What is iOS 9?

In the simplest terms, iOS 9 is the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. It powers all the the brand’s iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches and while it’s not the biggest jump from last year’s iOS 8 visually, it has enough tweaks, upgrades and new features to make it a worthwhile download for anyone who has a compatible device.

The more complete view of iOS 9 is that it’s the start of the next chapter of iOS. Where the iPad Air 2 gains more productivity tools, Siri is not just a computerised voice behind a button press and developers can have a bigger influence on everything from search to blocking content in Safari.

It’s a great, if slightly rough around the edges, update that might not convince Android die-hards to switch, but offers plenty for iOS users to get excited about.

iOS 9 is free to download for iPhone 4S and above, iPad 2 and above, iPad Air 1 and 2, every iPad mini and the 5th and 6th generation iPod Touch.

WATCH: What's new in iOS 9?

iOS 9 – Design

Design changes in iOS 9 are few and far between. But there are a couple worth mentioning.

The biggest is the new San Francisco font – the same type-face Apple designed for the Apple Watch. It’s slightly bolder and a little wider than before, but doesn’t really make that much difference.

Related: iOS 9 tips and tricks

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In what seems like a change for the sake of it – or to make better use of 3D Touch on iPhone 6S/6S Plus – the multitasking view has been switched from individual cards to a scrolling, rolodex style. It’s a bit like Android’s Overview, but flipped on its head. I don’t like it. It adds nothing, but removes the handy contact shortcuts and makes it harder to see what apps you’ve got open.

I do approve of the new ‘Back to app’ button, though. In previous versions of iOS 9, if you opened up a link in a message you'd have to go back the home screen and back into Messages to return to what you were doing. Now a ‘Back to Messages’ instantly takes you back. Handy.

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Notifications, one of the weakest parts of iOS, haven’t really been improved on iOS 9. There’s still no ‘Clear all’ button, it’s finicky to accurately hit the ‘X’ to dismiss something and they lack the polish that makes them one of Android’s stand-out features. However, at-least notifications are now grouped by time rather than app.

iOS 9 – Siri and search

Siri’s transformation in iOS 9 is massive. The digital assistant first introduced with the iPhone 4S is no longer a feature stuck behind a button press, but a vital part of the operating system.

I used to feel Siri was one of the iPhone’s weakest elements. It didn’t have the down-right usefulness of Google Now’s card based UI, nor the accuracy and speed of Cortana. Thankfully, iOS 9 rights many of those wrongs.

Related: iPhone 6S vs Galaxy S6

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A swipe right from the first homescreen – sound familiar? – takes you straight into Siri’s new home. Apple claims she is now more ‘proactive’ than before, so this pane houses recently used contacts, apps you’ve been using a lot (or just installed) and a few, seemingly random, news stories from the web. I assume this will tie in with Apple News when it hits the UK, but for now it just takes you directly to the website.

There’s also a search bar at the top – I’ll get deeper into this shortly – and a microphone icon if you prefer to rather speak your requests.

I like the screen, especially the grouping together of apps that make them easy to get to. But there’s no pinning of contacts or apps, and you can’t delete or hide any of them. I guess this is an area that will grow with future updates, but it’s a good start.

A long press on the Home button from anywhere still brings up Siri herself, or himself if you’re in the UK, but the voice-assistant has picked up a few more tricks. I can ask it to show ‘pictures taken in Australia’ and the results will instantly pop up, or be more specific and say ‘show me pictures from April 2014’. Obviously, and annoyingly, this is limited to Apple’s app. Results won’t show up from Google Photos, for example, or Spotify.

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For some reason, Siri seems to have trouble understanding my British accent – not that I have a particularly strong one – but in the instances it’s understood in one results come up in a flash. A definite speed improvement over iOS 8.

But, easily the coolest feature of the improved search and Siri features in iOS 9 is deep-linked Spotlight. Before, results from the search bar – accessed by a swipe down on the homescreen – would be limited to Apple’s own apps. A search for ‘football’ would bring up any mentions in Mail, Messages and so on. Now, app developers can let it search their apps too.

Related: iOS 9 apps you need to download first

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So a similar search now brings up results from The Guardian’s app, while a search for ‘fried chicken’ brings up recipes from cooking apps. When it’s integrated in more apps, this will be a killer iOS feature.

iOS 9 – Notes

Unlike prior versions of iOS, iOS 9 doesn’t make any drastic changes to the majority of the apps baked into your device. Phone, Safari, Camera, Calendar and Weather are pretty much indistinguishable from their iOS 8 counterparts.

One app that has got a full-on, and frankly much needed, transformation is Notes. As a combined Evernote and Wunderlist user, Apple’s Notes app has been mainly resigned to my chocked full ‘Apple Stuff’ folder for the past however many years. But the improvements in iOS 9 made me stick it back on my homescreen, for now at least.

