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iOS 14 review: The best iPhone changes in years

iOS 14 ushers in significant changes for your iPhone — here's a closer look at the update's highlights

ios 14 review
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Our Verdict

iOS 14 changes how you organize and use your iPhone for the better. But third parties will need to adopt features like widgets and App Clips for this update to truly shine.

For

  • Widgets can appear on the home screen
  • Better navigation with App Library
  • Maps, Messages get welcome enhancements
  • Smaller notification windows for Siri, phone calls

Against

  • Siri queries can still be hit and miss
  • Third-party widgets and app clips need some work

Released last fall and updated frequently since then, iOS 14 pulls off a feat that’s difficult for a lot of smartphone software updates. For something that introduces a lot of changes — and this is the most significant iOS update in a while — iOS 14 doesn’t feel like you’ve walked into an unlit room in your house after someone’s rearranged the furniture. Things get moved around in iOS 14, but critically, you’re the one doing all the moving.

With iOS 14, Apple introduces a revamped way to navigate around your iPhone. Instead of scrolling through page after page of apps, the new App Library fits everything into folders making it easier to jump to the apps we want. Widgets have been freed from the relative obscurity of the Today screen and can now live on your Home screen. Even video is no longer walled-off, as a picture-in-picture feature lets you watch videos while you work in other apps, just as you can on an iPad. (“Or on an Android phone” — yes, Android partisans, I can hear your screams.)

Instead of complete overhauls, existing apps like Messages and Maps get features in iOS 14 that build upon what’s already there. And the few entirely new additions like the Translate app bring welcome functionality to iOS, even if there’s still some fine tuning to do.

I started using iOS 14 back when a developer beta dropped in the summer of 2020 and have continued to do so through the update’s full release in September. Even now with the calendar flipped to 2021, I'm still a satisfied iOS 14 user — and that's before the spring 2021 release of iOS 14.5, which promises to introduce even more features.

My iOS 14 review finds a software update that’s a big step forward for Apple’s phones, though as always, more benefits will be unlocked as developers find ways to take advantage of these new features. 

iOS 14 review: Compatibility

iOS 14 is available as a free over-the-air update. To download iOS 14, go to the Settings app on your iPhone, select General and then Software Update. From there, you can follow the on-screen instructions.

You’ll need an iPhone 6s or later to run iOS 14. (The original iPhone SE and the 7th gen iPod touch are also on the list of compatible devices.) That means if you bought a flagship iPhone as far back as five years ago, you can still run the latest version of Apple’s mobile software. If you've got an iPhone 6s, 6s Plus or original iPhone SE (the model that came out in 2016), this may be your final chance to stay current with iOS updates, as rumors suggest those three phones will be cut off from iOS 15 this coming fall.

The new software comes installed on the four latest iPhones — the iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max — when those models shipped last fall.

For my iOS 14 review, I tested the software update on both an original iPhone SE and a newer iPhone 11 Pro Max; I've also been using it on an iPhone 12. Older phones should have no problem running the update, though I did notice a hit on battery life for my iPhone SE.

iOS 14 review: Widgets

Widgets offer at-a-glance information to the kind of data you’d want instantaneously, without forcing you to launch an app — think the current temperature, upcoming appointments or maybe the latest headlines and sports scores. Up until now, widgets have lived on the Today screen, which still forces you to scroll rightward until you run out of home screens. iOS 14 saves you the trouble, by letting you place Widgets right on your home screen where they live among your apps.

iOS 14 review

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Even better, Apple offers multiple designs for the same widget, which look richer and in some cases provide more information than they did in iOS 13. The new weather widget, for example, can be a simple square that shows the current temperature, a rectangular box with an extended forecast or a much larger block that tacks on hourly forecasts. The size of the widget you choose is up to you.

I’ve set up my Home screen so that there’s a weather widget tucked in among my favorite apps, so I can see the temperature at my current location. At different points in my testing, I had a screen of nothing but widgets — one dedicated to headlines from Apple’s News app, another showing me what's up next in my TV app queue, and finally, a Smart Stack pulling info from Photos, Calendar and other built-in apps. (More on Smart Stack in just a bit.)

You have multiple ways to add widgets. You can press on one in the Today screen until the Edit Home Screen option appears, before dragging the widget to where you want it. When a Home screen is in edit mode, a Plus button appears in the upper right corner; tap it and you’ll get an array of widgets in various shapes and sizes.

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Changing a widget’s size isn’t as intuitive as it could be initially. From that widget menu that appears after pressing the Plus button, you can either tap on the sample widgets at the top of the screen or scroll-down to select the name of the built-in app to pick whichever widget you want.  Third-party widgets have started appearing as app makers update their offerings for iOS 14, and while those widgets float to the top of the widget section, it’s not always easy to discover them.

