iOS 13 Hands-on Review: The Top New Features for Your iPhone

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the latest iOS update is about the little things.

Now available as a public beta you can download before the stable version lands in September, iOS 13 does feel — even in this still incomplete form — like a more comprehensive upgrade than iOS 12. Apple admitted upfront that last year’s release was centered around performance, but one look at the laundry list of new iOS 13 features and it’s obvious that this installment is more than just snappier.

That said, the changes here aren’t sweeping and bold; they’re numerous and small. Every little bit of iOS has been made better, from the process of sharing content, to pulling up a favorite spot in Apple Maps, to hands-free navigation. Even some annoyances that have gone unaddressed for far too long, like the comically intrusive volume graphic in previous iterations of iOS, have finally been addressed.

Apple will continue to fine-tune iOS 13 over weeks of successive betas, so it’s too early to deliver a verdict yet. However, we’ve been test driving the software over the last couple days, and if one thing’s clear, it’s that iOS 13 looks to inch Apple’s mobile operating system even closer to perfection. Here’s how the most noteworthy features are shaping up.

Dark Mode

Dark Mode has been arguably the most-requested addition to iOS, and with iOS 13 it finally arrives. Unsurprisingly, Apple’s execution with Dark Mode on iPhone and iPad is very consistent with the way the company approached the feature on macOS Mojave.

Yes, it makes the general UI a frosty gray and gives all Apple’s first-party apps black backgrounds, but it can also be scheduled to only activate after sunset, or during a custom schedule you decide. This feature is also accompanied by four pairs of new abstract-looking wallpapers with light and dark flavors, and the system knows to switch between them depending on which theme is active.

It’s all very slick and well thought out, but otherwise, there isn’t really much to say about it. There’s been a deafening clamor over the last few years to Dark Mode “all the things” in software — a desire that isn’t without practical merit, as devices like the iPhone XS that contain OLED displays greatly benefit from reduced battery consumption when they’re not pumping bright white backgrounds through those pixels all the time.

Otherwise, the value of Dark Mode is purely subjective. My colleague Caitlin McGarry, a longtime iPhone user, has made it known to me in no uncertain terms that she won’t be switching on Dark Mode and doesn’t understand what all the hubbub’s about, and I can definitely see where she’s coming from. Personally, I think people are just desperate for visual change to iOS or Android on any level, and Dark Mode figures to be the biggest thing that’s happened to iOS, aesthetically speaking, since iOS 7 launched.

Photos

Every iOS update brings with it a few redesigned apps, and iOS 13 is no different. Photos — which already got a helping of machine learning-based improvements in iOS 12 — has been entirely overhauled for iOS 13, with an all new default screen that reorganizes your captured media into a collage, bunched together in days, months or years.

However, iOS 13 takes some liberties with curation of your photos and videos that previous iterations didn’t. When browsing through the month view, you’ll see content bunched together into groups based on events, determined primarily by location. Depending on the circumstances, iOS 13 will intelligently label events based on an attraction rather than a venue; for example, pictures taken at a concert will be marked by who performed in the month view, rather than an irrelevant geotag.

The year view is much more simplistic and self-explanatory, breaking your library out into year-by-year groups. Yet iOS 13 makes improvements here, too, by surfacing contextual previews in each one, informed by whatever is currently going on in your life. So if you open year view on your child’s birthday, you’ll see photos you’ve taken at every previous birthday appear in year view.

It’s a pretty cool feature with the potential for so many delightful trips down memory lane, though much like Facebook’s On This Day feature, we hope Apple has the awareness to allow users to turn this aspect of the Photos app off, to avoid any unpleasant memories.

Editing tools have also been seriously fleshed out, with many more tools available at your disposal right in the app. They’ve also been extended to videos as well, meaning at long last, you can finally rotate a video with ease. And video edits are non-destructive, just like with photos.

Maps

Comparatively speaking, the update to Maps doesn’t seem as comprehensive as what Apple’s done with Photos, at least at first blush. But rest assured, the app has been seriously improved in iOS 13, and that stems mostly from Apple’s initiative to completely rebuild its map of the world from the ground up.

The new map won’t blanket the entire U.S. until the end of 2019, and will roll out to the rest of the globe in 2020. It’s already live in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Honolulu, and in those cities Apple has showcased an exponentially more detailed map, rendering more roads, paths and buildings than were previously visible.

Maps in iOS 13 also introduces Apple’s take on Street View, called Look Around. It functions almost exactly like Google’s feature, with the exception of moving through environments. In Look Around, that’s executed with a double tap rather than a directional swipe, and to Apple’s credit it appears to be much smoother than in Street View, with more frames passing by between vantage points.

One of the smaller but most welcome changes to Maps in iOS 13 is that you no longer have to dig through an unintuitive interface just to get to your favorite locations. They’re now highlighted, along with your home and workplace, as soon as you open the app, right underneath Siri Suggestions. Additionally, transit information is now more detailed and actually relevant. Rather than simply telling me that a certain subway line in New York sends trains every 5 or 10 minutes, like Maps used to, the app now lets me know the precise arrival time of the next train and whether or not it's running on time.

Reminders

To be honest, I’ve never been one to use to-do list apps with any sort of regularity. That said, the new Reminders app looks to be considerably more capable than the original, which was remarkably barebones.

For starters, there are now Smart Lists headlining the redesigned interface, which cleverly break your tasks out into groups by what needs doing today, what’s scheduled for later and what’s flagged as important. And inside your lists, you can even now attach photos, links and documents. Expanded integration with iMessage means that if you tag a contact in a reminder and then message them, that reminder will now pop up as a notification the next time you go to chat. Neat.

