iOS 18 reportedly 'biggest' update in history — 9 upgrades coming to your iPhone

iOS 18 logo on iPhone in person's lap
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

With a date now set for this year's WWDC, the countdown to our first official look at iOS 18 has truly begun. We're used to seeing previews of Apple's upcoming software update during its annual developers conferences. But there's a special anticipation for WWDC 2024 given all the hype around iOS 18.

Specifically, iOS 18 figures to show off Apple's first concerted efforts to extensively include features backed by artificial intelligence. And that change has convinced some people that iOS 18 will be a pretty big deal. "I’m told that the new operating system is seen within the company as one of the biggest iOS updates — if not the biggest — in the company’s history," Bloomberg's Mark Gurman wrote in an addendum to a January 2024 column detailing what Apple has in store.

While potential AI features are certainly fueling much of that feeling, there's likely more to iOS 18. The software looks like it's getting some interface updates, and you can expect the usual parade of enhancements and updates to existing apps.

WWDC may offer a first look at the new iPhone software, but it won't be the last word on iOS 18. We're expecting a public beta to arrive in the summer, giving the more daring members of the general public a chance to try out any new features. It all leads up to the full release of iOS 18 later this year, likely just before the iPhone 16 models arrive.

So yes — that's why people are excited about iOS 18, even long before Apple's preview. Here's a closer look at nine potential changes that this update is bringing to the iPhone.

A new version of Siri

Siri

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

iOS updates usually bring a new round of skills to Siri, letting the digital assistant answer more questions without resorting to the dreaded "Here's what I found online" response. Siri's become a more reliable performer over the years, and its way of speaking and carrying on conversations with you seems to have gotten noticeably more natural in recent years. But iOS 18 could take Apple's digital assistant to the next level.

Specifically, there's been talk of a Siri 2.0 making its debut at WWDC as part of iOS 18. Originally, this update to the virtual assistant was viewed as Apple's attempt at a chatbot, though subsequent reports have squashed the idea of Apple offering a chatbot of its own. (Those reports do leave open the door for Apple using somebody else's chatbot, as there have been reports that Apple and Google are discussing including the latter's Gemini tool on the iPhone in some way.)

Chatbot or no, rumors about iOS 18's Siri update suggests that it will be more conversational and able to handle complex tasks. Certainly, the number of acquisitions and job openings Apple has in this area suggest that something's in the works — we'll just have to wait or the iOS 18 preview to see the scope of changes coming to Siri.

Generative AI coming to built-in apps

Artificial intelligence is expected to show up in iOS 18 in other ways, as in generative AI powering new features in some of your favorite apps. A Bloomberg report by Mark Gurman specifically cites examples where AI helps iPhone users automatically generate playlists in the Music app or slides in the Keynote presentation tool. The Spotlight search feature is also reportedly being trained on large language models, and we could see Apple taking a page out of Samsung's Galaxy AI playbook by adding summary and formating features to Notes and Safari.

Apple's made no secret of the fact that generative AI is very much on its radar. "Later this year, I look forward to sharing with you the ways we will break new ground in generative AI, another technology we believe can redefine the future," CEO Tim Cook said during the company's shareholder meeting in February. That timing lines up nicely with an iOS 18 preview.

RCS support

Apple RCS messaging support.

(Image credit: Future)

Here's something we actually know that Apple plans to add at some point; we're just assuming that it's going to make its debut as part of iOS 18.

We're talking about the RCS, or rich communication services, standard. Apple said late last year that it would offer RCS support via a software update at some point in 2024. When that happens — and you'd imagine it's happening via iOS 18 — it should improve messaging between iPhone and Android users. 

Mind you, the green bubbles that act as a divide between Android and iOS — and that get cited in federal antitrust lawsuits — aren't going anywhere, and Apple's iMessage app will continue to offer the premium iPhone chatting experience. But RCS support will add things like typing indicators and read receipts for inter-platform communication. 

Home screen customization

iPhone 13 widgets

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There's been talk about iOS 18 introducing some significant changes to the look of Apple's iPhone software, but to date, there hasn't been much in the way of specifics. One exception comes via another Mark Gurman dispatch reporting that iOS 18 will give users the ability to better customize the look of their home screens.

Right now, you can change the wallpaper for your iPhone's home screen, and you can rearrange what apps appear in what order on which screens. As of 2020's iOS 14 update, you could also add widgets to the home screen. But this whole time, you've been wedded to the 6 x 4 grid where app icons line up in rows and columns.