The widget menu is also where you’ll find the option for creating a Smart Stack, a name Apple’s given to a curated collection of widgets for iOS 14’s built-in apps. Tap the Smart Stack option and you have the option to pick the apps to be included in your Smart Slack before placing it anywhere on one of your Home screens. (Here's a guide on how to create a Smart Stack widget.)

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The Smart Stack changes dynamically, bringing up the glanceable info you need at certain points of the day, with iOS 14 learning your behavior. So far, my calendar appointments appear in my Smart Stack in the morning, then later in the day, I might see headlines or a photo selected from my library. I can also scroll through the Smart Stack to get to the widget I want.

I think widgets are practically worth the price of admission alone for the iOS 14 update. If I have one complaint, it’s that they’ve made a mess out of the Today screen — which still exists to the left of your main Home screen. Apple prioritizes iOS 14’s “new” widgets, placing them above the widgets you’ve got left over from iOS 13. Until those third-party widgets are updated for iOS 14, they’re stuck on the Today screen, and you’ve got to scroll down to see them.

I’ve still got some useful pre-iOS 14 widgets there — one for seeing upcoming transit times, another for triggering the iOS version of the  Google Assistant app, and I don’t care for the fact that Apple has elbowed them out of the way with this update. I expect that this will get resolved as more developers update their apps and accompanying widgets, but it’s a step back right now.

iOS 14 review: App Library

The nature of my job means I download a lot of apps, but even if you don’t visit the App Store as frequently as I do, your approach to app management is probably the same as mine. You download the app, it lands wherever there’s a free space on one of your Home screens, and you promptly forget where it is until the next time you need to launch it. Sure, we all make sure to keep our frequently used apps on the first Home screen, and maybe even the second, but after that? The app might as well be in the next county.

Apple has spotted how we’re doing things, and Apple would like us to clean up our act. That’s why another big highlight of iOS 14 is the new App Library, which gathers all of the apps on your phone into one place.

iOS 14 review

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It’s a pretty well-organized place in iOS 14’s full release. The top two folders in the App Library showcase Suggestions — again based on the apps you typically use and when you’re likely to use them — and Recently Added, which does what it says on the label. Below that, your apps are organized by category, with most frequently used apps appearing first. Tapping a cluster of apps reveals the full list. If you’d rather not hunt and peck, there’s a search bar at the top.

You access the App Library by swiping left from your last Home screen, and the feature wouldn’t be much use if you still had to travel across a wasteland of app pages just to get to the screen to better manage all that software. iOS 14 gives you the option of hiding extraneous screens from view. When you’re editing your home screen, just tap on the row of buttons just above the dock. All your pages will appear as thumbnails, and you can unclick the ones you want hidden. The apps remain on your phone, but the screen clutter disappears.

This is a much more sensible approach to app management than in previous iterations of iOS. My only complaint is that the only method provided to edit your home screen is to drag icons around on your phone itself. That can be hard to do, as apps on the edge of the screen have an unfortunate habit of darting over to the next page. I had a very hard time moving those apps on my iPhone SE, and even a minor bit of difficulty dragging them from the edge of the iPhone 11 Pro Max's larger screen.

Apple dropped app management features from iTunes about three years ago, and iTunes itself has been a goner since macOS Catalina. I wish Apple would re-introduce a less frustrating method than physically dragging and dropping apps, especially now that iOS 14 shows the company is serious about having us curate our Home screens more thoughtfully.

iOS 14 review: Messages

Messages has become one of the more popular built-in apps on the iPhone, even more so as people look for ways to stay in touch. So it’s not a surprise to see Message receive some of the more substantive changes among Apple’s returning apps in iOS 14. In particular, Apple has focused on group chats, which have become handy ways to communicate with a lot of friends and family at once.

iOS 14 review

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Some changes are cosmetic, but still helpful. You can now assign images — be it photos, emoji or animoji — to distinguish one group chat from the others. It’s not a major addition, to be sure, but it’s a handy visual cue that lets you pick out chats at a glance instead.

More important additions to group chats are inline replies and mentions. The former feature lets you reply to specific texts, removing some of the confusion when lots of people are weighing in on a conversation, while the latter can ping you when there’s a specific thread or text in a message that demands your attention. Again, both enhancements should make group texts easier to manage.

