What is iOS 8?

iOS 7 looked modern; iOS 8 actually is modern. That's it in a nutshell. When phones were comparatively underpowered, it made sense to limit and confine them. It kept them running smoothly. But Android proves that isn't necessary anymore and iOS 8 embraces that reality.

Some of its additions, such as HealthKit, HomeKit and Apple Pay, remain an unknown quantity. They have the potential to enrich the Apple ecosystem, but it's too early to say that they will. Others, such as Handoff and Continuity, prove we're reaching the point where considering Mac OS and iOS as separate is archaic. Vitally, though, it’s not just other Macs that iOS 8 plays nicely with, it adds some much needed third-party integration, too. Let’s start there.

Watch our iOS 8 Tips and Tricks Video


iOS 8 Review: iOS 8 Extentions

Of all the changes in iOS 8, its support for third-party apps and extensions is the most obvious. You’ll notice it mainly because your apps will start asking for and telling you about things they didn’t before. This is the moment Android fans scoff in derision, but this kind of interaction is a largely new thing for iOS.

Keyboards

The biggest change is support for third-party keyboards. We’ve already covered the most prominent in our best iOS 8 keyboards feature and SwiftKey review, but it’s a fundamental change in how iOS 8 operates and it’s a very good thing. The standard keyboard is good, albeit with one or two quirks we’ll get to later, but you’ll want to try the alternatives.

There is already a small smattering of very good keyboards in the App Store. This opens up some security and privacy concerns, of course, but iOS 8 reverts to the standard keyboard when entering passwords. You can have multiple keyboards installed and switch quickly between them, too, which is helpful.

It's a great addition, then, but bugs persist at present. Nine times out of ten third-party keyboards work fine, but animation glitches such as keyboards 'popping' into view or not rendering correctly are regular enough to be off-putting.

Sharing and Actions

The keyboards are great, but we found the ability for apps to interact with each other more vital. On a basic level this makes it easier to share content from the likes of Safari. Avid ‘Read it Later’ fans can now save articles to Pocket, Instapaper and co. without resorting to fiddly bookmarklets, for example.  

Even more useful are action orientated extensions, such as those supported by Last Pass and 1Password. These extensions mean you can input usernames and passwords straight from Safari, shortcutting the whole process dramatically. This is the best example of such extensions, but we hope to see more soon.

Widgets
Widgets in iOS 8 are limited to the Today view, a decision that works very well. Apps are only just starting to add this functionality, but what makes the feature is the ability to swap the default ‘widgets’ for third-party ones. That means you can swap the standard calendar view for a third-party one — Calendars 5 supports this at present — or use your preferred task app.

SEE ALSO: iPhone 6 vs iPhone 6 Plus
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The better widgets support actions from the Today view, too, so you can complete tasks from the Today view without entering the app. Clearly developers are still getting to grips with how to use this feature and there’s potential for it to become messy without ruthless curation, but the Today view looks to be evolving in the direction we hoped for when it debuted in iOS 7.

Photo Apps

Next comes extended support for photo and camera apps. In times of yore (i.e. iOS 7 and earlier), photo editing apps had to import your photo and save it manually afterwards. Camera apps had to do the same if you wanted your photos to appear in the main Photos app. It was slow and cumbersome.

PhotoKit, Apple’s photo app API in iOS 8, destroys this barrier. Apps can access your whole photo library easily and save directly to the Photos app. It’s another small but important change that makes using iOS 8 more coherent and consistent than previous versions.

Storage Provider

Finally, we come to storage provider support. Ostensibly this is focused on iCloud Drive, allowing third-party apps to access and edit the same version of a file rather than being contained within each app. But it’s open to third-party providers, too. We haven’t seen any apps supporting it yet, but Dropbox is open and ready for them to integrate the feature so we should we see how well it works soon. The sooner we see the back of the 'Open In' dialog the better.

iOS 8 Review: Continuity & Handoff

Since we’ve dealt with how iOS 8 interacts with other apps, the next obvious stop is how it interacts with other Apple devices and Macs — what Apple calls Continuity. Sadly you need a Mac running the Yosemite public beta to truly appreciate it, so for now you'll just have to trust us when we say it's a revelation.

First, there’s Handoff, which makes it easy to 'pick up where you left off' on another device. For example, it means you can look up a business in Safari on your Mac and then seamlessly load that page on your iPhone or iPad straight from the lock screen. All you have to do is swipe up from the icon that appears in the bottom left of your lock screen. This works the other way, of course, with icons popping up to the left of the dock in Mac OS.