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Whether you’re on an iPhone or iPad, the app has gained a whole host of new features. You can create handy to-do lists with tickable boxes, bullet-point lead reminders and format text. They’re all fine, but other apps – notably the ones I mentioned earlier – still do a better job.

Then there’s the clearly iPad Pro positioned drawing features. For a stock app, these are surprisingly detailed. You can choose between a pencil, plus thick and thin markers and there’s a ruler that can be spun around and positioned to different angles. Drawing with your finger is fine and it’s great for doodling, but this has support for the Pencil written all over it.

Photos can be added to Notes now – a nice touch – and plucked directly from Safari through the Share extension. It works best as a scrapbook, rather than a full-on organisation tool, but it’s still a massive improvement over what came before.

Related: Is Apple News really a Flipboard killer?

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iOS 9 – News App

Even though it was promised during the initial iOS 9 announcement, Apple’s brand-new News app isn’t quite ready for a UK release yet. So unless you’re in the US, or want to fiddle about with changing the region of your device, you’ll have to wait until iOS 9.1 hits later in the year.

Saying that, the app itself is far from essential. It’s your basic news aggregator – select a few sources and topics you’re interested in and it’ll pull all the relevant stories into a picture-lead, magazine style interface.

Yes, there’s the typical Apple sheen laid on the top, but I suggest sticking to Flipboard or Feedly if you want a more intelligent way to follow the news.

iOS 9 – Maps finally adds transit directions

There’s a running theme with the new and updated apps in iOS 9. Apple has taken something popular – say Evernote, Wunderlist, Flipboard etc – and tried to create its own version on iOS 9.

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Maps is another example of this. I’m not going to dwell on the app’s bumpy history, that’s been done to death, but in iOS 9 it finally feels fit for purpose. It really should have been like this from the start.

It’s smoother, faster to load up directions and, most importantly, more accurate at showing your current location. Search has been beefed up too, pulling in addresses from emails and recently searched places so you can quickly navigate to that cafe you arranged to go for breakfast without copying and pasting it from Mail.

Transit directions are the biggest feature this year, though. Being able to the include bus, tube and train information in navigation has been a staple in Google Maps for years and it is one of the main reasons I stick with Google’s solution.

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The implementation is similar between the two apps. For instance you can tap on the tube station to see upcoming trains – a handy touch – and selecting ‘Transport’ when inputting your route will take into account public transit.

Timing and routes are accurate and I really like the detail Apple has gone to, to map individual entrances and exits from stations.

iOS 9 – Wallet, iCloud Drive, Mail, Messages

Aside from News, Maps and Notes, changes to the stock iOS apps are minimal. Passbook has been renamed Wallet and can now be accessed with a very handy double-tap of TouchID from the lock-screen, though its functionality and overall looks remain the same.

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Contact images now display next to senders in Messages on the iPhone 6 – this was previously reserved for the larger 6 Plus, while Mail’s only new features seem to be redesigned icons for marking items ‘read’, ‘archiving’ and ‘deleting.

The new iCloud Drive app is an interesting one, mainly because instead of being a default addition to your homescreen you have to manually toggle it on in Settings. Personally, I wish all, if not most, of Apple’s stock apps worked this way. I’d love to hide Stocks, the awful and constantly annoying Game Center, the even more useless Tips and the Watch app that pairs to my non-existent Apple Watch.

iCloud Drive is far from the smoothest and feature-rich storage solution, but at least the new app gives you a place to easily access everything. It’s the closest thing iOS has ever had to a file-system, which in itself is something of a disappointment, especially with the iPad Pro in the wings.

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iOS 9 – Multitasking

iOS 9 feels like the first version of the operating system where Apple has put its tablet before its phones during a software update.

‘Proper’ multitasking is the headline feature, so you can have two apps open side-by-side taking up half of the screen each. Or, one app can take slightly more room and give the secondary one a third of the display. If you’ve ever used two apps side by side on a Surface/Surface Pro running Windows 8, or Samsung Galaxy Android tablet, it’s the same sort of thing going on here.

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It works fantastically well, but there are some caveats. First-off you need an iPad Air 2 or the iPad mini 4, anything below that only gets you Slide Over, which lets you pull an app in from the side but not use two simultaneously.

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The next issue is compatibility – only apps that have been updated can support the feature. Scrolling through my list of supported brings up a couple I use everyday – The Guardian, Twitter and Word, plus a load of Apple’s stock apps – but there are plenty missing.

I also have issue with the way apps are presented in this multitasking view. When you swipe in from the right hand-side, you’re shown a list of all supported apps. But, you can’t remove any, reorder them or put them in folders. Once more apps support it, this space is going to become a nightmare to navigate.

Still, it’s great to finally be able to do two things at once on an iPad. Send an email with a browser page open at the same, check Maps and send an iMessage, you get the idea. It’s smooth, fast and there doesn’t seem to be any performance issues.

