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iOS 16 public beta review: Your iPhone just got smarter

Here's what to expect from the iOS 16 public beta now that you can download it to your iPhone

iOS 16 lock screen
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The iOS 16 public beta is very much a work-in-progress, but a number of important tweaks and enhancements suggest this will be a welcome update to Apple's iPhone software.

Pros

  • +

    Lock screen is now customizable

  • +

    You can edit and unsend texts in Messages

  • +

    My Sports is a great addition to News

  • +

    Maps, Health get helpful new features

Cons

  • -

    Features like Live Text and Dictation won't work on older iPhones

  • -

    iCloud Shared Photo Library takes some getting used to

iOS 16 doesn't deliver a major overhaul to Apple's iPhone software. Were it not for a rather substantial change to the iPhone's lock screen — you can finally customize the lock screen of your phone, thanks to this update — you'd be hard-pressed to find many big changes from the current iOS 15 version, at least on the surface.

But OS updates go beyond the surface. And as you'll gather by the length of this iOS 16 beta hands-on, the new version of this iPhone software implements a number of tweaks and enhancements that should make things run a lot more smoothly.

I've been using iOS 16 on an iPhone 12 since mid-June, shortly after Apple released a developer beta of the software update. With the public beta now ready for download, I wanted to share some initial impressions of iOS 16 that can hopefully give you a better idea of what to expect, whether you install the software now or wait until the full version comes out in the fall.

Apple still has some polishing to do — iCloud Shared Photo Library, one of the big promised additions to iOS 16, only surfaced in iOS 16 developer beta 3 released last week. I imagine we'll see some other substantial changes to iOS 16 between now and when Apple deems the update ready for the world at large. But I've found most of what I encountered to be welcome additions to the iPhone operating system.

Once you've dealt with the flashy additions like the customizable lock screen and iCloud Shared Photo library, iOS 16 changes largely break down along three lines — improvements to existing apps, increased collaboration between Apple devices and beefed-up on-device intelligence. There's some security improvements, too, and some other tweaks here and there, but those three things appear to be the driving force behind Apple's iOS 16 efforts.

Here's some of the more noteworthy things I've discovered after some initial time with iOS 16.

How to get the iOS 16 public beta

Consult our main guide to download the iOS 16 beta for more detailed instructions, but to use the public beta, you need to register with Apple's beta software program by navigating to that page in your iPhone's web browser. Sign in with your Apple ID, and you'll be prompted to enroll your device in the program.

From there, it's simply a matter of installing the iOS 16 public beta profile from the link provided, opening the Settings app on your phone and downloading and installing the beta from the Software Update section.

I always recommend backing up your iPhone before installing any OS update, but never more so than when you're trying out beta software. Archiving your backup allows you to go back to iOS 15 if you run into any problems with the beta.

iOS 16 supported devices: Which iPhones can run iOS 16?

Our summary of iOS 16 supported devices has the full rundown, but you'll need an iPhone 8 or later. That covers any iPhone released in 2017 and beyond.

A few devices capable of running iOS 15 didn't make the cut for iOS 16. All iPhone 6s and iPhone 7 models can't upgrade to iOS 16, nor can the original iPhone SE. (The 2020 and 2022 versions of the SE are supported, however.) The 7th-gen iPod touch is also on the outside looking in.

Even if your phone supports iOS 16, older phones may miss out on some features. As with iOS 15, you'll need a phone with an A12 Bionic processor or later to use features like Live Text and Visual Look Up, both of which see new features in iOS 16.

iOS 16 lock screen changes

As noted out the outset, the most visible change to iOS 16 occurs on your phone's lock screen, which, apart from changing the background wallpaper, had been an inviolable space. 

iOS 16 hands-on customizable lock screen

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With iOS 16, you cannot only change the wallpaper — the new software includes plenty of designs or you can opt for one of your own photos — but alter the font and color of the date and time display. In addition, Apple lets you place widgets on the lock screen as well, a feature that Android fan will be more than familiar with.

Your choice in on-screen widgets is limited to Apple-supplied offerings in the iOS 16 beta, though that's likely to change come the fall as developers launch iOS 16-friendly app updates that take advantage of this feature.

iOS 16 hands-on customizable lock screen

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There's space for a single widget alongside the date, but I find this space too small to include anything more than a widget showing the current temperature. The area right below the time offers more space — enough for four square widgets, two larger ones or a mix and match of the two sizes. 

