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iOS 15 beta review (hands on): A big update with big changes

Here’s what you can expect when you take the iOS 15 plunge — and whether you should

ios 15 beta hands-on review
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Our Verdict

iOS 15 is very much a beta at this point, but the vast number of changes it brings should improve your iPhone experience.

For

  • Much-improved FaceTime lets you share video
  • Focus mode should minimize distractions
  • Upgraded Maps app looks better than ever

Against

  • Some features only work on newer iPhones
  • Not every feature feels fully implemented right now

iOS 15 poses a challenge that recent iPhone software updates haven't had to face. Those recent iOS updates were pretty easy to sum up. Sure, each update contained its fair share of new features and enhancements to existing capabilities, but it was usually easy to pinpoint the biggest changes and summarize them in a couple bullet points.

Try doing that with iOS 15, and you'll soon spiral into madness. This is a massive update with plenty of changes — some of them so sweeping, they also appear in Apple's software updates for the Mac and iPad as well. Just when you think you've covered most of the bases with this update, you'll find an extra iOS 15 feature, one that demands further attention because of its potential impact on how you use your phone.

You can find out for yourself just how big an update iOS 15 is now that Apple has released a public beta for its new iPhone software. The beta process is Apple's attempt to fine tune its software prior to a full release this fall. But for users like you and me, it's our chance to acquaint ourselves with just how many changes await us in iOS 15.

I've been using the iOS 15 developer beta — both the version that Apple released during June's Worldwide Developers Conference and a subsequent update that forms the basis of the first iOS 15 public beta. So far, I've come across a head-swimming number of changes that figure to evolve over the next few months as we get closer to iOS 15's fall debut. Here's what you can expect when you take the iOS 15 plunge — and whether you should.

iOS 15: Release date

Apple released the first public beta of iOS 15 ahead of its promised July launch date. And this will be the first of many beta releases between now and when the final version of iOS 15 arrives this fall, likely around the same time as Apple's iPhone 13 roll out.

Getting the iOS 15 public beta is as simple as joining Apple's public beta program and following the on-screen instructions for downloading the software. (Here's our guide on how to download the iOS 15 public beta if you need more help.) As with any beta software, we'd caution against installing this on a device you depend on for daily use, at least at this stage in the process. Beta software can introduce bugs and negatively impact some of the apps you need on a regular basis. Stick to installing this update on a spare device.

iOS 15: Supported devices

If your phone runs iOS 14, you'll be able to install the iOS 15 beta. That means anything from an iPhone 6s onward will work, including the original iPhone SE and the 7th gen iPod touch. iPads get their own version of the software, known as iPadOS 15

Be aware that not every iOS 15 feature will work on older iPhones, with capabilities that require a lot of neural processing power only work on iPhones with at least an A12 Bionic processor. These include:

  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone XS and XS Max
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone Pro Max
  • iPhone SE (2020)
  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone 12 mini
  • iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max

iOS 15: FaceTime improvements led by SharePlay

Let's start with one of the most prominent changes in iOS 15 — Apple's revamp to its FaceTime video messaging app. We may have spent a lot of the past year using various video messaging tools, but I can't pretend FaceTime was one of them. The group calling feature Apple introduced in iOS 12 struck me as a bit of a mess, with its floating windows that would change prominence depending on who's talking.

ios 15 beta hands-on review

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iOS 15 restores some order to the chaos with a grid view option that's less distracting, at least to my easily diverted eyes. If you've got an iPhone XR or newer, you also reap the benefit of spatial audio, in which the voice of the person speaking emanates from the part of the screen where their square is located. It's a seemingly small tweak, but it makes a world of difference in letting video calls feel more natural.

However, the biggest change in FaceTime involves Apple's new SharePlay feature, which is so sweeping that it's also included on the new versions of iPad and Mac software. With SharePlay, you're able to stream audio or video on a FaceTime call, and it will play for the other people you're FaceTiming with, with playback synced up so that everyone's watching or listening at the same time. You can also share your iPhone screen via SharePlay.