Reportedly, the customization features in iOS 18 will give you more control over where you can place app icons, leaving gaps and open spaces wherever you want. We suspect there's more to this change than what we've heard about so far, but greater flexibility in app placement sounds like a step in the right direction.

Custom routes in Maps

How to map a route with multiple stops in iOS 16 Maps

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Not every update coming to iOS 18 is going to be AI-focused. Some enhancements will be of the old-school variety — just new features that get added to existing apps, improving the way they work. Such is the case with Maps, which is already slated to get a couple of improvements in iOS 18.

The one that will excite most people is the ability to customize your routes when getting directions in Maps, a feature that was spotted in some code for the app. We'll have to wait for Apple's official explanation, but it sounds like you'll be able to specify directions when planning out a route. 

For example, Maps and I have a very different idea of how to get to the nearest freeway on-ramp from my house when I'm plotting out a road trip. Instead of having to ignore Maps for that part of my journey, my guess is I'll be able to customize my route down the streets I prefer to drive instead of the ones Apple's decided are the fastest. The feature should also be helpful i there's a particular point of interest you want to swing by that isn't necessary on the Map app's favored route.

Topographical maps

Topographical maps, a feature already supported in watchOS 10, could be headed to your iPhone, too — again, that's based on code uncovered in the operating system that looks like it would be activated in the iOS 18 update. What's more the feature could be coming to the Maps app in the macOS and visionOS updates, too.

Since topographical maps show things like elevation and trails, it makes sense that they'd be enabled on the Apple Watch first. But the iPhone version of Maps has walking directions and the Fitness app tracks steps, so extending the feature to iOS seems like a natural fit.

Accessibility features

MacRumors has gotten the early word on accessibility improvements coming to iOS 18 (and the next version of macOS, while we're at it). The highlight appears to be Adaptive Voice Shortcuts where you can use a unique phrase to control a specific accessibility setting. It should make operating the iPhone much easier for anyone who struggles with a touch interface.

But that's not the only accessibility improvement, according to MacRumors' sources. Reportedly, a Live Speech enhancement will add better organization tools for phrases while the Adjustable Text Size feature will extend support to apps such as Books, News, Stocks, Tips and Weather.

Hearing Aid mode for AirPods Pro users

Our reviewer running with AirPods Pro 2

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

While we're on the subject of accessibility features, iOS 18 is also supposed to add one that makes the AirPods Pro much more valuable to anyone with impaired hearing. A Bloomberg report dangles the possibility of a Hearing Aide Mode coming to iOS 18. The feature would work with Second-Gen models of the AirPods Pro wireless earbuds, assuming Apple lines up the proper regulatory clearance.

Extensive iPhone support

iPhone XR

(Image credit: Future)

Every year at WWDC, one of the tensest moments is finding out which phones will be able to support the new iOS update. Apple's support is pretty generous, extending for at least five years of iOS and security updates, but that doesn't take the sting out of hearing all about the great new features coming to iPhones only to learn that you've got to upgrade your older device.

There's potentially good news about iOS 18 if you believe in a now-deleted delete about iPhone support. Supposedly, the software update will work on every iPhone that's able to run iOS 17, which takes us back to the iPhone XR and iPhone XS models released in 2018, along with the 2020 and 2022 editions of the iPhone SE.

That's not to say all of those phones will be able to support every feature. For example, we've heard that some of the more demanding AI features may be restricted to iPhone 16 models, and who knows what other upcoming iOS 18 capabilities will require more modern silicon. Still, any time you can squeeze another year out of your iPhone, it's cause for celebration.

iOS 18 outlook

Keep in mind that leaks about software are usually harder to come by than tips on what's coming to the next iPhones. That's because Apple does its software work in-house so there's no overly chatty third-party suppliers spilling the beans about upcoming specs.

That's another way of saying, we've gotten a pretty good idea of some of iOS 18's new capabilities and we're still more than two months away from WWDC. Expect more details to leak out about this coming iPhone software update, as we discoer whether iOS 18 turns out to be as significant as everyone seems to think it will be.

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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.

  • mark_887797
    This is utter rubbish!

    When will the media cease being sycophantic sophycants, mere script readers, and mere forwarders, and finally muster the courage to confront those in positions of authority?

    Year after year, we're fed the same narrative of 'biggest' and 'best', perpetuating a cycle akin to the boy who cried wolf syndrome.
    Reply