Apple iOS 8.1.1: Apple iOS 8

Apple iOS 7 made its mark in design, but iOS 8 (free) is all about you, the user. From added features to improved navigation, you’ll simply have a better experience using your iPhone and iPad. With version 8, Apple continues to extend iOS’s reach, as the new functionality isn’t just about what you can do on your phone or tablet. It’s also about how iOS devices communicate with one another and Mac computers. It’s about how your whole family can now share an iTunes account, with one person managing permissions for other family members to buy apps, music, books, and movies. It’s about how easily you can communicate with other people. iOS 8 brings functionality that users have been craving for some time, improved navigation, and subtle design changes to an already solid mobile operating system.

Are there things to critique? Sure. You’ll see a few new apps that you can’t delete even if you want to, and changes to the way photos are organized will leave many scratching their heads.

The Mobile Operating System for the Masses For ease of use, App Store selection, Family Sharing of accounts and purchases, and forthcoming Continuity integration with OS X and other iOS devices, iOS 8 is an Editors’ Choice mobile operating system. That doesn’t mean it’s the right operating system for everyone, of course. The mobile OS you choose could depend more on the phone or tablet you want than anything else, although there are still a few key differences between Android and iOS that could sway you to go one direction or the other.

Android continues to offer more customization and more under-the-hood access for those who want to tinker, at the cost of complexity and, at times, stability. iOS gives fewer but more closely curated interface options. iOS integrates with OS X far better than Android integrates with any OS, especially given Apple’s new Continuity features. Even Windows Phone, the clear underdog, isn’t as tight with Windows computers. It’s not a bad operating system, but the lack of apps and lack of feature completeness for many apps that have been on iOS and Android for years means that if you choose to use Windows Phone, you probably have some other compelling reason for doing so.

iOS 8 does borrow heavily from previous versions of Android. A bundled Tips app walks you through new features and capabilities of your iPhone or iPad, much like the helpful tip overlays found in Android 4.4 KitKat when you first upgrade to that operating system. The new ability in iOS 8 to install custom keyboards has kept the major Anroid keyboard app developers busy the last few months porting to iOS.

One of the real strengths of iOS has long been the App Store itself and what it has to offer. According to Tim Cook, more than 1 million apps are in the App Store. If you’re an iOS user, you’re flush with choice. Windows Phone is still playing serious catch-up with its app offerings, though the selection has already improved by leaps and bounds since the OS’s debut. Of course, there are plenty of apps in Google Play that can’t work on iOS even if the developers wanted to port over a version, due to aspects of the operating system itself being locked down. Until version 8 of iOS, custom keyboards were among those disqualified apps; skins and launchers are still not available for the iPhone or the iPad.

One potential game-changer is Apple Pay, the company’s mobile NFC payment system, which will be available soon. Yes, it’s quite similar to Google Wallet, which has been around for a few years, except that Apple includes fingerprint authentication. But that’s not why it’s a potential game-changer. It’s Apple’s reach with both retailers and customers, particularly in the U.S. and Canada, that could push mobile payment systems over the tipping point.

Design and NavigationIn iOS 8, you’ll notice small design changes in only a few places, not the sweeping black-and-white-to-technicolor transition we saw from iOS 6 to 7. The Control Center will catch your eye, as will the photo-sharing options. The visual changes remove unnecessary outlines and dividing lines, opting instead for more shading, and they’re not obvious unless you compare iOS 7 and iOS 8 side by side. Without the direct comparison, you might feel as if something has been updated, but you might not be able to put your finger on exactly what.

I double-tap the home button a hundred times a day on my iPhone and iPad, so I love that now the multitasking bar pulls up not only currently running apps, but also recently contacted friends. Photos and names of contacts with whom I’ve swapped text messages recently appear at the top. It’s a great way to use more of the screen real estate. The primary multitasking functionality is still here, too, so you can jump between apps and force-quit them by dragging up if they stall.

Another improvement to navigation that’s just fantastic is that you can reply to an incoming text message by simply pulling down on the notification when it arrives.

Health, Emergency Contact, Medical IDNotice that with iOS 8, Apple has installed a Health app onto your device. It lets you add and import health and fitness information about yourself, both manually and from other devices and apps (though none of the apps have been released yet due an API bug). Even if you don’t care much about health and fitness, you should use the app for one excellent feature: the ability to create a Medical ID card and list an emergency contact.

The Medical ID card is accessible from the lock screen. Say you keel over in the middle of the street. The throng of helpful citizens nearby who will rush over to help might check your person for ID. If they grab your iPhone, they’ll be able to make an emergency call from the lock screen (that’s long been the case), and now they’ll also be able to pull up your Medical ID, which contains information that you set, such as allergies to medications, medications taken, blood type, and whether you’re an organ donor. You can also choose to include an emergency contact name and phone number, which has a quick link to call that person from the Medical ID card that’s visible while your phone is still locked. It’s a feature that’s well worth using, though some improvements that could be made to the setup process, such as including a save button for each step.

Continuity: Handoff and iCloud DriveContinuity is the improved ability for iOS 8 devices and Macs running the upcoming Yosemite OS to communicate with one another and work together. Continuity has two parts: Handoff and iCloud Drive (in earlier developer releases “relay” was also used to describe some of what now appears to be called just Continuity). This naming strikes me as running against Apple’s usual emphasis on simplicity. I don’t know why so many names are used for what is essentially one thing.

The features are extremely intriguing, though, making grand promises, and I’m eager to see if they work—they’re not all available to test out just yet.

For one, when your iPhone is nearby, you’ll be able to use your Mac’s speakers and mic to make phone calls. SMS text messages, similarly, will automatically flow into the desktop program for Messages, which was previously limited to receiving iMessages only from other Apple users (i.e., texts from your friend using an Android phone would show up on your iPhone, but not the desktop app for Messages). According to Apple this feature will be available in October.

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