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Other video chat apps offer similar features, whether they're built in or available as extensions, but Apple including the functionality within its own video messaging app is significant. And Apple clearly has high hopes for SharePlay, as it's releasing a developer tool so that software makers can add compatibility to their apps to work with FaceTime once the final version of iOS 15 ships.

To that end, Apple is promising that prominent streaming services like Disney Plus, Hulu, Paramount and others will support SharePlay, though at this stage in the beta, we're limited to testing with Apple's own offerings like Apple TV Plus. I watched an episode of Ted Lasso with two of my Tom's Guide colleagues, with each of us able to control playback from our various devices. I could even resize the video window to make it easier to view Ted Lasso's antics while minimizing the FaceTime window, and then flip around the sizes when I wanted to see my colleagues' reaction.

SharePlay in FaceTime does a pretty good job of dropping the audio of whatever it is you're watching or listening to so that you can keep your conversation going. However, audio controls in SharePlay seem to be universal — you can't boost the volume of what you're playing back without also increasing the volume on your FaceTime call, at least in my initial testing. I would hope Apple eventually separates out those volume controls.

One other thing about SharePlay: everyone on your FaceTime call will have to subscribe to that particular streaming service if they want to watch or listen along. For instance, I tried sharing a stream of Goodfellas that I had purchased from the iTunes Store a while back; my colleagues were treated to an invitation to buy or rent their own copy.

There are other additions to FaceTime in iOS 15 that we plan to test more thoroughly between now and the new software's final release this fall. You can now create links to FaceTime meetings, either in the video chat app itself or in iOS 15's Calendar app, which should make it easier to pre-schedule FaceTime calls or add people to a chat session. Apple is extending FaceTime to Android and Windows, too, though with a browser-based interface and not a dedicated app.

iOS 15: Focus mode and notification changes

If FaceTime tackles Apple's stated goal of keeping people connected with iOS 15, then the new Focus feature is front and center for the company's plan to free us from distractions and time sucks. Think of Focus as more refined version of Do Not Disturb, keeping out irrelevant notifications and even restricting your home screen to only the apps you need to access for the task at hand.

ios 15 beta hands-on focus mode

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For example, you can set a Work focus that blocks out notifications from streaming apps and social networking tools and restricts incoming messages from contacts you haven't white-listed. You can also designate a home screen that only displays your work-focused apps. (I've got mine set up to show off Slack, Gmail, Google Docs and a couple handy utilities, plus widgets for my reminders and calendar appointments.) Other iOS 15 users will see your Focus status in Messages and, hopefully be less inclined to ping you (or at least know that why you're not as responsive as usual.) And your Focus setting will follow you from device to device, as iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey support the feature, too.

We won't really know how effective Focus is until we've had more of a chance to use iOS 15, but at least it's easy enough to set up and turn on. Focus lives in the Control Center, so you just swipe down from the upper corner of your iPhone screen (on the iPhone X or later) to set your focus. You can also turn off a focus by tapping on the icon that appears on your phone's lock screen when you've got the feature enabled. We've largely talked about setting up a work focus, but Apple lets you customize and name whatever focus mode you want, whether it's for gaming, family time, driving, sleeping or what have you.

If I have a criticism of Focus, it's that the home screen feature is a little bit limited. You're not creating a new home screen that only appears when you turn on a particular focus mode and fades into the background when you're done. From what I can see in the iOS 15 beta, you're merely selecting an existing home screen. This is actually contrary to how I organize my apps, where I put the most frequently used on one screen, whether they're for work or personal use. Also, you can still access apps you've left out of your focus by swiping left until you reach the App Library, so it's not as if I can't launch PUBG Mobile when I really should be answering that email from the boss.

