple adopts the Quick Notes feature available for iPads. Now, by tapping the Share menu from any app — it's the square with the arrow flying out of the top — you'll be able to create a note. Other Notes improvements slated for iOS 16 include locking a note with your iPhone's passcode (rather than creating a separate password) and customizable filters for Smart Folders to make it easier to find the note you're looking for.
I think it's fair to say the current search capabilities in iOS 15's Mail app are less than robust. Fortunately, Apple's making changes to search on its other platforms, most notably with macOS Ventura, so that means improvements are headed the iPhone's way as well.
Specifically, Apple says Mail's search feature will offer "more accurate and complete results," something we'll have to see in action before we agree. More intriguingly, the revamped search also promises suggested results before you type, presumably by using on-device intelligence.
Back in May, Apple joined Google and Microsoft in announcing expanded support for the FIDO password-free sign-in standard, which replaces passwords with unique passkeys that merely require a PIN, security key or biometric identifier to log in. We'll see the fruits of those efforts in iOS 16 Safari, which promises passkey support for safer sign in.
This is another feature we need to see in action if we want to judge how easy and effective it is. But the idea is that you'll be able to sign in to sites with an encrypted methods that's not vulnerable to phishing or data leaks. Even better, you'll be able to use passkeys even when accessing sites on devices made by someone other than Apple.
Live Text improvements
Apple added Live Text in iOS 15, and it proved to be both a welcome addition, as well as a sign of the progress the company was making in terms of on-device machine intelligence. With Live Text, you could capture the text in a photo and make it actionable — calling phone numbers, looking up websites and even pasting captured text into documents.
Live Text gets a boost in iOS 16, by extending its text capturing capabilities to video. Quick actions like jumping to websites and calling up phone numbers will be easier to access.
I've set up voice-activated shortcuts that let me do everything from provide two-factor authentication on select website to starting a timer when I'm making waffles. It didn't take much effort to get these shortcuts in place using the Shortcuts app on the iPhone, but iOS 16 promises zero setup shortcuts.
Details are few and far between on the iOS 16 preview page, other than Apple promising that you'll be able to run shortcuts with Siri as soon as you install an app. Consider me intrigued.
When I reviewed the Google Pixel 6, one of my favorite features was the ability to dictate text messages and have the AI on board the device be smart enough to automatically insert punctuation. Apple's going to replicate that trick with iOS 16, assuming you've got a phone with an A12 Bionic processor or later. (That's the iPhone XR and anything that came out after that.) Apple's also making it possible to use voice dictation and the onscreen keyboard at the same time so you can go back and correct anything the Siri assistant mishears.
Bonus feature: My Sports in News
At the risk of piling on the potentially exciting iOS 16 additions, Apple just might get me to rethink my dismissive attitude toward the iPhone iteration of its News app if it can come up with more features like the upcoming My Sports section.
Yes, you'll find a curated selection of stories from various publications geared toward the topics, teams and sports you care about. But Apple is adding scores, schedules and standings as well, making this corner of the app feel more like the sports section of the local paper that I'm used to poring over during breakfast.
iOS 16 outlook
We've just scratched the surface of what iOS 16 is bringing to the table, and your list of anticipated features might include things like the Apple Pay Later feature in Wallet that splits up purchase into four interest free payments or improved device setup and account management with Family Sharing. And after iOS 16 comes out in the fall, iPhones should also get a future update that brings the Freeform collaboration tool also slated for iPads.
All told, that's a lot of new features to keep up with. We hope to do so throughout the iOS 16 beta process as we help you decided if this new version of Apple's iPhone software is worth the download.
Get the BEST of Tom’s Guide daily right in your inbox: Sign up now!
Upgrade your life with the Tom’s Guide newsletter. Subscribe now for a daily dose of the biggest tech news, lifestyle hacks and hottest deals. Elevate your everyday with our curated analysis and be the first to know about cutting-edge gadgets.
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.