26th Sep 2013 | 15:54
The features you'll love - and the flaws you won't
iOS 7 is the biggest change to Apple's mobile OS since Steve Jobs changed his mind and allowed third party apps onto the iPhone.
Where previous iOS updates were largely a case of install-and-get-on-with-it, iOS 7 takes a bit more getting used to.
Don't worry, though: Apple isn't hurling babies out with the bathwater here. The iOS we know and largely love is still there, but it's been given one hell of a makeover.
Let's name the elephant in the room: Windows. In some instances iOS 7 reminds us of Windows Vista, especially in apps such as Maps and Videos where the background shows through the interface chrome, and in others it reminds us of Windows Phone in its use of white space and text.
There's a touch of WebOS in there too, especially in the new multitasking view.
The big question isn't what it looks like, though. It's whether it works well, and we'd answer that with a qualified yes.
While iOS 7 is often a little bright for our tastes - using Safari on an iPad in a dark room after a long day is really quite unpleasant, and a lock screen with four swipeable areas hardly screams simplicity - the majority of the changes are for the better.
The lock screen's new swipes may add complexity, but it's in a good cause. The Control Center, which swipes from the bottom, is an immediate hit: instant access to Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth toggles, Do Not Disturb, Rotation Lock, brightness, media controls, AirDrop, Airplay, a flashlight, the clock, the calculator and the camera - access that, despite so many options, isn't a cluttered and confusing mess - is a wonderful thing.
Yes, Android's had similar options for ages but you're not going to hear any iOS 7 user demanding Apple drop it because someone else did something similar first. If you find it gets in the way of your favourite apps, you can limit Control Center to the home and lock screens only.
Where upwards swipes bring up Control Center, downwards ones give you the new Notification area. This is divided into three (swipeable) sections: Today, which summarises your calendar and tells you what the weather's doing; All, which records background app updates, push notifications and so on; and Missed, which as you might expect details any alerts you haven't acknowledged.
We're not finished with swiping yet: you can also use backwards swipes to move backwards in apps that support the gesture, so for example you can swipe backwards in Safari or in Settings.
Such swipes take you back to the starting point of the selected app, but they won't boot you out of the app if you swipe backwards one step too far.
With multitasking, double-tapping the Home button brings up the apps list as before, but this time it has WebOS-style thumbnails. You close an app by flicking it away and shouting "begone!", although the shout isn't compulsory.
App Folders are prettier and roomier, and Spotlight has changed too: you no longer swipe from left to right to invoke it; you pull the home screen down instead.
The home screen gets some goodies too. It and the lock screen can use dynamic or static wallpapers, and they can use panoramas too (although that feature didn't work for us). Wallpapers also benefit from a subtle parallax effect, so if you move the phone the wallpapers appear to move.
The rest of iOS 7 emphasises simplicity, so for example the stitched leather is gone from Calendar and Notes don't pretend that they've been written on yellow legal pads. Sometimes it can be a little too stark - Calendar in particular feels like someone's thrown a whole lot of differently-sized Helveticas into a blizzard - but flattening and simplifying iOS does make it feel much more modern, consistent and efficient.
Contacts, messaging and mail
Contacts might not sound like the most interesting bit of a mobile OS, but there is some genuinely useful new stuff here.
The new interface not only delivers more options in less space, with icons for text/iMessage and calling next to the phone number and for FaceTime audio / FaceTime video, but you can share contacts by message, email or Airdrop or block the contact altogether.
When you do that, all phone calls, messages (including texts) and FaceTime requests will be blocked. You can also store additional information such as anniversaries, Twitter names and useful information such as their partner's name or the name of their line manager.
Messaging and mail
Say bye-bye to glassy bubbles: messages are flat blue balloons (green for texts). The most recent message is the darkest, with earlier messages fading into the past. Timestamps are hidden by default - swipe left to see them - and while contacts' names are shown in full in the message list, they're abbreviated to forenames only in conversation view.
Apple's mobile browser is very different, especially on iPad: the white interface chrome is semi-transparent, so the colours of underlying web pages show through. It's a nice idea but we sometimes found it annoying, the browser switching from yellow to white to grey as we swapped tabs. We're not sure about the iPad's redesigned bookmarks view either, which presents your bookmarks and folders as an icon grid instead of a list.