Apple's attempts to do away with distractions don't stop with Focus. The company is taking another stab at streamlining notifications in iOS 15. App icons on notifications are now larger, making them easier to spot at a glance so that you can determine if this notification is really worth your time; incoming messages will show the contact photo you've assigned to a person in the Contacts app.

ios 15 beta hands-on notifications summary

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The biggest change to notifications, though, is Apple's new notifications summary, which you set up in the Notifications section of the Settings app. When setting up a summary, you can decide which app notifications you only need to see at select times of the day — those will then appear in on-screen summary at a time of your choosing, so you can skim through updates you may have missed without feeling bombarded throughout the day. I've found the summary to be a clever way to discover when new podcast episodes are available.

iOS 15: Map improvements

Count me as one of the people who's gotten over Apple's stumble in moving away from Google Maps to its own mapping data nearly a decade ago in iOS 6. Maps has steadily improved, particularly in recent years, and I prefer it to Google Maps. It probably helps that I live near Apple HQ and therefore often get access to Maps improvements long before they roll out to other parts of the country.

ios 15 beta hands-on maps

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Case in point with Maps in iOS 15: this new update adds more detailed 3D views of cities that include better landmarks, 3D buildings, clearly labeled commercial districts, more detailed roads and trees, with all that data collected from the vehicles Apple sends around to improve its master map. That feature is rolling out to select cities, initially — San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London — before it hits other places. Having gazed at downtown San Francisco, with a detailed Oracle Park nestled against the San Francisco Bay, I can tell you it's a look that really helps you get a sense of place when you explore in Maps.

At least everyone with an iPhone XR or later will be able to experience the new interactive globe that's now visible in iOS 15. Zoom out and you'll see a view of the earth from space, complete with an accurate star field. Zoom in and you'll see other details — mountain ranges, deserts, ocean depths — that are clearly labeled, making it feel like you've got an interactive relief map stored on your phone.

ios 15 beta hands-on review

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A more practical addition to Maps is the app's new 3D driving view that gives you a driver's eye perspective on roads around complex interchanges. I took Maps for a spin around the MacArthur Maze, a series of interchanges, merge lanes and potential wrong turns in the East Bay, and Maps clearly showed me which lane I had to worry about and which ones were merely flyovers. (One complaint: In this view, Maps labels the streets that are below overpasses but that have no exits — an unnecessary level of detail that I found mildly distracting.) Also helpful were 3D renderings of roadside buildings that helped orient me as to where I was on the road.

ios 15 beta hands-on driving map

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There are additional Maps improvements that don't appear to be fully fleshed out in this beta. Apple is promising an improved transit map that now includes key bus routes and lets you pin your favorite transit lines. iOS 15 is adding immersive walking directions that will overlay directions and street names on a live image of the scene around you, so you know what direction to head in. (This is another feature that will require an iPhone XR or later.) It’s only available in the Bay Area at the moment, and I’m still looking for an opportunity to head into San Francisco to take the feature for a spin.

iOS 15: Safari's new Look

We can argue about what the biggest changes are in iOS 15, but there's no question as to what will be the most controversial addition. Safari in iOS 15 sports a new look inspired by Apple's efforts to streamline the version of the browser in macOS Monterey. And I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that this new approach is not going to be universally loved.

ios 15 beta hands-on review

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Safari's tab bar is now at the bottom of the screen, which continues to be disorienting to me even after weeks of use. Eventually, Apple is betting that we'll all get used to it, especially since placing the tab bar down by your thumb makes the browser easier to navigate with one hand. I certainly had no problem doing so with an iPhone 12, and I imagine people with Max-sized screens will feel similarly.

At least the tab bar is unobtrusive, disappearing into the bottom of the screen as you scroll through a page. Tapping the bottom causes it to pop back up again.

In a change that's more likely to be widely accepted, Safari also adopts a new grid view to show you an overview of your open tabs. This is a more handy view than the stacked windows featured in previous versions of iOS, as you can see all your tabs at a glance.

ios 15 beta hands-on safari

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Apple introduced this tab overview grid to better support another addition to Safari in MacOS Monterey — grouped tabs. Whether on your Mac or your iPhone, you can now group related browser tabs together. I find it useful when looking for online recipes to store them in one collective tab, for example. Jumping between pages is as simple as swiping right or left on your iPhone screen. 