Top widget options include a calendar widget showing upcoming appointments, a widget that controls smart home devices via the Home app, a stock ticker and a News headline widget. I find a Clock widget that tells me if I've got an alarm set particularly helpful for reminding me to set my alarm before I turn in for the night.

To make space for all these widgets, notifications now appear at the bottom of the screen, a change I've gotten used to in no time. By default, notifications are stacked on top of each other, and fan out when you tap them, though you can revert to old list view showing all notifications if you prefer the old view. A new notifications option also shows just the number of notifications that have come in for any minimalists out there. (Tapping the number expands the widgets.)

iOS 16 public beta hands-on notifications move to the bottom

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Customizing the lock screen is pretty simple if you go through the Wallpaper section of the Settings app. iOS 16 walks you through each step, even suggesting photos from your library that would make for a compelling wallpaper background. A neat feature even lets you pick randomly shuffling photos.

Customizing the home screen wallpaper is a little more frustrating. The same photo or design you've selected as your lock screen background will also appear on your home screen, but you can choose another photo or use a blur effect if your photo selection isn't well-suited to a grid of app icons and widgets. Having a photo as your lock screen wallpaper and an Apple-supplied design in the background of your home screen appears to be a non-starter.

iOS 16 public beta hands-on switching lock screens

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You can create multiple lock screens and switch between them at will, though instructions for doing so can only be found in the Wallpaper section of Settings. When your lock screen is active, just tap and hold on the photo — an array of the lock screens you've created will fan out and you can tap the one you want. There's also options for editing the current lock screen or creating a new one. If you're tired of a particular lock screen, just swipe up to reveal a delete button.

In a nice touch, you can tie a particular lock screen to a Focus Mode to further lock out distractions when you want to buckle down and work (or conversely, if you don't want work distractions interrupting your free time). That way, when you turn a Focus mode on, your phone's lock screen will automatically change to the selected background and appropriate lock screen widgets.

Minor frustrations with lock screen/home screen interactions aside, iOS 16's customizable lock screen is a welcome addition to the iPhone. It allows you to personalize your phone's look in a productive, useful way, and getting the hang of creating a lock screen takes no time at all. The addition of third-party widgets in the fall should add even more variety to the mix.

For more, see our in-depth guide to the new iOS 16 lock screen widgets and what we like and what we don't so far. 

iOS 16's iCloud Shared Photo Library

Previous versions of iOS already let you share photo albums with designated people, but those shared albums were somewhat limited in what you could do with them. iOS's 16 new iCloud Shared Photo Library looks to change that with a decided focus on letting family members interact with each others' photos.

You can invite up to five other people to a shared photo library. (The storage space comes out of your iCloud storage allocation). Anyone who's invited has equal permissions to add, delete and — most significantly — edit photos. 

iOS 16 hands-on icloud shared photo library

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Remember to share photos with other people can be a nuisance — or at the very least, it can take you out of the moment. iCloud Shared Photo Library looks to address that by making sharing as seamless as possible. A toggle in the Camera app lets you save photos directly to your shared library, and proximity awareness means that if people you share with are at the same location (and carrying around an iPhone running iOS 16, one assumes), photos will be shared with them automatically.

Those sharing features really drive home who iCloud Shared Photo Library is for — it's a family-focused way of making sure that everyone has access to photos of birthday parties, vacations and other life events. You could set up an iCloud Shared Photo Library for friends or co-workers, I suppose, but that means being a lot more judicious about what's getting shared — so much so that it would seem to negate the purpose of the feature.

iOS 16 public beta hands-on icloud shared library switching to personal library

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There are some things with iCloud Shared Photo Library I'm still getting used to. For starters, you set up an iCloud Shared Photo Library in Settings, not in the Photos app itself. Contrary to the way shared albums have worked for years, there's no specific album in the Photos app that shows what's being shared. Rather, your shared library and your personal library live side by side in the Library tab, and only a filter at the top shows you which photos belong to which Library. There's not even a visual cue to let you know which photos are shared with other people.

