iOS 7 Review

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iOS 7 is the biggest departure from the operating system since Apple released it. How could they muck it up so badly?

Let me tell you.

Apple Senior Vice President of Design, Jony Ive, took over the design of not only the hardware but the software for the latest iPhone, the iPhone 5s. Previously Scott Forstall was in charge of all iOS software as the Senior Vice President of, you guessed it, iOS Software. But after the mess of Apple Maps, someone needed to be cut loose and Forstall was the goat. So his responsibilities were dispersed between several different executives…and the design went to Ive.

Ive is a hardware designer, and a brilliant one at that. He’s done an amazing job from the original iPod all to the current iPhone, the MacBook Air and Pro lines, and even the upcoming Mac Pro. No one can question his work, at least to hardware. If there’s anything we can learn from iOS 7, it’s that excellent design doesn’t always transfer from one type of experience to another.

iOS 7 fails in three very specific ways: it’s less efficient for users; it has far too many additions that don’t matter and don’t play well with the hardware (particularly on anything but an iPhone 5s); and plenty of Apple’s own apps have been completely mutilated by the change from skeuomorphic design to a partially flat (considered 2.5D) look.

Less Efficiency

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If you want to get a good look at how iOS 7 is less efficient for users, you don’t have to go far. The foldering system is the biggest culprit. Before users could put up to 16 apps (12 on 3.5″ displays) in a single folder. Spillover required another folder, but few filled an entire folder. As someone who regularly does, spillover really wasn’t a problem; it’s hard enough remembering where on a page of 20 apps where one is, and having one of those carry 16 was about as much as a person could bare.

iOS 7 removes that ideal in place of smaller but bottomless folders. Now if you have more than 9 apps in a folder, the spillover hits a new page within the folder. The folder itself is highlighted significantly (see screenshot above), but it is actually slower to move between pages. Why? Here’s the logic of the two systems:

iOS 6 – Go to page, select folder, select app

iOS 7 – Go to page, select folder, swipe to folder page, select app

The difference is clear, but it’s not just one additional step. If you have, say, two folders of games that combines to a total of 24 games, then in iOS 6 you would use two folders, likely named “Games” and “Games 2″, or if you are more clear of mind, “board games” and “game games”. The folders would likely be side to side, and after setting it up you, the user, would know what games were where. And if you made a mistake and opened the wrong one, not a big deal.

But in iOS 7, you don’t have two folders. You have one folder, which is more convenient. It’s in one place, again more convenient. But it’s spread across three pages because there are only 9 apps per page, and you have to swipe between the pages anytime to get to something not on the first page. In other words, only the first nine apps make the iOS 7 foldering system more convenient. The second page is already less convenient because now you have to go to it, remember what was there later on, and always swipe to the 2nd page afterwards. Imagine if you have lists like this.

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More importantly, paged foldering makes finding apps more complicated because it adds a layer of obscurity to the app’s location. On iOS 6, there are two layers: pages and folders. iOS 7 has three layers: pages, folders, and folder pages. Ever see someone on iOS 6 have trouble finding an app? It’s now much worse in iOS 7. The only benefit to this system is app search is now on every page, which is a tremendously great feature by swiping down on any page. It also implies that Apple wants users to search for apps instead of finding them from a “physical” location.

When did Apple become Google? Search? Really?

This lack of efficiency makes its way across iOS 7. Cycling between apps is identical to what Palm had with PalmOS back three years ago, and is great if you’re using two or maybe three apps simultaneously, but not if you’re using more than that. Photos offers a better large-scale view of all photos, but takes more steps to get through. Heck, even on the 5s purchasing new apps with a fingerprint requires an additional step for each download; users have to scan their finger every single time.

The loss of efficiency is not in all apps; Notes, Mail, Calendar, and plenty of others are just as efficient or take just as many steps to get things done. The problem with many of these however is the end of skeuomorphism, specifically the removal of shading and gradients.

Flat Design

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I think flat design is great. Microsoft was the first major tech player to take advantage of it in Windows Phone 7, followed shortly thereafter by Windows Phone 8 and even Windows 8. And they did a great job. Apple’s changes feel more major because more people use iOS, and the reality is that while Apple has done a really great job in some ways, they have done a terrible job in others. Just do a google search for iOS 7 design and you’ll see both extremes instantly.

I’ll talk briefly about a few things. First, iOS 6 on the iPhone 5 feels just as fast as iOS 7 on the iPhone 5s. Every 5 that I’ve seen with iOS 7, along with the 4S and 4, are far slower because of iOS 7. Some of the effects are also way more bothersome than need be, especially the new parallax. Motion has been added in such a extreme way that after two months (since the beta) of use I’ve shut all motion off from the accessibility settings. The zoom, parallax, and all other motion just gave me a headache. This coming from a guy who used to be one of the premier 3D gaming writers.

In many of Apple’s apps, the flat design is exceptional. Messages, the App Store, Mail, Camera, Music, and Safari all look and function exactly as they should. They’re simple, intuitive, and perhaps only slightly more complicated with some of the buttons interchanged with colored text. While I’ve read many designers complain about colored text replacing buttons, I haven’t found it to be a problem if done correctly. Apple does it correctly.