Both iPhone and iPad versions of Safari have a single integrated address and search bar, and bookmarks are supplemented with the reading list and shared links from your Twitter feed if you have Twitter integration enabled.
Tab switching now takes place in a 3D stack of cards, from which you can also toggle Private mode, and in a nice touch the address bar offers not just search suggestions but preloading of the first suggestion on the list (you can disable this in Settings > Safari > Smart Search Field).
Mail is better than before too. You can trash messages with a swipe, you can move messages to the junk mail folder and searching has been improved to cover all mailboxes at once. It's all very reminiscent of Mailbox, the nifty email app recently acquired by Dropbox.
Camera, media and Game Center
iOS 7's camera app looks quite different from its predecessors, and it's both simpler to use and more powerful.
There's a new Square mode for the obligatory Instagram-style shots of your dinner - and the obligatory retro filters are a tap away thanks to the icon at the bottom right of the screen - and you can move between camera modes by swiping the mode names just above the shutter button.
As before you can toggle HDR, the flash and switch between front and rear cameras with the icons at the top of the screen.
Square isn't the only new option. You can now shoot photos in burst mode by pressing and holding the volume-up button on your device, and if your hardware supports it - and for now that list begins and ends with the iPhone 5s - you can access the new Slo-Mo mode for slow motion video.
Photos has been overhauled too. The Photos section automatically organises your images by date and location, creating a collage of all your images.
Tap on it and you'll be taken to that year, and if you tap on the little location detail above the collage you'll be taken to a map that stacks your photos on the places they were taken.
It's a nice touch, as is the new Collections feature: it groups images according to when and where they were taken, and it works very well: for example, it knew the difference between photos we took at a gig in Glasgow's SECC venue and photos we took at the Glasgow Science Centre, which is only a few hundred yards away.
Photo Streams have been revamped too. You can now create or access shared photo streams, and you can both comment on and Like particular photos in those streams. When you click Like a little yellow smiley face appears. You can also share images via Airdrop, which uses Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for local file transfer. It's Apple's alternative to NFC and strongly suggests that as far as Apple's concerned, the acronym stands for No F***ing Chance.
Maybe it's because we spend so much time using it, but iOS 7's music app feels the most different - and we're not sure its red text on white is an improvement.
We miss Cover Flow too, which has been dumped in landscape mode in favour of a grid of album covers - faster, yes, but less fun, and if there isn't an image available you get horrible text rotated 45 degrees.
The bigger images in the Artists view are welcome, though, and if you have multiple records by the same artist they're grouped accordingly.
US users also get iTunes Radio for Spotify-style streaming, although that particular feature hadn't gone live in the UK at the time of writing.
The Videos app gets the new flat interface too, with thumbnail navigation and semi-transparent overlays when you start a video or bring up the controls, and there are new sounds for your ringtones and alerts.
Good news for anyone phobic about green felt: it's gone in iOS 7's Game Center, which eschews the casino tat of old for something brighter and bubblier.
The bubble app icon wasn't just a pretty design - it's been pushed throughout the service. Essentially, the Friends bubble shows your friends list, the points bubble records your achievements and as you might expect, the Games bubble takes you to your Game Center-compatible games.
Each game has a profile page, leaderboards (if appropriate) and any achievements you have yet to unlock.
If you're playing turn-based games the Turn bubble will let you know when it's your go, and the Challenges bubble lets you know of any gauntlets your friends have thrown down for you.
Maps, Siri and battery and performance
Apple's much-derided Maps haven't been catastrophic for us: all mapping systems have errors, and when it comes to driving directions Maps has performed perfectly well for us.
It's in points of interest that iOS 6 Maps fell down, and it's in points of interest that iOS 7 maps falls down too. The addition of turn-by-turn directions for pedestrians is great, but when those directions are to a business that shut down years ago it defeats the purpose somewhat.
Search remains dumb as rocks too: when we searched for Future Publishing, for example, which is us in England, Maps took us to South Africa.
Get over that, though, and the interface is very nice. There's a new night mode to reduce glare (can we have that for iOS generally, please?), the satellite images have been improved, there's live traffic information in Standard and Hybrid views and the nightmarish 3D modelling errors appear to have been fixed.
Maps still lacks public transport information - recent acquisitions by Apple suggest it's coming, but not imminently - but as a driving tool it's a perfectly nice app. Is is as good as Google? No, but it's not as bad as it's been painted either.