That's going to frustrate some people I think, though not so much that they won't see the benefit of more seamless sharing through this addition to iOS 16.

iOS 16 adds a new Fitness App

Only one new app appears in iOS 16, but it will be a familiar one to anyone who owns an Apple Watch. Your iPhone is now getting a Fitness app of its own, so that you can set movement goals, track your activity and close your various rings just like your Apple Watch-wearing friends. Yes, there's even a Fitness widget that you can place on the lock screen for an at-a-glance look at your progress.

iOS 16 hands-on fitness app

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The arrival of Fitness on your iPhone is consistent with Apple's recent interest in health-tracking capabilities (so much so I'm surprised Apple didn't fold it into the Health app, which sees its own share of updates in iOS 16). Apple also seems to be acknowledging that not everyone is going to head over to our best Apple Watch and buy one for themselves — though the company wouldn't mind it if Fitness eventually pushed you to shopping for one of its wearables.

iOS 16 Messages: Editing and unsending messages

Apple's texting app is one of the more popular built-in apps on the iPhone, so you can expect any update to lavish attention on Messages. iOS 16 adds the welcome ability to edit messages — ideally to remove embarrassing or confusing typos — or unsend them altogether.

That latter feature is particularly helpful if you send a text, only to realize you've messaged the wrong person, such as all those times I text my wife that dinner's ready, only to find out I'm telling a group of friends.

iOS 16 public beta hands-on editing messages

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Editing and unsending in Messages are both easy enough tasks to manage. Just tap and hold on the message in question and select either Edit or Undo Send on the ensuing pop-up menu.

The feature is somewhat limited, though. You've only got a 15-minute window to make any changes or recall a message. If the person you've texted isn't running iOS 15, your recipient will see both the original message and the edited one. And since the feature only works with iMessages, it's unavailable if you're texting Android users.

iOS 16 Maps: Now with multi-stop trips

Apple's navigation software adds a number of changes in iOS 16, including more detailed city views in more cities, plus the cost of bus and subway fares appearing when you get look up a route using public transit. (With that latter feature, you can also top off your transit card if you've got it stored in the Wallet app.) But I think my favorite addition is the ability to plan out multi-stop routes in iOS 16 Maps.

iOS 16 hands-on multistop trips in maps

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You can add a stop to a route on the fly in iOS 15, but iOS 16 adds support for up to 15 stops in a given route. It's a feature I could have used earlier this year when my daughter and I took a road trip to Southern California and we needed to plot a route to various tourist destinations, restaurants, gas stations and other stops in between Point A and Point B. 

When you look up directions to a place there's a very visible Add Stop button, and you're able to drag around stops to change the order of your route. With Continuity, you can look up a route on your Mac and send the directions over to your iPhone when it's time to leave.

iOS 16 Health: Medication reminders are a game changer

Already, the most helpful change in iOS 16 for me has been Health's newfound ability to remind me when it's time to take my daily medications. You can set up reminders to take pills, even at different times of the day, and the Health app will dutifully log that you've taken your medicine. 

iOS 16 Medications drug interactions

(Image credit: Apple )

In the weeks since I've been using this feature, I only missed one day, and that's the day I didn't have my iOS 16 test phone close at hand. This could be a real-life saver for anyone who's too busy to remember when it's medication time. An even better life-saving feature is that the Health app can warn you adverse drug interactions, including when drinking alcohol might cause significant side effects.

iOS 16 News: My Sports is a winner

Sports fans who've overlooked Apple's News app have a reason to give it another try. In iOS 16, News adds a My Sports feature in which you can designate the teams you're interested in — News will add a special section that includes scores, upcoming games, video highlights and related articles. (Some of the articles require a subscription to News Plus, Apple's $9.99/month service.)

iOS 16 public beta hands-on

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It takes some scrolling to get to My Sports, which is tucked away deep in the Today tab of the News app. (There's a shortcut in the Favorites section to save you some scrolling.) One of the overlooked parts of this feature is how well it ties in the rest of the Apple ecosystem. Upcoming games include links if they're being streamed. And the TV app on both your iPhone and your Apple TV (if you own one) will list live games in the Watch Now section.

iOS 16 Wallet and Home App changes

I'm still working my way through all of the built-in apps in iOS 16 and haven't gotten a chance to try all the new features. Wallet, for example, is adding an Apple Pay Later feature to buy things on installment with Apple Pay, and you'll also be able to track Apple Pay purchases through the App. 