Performance

Dark Mode and those overhauled apps are nice, though there’s one simple change in iOS 13 that could benefit every single facet of the operating system. Apps are now packaged in a more efficient way, making them up to half the size. Updates, on average, are said to be 60% smaller.

Smaller app sizes could be a game-changer from a storage and speed standpoint.

Smaller apps translates to more space on your device’s storage for other things. But it also means the apps themselves should open quicker, too. Couple that with up to 2x faster app launches in iOS 13 and 30% faster Face ID recognition for devices that support that form of authentication, and it seems Apple’s discovered some ways to eke even more speed out of its already-overpowered iPhones.

Because the iPhone XS and iPhone XR are wicked quick as it is, and because my hands-on time thus far has been brief, I can’t say I’ve picked up on iOS 13’s gains in regular use. Perhaps older devices will be more obviously affected; hopefully I’ll be able to shed more light on measurable improvements by the time the final release drops.

All the small things

The bulk of iOS 13’s changes are too numerous to note, though they touch every facet of the operating system. Here are some of the most important ones.

  • The Share Sheet — the UI element that pops up anytime you opt to share content from your iPhone — has now been bolstered with AI-sourced suggestions that are dynamic, depending on the app and the individuals you normally share content with.
  • The Health app now supports menstrual tracking — a feature that Apple curiously failed to deliver in previous iterations, forcing users to turn to third-party alternatives instead. The app provides the option to track a wealth of metrics related to your cycle, to help it make more accurate predictions. Now that it’s baked into iOS by default, those other apps now stand the risk of being cast aside, a-la the arrival of Screen Time in iOS 12.

  • A new accessibility feature, Voice Control, allows you to navigate pretty much any aspect of iOS completely hands-free. Voice Control responds to commands to open apps, tap on-screen buttons, enter and edit text and so much more. And if you’re using a third-party app like YouTube that doesn’t have clearly labeled buttons the system can read, you can say “Show Numbers” or “Show Grid” to select individual UI elements within the screen. I envision a lot of people who don’t normally use Accessibility services checking out this one, though those concerned about privacy might be less inclined, as it requires your iPhone to listen to you at all times.
  • You can now swipe to type on the stock keyboard using the iOS 13’s new Quick Path feature, emulating keyboards like Swype and SwiftKey that have been available to Android users for nearly a decade now.
  • New volume and silent mode graphics make it so the middle of your display won’t be obscured when you fiddle with sound while watching a video. Interestingly, the new volume bar, which appears next to the volume buttons in portrait view and at the top of the display in landscape, does collide with some apps' built-in volume graphics that were created to circumvent Apple’s design in the first place — YouTube being a notable one. Additionally, when you flip the ring/silent switch, you’ll now see a handy alert near the top of the screen.
  • CarPlay now offers a dashboard view with the ability to show a navigation window in the home screen adjacent to other relevant information, like estimated arrival time and media playback controls. It’s actually very reminiscent of Android Auto’s old home layout, ironically at a time when Google is simplifying Android Auto’s design to more closely imitate CarPlay’s classic rows of apps.

  • Memoji can now be sent as stickers, rather than fully-animated CG models, allowing you to share them with people who don’t own iPhones.
  • With the addition of ARKit 3 and Reality Composer, Apple is making it easier than ever for developers to build apps with augmented reality functions. A new feature, People Occlusion, allow individuals in the camera feed to be placed in the game world.

What’s still to come

There are a few important additions in iOS13 that aren’t ready at the time of this first public beta: Sign In with Apple, the upcoming Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade subscription services, as well as Apple Card integration.

Apple made a big deal about its new single sign-on solution in iOS 13, as it should. Just as you log into so many apps with your Google or Facebook account, Apple will allow you to do the same with your Apple ID in iOS 13. In fact, Apple is mandating all developers add Sign In with Apple if they already support Google and Facebook login, and Apple is forcing users who choose to use Sign In with Apple to enable two-factor authentication.

The beauty of Sign In with Apple is that the company has cleverly devised a system to allow you to log into your favorite services without sharing your email address. If you opt out of making your email visible, Apple will simply create a decoy, anonymized email address that communications will be sent to, then forward those emails to your actual address.

As for Apple’s two content subscription services, Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade, aspects of iOS are falling into place for both to launch later this year. The Apple TV app has been redesigned ahead of the arrival of TV+, while the App Store currently displays a tab dedicated to Arcade, that simply says “Coming Soon.”

TV+ will host exclusive content, putting Apple on an even-playing field with the likes of Netflix and Hulu as a content creator, while Arcade will bundle hand-selected games under a monthly subscription model, similar to Xbox Game Pass. The Apple Card is also set to drop later this summer, and when it does, it will be accessible from the Wallet app.

Outlook

Apple always manages to find ways to punch up iOS in key areas, but it seems as though they’ve outdone themselves with iOS 13.

Additions like Voice Control, Sign In with Apple and menstrual tracking in Health will be extremely valuable to so many people, while the adjustments made to iOS’ weaker areas — that confounding volume interface and hard-to-find favorites in Maps — will delight longtime users. Smaller app sizes could be a game-changer from a storage and performance standpoint, and Dark Mode certainly has its boosters.

We’re excited to continue to explore iOS 13 as it takes shape, and you can look forward to our full review of iOS 13 when it drops this fall.

Credit: Shaun Lucas/Tom's Guide