SEE ALSO: iPhone 6 vs iPhone 5S
Handoff

The lockscreen icon that pops up when Handoff is activated

That’s just one example, but there are many more. You can, for example, open an email from your _phone_ in the Mail app on the Mac; take directions from the Maps app on your Mac and open it on your phone; go from editing a document on your iPad straight into the Pages app on your Mac and much more. All this works in either direction across multiple devices and it’ll be open to third-party developers once Yosemite launches. It’s a great feature that really elevates iOS 8 and the Apple ecosystem, but there's more.

The real party trick of Continuity is taking calls from your iPhone on an iPad or your Mac, or the reverse of course. This means you could be sitting at your desk when a call comes in and simply take it on your Mac and not even get your _phone_ out of your pocket. The same goes for the iPad, with both the Mac and iPad defaulting to the speakerphone when there isn’t a headset connected.

SEE ALSO: iPhone 6 vs Galaxy S5
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It’s a fearsomely clever feature and it’s one that requires no real user input. The only requirements are that Bluetooth is active on your devices, that they have Bluetooth 4.0 Low-Energy and that you're logged into the same iCloud account on each device. No pairing is required, each device just needs to be in range. The same goes for Handoff.

This part of Continuity still needs some work, though. The basic concept works fine. Calls route through your iPad when they come in, but the sound quality is muffled and noticeably inferior. You can still hold a conversation, but clearly Apple is butting up against the bandwidth limitations of Bluetooth here.

One further Continuity feature that's yet to be implemented in Yosemite is the ability to send and receive SMS messages, not just iMessages, from your Mac and iPad. Assuming Apple pulls it off reliably, which isn't assured, it'll be the finishing touch to an impressive extension of the Apple ecosystem. While the audio quality from Continuity phone calls needs some work, Handoff works superbly and is hugely useful. It's one of the features that elevates iOS 8 from a useful update to an essential one.

iOS 8 Review: Notifications and Control Center

Notifications in iOS 8 pick up a nice trick in the form of interactive notifications. These let you perform quick actions straight from banner notifications just by pulling down. This is open to third-party developers, as well, so you’re bound to see more of them in the coming months.

For now the main examples come from Apple, such as the ability to reply to messages straight from notification, accept and decline calendar invitations and a smattering of other actions. You can comment and like Facebook statuses this way, too. It’s a neat addition that works well. Lockscreen notifications get a similar treatment, though the options are more limited.

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But there’s room for improvement here. Inexplicably, there’s still no ‘Clear All’ option in the Notifications Center. It dearly needs this for those times when there are too many and few are worth checking. Likewise, none of the notifications are interactive here — all you do is clear them or tap to enter the app in question. It seems odd that the Today view and banner notifications add interaction, but the core notifications section doesn’t.

We can applaud the removal of the ‘Missed’ tab, though, it didn’t add anything.

The Control Center, meanwhile, hasn’t changed much. It has the same options, but it’s slightly more opaque now and the brightness slider has a nice tweak that make it clearer how your change will effect visibility of the main screen.

iOS 8 Review: Spotlight and Siri

Search isn’t really Apple’s business, but it’s still an important part of iOS and as in Yosemite it’s enhanced the Spotlight search to make it a little smarter. It now searches Wikipedia, iBooks, iTunes and the App Store and it also works in Safari. Many have interpreted the latter as a stab at Google as it can steer you away from its search, but really it’s a just a sensible user-centric improvement.

Changes to Siri are very light, indeed. They’re certainly not enough to convince anyone who doesn’t use it much to start. You can now identify songs using Shazam and purchase content from iTunes, neither of which we have much time for.

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Apple has added an ‘Ok, Google’ style activation prompt in ‘Hey, Siri’, but it’s limited to when your iPhone or iPad is plugged in. This is useful when your device isn’t within reach, though it’s not clear why you can’t use it any other time. Battery life concerns are the likely candidate.

Of greater import is the fact the dictation mode now streams your message, rather than waiting for your to finish to show you the result. It’s not a revolutionary change, but it is helpful to see if mistakes are made as they appear rather than at the end.

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Finally, it’s worth noting that Apple has added 22 new dictation languages. Clearly Apple has spent more time expanding support than developing Siri further.

iOS 8 Review: Keyboard & Messages

Apple’s on-screen keyboard hasn’t changed much over the years, but in iOS 8 it gains QuickType. This is the standard ‘predictive’ word bar seen on Android phones and keyboards for some time now. It’s a sensible addition, albeit one that doesn’t move things forward much. It’s faster to type with one hand now, but not as fast as Swype or SwiftKey Flow, and it’s largely redundant when typing with two hands.