In addition to those changes, iOS 15's Safari adds support for web extensions, a feature I haven't had a chance to dig into yet.

iOS 15: Live Text and Visual Look up

For a while now, Google Lens has offered AI-driven super-powers that allow you to use your camera for everything from finding out more about the world around you to capturing and acting upon the text in images. iOS 15 follows suit by adding Live Text and Visual Look Up to your iPhone's bag of tricks. It's very much in line with Apple's history of not necessarily being the first to add a feature, but attempting to do it better than its rivals. It's early days for both Live Text and Visual Look Up, but the promise is there.

ios 15 beta hands-on live text visual look up

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Live Text does what it says in its name. If there's text in a photo you've taken, you can tap on it to capture it and copy it. You can then pin the resulting text in a note, email or text. The feature works best with clearly printed text as opposed to handwritten notes, but it's a step in the right direction.

An even better component of Live Text is the ability to call phone numbers or look up addresses directly from the photos you've shot containing phone numbers and addresses. Just long press on a phone number, for example, and a pop-up menu appears giving you the option of starting a phone call, sending a text message, adding a number to your contacts or even placing a FaceTime call. Results with addresses have been more hit and miss — sometimes, Live Text picks up the street number but not the city, so you can get directions to entirely the wrong location.

Visual Look Up is similarly hit or miss — some things Siri recognizes, other things it doesn't. For instance, when I swiped up on photos that I took in the Musée de l'Orangerie, Visual Look Up correctly identified paintings by Monet and Rousseau, though other shots produced no such knowledge. The feature couldn't — or wouldn't — recognize baseball and football stadiums, but it did have plenty of info on the iconic Sather tower on the University of California, Berkeley campus.

iOS 15: Shared with You

Past iOS updates have introduced a lot of changes to Messages, as Apple's chat app has evolved into a place where a lot of iPhone users spend most of their time. The Messages additions are pretty minimal in iOS 15, unless you're hankering for new Memoji clothing and accessibility options. But there is one fairly significant addition — Shared With You — that touches a number of your iPhone's built-in apps.

Now, when someone shares with you a web link, photo, song, or podcast, it will not only appear in Messages, but also in a Shared with You section in the relevant iOS app. (Apps supporting Shared with You include Safari, Music, Podcasts, News, Photos and TV.) The idea is that you don't always have the time to look at what someone's sharing with you right at that instant, but when you do have a free moment to look, you can find it more easily in the relevant app.

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For example, when my wife finds a web article she'll think I find interesting, the subsequent link now lands in a Shared with You section in Safari that lives on Safari's start page underneath frequently visited pages and above the browser's privacy report. Similarly, photos that my friends text me now get a Shared with You section on the For You tab.

Even better, I have the option of replying to all that shared content from within the relevant app instead of having to schlep back to Messages. A reply box lets me respond to those web links my wife is sending me or to the photos I've gotten. In the iOS 15 beta, it's not always clear when I'm able to respond — I find that group texts with shared content that may include people who don't use iPhones don't always extend the courtesy of a reply, but this may just be a quirk of the beta.

While we're on the subject of photos in messages, it's a lot easier to save them now in iOS 15. To save a photo from Messages in iOS 14, you had to long-press on the photo, then select Save from the ensuing pop-up menu. iOS 15 simply adds a save icon right next to the photo in your Messages conversation; tap it, and the image is saved to your Photos library.

iOS 15: Photos improvements

I've come to appreciate the Memories feature in the Photos app, as it's a nice pick-me-up to sometimes go back and look at these auto-assembled collections of photos from various trips and events. (This was especially true during the pandemic.) iOS 15 further boosts the experience by incorporating songs from Apple Music, but the real treat is being able to personalize your memories.

