If Apple’s (AAPL) usual annual schedule is any guide, then Tuesday, September 12 won’t just be the day we get new iPhone models. It will also be the day—or at least the countdown to the day—we get a new version of the iPhone system software, which will run on several years’ worth of older iPhone models. This year, it’s going to be called iOS 11.
It won’t bring you any one big-ticket feature. Instead, you’ll get a wholllllle lot of tiny nips and tucks. They seem to fall into five categories: Nice Tweaks, Storage Help, iPad Exclusives, Playing Catch-Up, Fixing Bad Design.
Here’s what you have to look forward to!
Expectations set? OK—here’s what’s new.
- A new voice for Siri. The new male and female voices sound much more like actual people.
- One-handed typing. There’s a new keyboard that scoots closer to one side, for easier one-handed typing. (You can now zoom in Maps one-handed, too.)
- Quicker transfer. When you get a new iPhone, you can import all your settings from the old one just by focusing the camera on the new phone on the old one’s screen.
- Do not disturb while driving. This optional feature sounds like a really good one. When the phone detects that you’re driving—because it’s connected to your phone’s Bluetooth, or because the phone detects motion—it prevents any notifications (alert messages from your apps) from showing up to distract you. If someone texts you, they get an auto-response like, “I’m driving. I’ll see your message when I get where I’m going.” (You can designate certain people as VIPs; if they text the word “urgent” to you, their messages break through the blockade.)
- Improvements to Photos. The Photos app offers smarter auto-slideshows (called Memories). Among other improvements, they now play well even when you’re holding the phone upright.
- Improvements to Live Photos. Live Photos are weird, three-second video clips, which Apple introduced in iOS 9. In iOS 11, you can now shorten one, or mute its audio, or extract a single frame from that clip to use as a still photo. The phone can also suggest a “boomerang” segment (bounces back and forth) or a loop (repeats over and over). And it has a new Slow Shutter filter, which (for example) blurs a babbling brook or stars moving across the sky, as though taken with a long exposure.
- Swipe the Lock screen back down. You can now get back to your Lock screen without actually locking your iPhone—to have another look at a notification you missed, for example.
- Smarter Siri. Siri does a better job of anticipating your next move (location, news, calendar appointments). When you’re typing, the auto-suggestions above the keyboard now offer movie names, song names, or place names that you’ve recently viewed in other apps. Auto-suggestions in Siri, too, include terms you’ve recently read. And if you book a flight or buy a ticket online, iOS offers to add it to your calendar.
- AirPlay 2. If you buy speakers from Bose, Marantz, and a few other manufactures (unfortunately, not Sonos), you can use your phone to control multi-room audio. You can start the same song playing everywhere, or play different songs in different rooms.
- Shared “Up Next” playlist. If you’re an Apple Music subscriber, your party guests or buddies can throw their own “what song to play next” ideas into the ring.
- Screen recording. Now you can do more than just take a screenshot of what’s on your screen. You can make a video of it! Man, will that be helpful for people who teach or review phone software! (Apple didn’t say how you start the screen recording, though.)
Running out of room on the iPhone is a chronic problem. Apple has a few features designed to help:
- Camera app. Apple is adopting new file formats for photos (HEIF, or High Efficiency Image Format) and videos (H265 or High Efficiency Video Codec), which look the same as they did before but consume only the half the space. (When you export to someone else, they convert to standard formats.)
- Messages in iCloud. When you sign into any new Mac, iPhone, or iPad with your iCloud credentials, your entire texting history gets downloaded automatically. (As it is now, when you sign in on a new machine, you can’t see the Message transcript histories.) Saving the Messages history online also saves disk space on your Mac.
- Storage optimization. The idea: As your phone begins to run out of space, your oldest files are quietly and automatically stored online, leaving Download icons in their places on your phone, so that you can retrieve them if you need them.
Many of the biggest changes in iOS 11 are available only on the iPad.
- Mac features. In general, the big news here is the iPad behaves much more like a Mac. For example, you can drag-and-drop pictures and text between apps. The Dock is now extensible, available from within any app, and perfect for switching apps, just as on the Mac. There’s a new Mission Control-type feature, too, for seeing what’s in your open apps—even when you’ve split the screen between pairs of apps.
- Punctuation and letters on the same keyboard. Now, punctuation symbols appear above the letter keys. You flick down on the key to “type” the punctuation—no more having to switch keyboard layouts.
- A file manager! A new app called Files lets you work with (and search) files and folders, just as you do on the Mac or PC. It even shows your Box and Dropbox files.
- Pencil features. If you’ve bought Apple’s stylus, you can tap the Lock screen and start taking notes right away. You can mark up PDFs just by starting to write on them. A new feature lets you snap a document with the iPad’s camera, which straightens and crops the page so that you can sign it or annotate it. Handwriting in the Notes app is now searchable, and you can make drawings within any Note or email message.
- Lane guidance. When you’re driving, Maps now lets you know which lane to be in for your next turn, just as Google Maps does.
- Indoor Maps. The Maps app can now show you floor plans for a few malls and 30 airports, just as Google Maps does.
- Siri translates languages. Siri is trying to catch up to Google Assistant. For example, it can now translate phrases from English into Chinese, French, German, Italian, or Spanish. For example, you can say, “How do you say ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ in French?”
- Siri understands followup questions. Siri now does better at understanding followup questions. (“Who won the World Series in 1980?” “The “Phillies.” “Who was their coach?”)
- Person-to-Person payment within the Messages app. Now, you can send payments directly to your friends—your share of the pizza bill, for example—right from within the Messages app, much as people do now with Venmo, PayPal (PYPL), and their ilk. (Of course, this works only if your friends have iPhones, too.) When money comes to you, it accrues to a new, virtual Apple Pay Cash Card; from there, you can send it to your bank, buy things with it, or send it on to other people.
iCloud file sharing. Finally, you can share files you’ve stored on your iCloud Drive with other people, just as you’ve been able to do with Dropbox for years.
Fixing Bad Design
Some of the changes repair the damage Apple made to itself in iOS 10. For example:
- Redesigned apps drawer in Messages. All the stuff they added to Messages last year (stickers, apps, live drawing) cluttered up the design and wound up getting ignored by lots of people. The new design is cleaner.
- Redesigned Control Center. In iOS 10, Apple split up the iPhone’s quick-settings panel, called the Control Center, into two or three panels. You had to swipe sideways to find the control you wanted—taking care not to swipe sideways on one of the controls, thereby triggering it. Now it’s all on one screen again, although some of the buttons open up secondary screens of options. And it’s customizable! You can, for example, add a “Record voice memo” button to it.
- App Store. The App store gets a big redesign. One chief fix is breaking out Games into its own tab, so that game and non-game bestseller lists are kept separate.
Coming very soon
There are also dozens of improvements to the features for overseas iPhones (China, Russia, India, for example). And many, many enhancements to features for the disabled (spoken captions for videos and pictures, for example).
So what’s the overarching theme of the iOS 11 upgrade?
There isn’t one. It’s just a couple hundred little fine-tunings. All of them welcome—and all of them aimed to keep you trapped within Apple’s growing ecosystem.
More from David Pogue:
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of “iPhone: The Missing Manual.” He welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.