More irksome is the Shift button behaviour introduced in iOS 7 that remains in iOS 8. It’s still confusing sometimes whether you’re in uppercase or lowercase, particularly as the main keys don’t change to match as on most third-party keyboards. It’s something we’ve got used to over time, but Apple could fix this very easily.

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Messages, meanwhile, has several important and helpful changes. Our favourite is the ability to send voice messages. Although limited to iMessages, it’s a nice option to have and works very well. The only disappointment is you can’t send a voice message using Siri — when asked it directs you to the Messages app — which feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s a similar addition for taking and sending photos — hold down the camera button in the left corner and you can instantly take a photo or video and send it without leaving the Messages app. It defaults to the front-camera (i.e. selfie mode), but you can switch to the main one and you can record a video with either, too. It’s a neat addition that saves switching from other apps.

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This is the interface when taking a photo from Messages. Tap the the camera button and your shot is instantly sent as a message.

Group messages get the most attention, though, mainly to bring Messages up to speed with the popular messaging apps. Group threads can have titles, can be silenced individually and you can leave them altogether. You can now view a list of everyone in the group and choose to add and remove people. Photos sent in a thread can be viewed together and saved as a batch, too.

Two final features we really like, though, are the ability to send your location to people and (a really simple one) the option to mark all messages as read. The location options are numerous, too, as you can share your location for a period of one hour, until the end of the day or indefinitely.

iOS 8 Review: Mail, Calendar, Notes and Reminders

Out of these four apps, Notes and Reminders remain much the same. Notes gains the ability to add photos, but that’s about it. That’s fine, but the Calendar app is overdue some serious attention. It’s at the stage where downloading an alternative app, such as Sunrise, Calendars 5 or Fantastical, is an absolute must.

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Perhaps the only useful addition to the Calendar app is the ability to add ‘travel time’ to an event. This is a neat idea that ensures you get alerts at the right time. It can also automatically alert you at the right time based on predicted travel time to your appointment, but it’s undermined by the fact it can only use driving directions as a guide, not public transport.

The Mail app, on the other hand, enjoys several welcome improvements. In fact, it’s improved to the point where we prefer using it to the Gmail app. Gestures play a key role. Swiping all the way from right to left automatically archives messages, a short swipe reveals additional options (Flag etc.) and swiping from the left marks messages as read or unread.

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You can now minimise email replies without closing them, just swipe down from the subject line and it'll sit at the bottom of the screen.

This makes it easy to quickly churn through emails, and Mail gains useful filtering and notification options, too. Joining the VIP filter added in iOS 7 are new mailboxes for To or CC, Attachments, a ‘today’ view and Thread Notifications. This final mailbox adds the ability to get notifications for a specific message thread, even if Mail notifications are switched off. This a great combination — switching off email notifications and using Thread Notifications and VIP filters to focus on important messages really helps filter out email noise.


iOS 8 Review: Camera & Photos

Apple continues to fine-tune one of the best camera experiences on any phone. It lacks the manual controls enthusiasts crave, but they’re well-catered for by third-party apps and the new Photos app integration (as covered earlier) makes them easier to use. This lets the main Camera app focus on being fast, intuitive and direct.

It gains two nice new features. First, you can now adjust exposure manually and it’s dead simple to use. Just tap to focus and then drag your finger up and down when the brightness slider appears. The other is a Time-Lapse video mode (see above), which is fun to play with.

We covered the Photos app in a little detail earlier, but we focussed mainly on its support for third-party camera and editing apps. It also gains more comprehensive editing options, mainly because Apple’s phasing out the lamentably bulky iPhoto family of apps in favour of a single Photos app across iOS and Macs.

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The basic adjustment options

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More detailed options, each of which can be adjusted individually

The editing tools are largely lifted from the old iPhone iOS app, but Apple has picked the right bits and made them simple to use. There’s the usual selection of filters, the ability to crop and straighten photos and some quite detailed options to tweak colour and contrast down to controlling the black point exposure. All work fine and offer about the right level control.