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You can tap on the Memories as they play and hit an icon that looks a lot like a music note to adjust both the song that plays and the filter that appears on your images. I wish the controls lingered on the screen a little longer — they have a habit of disappearing while you're still trying to figure out what button takes you where — but this is an addition that will really let you flex your creative muscles and put your own stamp on various photo collections. You can control playback, too, and iOS 15 introduces new Memory types. It really makes the Photos app more engaging.

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That's clearly the highlight of Photos, which also adds more detail to the info panel that appears when you swipe up on an image to see when and where it was taken. New info includes the lens used as well as the shutter speed, if you're the type that likes to drill into these sorts of things. You can also tell Photos to not show certain people or memories as frequently by tapping a Feature Less option.

iOS 15: Other changes of note

"We could go on" has never felt like a more apt phrase when it comes to iOS 15. Apple's software update contains numerous other changes, some of which aren't even live yet in this beta. Wallet, for example, is going to support house keys, office keycards and hotel room keys, along with adding support for additional car keys. But testing that feature requires the cooperation of assorted car makers, hotel chains and smart lock companies; that's not available just yet. The same thing goes for Wallet's newfound support for importing your driver's license — that's going to require assorted state governments to sign off on that feature, and that doesn't appear to have happened where I live just yet.

Other iOS 15 additions can be addressed quickly. Weather adds a new design highlighted by colored bar charts in its 10-day forecast to give you the range of possible temperatures at a glance. That's a helpful enhancement, and the app's richer, animated backgrounds make for some engaging eye candy. But some of the expanded details like full-screen weather maps feel like overkill — a "because we could" enhancement rather than something Weather truly needed.

ios 15 beta hands-on weather

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Health adds a new sharing table, where you'll be able to securely share health data with trusted family members and, eventually, your doctor. That's not something I've had a chance to set up yet. I'm more intrigued by an addition to both Notes and Reminders that adds tags to the two built-in apps. With Tags, you'll be able to better organize notes and tasks, using social media-style hashtags.

You can now do Spotlight searches from your iPhone's lock screen simply with a downward swipe. (Don't worry — if your phone is still locked for whatever reason, Spotlight searches on the lock screen are restricted to web results, so people won't be able to rummage through the contents of your phone.) Whether on the lock screen or from a home screen, Spotlight searches also produce more results, including photos from your library, text within photos and Web images. If you're the sort of person who uses App Clips — please, explain to me the benefit, because I still don't get it — they'll now appear on searches in Maps, so you can access features that let you pay for parking or order takeout.

There's more — on-device Siri searches, Mail privacy protection that blocks senders from tracking you and an app privacy report in settings that lets you know how often your apps are tapping into you location, photos, camera, microphone, and contacts over the past week. Even better, you'll be able to see what third-party domains they're contacting, too. Our thoughts on these features and more will emerge during the months-long beta process as we move toward iOS 15's fall release.

iOS 15: First impressions

Any time Apple releases a software beta, users of its hardware have an internal debate about whether to give it a try or not. In the case of this initial public beta of iOS 15, unless you're really curious to give Focus mode and SharePlay a try, you might be best served by waiting for a few updates for things to get tidied up.

It's not that the iOS 15 beta is buggy, though you're bound to run into a few of those as you use the app. It's just that things feel a little unfinished at this point. Future updates should flesh out a lot of features and give you a more complete view of what iOS 15 is going to deliver come the fall. Right now, this beta is best used by people who know they're not seeing the finished article when they install iOS 15. And again, I can't emphasize this enough — only try out the beta if you've got a spare iPhone lying around. Depending on which phone you use, you may notice a hit on battery life. This happened to me with the initial developer beta on an iPhone 12, though the subsequent update improved things.

Should all that apply to you, you'll find a lot of intriguing changes to sort through, some of which feel more complete than others. It's clear from using the early releases of iOS 15 that Apple has ambitious goals for this software update; it will be interesting to chart the company's progress throughout the iOS 15 beta process.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.