updated 08:10 am EDT, Sun October 13, 2013
Apple applies minimalism to great effect in its built-in apps
In Part 1 of our deep dive into Apple iOS 7, its 64-bit next-generation mobile operating system, we looked at the way Apple has reimagined the iOS user interface through the use of color, layers, and translucency. In this, Part 2 of our analysis of iOS 7, we take a closer look at the some of the redesigned built-in apps including Mail, Safari, the Camera and Photos apps, and Siri. As we have previously explained, although the new visual style of iOS 7 has gained a lot of attention, Apple has taken the opportunity to comprehensively re-architect the entire OS, but also rethink the way each built-in app looks and functions.
Apple recently took the step of posting iPhone 5s Tips and Tricks and iPhone 5c Tips and Tricks pages to help customers better exploit some of the new functionality. Both web pages contain the same content, but we would love to see Apple extend this further by giving users a more comprehensive overview of each of built-in app and the built-in utilities as well. In the meantime, we will take you on a rundown on of some of the changes and improved functionality here.
When Apple originally introduced Mail, it was one of the first smartphone mail apps to look and function similarly to a native desktop app, leading Apple to call it a desktop-class application. The way the iPhone handles email has continued to evolve with the addition of support for a wide range of major email providers, allowing users to set up multiple email accounts within one, unified inbox. The new Mail app heavily features both the new iOS 7 look and feel, as well the Helvetica Neue Ultralight font that runs throughout the iOS 7 interface. It provides for a cleaner appearance, with lighter colors including blue, light gray, and white replacing the heavier, darker look of the previous version. It looks more contemporary, but retains the familiar overall functionality, while adding some new touches.
Probably the biggest interface change in the Mail app is the introduction of the 'peek-like' UI element that can be seen in other built-in apps, which allows you to swipe partially, or fully, between the different hierarchies. For example, when progressing from the folder overview, to the inbox and then into an email message, you can take a peek back at the previous layer to quickly check other emails, for example, in the inbox, without completely leaving the email that you are currently viewing. A full swipe will take you completely back to the inbox from an open email. What this system-wide function does is provide a seamless, integrated and fluent solution to the lack of a single back button on iPhones.
You can now also compose and email and insert photos and or movies directly into the email from the email app. This is achieved by long-pressing within an open email that you are composing and makes the iOS Mail app much more like a desktop email client as a result. You can also tap and hold on the compose icon itself to view drafts and recommence editing them without having to search through your Drafts folder. A VIP function allows you to prioritise emails from key senders without having to search through you inbox for email from your boss or spouse, for example. While organisation of emails can be completed in batches by tapping Edit, which gives you the option to select multiple emails and delete them or move them to folders.
Safari is probably the best example of how Apple has worked hard to refine the user interface in iOS 7 to reveal more of your content in a single view. Safari is already the most extensively used mobile web browser, and the new enhancements are likely to help keep things that way. Safari maximizes the value of the 4-inch screen real estate, showing you more of every web page. The URL field at the top bar and the Share, Bookmarks, Tabs and Back and Forwards buttons elegantly recede from view as you scroll through pages, bringing your content forward. A quick upwards scroll will reveal those buttons on demand..
The other significant interface change in Safari is the revamped tabs view. You are now presented with a fluent 3D-like scroll view in the vein of CoverFlow, that allows you to quickly breeze through each of your open tabs. It allows you to get a sneak peak at the top of each open page, making it easy to quickly select the webpage that you are looking for -- dismiss with a swipe or tap those you no longer want open. If you have a Mac with Safari open with one or more tabs open, these are also conveniently synced by iCloud in the background and are made available for viewing on your iPhone (or iPad) by scrolling through to the last open tab on your mobile device. It helps to seamlessly bridge your Mac and iPhone experience, boosting your productivity on the go.
The fantastic Reader function is still just a tap away and appears in the top left of URL field when Safari detects that a page includes a news story that can be re-presented in the Reader format, which includes larger font and reads like a book page, rather than a more cluttered webpage. You can now also email text in the Reader view, presenting whoever it is you a sharing a story with a clean text version of the story, as well as the related link. As previously, you can enable Private browsing in Safari, as well as create web clips of your frequently visited webpages by taping Share and adding the site to your home screen. As with each new version of Safari, Apple has also substantially boosted its speed as well, which means that pages now also load faster than ever.
The Camera app has a great new look, and continues with the minimalist interface design that typifies iOS 7 and its built in apps. This works to provide you with just enough information that you need to decide what type of shot or video that you are going to shoot. Apple's designers have also cleverly applied the translucency effect seen elsewhere in iOS 7 when taking panorama shots, and when taking video. In these instances, the information remains visible, but is set against a translucent background allowing you to see the full shot that you are taking. In still photos including the Square photo mode, the translucent effect is replaced by a solid black color that clearly defines the frame within which the photo will be captured.
Apple has also integrated filter effects directly into the photo app. You can choose from effects including Monochrome, Tonal, Noir, Fade, Chrome, Process, Transfer, Instant and None. These can be applied directly at the time of taking the photo, which when selected, gives you a preview of the shot and how it will look with each effect applied before taking it. The beauty of this feature is in Apple's implementation of the effects, which is non-destructive. This means that regardless of what effect you choose to take the shot in, you can later change the effect, or remove it all together. Or if you didn't apply an effect, you can then add it afterwards when in the edit view.