The Home app gets a big overhaul with an emphasis on putting controls for your smart home accessories right to the top of the main My Home tab. Later this year, Home will add support for the Matter smart home connectivity standard.

iOS 16 brings more collaboration features

Many of the changes introduced in iOS 16 also seem to be aimed at turning your iPhone into a collaboration tool so that you can work with other people directly from Apple's built-in apps. Apple has increasingly worked to make sure there's a seamless experience between the mobile and desktop versions of its apps — indeed, many of the changes in Safari and Mail for iOS 16 are informed by updates coming to macOS Ventura — but now there's an added element of being able to share work with other people directly from within apps.

Take Messages, which sees more than just the ability to edit texts or even enjoy videos together via SharePlay. (Yes, that's arrived with iOS 16, too.) You can also share documents, spreadsheets, slide decks and other types of files in the messaging app; tapping on one of those shared documents lets you instantly collaborate in apps like Files, Freeform, Keynote, Notes, Numbers, Reminders and Safari. (Third-party app support will arrive later in the year.)

iOS 16 hands-on collaboration in messages

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This is more than just a link to a file arriving via Messages. Collaboration features include activity updates on who made what changes and links to contact your collaborators via FaceTime if you have pressing questions. I've only dabbled with this feature so far, but it's pretty promising.

iOS 16 Safari adds something similar, with the ability to now share all those Tab Groups you've been able to create since iOS 15. Shared Tab Groups is ideal for research projects, like planning out a family trip or working on a school project together. You can see in real-time who's viewing which tab, and anyone in the group you've shared with can add tabs of their own.

iOS 16 hands-on shared tab groups in safari

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The changes to Messages and Safari along with the addition of iCloud Shared Photo Library signals a different way of thinking about your iPhone. Yes, it remains a personal device. But increasingly, it's a tool for staying connected beyond the usual text messages and phone calls.

iOS 16 makes your iPhone smarter

Apple and Google seem to be locked in a never-ending struggle over who can make their mobile software more intelligent. It's no wonder, then, that one of the best features to come to last fall's Pixel 6 is now part of iOS 16 — that's smarter on-device dictation.

You can now dictate emails in Mail and texts in Messages, and iOS 16's dictation feature is smart enough to insert the proper punctation; it even recognizes emoji. (Just say "heart emoji" or "laughing emoji," and the proper symbol appears.) 

This dictation transcription happens entirely on your device, and it's proven accurate enough to make me consider using Dictation to verbally compose messages more than I have in the past. And if there are errors, I can bring up the keyboard to correct them while still dictating, though I've found that process to be a little more prone to error than just straight dictation.

As noted, these are features anyone with a Pixel 6 already enjoys. But I don't think iPhone users are going to care who offered more advanced dictation first, they're just going to be happy its available on their phone (provided that device has an A12 Bionic processor or later, that is).

ios 16 hands-on what can I do siri

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

My favorite iOS 16 Siri addition is the ability to ask Siri what you can do in a particular app; the assistant will respond with some tips about app-specific commands. I've long complained that the biggest challenge to Siri is remembering everything the assistant is capable of, so I like that Apple is removing one of those roadblocks to discovery.

Siri is a bit smarter in iOS 16, a phrase I feel Apple copies and pastes into the release notes for every major iOS update. This time, though, there's something to that claim, as Sir can pull off that dictated emoji trick as well as hang-up your phone calls for you. (The person on the other end of the line will hear you tell Siri to hang up, which could be an awkward way to end some conversations.)

iOS 16 public beta hands-on

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Two of the big standout examples of Apple's smart software from iOS 15 — Live Text and Visual Look Up — see updates for this version. In iOS 16, Live Text now captures text from paused video as easily as it can grab text in your still photos. Quick action buttons now appear when you've captured some text, offering to perform contextual tasks like translating foreign words or converting currencies.

ios 16 hands-on visual look up

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As for Visual Look Up, tapping and pressing on an image in Photos, Safari, Quick Look or screenshots now lets you lift it out of its background. From there, you can copy the image and paste it into Notes or Texts. The feature seems particularly well-suited for adding supporting images to notes, and it's remarkable how cleanly iOS 16 can remove an image from its background.