But I think my favorite change in Messages is the ability to pin conversations — you can select up to nine and they’ll remain at the top of the Messages app for easy access. The feature works across all your Apple devices, though I haven’t upgraded to macOS Big Sur to check this out. Tapbacks and unread replies circle above the pinned conversation. At first glance, it sounds like a minor organization improvement, but it’s easy to manage and it keeps your most important conversations close at hand

iOS 14 review: Maps

The launch of iOS 14 has meant the addition of one of the new Maps features Apple promised back when it first previewed the update — Guides, which offer curated write-ups on places to visit and things to see that can help you plan vacations or just figure out if there’s something worth seeing in your vicinity. Initially, Guides have been limited to some pretty frequently visited locations (think New York and LA), but they have the potential to expand Maps beyond a navigational tool into an app that also helps with discovery, especially since you can save guides alongside any collections of favorite locations you’ve created.

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Some Maps changes have been in place since the beta launched, and at least one will be very welcome if you use a bicycle to get from point A to point B. Along with the ability to plot out routes if you drive, walk, use public transit or hail a ride sharing service, a new Cycling option lays out the directions for people who want to ride their bike. (There’s also a route planner for electric vehicles, but you’ll need a compatible vehicle for this feature to appear.)

These are more than just turn-by-turn directions for bikes. Apple lets you know if you’ll be using a bike lane or if you’re sharing the road with cars. Your proposed route can flag if there are times when you’ll have to walk your bike and a handy elevation tool warns if you’ve got a steep climb ahead. You can even tell Maps to avoid routes with hills, heavy vehicle traffic or stairs.

To see just how much thought Apple has put into the Cycling directions, swipe up on a route. That normally shows potential stops along the way, such as coffee shops or places to eat. For bike routes, Maps includes any bike repair shops, too.

iOS 14 review

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In fact, there are some elements of Cycling routes that I wish Apple would integrate into Maps’ other routing options. That elevation warning would also be handy for plotting out walking directions, which I say as someone who once decided to get a good walk in on my way to a meeting only to realize that Maps’ route had me climbing up one of the steepest hills in San Francisco.

It appears that cycling directions are limited to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco at iOS 14’s launch, with plans to roll them out to other areas over time, which is fairly typical of how Apple handles Map improvements.

iOS 14 review: Translation

A newcomer to iOS 14 is Translate, which promises to translate phrases and even conversations from 11 different languages. The main interface lets you speak or type words, phrases and sentences that it can translate into both text and audio. Star any favorites for words and phrases you use frequently, and they’ll be saved to a separate tab.

The real magic with Translate happens when you flip your iPhone into landscape mode and the screen splits into two separate languages, with the app able to tell who’s speaking what language and adding a translation on the appropriate side of the screen. (You will need to select your languages before starting a conversation, though, as if someone starts speaking Spanish when French and English are the selected languages, you’ll have one confused Translate app.)

iOS 14 review

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Apple calls this landscape orientation Conversation mode because two people speaking different languages can have their words translated. You wouldn’t want to use Translate for a lengthy conversation, though, as you’ve got to tap the microphone each time one of you speak — there’s no free-flowing exchange of views here. That can make Translate a little bit awkward to use. The translation seems to work well enough in my testing, though Translate seems to depend on very precise pronunciations and accents. My wife, who can sprechen enough Deutsch to get by, said “Good eating keeps your soul together,” in German, which Translate took to mean “LeBron has good food and drink.” (That must be great comfort to the Laker star.) 

One feature you’ll appreciate with Translate is that you can download languages to keep them stored on your iPhone. This is helpful for when you’re traveling and you may not have an internet connection, but more importantly, it means that all the translation is taking place on your device, keeping all your words private whatever the language.

iOS 14 review

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The translation skills don’t stop with this standalone app. Safari now has a knack for languages in iOS 14, with the ability to translate web pages from seven different languages. The feature remains in beta, even after iOS 14’s release, but it’s pretty polished. Just tap on the "aA" icon in the URL bar and select Translate from the drop-down menu. The website will now appear in English, and remain that way even when you click on internal links.

iOS 14 review: Compact notifications

I used to dread getting a phone call on my iPhone, and it’s not just because it’s likely a robocall. Rather, an incoming call takes you right out of you’re doing, whether it’s browsing the web, playing a game or reading an email, replacing that activity with an incoming call notification that fills the entire iPhone screen.

iOS 14 introduces some interface chances, highlighted by the fact that call notifications now appear in a box at the top of the screen. Tap the green button to pick up or the red one to dismiss the call, but now your entire iPhone screen won’t be taken over the next time someone tries to give you a ring.