Oh, Siri, you do frustrate us so. When you work you work brilliantly, and that's why it's so frustrating when you don't. Sometimes "how long do I cook a leg of lamb for?" produces cooking advice; other times Siri's icon swirls with incomprehension or returns utter gibberish.
When Siri's feeling helpful it's really useful, effortlessly answering queries of the "how much" / "how far" / "who is" variety, showing us celebrities' tweets and telling us what's on the calendar for tomorrow. When it isn't, it either ignores us or completely mishears us.
In a suitably quiet environment and the right mood, Siri can do much more in iOS 7.
For example you can toggle Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, enable Airplane Mode, search Bing without launching Safari, return calls and post to Facebook.
Control Center has rendered some things unnecessary - it's quicker to swipe up and enter Airplane Mode than ask Siri to do it - but we found ourselves using Siri more and more for everyday features such as setting alarms and making notes.
It's worth pointing out that Siri isn't always entirely aware of where s/he is: when we asked when the next Rangers game is, something that in Scotland means Glasgow's Rangers, Siri told us about the Texas Rangers baseball team in America.
The lack of customisable voices for the UK is a shame too. We have some of the world's loveliest and/or most interesting accents, but we're stuck with the bloke from The Weakest Link. A soft Scots burr, Irish lilt or a thick Brummie accent is probably a bit much to expect, but Siri is a little too Daytime Game Show for our taste. At the very least we'd like the UK to get a female voice too.
Battery life and performance
We didn't notice any performance issues on our iPhone 5 or iPad 4, but we did encounter a few bugs: panoramic wallpapers didn't work for us, Safari seems quite crashy and Siri often responded painfully slowly.
Battery life appeared significantly shorter, but then we've been experimenting with the new apps and new features and trying different wallpaper combinations to try and get the least retina-searing effects, so of course that's going to have a significant effect on battery drain.
We wouldn't expect all-day life if we were using our iPhone or iPad for long periods, but then we don't get that on iOS 6 either - and of course you can boost battery life by turning off features such as Airdrop that you might not use.
There's lots to like in iOS 7. It's fast, fluid and offers lots of improvements - not just the headline features we've discussed here but features such as the effortless Airdrop sharing, improved Find My Phone and the new Activation Lock.
It can be a little eye-popping sometimes, but upgrading from iOS 6 to iOS 7 will breathe new life into your device. The eye candy doesn't appear to have a detrimental effect on performance and the new features tick many of the boxes on our wish list. Shame we still can't delete the stock Apple apps such as Stocks, though - although at least you can now hide Newsstand in a folder.
The interface isn't perfect, but overall it's better: there are fewer steps between you and what you want to do, and that means iOS 7 will improve your mobile life in all kinds of little ways.
Control Center and the new Notifications are great, background app updates have removed what seemed like constant app maintenance, and when Siri's feeling co-operative it's a wonderful thing to have.
Many of our favourite features are relatively little ones: Collections knowing where we've been, Mail making it faster to file or trash messages, the ability to block messages from people we owe money to.
Safari feels faster, and we liked the little touches such as Notifications telling us "right now, it would take you about nine minutes to drive home". At its best iOS 7 feels less like an operating system and more like the intelligent personal assistant we've been promised for years.
Sometimes iOS 7 is just too damn bright, especially on the iPad where launching Safari and Calendar is rather like aiming a spotlight at your face. Some of the colour choices seem a bit odd, and some apps' reliance on text for everything means you sometimes get an ugly mishmash of font sizes.
We'd love to know where iCloud Keychain went, too: the password generation service was in early betas but disappeared shortly before the final release, and we're assuming it won't reappear until OS X Mavericks ships.
Forget the number seven: this is a point-0 product, the first incarnation of a very different iOS. As a result we'd recommend updating with a certain amount of caution: you will find bugs, you'll probably find a few apps don't work (although the big name stuff from online banking to eBay has largely been updated) and there's every chance that an in-place upgrade might trash your photo library or do something equally upsetting, so don't forget to make those backups.
If you aren't desperate to get your hands on iOS 7, wait for the 7.0.1 that we're sure is imminent. That said, if you don't mind the odd teething problem iOS 7 will make your device feel brand new all over again. We think you'll like it a lot.