Security improvements in iOS 16

Apple cause a stir just before the release of the iOS 16 public beta by announcing Lockdown Mode. The feature is designed to protect iPhone users who might be the target of state-sponsored spyware by restricting certain phone functions to limit vulnerabilities. You can argue whether Lockdown Mode is the first of its kind — Google would certainly point out that its Advanced Protection Program can safeguard high-risk phone users from phishing attacks — but it's an impressive bit of functionality that will certainly make the iPhone more appealing for people who find themselves targeted by bad actors.

That's a very small percentage of iPhone users, though, and most of us will never venture near enabling Lockdown Mode. But that's not to say there aren't security features in iOS 16 worth taking note of.

The best is Safety Check, a feature Apple is adding that can help users quickly reset their sharing permissions when they're leaving an abusive relationship. Safety Check's emergency reset feature quickly severs those ties by disabling access to FaceTime and iMessage on all your devices, securing iCloud access, resetting sharing permissions and reviewing emergency access. You can also use Safety Check to manage who has access to what. It's a feature you never hope to have to use, but it's something Apple clearly put a lot of thought into.

iOS 16 safety check

(Image credit: Apple)

As minor as it is, I also appreciate an addition to the Wi-Fi section of Settings. There's now an edit button that lets you review all the different wireless networks you've connected to and delete the ones that are no longer needed. It's also a great way to copy and share passwords with friends who want to join the network you're on.

Other iOS 16 changes of note

As I said before, we don't have the time and space to chronicle every change in iOS 16, but there are still a few that merit some mention.

  • Quick access to Search: The little button at the bottom of your iPhone home screen that used to tell you what page you're on now doubles as a Search button shortcut. Tap it, and you jump straight to the search screen.
  • Easier device setup for families: Family Sharing sees a number of updates, including easier device setup for kids and the ability to field screen time requests right in messages.
  • Big changes for CarPlay: CarPlay gets a big overhaul, promising an infotainment system that integrates with vehicle controls, though we really won't see how that plays out until 2023.
  • New Mail features: Mail gets a host of new features, highlighted by improved search, but there's also helpful additions like Scheduled Send and Undo Send.

iOS 16 public beta: Time to upgrade?

There's no question that iPhone users are eventually going to upgrade to iOS 16. The very nature of Apple's phone software, available to everybody all at once, means that people with an eligible device usually grab the upgraded software when it becomes available, give or take a week or so. When the full version of iOS 16 arrives this fall, the vast majority of us are going to grab it and given the changes Apple is introducing, we'll likely be glad we did.

But that's not the most pressing question now that the iOS 16 public beta is available. Instead, the question facing iOS users is whether it's worth trying out the beta now.

That's a question only you can really answer, given your comfort level with works in progress and the number of iPhones you have on hand. I've been using iOS 16 on a backup device I keep around just to test things; my every day iPhone continues to run iOS 15, and it will do so even with the public beta now available. That's not me dismissing Apple's promised changes with iOS 16. Rather, it's simply caution on my part that betas don't always run smoothly and may cause problems with existing apps that I need as part of my daily routine.

Based on the latest developers beta, I'd wager that the iOS 16 public beta is probably stable enough for most people to use, but that Apple still has plenty of features requiring a polish between now and the fall. If that's the sort of thing that bothers you, you should steer clear of the public beta, at least until a few more updates drop throughout the summer and iOS 16 becomes truly ready for prime time. Beta 4, for instance, seems pretty great to us.

Even then, if you do decide the public beta is for you, I'd try to install it on a spare iOS device if possible. I haven't run into any show-stopping errors during the beta process thus far, but there's always the possibility of the unexpected, and you wouldn't want to be caught with a phone that's not performing the way you need it, too. 

If all that sounds overly cautious, don't mistake it for a lack of enthusiasm for iOS 16 on my part. This update brings a lot of improvements and some features I already miss when I go back to using my iOS 15-powered iPhone. With the beta process figuring to bring about more improvements between now and the fall, iOS 16 appears to be off to a very promising start.

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.