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Siri follows the lead of incoming phone calls in iOS 14. Instead of taking you to a separate Siri screen when you want to do something like launch an app or get a quick weather update, all you have to do is summon Siri. A round Siri icon appears at the bottom of the screen, and whatever reply Siri comes up with shows up at the top. It’s an elegant way to include Apple’s digital assistant without taking you out of your flow.

iOS 14 review: Other Siri changes

Interface improvements aren’t the only change to Siri, as a new version of iOS revives Apple’s claim that Siri is smarter than ever before. Apple says that Siri has been filled with 20 times the facts it knew just three years ago, though the proof will come in daily use.

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In my initial testing, Siri seemed smarter, though not foolproof, and certainly not as seamless to use as the Google Assistant. Questions like “What’s the air quality index?” “Who’s leading the American League West?” and “What films did Malcolm McDowell make?” produced definitive on-screen answers. Asking Siri who won the Emmy for best actor in a drama in 1984 produced the ubiquitous “Here’s what I found on the web” result. (Google Assistant knows it’s Tom Selleck.) Siri also sent me to the web when I wanted to know how to brunoise an onion. It’s still hit and miss, though the misses are becoming fewer. 

Apple touts a number of other Siri tweaks here and there — you can ask the assistant for cycling directions through Maps and you can share your estimated arrival time using Siri. You can also record audio messages via Siri and send them out with Messages. (Third-party messaging apps will add support for the feature later in the year.)

That audio recording feature was pretty fussy when I tested it during the beta, but iOS 14’s final release appears to have cleaned things up. I can now say “Record an audio message for Lisa” or “Send an audio message to Jason,” and Siri figures out that I want to record my voice and not dictate a text message. So that’s an encouraging improvement for Apple’s assistant. 

iOS 14 review: App Clips

After widgets and the App Library, the biggest change to apps in iOS 14 is a new feature that allows you to partially download apps only to use specific tasks, like paying for a parking space or sharing a list. Apple calls this feature App Clips, and now that iOS 14 has appeared, so have a few third-party apps with App Clips of their own.

It remains a work in progress from what I can see. My colleague Adam sent me a grocery list using the Pocket Lists app, with an invitation to share the list arriving via Messages. Yet, when I clicked on the full link, I was taken to the App Store to download the complete app. This is not the App Clips experience I had in mind, and six months into the release of iOS 14, I haven't really made use of this feature.

That speaks to one of the biggest complications involving App Clips — this is a feature that depends on app makers implementing it and making it clear to users just what to expect when they tap on that link. It also puts a premium on app discovery since the whole point of App Clips is exposing us to functions and features we didn’t know we needed from apps we wouldn’t otherwise be using. In the early days of iOS 14, it seemed like there’s more work to be done in this regard, and that's a feeling that hasn't changed in subsequent months.

iOS 14 review: Other notable changes

We could keep walking through each and every change included in the new software, but this iOS 14 review is already approaching novel length. Instead, let’s tackle some of the remaining highlights that merit a mention for how they might change your iPhone experience.

Picture-in-picture video: The multitasking feature that’s been a part of the iPad makes it over to Apple’s phones in iOS 14. Now when you watch a video, you can tap a button in the playback window to turn it into a floating window that follows you as you move on to different apps.

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You can drag the window around the screen if it’s covering up that email you’re composing or that text message you’re trying to read, and you can resize the window to a point. (You’ve got to retain the same aspect ratio as the video that’s playing.) Obviously, it's a feature that's a lot more handy on an iPhone with a larger screen. 

Picture-in-picture has been limited to built-in media players like Apple’s TV app, Podcasts and FaceTime, but third-party apps are able to adapt it using a developer tool that Apple offers. That apparently doesn’t include YouTube, which is restricting picture-in-picture functionality to YouTube Premium accounts as of this writing.

Reminders: Create a list of to-dos in the Reminders app in iOS 14, and you’ll be able to share that list with other users (provided they’re running iOS 14 as well, of course.) It works a lot like the similar share feature that’s been a part of Notes for a while now.

Beefed-up privacy tools: Apple is understandably proud of the number of privacy improvements iOS 14 introduces, which you’ll notice based on the increased number of permissions you’ll be prompted to give. Already, I’ve been asked if apps can have access to other devices on my network — in most cases, I do not want them to have this — and I have the option of only giving an app my approximate location or letting it have access to photos in my library that I select.

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An orange light appears at the top of the iPhone screen when an app is using the microphone, and a green dot notifies you that the camera is active — even within Apple’s own apps. And the App Store has added a new section detailing privacy practices for each app. One promised feature is coming soon after Apple pushed it back to 2021 — all apps will be required to obtain user permission before they can track you, and you’ll be able to disable tracking between different applications.