Finally, part of the whole Yosemite integration is the creation of iCloud Photo Library. This is basically an extension of My Photo Stream, but instead of just your most recent photos it's your whole library. Thankfully there's an option to save 'iPhone optimised' versions so you don't fill up your phone too quickly.

iOS 8 Review: Safari

Mobile Safari was the defining feature of the original iPhone, so it’s only right that it remains one of the most intensely developed apps in iOS 8. The most vital change is a fix that prevents adverts from redirecting you to the App Store — a problem that infuriated us on iOS 7. But other changes are more progressive, albeit small.

We’ve already mentioned Spotlight search being integrated into Safari, but there are some other nice tweaks. You can now scan credit cards when filling in web ordering forms, which is great, and there are various tweaks to improve the experience for iPad, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus users.

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The feature we like the most, though, is the ability to customise the Shared Links feed and add RSS feeds to it. In iOS 7 this only pulled in links from Twitter, but now you can subscribe to the website you’re viewing and even remove the Twitter feed if you so choose. The changes sync across all platforms, too, so you’ll see the same feeds in Safari on a Mac provided you’re on Yosemite. It’s a great way to keep up-to-date with blogs that don’t update too often but are worth reading when they do.

Safari also gets a performance bump in iOS 8. It wasn’t slow anyway, but improvements to the Java Script engine ensures it remains one of the speediest browsing experiences on any phone.

iOS Review: Maps

Maps doesn’t see any truly meaningful updates in iOS 8 besides support for indoor direction using iBeacons (a niche feature right now), but it’s always worth revisiting to see whether it’s closed the gap to Google Maps — particularly as many people dismiss it out of hand. And while Google Maps still enjoys a healthy advantage, Apple Maps has hugely improved in recent times.

For us, it’s the superior in-car navigation app compared to Google Maps on iOS. Comfortably so, in fact. Its audio and visual instructions are clearer and more timely, and we like the way it handles street names. Each one has a bubble label that’s correctly orientated to your view and the street you should turn onto is labelled in blue. In areas that have it, 3D maps add some useful context too.

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Location and business info is much improved. It’s still not a patch on Google’s inevitable search prowess, but it doesn’t trip up often. The key problem here is it still does odd things when inputting a search, such as showing potential results that are in different countries. Narrowing your search solves this, but it ought to be smart enough to realise people in London don’t want to visit a farmer’s market in Los Angeles.

The other glaring omission is support for public transport directions. There’s a tab for it, but this gives you the option to send the routing request to a third-party app. This will, at least, immediately send the right information to the third-party app, but it’s too many steps.

As such, while improved, Maps is best called upon for driving duties rather than everyday getting about. For that Google Maps remains king, so it’s just as well the iOS 8 version is good enough that Apple’s deficiencies don’t matter.

iOS 8 Review: App Store and Family Sharing

Here we come to some seriously hefty features for developers and users alike. Developers gain the ability to create app bundles and previews using videos, while Family Sharing gives parents some meaningful control over what their kids can buy. In fact, Family Sharing is one of the easiest to overlook but most vital additions to iOS in years. Parents will love it.

Family Sharing lets you link up to five Apple accounts in a family. Your family get to share all purchased music, movies and books and eligible apps, and the organiser  — who also pays for everything — gets to approve purchases and set limits.

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This means that when little Timmy wants you buy that album full of swear words, the organiser gets a pushed alert to their device(s) where they can approve or deny the request. This wouldn’t actually happen, though, as parents can also restrict the type of content that their kids can view. Permissions are flexible, so some accounts don’t have to get permission to buy things, and those with the right privileges can hide purchases.

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Other features include dedicated family Photo Streams and calendars and the ability to keep track of everyone’s location and their devices.

All of this is great, but it’s the ability to manage children’s accounts and purchases that’s the big draw. The only missing feature is there’s still no multiple account support for individual devices, something that the iPad would benefit from hugely. We have a sneaking suspicion Apple might unveil this with the new iPad’s, and if it doesn’t plan to it really ought to.


iOS 8 Review: Performance & Battery Life

We’ve covered performance to a degree in our iOS 8: Should you update? feature. The abridged version is that anyone with an iPhone 4S, iPad 2 or original iPad mini should really give iOS 8 a miss for now. Future updates could improve performance, but for now performance isn’t up to snuff.

Anything iPhone 5 related or upwards, however, is on fairly safe ground. iOS 8 runs slightly slower overall, but not so much that you’ll notice it. The video below shows iOS 7 against iOS 8 on two iPhone 5S handsets. Neither phones were ‘fresh’ but the differences are very slight indeed.

iOS 7 vs iOS 8 video

As for battery life, it’s a similar story. Battery issues immediately after iOS updates are common, but you shouldn’t see dramatic differences. If you do then consult our iOS 8 battery problems guide for potential solutions.

