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iOS 11 review: A big deal for iPads, but not iPhones

Devindra Hardawar

Last year's iOS 10 was all about refining Apple's mobile experience -- it was "like polishing a pearl," I noted at the time. Now, with iOS 11, Apple is focusing even more on its big-screen iPad experience, but at the same time, it's leaving the iPhone a bit behind. Even though we didn't get any dramatic changes last year in iOS 10, it brought along a slew of useful features to the iPhone. That included bringing apps and Snapchat-like elements into Messages, as well as opening up 3D Touch more to developers. This time, though, iPhone users might have a hard time noticing that they've upgraded. On the flip side, iOS 11 is great news for iPad fans who want to do more with their tablets.

Getting started

As usual, we recommend backing up your device before going through any OS installation. Even though Apple has made the iOS upgrade process more seamless than it used to be, there's still a chance things can go wrong. In this case, it's worth making a local iTunes backup, since it's much easier to restore from that instead of using iCloud.

When it's available, you'll get a prompt to install iOS 11. If you're in a hurry, though, you can also head to the "General" section of the Settings app to check for the update. You'll want to be connected to power and WiFi throughout the installation process. The iOS 11 download weighs in over 2GB, and the setup process took around five minutes longer than iOS 10 on my iPhone 6S.

Once the installation is complete, you'll find that the iOS 11 lock screen looks ever so slightly different. Instead of having clear backgrounds, the pin number pad has shaded buttons. And if you swipe up from the initial lock screen, you'll quickly see all of your notifications. After you get past that, though, it's pretty much the same iOS design as last year on the iPhone: Swipe right to get to the today page, and swipe down from the top for notifications. You know the drill.

I chided Apple for not changing its iOS design much a year ago, so it's even more disappointing to see that things haven't improved much. It's not that iOS 11 looks bad on the iPhone; it's just a bit stale. And the changes that we do get aren't exactly improvements.

A new Control Center

When you swipe up from the bottom of an iPhone running the new OS, you'll find a dramatically revamped Control Center. Gone is the two-screen format from last year; this time around, Apple crammed all of the Control Center's shortcuts into one screen. Honestly, it feels like a jumbled mess at first. That was my initial impression when Apple first announced iOS 11, and it hasn't changed much during my time with it.

The icons aren't exactly hard to figure out, but they're so close together on my iPhone 6S that it always takes me a second to figure out what I need to hit. They could be a bit more comfortable on a Plus model, but that screen size is too big for my taste. In addition to buttons, the new Control Center has sliders for quickly adjusting your brightness and volume. And, as before, you can use 3D Touch to unlock additional options.

Media controls now have their own dedicated spot in the Control Center, but you can also jump deeper into them with a 3D Touch tap, or a long press on earlier iPhones. Doing so opens up the ability to move around a track, as well as switch between different media devices. That's useful if you need to choose between multiple wireless headsets or AirPlay devices.

Thankfully, you can customize the crowded Control Center to your liking by removing and adding shortcuts. Never use the flashlight? Just drop it and replace it with a shortcut to Notes or Voice Memos. You can also change the placement of Control Center icons, so you can easily put your most used buttons on top. Don't be surprised, though, if the Control Center starts to fill up the majority of your screen as you add more icons.

While it won't be useful for everyone, I appreciated being able to quickly record my iPhone's screen from the control center. And for anyone who needs accessibility features, including quickly accessing the magnifier or tweaking your phone's text size, you'll likely find something unique to enjoy as well. While it's nowhere near the extreme customization you'd find on Android phones, the revamped Control Center offers iOS users a small bit of customization in a normally restricted OS.

Better camera performance

You can expect to do a lot more with photos in iOS 11. Apple revamped Portrait mode in the camera to support flash and image stabilization, both of which should make it much more useful in dimly lit areas. Developers will also be able to take advantage of the Depth API to create new filters using data from Portrait mode. And good news for storage hounds: Apple is moving toward more efficient file formats (HEIF and HEVC) on the iPhone 7 and later to reduce the size of your gallery.

When it comes to the actual Photos app, you'll be able to transform Live Photos with three new effects: loop, bounce and long exposure. The first two are pretty self-explanatory -- they'll repeat the Live Photo, and move it back and forth -- while the latter mimics the dreamy effect you'd get from a lengthy exposure on a DSLR. They're fun effects, but not particularly revolutionary at this point.

Sticking with the trend of spreading intelligence throughout iOS, Apple says its Memories feature -- automatically generated photo and video albums -- will be significantly smarter in iOS 11. They'll recognize new types of events, including weddings, anniversaries and "over the years" compilations. And they'll be wiser about the type of media they include (especially when it comes to detecting blinks and smiles), as well as the accompanying music. Memories will even be able to straighten out slightly crooked photos on its own, using machine intelligence.

The Memories I came across during my testing were definitely more polished than before, with smarter editing and a more appropriate image selection throughout. Another plus? You can seamlessly swap between portrait and landscape modes while you're playing a Memory. Since I take most photos in landscape, though, that ended up being the best option.