Voice Memo improvements: An Enhance Recording feature in the Voice Memos app promises to improve the audio of your recordings by downplaying any background noise. The feature appears as a magic wand icon on the screen where you edit your recordings, and you enable it with a simple tap. I recorded a voice memo with some loud music playing in the background, and while the drums and horns were still evident in the recording, the Enhance Recording feature did minimize them, even if the final recording featured a pronounced echo. It’s good enough for transcription purposes, though. 

Magnifier app: If you have a hard time reading the fine print on something, you've likely used the Magnifier feature on your iPhone. (Triple press the side button on the iPhone X or later, or triple press the home button on older iPhones to launch the feature.) In iOS 14, Magnifier is split out into its own app, with tools for both zooming in and adjusting brightness. You can also snap images without saving them to your camera roll if you prefer. And yes, the old triple-press trick still works for launching Magnifier if you have a hard time learning new tricks.

Revamped Weather app: Apple bought Dark Sky this year, and the Weather app in iOS 14 is reaping the benefits. Users in the U.S. can now see a minute-by-minute chart that shows just how much rain or snow to expect in the next hour, and there are warnings when temperatures are forecast to shift dramatically from day to day. Living on the West Coast, I’ve found the prominent display of adverse air-quality conditions to be particularly helpful during these, the end times we live in.

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Camera and Photos changes: Go to the photo app, and tap a photo you like. Swipe upward and you'll see a field for adding captions. I can see this being an interesting tool for adding details and memories about your shot, but I'm not sure if there's a wider application for it just yet. Meanwhile, the Camera app promises faster performance between shots while adding toggles to let you quickly adjust video resolution and frame rate.

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Spatial audio for AirPods Pro: I still don’t have a set of wireless earbuds — in my day, you plugged in earbuds, sonny — but my colleague Henry T. Casey does, and he’s quite impressed with the spatial audio feature iOS 14 delivers to AirPods Pro. Spatial audio promises dimensional experiences for your ears, so you move around the sound of the show or movie you're watching, and Henry says that’s very much the case; my deteriorating hearing will just have to take his word for it.

Improved search: I used to use the Search feature on the iPhone to look up apps and launch them and while I can still do that in iOS 14, the search bar brings up so much more. If it’s stored on your phone, basically, you can bring it up through search. When I type “magnum” into the search bar, for example, I not only get suggested websites, but also texts in Messages that I’ve sent to the people I do a Magnum PI podcast with, along with notations I’ve made for future episodes in the Notes app.

iOS 14 review: Future updates

Apple didn't stop working on iOS 14 once the update hit phones last fall. Updates have come out at a pretty steady pace, occasionally adding new features, but mostly stamping out bugs that pop up from time to time. I haven't run into too many bugs during my time with iOS 14, and the few I have experienced have been addressed by Apple promptly.

We're currently at iOS 14.4.1 if you're following along with the software's progress, but an even bigger change is coming to the iPhone this spring. Apple's working on an iOS 14.5 update, and based on the current beta available to both developers and the public, this introduces some pretty substantial changes.

As it remains advisable to wear a mask in these pandemic times, rending Face ID useless, Apple is adding the ability to unlock your iPhone with an Apple Watch. Maps is gaining the ability to alert you to both accidents and speed traps; there's also hints that Apple is collecting data on popular spots so that Maps can tell you when a place is more likely to have big crowds. That promised ability to stop apps from tracking you is arriving in iOS 14.5 as well.

We'll evaluate those features more fully when they're out of beta, but it's just another reminder that Apple's work on its iOS updates is never truly done — at least until it moves on to iOS 15 later this year.

iOS 14 verdict: Should you upgrade?

Almost everyone with a compatible device eventually upgrades to the new version of iOS. The question is a matter of timing. Is iOS 14 in its current state ready for the vast majority of users? As usual, the answer depends on your comfort level with new software.

As noted above, I haven’t encountered any major bugs with iOS 14, but I’ve got a high tolerance for the quirks that can come with the first releases. If you want a completely seamless upgrade, it doesn’t hurt to wait until Apple’s issued an update or two, just to make sure that early adopters spot any rough edges that Apple can fix before you take the iOS 14 plunge. Now that we're half-a-year into our iOS 14 adventure, its' probably safe to update at this point, even with iOS 14.5 looming.

When you do upgrade, you’re going to enjoy some very welcome improvements to the iOS experience. The changes to current apps are thoughtful and useful, and new translation features add welcome capabilities to your iPhone. Some features, like App Clips, will require more effort on the part of developers and Apple, but the new widgets and App Library make your iPhone’s home screen a more welcome place to be. iOS 14 doesn’t just feature some of the biggest changes Apple’s introduced to its iPhone in some time, it also rolls out some of the best improvements in recent years.