In our tests we saw between 20 to 40 minutes less battery life on the iPhone 5S. It’s just about enough that you might notice it, but not enough to really change your habits. If you normally get through a day then you should still do so. We haven’t seen any dramatic problems caused by widgets, either, as they update only when you activate the Today view.

Apple’s also instigated some useful ways to keep things under control. Apps that use location now have the option to turn it on only when the app is in use, rather than it being only off or on. Not all apps support this yet (Foursquare is a notable exception), but it’s a useful way to prevent apps leeching battery in the background while retaining functionality when in use.

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There’s also a new Battery Usage monitor. This shows the percentage of battery power apps have used over the last 24 hours and over seven days. It’s a useful way to spot any discrepancies, though Apple could make it even more useful by including the amount of ‘active’ time to expose any particularly greedy apps.

iOS 8 Review: iOS 8 on the iPad

As with most recent iOS releases, iPad specific updates are conspicuous in their absence. Most of the really obvious changes come in Safari. For example, the address bar now hides when scrolling like it does on iPhones, which means you get to enjoy the screen unimpeded. Bookmarks, the Reading List and Shared Links now appear as a toolbar down the left of the screen, too, mirroring the Safari app on Macs.

These and what other tweaks exist are fine, but we’d like to see more in the upcoming iPad launch. Rumours of a larger iPad Pro 12.9 persist, which could be the catalyst, but the iPad Air (and mini to a lesser extent) could benefit from some obvious tweaks. Larger folders and support for multiple user accounts spring immediately to mind, but more creative minds could dream up more.

Other things to consider

We’re now going to wrap up a few things that are either small or simply impossible to test right now. That includes features like HealthKit, HomeKit and Apple Pay that, while hugely important, exist in piecemeal form until they launch properly or developers start supporting them.

First comes the Metal gaming API. You can read our iOS 8 Metal Explained piece for more on this, but the key takeaway is that it lets developers access the power of the GPU far more directly than before. Think of it as like a dedicated console, which can tease more power from lower performance parts thanks to less overhead. Games haven't really tapped into this power much so far, but the potential is significant.

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Next, HealthKit. Right now the only evidence of the HealthKit system is the Health app, but there’s not much you can do with it right now. You can input several data points manually and the selection of of things it will measure is impressively comprehensive, but it’s really meant as a data hub for third-party apps. Until they start integrating, it’s hard to judge how well or not it’ll work. The potential is there, but it’s just a shell right now.what is home kit

It’s a similar story for HomeKit, which is basically like ‘Made for iPhone’ but for smart home apps and services. Apple has created the developer tools and baked the support into iOS 8, but we’re yet to see any concrete applications of it.

Apple Pay, meanwhile, hasn’t launched yet and when it does it will start as a US-only enterprise. It’ll also, of course, be limited to iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus as they’re the only Apple phones to include NFC.

Finally, it’s worth touching on the improvement to Touch ID. Even before this update Touch ID was faster and more reliable than any rival system, but iOS 8 has extended this advantage. We rarely encounter failed readings now and it’s noticeably faster than on phones running iOS 7, too.
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Verdict

In many respects iOS 8 feels like iOS 7 part two. iOS 7 started the modernisation by introducing a completely fresh look, and iOS 8 fills it out with real substance. We’re not especially interested in whether iOS is better than Android, or vice versa, it’s a debate that’s never likely to end. But if you care about those sort of things, iOS 8 gives Apple fans plenty of ammunition to do battle with.

Clearly the third-party support is one of the key improvements, but we suspect the the extensions, new Photos app integration and iCloud Drive will have a more lasting impact than keyboards. The option to change the keyboard is great, but the flexibility that the other extensions offer feel more essential.

What really makes iOS 8, however, is Handoff and (to a lesser degree) Continuity as a whole. While Continuity still has a few things to iron out -- mainly call quality and implementing the SMS syncing successfully -- Handoff works brilliantly. It’s also a reminder, if it were ever needed, that owning other Apple products enriches iOS immensely. The freedom and simplicity of Handoff never gets old and the final release of Yosemite cannot come soon enough.

This tight integration, furthered by iCloud Drive and Family Sharing, remains iOS 8’s killer feature and a key reason it’s a great operating system.

Next, read our iOS 8 tips and tricks guide and our pick of the best iPhone 6 apps