Other iPhone improvements

Aside from the new Control Center, most of the iPhone-specific changes in iOS 11 are relatively minor. The app-switching view is more card-like, harking back to the likes of WebOS in the Palm Pre. The App Store and Messages have also been redesigned to resemble Apple Music; there's a big emphasis on large text and bold images. It's an attractive look, even if it's very reminiscent of Microsoft's old Zune style. The redesign of Messages also brings a big improvement in that it lets you easily scroll through your apps on the bottom of the screen. That's a big improvement over the messy interface of last year.

There's also a bit more of an editorial spin in the App Store now: There are curated lists, as well as small articles for featured apps. Apple also separated games and apps into different sections, which should help people who never really play games to avoid clutter. Altogether, it should be much easier to find useful new apps in iOS 11. That's especially important because consumers use an average of only around 26 apps a month, according to a 2015 Nielsen survey.

As usual, Siri is just a bit smarter this year. She sounds more natural, and can translate sentences into Spanish, French, German and Mandarin. Of course, there are apps that already do this, but I appreciated Siri's seamless translations. Developers will also be able to take advantage of Siri's machine intelligence in their apps. As a first-party example, she can play music personalized for you in Apple Music. And Siri also works as a bit of a DJ now -- you can ask her to play "something sad" and she'll compile a list of tearjerkers.

Apple Music is also more social in iOS 11. Now you can follow other users and share your playlists. Yes, those are all things Spotify has offered for a while, but it's nice to see Apple finally joining in on the fun. Unfortunately, there weren't many people to share with during my testing.

My favorite iOS 11 upgrade might be one of the smallest: When you hold down the emoticon or globe icon in the keyboard, you can choose from one-handed orientations that push all the keys to the left or right. I ended up using that feature quite a bit while riding on the subway; it's how I wrote a big chunk of this review. If you've ever missed the iPhone 5's tiny screen and keyboard, you'll appreciate this.

You'll also be able to send and receive money using Apple Pay in the Messages app later this fall. Apple's ARKit platform also means we'll be seeing a whole new batch of augmented reality apps that are light-years beyond Pokémon Go. Ikea, for example, has already announced an app that will let you accurately view how furniture fits in your home. It did a great job of rendering furniture in physical spaces using both the iPhone 8, and, even more impressively, it ran smoothly on my iPhone 6S.

On the navigation front, Apple also added indoor maps to the Maps app, as well as lane assistance during driving navigation. Of course, those are both features that Google Maps has offered for years on the iPhone. iOS 11 can automatically enable "Do Not Disturb" mode when it detects you're driving, which is useful for keeping you focused on the road. Since I'm usually on public transit in NYC, though, I ended up turning that off.

iPad, reborn

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

When it comes to the iPad, iOS 11 delivers some dramatic changes. The most obvious one? Apple has now brought the dock, which first debuted in OS X, over to iOS. It replaces the bottom row of shortcuts that you're used to on the home screen. The big difference now is that you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen in any app to make the dock reappear. That lets you easily jump between your shortcuts and running apps.

A longer swipe brings up windows showing off all of your apps, along with the Control Center on the right side of the screen. The new Control Center look doesn't seem nearly as confusing on a big display as it does on the iPhone.

The dock opens up entirely new methods of multitasking in iOS. Now you can drag an app up and have it appear in a tiny window on the side of the screen. Even better, you can drag and drop text and images between those. It's particularly useful with the new Files app, since you can easily save images and other files from the web. If you prefer the old split-screen multitasking code from iOS 9, you just have to swipe down on the smaller window.

Speaking of the Files app, it's a particularly notable addition on Apple's part. Previously, the company was dead set against introducing any sort of file management in iOS. But with Files (which also works on the iPhone), you'll have an experience similar to what you'd find on Windows or MacOS. It also helpfully hooks into third-party storage services like Google Drive, Box and Dropbox. Finally, you'll have an easy way to store documents downloaded from the web, as well as share files through email and Messages.

Apple has also reworked the iPad's keyboard to be a tad more convenient. Instead of hitting the shift key to type out numbers and symbols, you can just flick down on existing keys to make them appear. If you have an Apple Pencil, you'll also be able to start notes immediately just by tapping it on the lock screen. And on top of that, it's easier than ever to mark up web pages and documents using the Pencil -- there's no need to jump into a special editing mode.

Clearly, iOS 11 is Apple's biggest attempt yet to transform its mobile OS into more of a desktop platform. The dock enables seamless multitasking, and it finally adds decent data management with the Files app. It's hard not to think you're looking at a Mac when you've got an iPad running iOS 11 with a decent keyboard case. The iOS 11 improvements alone made using an iPad Pro much more bearable, though it's still a far cry from what you're able to do with a full-fledged PC. Still, the new OS shows Apple is slowly edging closer.

Wrap-up

While it's great to see Apple making huge strides on the iPad, it's a shame that iOS 11 doesn't bring more to the table on the iPhone. I'm looking forward to the rise of ARKit apps and a wider user of machine intelligence, but I'm also eager to see a truly fresh redesign from Apple. It's also a shame that we won't see some new features, like Apple Pay peer-to-peer payments, until later in the fall.

But with the iPhone X coming soon -- a device that fundamentally reinvents what an iPhone can look like -- there's a good chance we'll finally see some big iOS changes next year.

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