A new version of Apple’s mobile operating system has launched, and it makes the iPhone more efficient, while also being more proactively helpful. Plus there are tweaks to a wide range of areas in iOS 9.
There are some new features in this update that are only for the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, but these haven’t been released yet, so this review covers iOS 9 on the models that can be upgraded: the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6, and iPhone 6 Plus.
To understand one of the major features of iOS 9, it’s necessary to think back last fall: the release of iOS 8 was something of a debacle. Apple was required to rush patches out to fix numerous bugs. The fixes worked, but iOS 8 still was inefficiently written. Newer models could power their way through with high-speed processors, but older ones like the iPhone 4s chugged along.
iOS 9 is much more efficient, as demonstrated by the fact that the iPhone 4S runs the new version more quickly than it did iOS 8. Another demonstration is that the iPhone 6 running this update has a longer battery life than it did with the old version. Apple claims that the increase can be as much as an hour, but in our tests we found that that was overly optimistic. Still, even a marginal increase is welcome.
Speaking of lengthening battery life, Apple has added Low Power Mode, which aims to increase the time between charges by turning off background features like getting email, app refreshes, and other automatic downloads. It’s useful, but turning this mode on isn’t as easy as it could be, as it’s buried in the Settings app. Recharging the phone will automatically turn Low Power Mode off.
iOS 9 includes a new feature that’s clearly designed to take on Google Now for Android phones: Pressing the homescreen and dragging to right brings up a window that includes a list of people contacted recently, apps frequently used, a way to search Maps for nearby gas stations, coffee shops, etc., as well as articles from the News app that Apple thinks are relevant.
One of the most useful aspects of this new feature is its ability to check traffic conditions and preemptively warn users when they need to leave for upcoming calendar items. It can also automatically add information about airline flights mentioned in emails.
This points to the goal of these Siri Suggestions: to learn what the user needs and provide it without being asked. For example, someone who always listens to music on the way to work will find that they only have to plug in their headphones to start listening when they are driving in the mornings. Work contacts will be listed first on this page during the day, but friends will appear first at night, if that’s the pattern the user communicates with these people.
Spotlight Search doesn’t take the place of the Notifications window, which is why Calendar information isn’t listed. Dragging down from the top of the screen still brings up the Today screen with its overview of current and upcoming events, as well as a collection of notices. The only change is notifications are now listed in the order they were received, not grouped by application.
Note: Spotlight Search isn’t available to iPhone 4S users, but it is on all newer models.
User Interface Improvements
The methods for switching between running applications has been improved in iOS 9. Double tapping on the Home button still brings up a list of running apps, but the way these are displayed looks better. And multiple apps can be closed simultaneously by flicking them off the top of the screen. In addition, an icon to “Handoff” work to a nearby tablet or Mac has been added to the lower left corner.
When an application is opened from the Notifications window, Siri Suggestions, or other app, a small link back to the original app appears in the upper right corner of the screen. This small UI change is convenient but could be a bit more prominent.
Apple created its own version of Flipboard for iOS 9, called News. This lets users specify topics that they are interested in, and then the software presents them these articles in a magazine-like format.
The advantage for users is that articles are stripped down to just their content, although advertisements are often included as well. Just keep in mind that some news sources haven’t really embraced this system and what appears in News for these is just short intros, so reading their full articles requires jumping to their regular website.
The Apple Passbook app has been replaced with a new Wallet app. This reflects the addition of support for loyalty cards, so users don’t have to carry around a bunch of these on their keychains any more. Support for this new feature from retailers is still in progress, however.
In addition, double pressing the Home button when an iPhone is locked will now open the Apple Pay window.
Notes App Improvements
Apple has upgraded the Notes app so that images can be included along with text, as well as sketched drawings. The drawing tools are handy, but it’s not likely anyone will be regularly taking class notes even on an iPhone 6S Plus. More useful is the ability to add check boxes, turning any note into a To-Do list.
iPhone 4s users don’t have access to the new drawing feature, but newer devices do.
The Safari web browser now supports ad blockers, so users can prevent advertisements from appearing on the web pages they access. These blockers have to be purchased from the Apple App Store, and don’t work in the News app, Chrome, or other browser.
For too long the iOS keyboard only displayed letters in upper case. With iOS 9, the keys now show lowercase letters when those are the ones being typed. This is a small but welcomed change.
Although users of iPhones and iPads still don’t have access to their devices’ central file system, Apple did add an iCloud Drive app. This gives people an easier way work with files from a variety of applications, as long as they support iCloud Drive. And these files are available across a range of iOS devices.
Apple’s Maps application is still playing catchup with Google Maps. The latest version adds support for routing on mass transit systems. This is a feature that’s still rolling out though, and is so far not available in many cities.
Apple has made it easier to scroll through large collections of images in the Photos app.
iOS 9 is not a dramatic change for the iPhone, but it signals the direction Apple CEO Tim Cook is taking smartphones: the plan is to make them more like personal assistants that understand what we need and provide it for us. The current iteration of Siri Suggestions is just the first step on this pathway, however.
Other aspects of iOS 9 are equally welcomed, especially the way it sweeps away the kludgy iOS 8. While the new version doesn’t look dramatically different than its predecessor, it runs better, even on older hardware.