One of the tips Apple mentions on its website for the iPhone 5s is that you can also shoot in Burst mode by holding the down the shoot button, taking 10 photos per second. The iPhone 5s is then able to undertake a real-time analysis of the shots to suggest which of the shots is the best to save you trouble of reviewing each individually -- it's a great example of the power of the A7 64-bit chip in action. In Panorama mode, you can also change the direction of the shot (which is set up by default to go left to right) by tapping on the arrow, which will allow you to take the shot back in the other direction. You can also adjust and lock the autofocus and exposure by tapping on the screen or holding a touch until you still the yellow box flash three times. As with a number of other apps, there are further adjustments that can be made to the Camera app in Settings.
Organizing your photos has been made substantially easier in Photos in iOS 7. Apple has applied the hierarchies concept that flows throughout iOS 7 system-wide to good effect here, organising photos into years, collections (identified by where and when they were taken), through to individual photos. Photos has also been closely integrated with Maps, so you can quickly see where each photo was taken geographically. Searching for and finding photos is much easier, as is sharing them as well. Backed by the power of iCloud, iCloud Photo Sharing allows you to put together collections of photos that can be quickly and easily shared to the cloud for viewing by invited family and friends. Photos can be shared in single images, albums, or in select sets.
Apple has also extended the way it uses tabs in iOS 7 as well, giving you much more functionality within an app and making it very intuitive to get the most out of each app. In Photos, this works by separating functionality into a Photos view, a Shared view and an Albums view. When in the Shared view, you can switch to a People tab and invite friends and family to view your photos and also receive notifications when they have viewed them, like them or comment on them (if you permit that functionality). Thanks to the deep integration of Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, you can also post photos directly into each social forum and add accompanying comments directly in the Photos app. An Edit view also allows you to add effects and fine-tune images before sharing them, again, all from within the Photos app.
Siri was first introduced when the iPhone 4S debuted, although it was initially launched as a Beta. Two generations of iPhone later, Siri is now out of Beta with Apple continuing to add to its voice control capabilities, but also getting a new iOS 7 look to celebrate as well. It is very minimalistic, using transparency to retain a sense of context for users as the Siri interface is overlaid atop of the home screen, or whatever app you are in when you launch it. From a functionality perspective, Siri is working better than ever. Articulating your words clearly, in plain English, results in remarkably effective voice recognition. Apple has worked hard to continually improve Siri's accuracy and it has also made Siri even more natural to speak to in its latest release.
You can now tell Siri what relationship certain people in your Contacts list have with you. For example, you can identify your wife, mother, children and parents, and issue Siri voice instructions such as "Tell my wife I'm running late." You can also ask Siri about "Any good burger joints around here?" Siri will provide you with suggested eateries. However, you can now also update the original request and Siri will remember the context of the original question. To your burger request, you can say "How about tacos?" and Siri will intelligently provide suggestions based on your previous location-based request. As previously, Siri can also provide you with sports scores, and movie suggestions including ratings and reviews from Rotten Tomatoes as well just information from Wikipedia and Wolfram Alpha and control your music.
Siri voice recognition technology is also built throughout iOS apps and those of third parties by default for the purpose of in-app dictation. This is enabled by tapping the microphone icon that appears in the iOS keyboard, allowing you to dictate notes, messages, emails, tweet and send Instagrams. With iOS in the Car, Siri functionality is extended even further with Eyes free allowing you to call people, select and play music, hear and compose text messages, use Maps, get directions, read you your notifications, find calendar information, and add reminders among others. Coupled with the new Touch ID fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5s, it has to be the safest smartphones to interact with, within the boundaries of the law, of any smartphone on the market. If you haven't really used Siri much, we strongly recommend you give it a go as it can really speed up mundane tasks.
When the news broke that Sir Jony Ive was to take over design duties for Apple's software, I was particularly interested in seeing the way that he would translate his taste for a minimalist design aesthetic across from his critically acclaimed work on Apple's hardware. I wasn't expecting the infusion of color that now typifies the iOS 7 experience, although I think it works very effectively with the way translucency has been applied through out the system and a number of Apple's built-in apps. While it is ironic to say this, a minimalistic design aesthetic is very apparent wherever you look in iOS 7 and its built-in apps.
Each of the built-in apps we have examined here focus on putting content forward at every opportunity, with only the bare minimum of app or user interface elements apparent. It's quite an achievement when you think that iOS 7 is at once bold and striking with its use of color, but at the same time, it interface elements recede from view with animations or translucency being deftly deployed. It reinforces yet again that iOS 7 and its built-in apps more than have the substance to match the style, much like Apple's hardware. While credit is due to Sir Jony Ive and Craig Federighi for bringing this vision to life, we must also credit Apple CEO Tim Cook for having the strategic vision that has tied the values of Apple's hardware and software together more tightly than ever.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of our deeper look at iOS 7, where we will delve further into the extensive array of iOS 7 built-in apps including Music, Video, Maps, Calendar, Reminders and Notes.
By Sanjiv Sathiah