Other apps have degraded. Calendar now appears like nothing but a hunk of white with the occasional spot of events and lines. It’s a challenge to use, let alone like. Thankfully there are so many great calendar apps, several of which Apple has clearly taken design cues from, that are both available and free. One of the other major challenges, especially for older iOS 7 users, will be the complete lack of buttons in many places. It feels almost Holmes-ian, where when no option to create or do is available, it must mean to tap on the empty space. Sure, it’s simple, often blindingly so. But it also requires training, and frankly this is the sort of thing that should’ve taken at least two iterations to teach, not one. Create a new reminder? Tap on the empty space. Worse yet, some of the buttons there are don’t appear like buttons at all; sometimes they are more efficient because they don’t require jumping from one screen to another, but more often than not they require thought, which is a price too high to pay for everyday users. You can think about what needs to be done for content, not for action. Action has to be clear as day, and it isn’t too often.

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Where the flat design really succeeds is with 3rd party apps. This is for two reasons: it helps users focus more on the apps than on the phone or other apps; and the better software makes apps run much, much better.

As an app developer, I can say without a doubt that iOS 7 offers much more functionality to developers in design alone than iOS 6 did, even with the design “restrictions” (app makers can develop whatever they like, though Apple recommends using the new design. I do too, in most cases). It poses challenges too, which for a young development team with limited design experience is a serious cause for concern, but it’s one we can live with.

Much more efficient software, however, is the kicker. My favorite example is in regards to the iPad mini. I wrote about it last year and as great as it was, it just wasn’t quite right. The external hardware was perfect, but internally it is identical to the iPad 2, which at the time felt slow because the iPhone 5 and iPad (4) both had brand new processors. Worse yet, the mini was slow in general. It loaded web pages, apps, documents, and even downloaded data online slowly. It felt like a hardware issue; after I upgraded the mini to iOS 7, I realized it was far more of a software issue, specifically that the OS was using far too many resources when using an app than it should’ve been.

After upgrading to iOS 7, the iPad mini itself got a bit slower, but apps feel twice as fast. The browser on iOS 6 was unusably slow; on iOS 7 its usable. Switching between the browser to a word processor like Pages or Google Drive to a chat app was a nightmare on iOS 6 because of how long it took for everything to reload. On iOS 7, no such problem. I haven’t experienced quite as much success with app use and multitasking on the iPhone 4, but frankly if you’re still using that then it’s time to upgrade immediately.

On the iPad

I’ve been testing iOS 7 on the iPad a lot as well, and since recently receiving an iPad Air, have tested on that too. Here are some basic points regarding iOS 7 on the iPad:

  • App speed is minimally improved – I’ve tested a multitude of apps on the iPad and have not noticed an appreciable difference. For standard apps, I believe this is because most apps don’t make full use of the iPad’s additional processing power, and the iPad 4 was already very powerful. However, as mentioned earlier, the older iPad 2/3/mini does see a serious improvement.
  • Speed is, in fact, almost the same on the iPad 4 with iOS 6 as it is on the iPad Air with iOS 7 (just like the iPhone 5 vs 5s)
  • The major improvement is to connectivity. iCloud is now much more than just photos and bookmarked websites in Safari. Everything in iWork transfers over instantly, even if you’re communicating from the Pages app over to Pages on your iMac and iWork on the browser. It’s actually really cool.

Better for Apps, Not Old People

I like to think I’m old fashioned sometimes. I don’t use Facebook much because I prefer phone calls, but at the same time almost exclusively talk to my family and friends either via IM, SMS, or in person. And for development purposes I’ve kept my iPhone 5 on iOS 6, which I still like very much and continue to use as my primary device.

That said, iOS 7 has a lot to offer. The basic design principles of the OS are clear as day for anyone to entertain, experiment with, and flourish in. I’ve seen plenty of apps that have failed horribly with the new design, most glaringly Evernote, which on iOS 6 is heavy but understandable, but on iOS 7 is lighter but incomprehensible. Some apps, like Venmo, Fantastical 2, Mailbox, and others have both fully embraced the changes and gone above and beyond what Apple has said should be done. It’s really incredible; the rate of growth in usability is simply astonishing.

Meanwhile, much of the changes are also too much to stomach, especially for certain segments of the market. Older iOS users have stated that Calendar is unusable, that Contacts and Phone are confusing, and that many of the systems they’ve used for years are now too ugly or hard to use. They’re not wrong on many accounts; the overhaul is so stark that it should’ve taken place over two, maybe three years, as mentioned earlier. The best indicator of the change from iOS 6 to iOS 7 are the two pull bars: the notification bar is now cumbersome and overcomplicated, while the pull-up menu bar is extremely helpful and useful and how did this not exist before? That dichotomy is exactly what iOS 7 is.

Bottom Line: You’ll get iOS 7. If you use apps often, you’ll be happy with the results overall. If you tend to use the basic on-board apps, then it’ll seem like a serious step down.


 
 
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Positives


Excellent for apps. Draws most attention to content. Far more efficient. Simpler to understand.

Negatives


Slower; iOS 6 on the iPhone 5 feels as fast as iOS 7 on the 5s. Severe limitations on designs. Difficult to understand some basic principles if done incorrectly, like buttons. Often oversimplified. Less efficient.


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James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.


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