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Hands-On with iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 Public Betas

Posted July 1, 2021 | iOS | iPadOS | Windows


Yesterday, Apple released the first public betas of iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and its other coming platforms. Here’s a quick peek based on my experiences upgrading an iPhone 11 Pro Max, which I’ve temporarily switched to as my day-to-day phone with my Mint SIM, and an iPad Air.

iOS 15 Beta 2

I was hugely impressed by iOS 14, a major update to the platform that finally addressed long-standing complaints about iOS such as home screen customization, its lack of an All Apps screen, and the inability to set third-party apps as the default (at least for web browsers and email). I was (and am) also impressed by Apple’s stance on privacy, though the promised privacy controls weren’t implemented until iOS 14.5, which arrived in April 2021, several months after the initial iOS 14 release.

Given how impressive iOS 14.x was as an upgrade, it is perhaps not surprising that iOS 15 is, by comparison, a minor update, and one that builds on the foundation of its direct predecessor. There are further privacy advances, which is great, but no further advances with regards to default apps, which is unfortunate. And while this is kind of a personal thing, few of the touted improvements excite me this time around; I’m not heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, so improvements to/in things like Facetime, Shared with You,

That’s why I waited until the public beta to install it.

And sure enough, when the new system booted up for the first time … I couldn’t see any difference at all. I had to check in Settings to make sure it was even on iOS 15.

Looking over Apple’s iOS 15 preview website, a few marquee features do stand out to me.

Safari. This is arguably the biggest and most important change, at least from an end-user interactivity perspective. The new Safari features a new floating tab bar that disappears when you scroll and read, syncable tab groups (which, obviously would most benefit those using multiple Apple devices), and, most critically, extension support. This is a big enough upgrade to consider Safari, even if you’re using a different browser elsewhere.

Mail privacy features. I skip Apple’s Mail app and typically use Microsoft Outlook or Gmail instead. But with iOS 15, Apple Mail now includes a useful privacy/security feature that hides your IP address so that spam and malicious emails can’t track your location and other activities via email. This same feature also prevents spammers knowing if you opened their emails in the first place. And those are enough to make me want to at least try Mail again.

Live text. Yes, the ability to take a photo and convert sign, menu, or other text out in the real world into plain text on your phone has existed for years via apps like Office Lens and Google Lens. But integrating this capability into the system makes sense since it can surface that capability directly in the camera app and elsewhere in the system. It works with English, Chinese, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, and Spanish right now, which includes the languages I’m most likely going to run into. (I assume it will expand language support over time.)

Improved notifications. Apple’s notifications system has long bewildered me because it’s so inferior to what I’m used to on Android, but iOS 15 seems to make positive steps towards fixing that. Notifications have a redesigned UX with contact photos and larger app icons, which I like. And they support a notification summary feature I’ve not tried yet that will arrive once per day on your schedule.

Focus. This expansion of the “Do Not Disturb” functionality that most are used to on modern platforms lets you choose between that and other focus modes that include Driving, Personal, Sleep, and Work, plus your own custom focus modes. Focus has two key strengths: Each mode determines how and whether you’re interrupted by notifications, and, for those who use key Apple Messages (which is just about all iPhone users), it provides passthrough status messages when you’re focusing. Focus is available via the Control Center (down-swipe from the upper right of the display).

Apple Maps. Look, I’m probably not going to use Apple Maps in a world in which Google Maps exists. But I think we need to acknowledge that Apple’s app, after a very rough start, has evolved in impressive ways, and I get why Apple fans would want to at least try it. In iOS 15, Apple Maps is both attractive and functional, and it includes new features like city experiences (more detail on roads, neighborhoods, trees, buildings, and more) with some 3D landmarks for famous sites, day and dark modes, new driving features (including new road details like turn lanes, crosswalks, and bike lanes, and street-level perspectives as you approach complex interchanges), immersive walking instructions, new transit features, and more. It’s at least worth looking at.

Overall, kind of a mixed bag from my perspective. And three of those things—Safari, Mail, Maps—would pull me further into the Apple ecosystem I’m trying to avoid. That’s not coincidental.

iPadOS 15 Beta 2

Where iOS 15 is a minor update on iPhone, iPadOS 15 is a major upgrade for iPads, courtesy of its useful new multitasking features and the addition of some features, like App Library, that debuted on the iPhone a year earlier. And it will impact me more since I don’t use an iPhone normally, but I do use my iPad every single day.

The biggest changes to the system are related to multitasking. Which, yes, I have little need of given that I use my iPad as a consumption-only device (for reading, primarily, and watching videos) and not as a sort of lobotomized computer. But this is still big a deal, since multitasking was complicated and non-discoverable previously on the iPad. And when I was researching Mexico City in a Kindle-based ebook and pinning sites we should visit in Google Maps, having those two apps side-by-side might have been useful; I never even thought to try.

With iPadOS 15, the system puts up a small UI in the status bar area that consists of three dots (“…”) whenever you’re viewing an app.

When you tap this UI, a Snap Layout-like display appears, letting you choose between three modes using thumbnails: Full-screen, Split View (like Snap in Windows), and Slide Over, in which a secondary app appears in a small pane on the right.

And when you choose Split View, iPadOS, like Windows, will display a UI that lets you pick the app you wish to split the screen with. You can then resize each using the middle slider. (Some apps also support a floating center window for document views.)

You can even create Split View spaces from the App Switcher screen by dragging one app thumbnail onto another. This would be like Microsoft letting us create a Snap layout from Task Switcher in Windows 11. Smart.

You can also access a new shelf within apps that displays all of its open windows. This speaks to how sophisticated the iPad has become—just a few years ago, the notion of multiple app windows on this platform was a fantasy—and, yes, it provides management features so you add and close windows within an app.

Many new features come from iOS 14, like the ability to place widgets directly on the Home screen alongside app icons, and App Library, which is Apple’s version of the All Apps screen. But they’re as important as ever, and with App Library I no longer have to keep a superfluous “Apple” folder on my Home screen where I hide apps I rarely if ever use. (Oddly, App Library can be accessed two ways on iPad, the normal way to the right of the right-most Home screen and via an icon in the Dock; you can disable the latter, and I did.)

A lot of the other new features are either carried over from iOS 15—more lock-in, basically, though obviously useful to those deep in the Apple ecosystem—or are Apple Pencil and note-taking-specific and just not of interest to me. The new Safari is particularly compelling on iPad, for sure. And Swift Playgrounds, a fun if initially childish way to learn programming, now supports building real apps with SwiftUI. My, that accelerated quickly.

I only installed both betas a day ago, so this is just a very early peek, and perhaps some other features will show their worth over time. If so, I’ll check back.

Getting the betas

You can get all of the latest Apple public betas—for iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterery, tvOS 15, and watchOS 8—from the Apple Beta website.



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