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The final piece of the multitasking jigsaw is Picture-in-Picture, which is pretty self explanatory. If you’re using a supported app, you can keep a floating video window open while you’re doing something else. Again, it’s great, simple and obvious and probably should have been there from the start, but it really does make the iPad a more complete device.

The only real shame is that none of these features have trickled down to the iPhone 6 Plus, or even this year’s 2GB RAM toting iPhone 6S Plus. I don’t see any reason why Split View couldn’t work on the phone, it would even give the iPhone 6 Plus a bit more of a differentiator against the regular 6. Aside from the fact it’s bigger.

iOS 9 – New keyboard and shortcuts

The iPad gets most of the new features here too, though the iPhone isn’t completely left out.

It’s much easier to tell whether you’re typing in upper-case or lower-case as the letters themselves don’t appear all capitalised as they did before. It’s minor, but something I really notice now when I pick up an iOS 8 device.

Switching over to the iPad, the keyboard can now be used as trackpad to more intricately position the cursor in your text. This is done by pressing two fingers and dragging them down. It might seem minor, but it makes a huge difference when using the iPad for knocking out long emails. A double tap on the keyboard selects all the text, another nice touch.

Bluetooth keyboards have learned a few new tricks in iOS 9. Shortcuts, to be precise. These work system-wide and in updated apps – Microsoft’s Office suite, for example – and, again, they work really well. A tap of the ‘Command’ key brings up an overlay of the supported actions and you can switch between apps, search the web and copy & paste all without touching the screen.

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Taken individually, these enhancements seem minor. But when combined with all the new aspects of multitasking, the iPad suddenly becomes a device that’s much more productive. I’m not saying it’s a laptop replacement, far from it, but it certainly makes it more than a slab that’s just for watching movies.

Whether it’s dwindling sales or just to push the iPad as more of the work tool, possibly to open it up to more markets in the process, Apple’s implementation of these features is much needed.

iOS 9 – Performance & Battery Life

Every year it’s seems like it’s the same old story with iOS updates and performance. During the 12 months or so the update is available, it slowly gets less buggy, smoother and more refined. Then when the next big update hits, most of that work seems to be lost.

The same can be said for iOS 9.

When compared to iOS 8.4.1, iOS 9 noticeably stutters on my iPhone 6. It’s not constant, but it happens in places it didn’t before. Dragging down the Spotlight search, for instance, or quickly jumping from one app to another. I won’t dwell on these issues for too long, because I'm sure they’ll get fixed, but it’s shame they’re here to begin with.

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They’ve been common on Android devices for years, but in iOS 9 the iPhone – interestingly not the iPad – finally has its own low power battery saving mode.

It’ll automatically flip on when you dip below 20% and hit the red, but it can be manually toggled on and off in Settings. You’ll know it’s on because the battery indicator turns yellow, and the iPhone becomes noticeably more sluggish.

To save battery, the mode removes certain animations, slims down background downloads, and halts app refresh. You could do most of this manually before, but it’s nice to have a neater and more automated solution available.

I’d say it’s about as successful as Android’s native solution, though seriously less powerful than alternatives from HTC and Samsung. I get about an extra 30-minutes of use – give or take – with the mode on, but it hampers performance seriously. Whether the trade-off is worth the extra battery completely depends on the situation. It’s great if you’re out and need the _phone_ to keep going, but not for much else.

Other things to consider

Content blockers – Even though ad-blockers have been commonplace on laptops for a while, similar solutions have never really made their way to mobile. On iOS, this has been because developers couldn’t build apps that directly affect how Safari functions. That’s all changed in iOS 9, with the addition of content blockers.

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They work like this: Once you download a ‘content blocking’ app from App Store, a new option will appear in the Safari section of the Settings app allowing you to enable it. Some of the apps, 1Blockr is a good example, then let you delve deeper and be more specific about about what content it blocks.

Apple doesn’t specifically refer to these as ad-blocker as such, but it’s clear that’s what their main aim is. For the majority of people that’s going to be a great feature. No more pop-ups or screen filling ads, just content.

But, in adding in this feature, and for making it acceptable by allowing the apps on to the App Store and promoting them, Apple has opened up a whole can of worms. Websites, like the one you’re reading this review on, depend on ads for revenue. To keep on producing content. Yes, ads might be annoying, but they’re necessary. These content blockers don’t stop ads in Apple’s new News app. Ads which Apple takes a 30% cut from.

To be fair, some of the blocking apps do have some welcome features. In 1Blockr, the app I mentioned earlier, you can stop Safari from loading up porn sites – great if you’ve given an iPhone to your kids.

Smaller Updates / App thinning – When iOS 9 hit last year, my 16GB iPhone 5 didn’t have enough space to complete the upgrade, so I had to delete apps and photos for it to finish the installation process. A pain, especially when you consider iOS 8 needed over 4GB of free space to get going. With app thinner and smaller downloads, Apple has managed to bring the iOS 9 file size down to just over 1GB. A big improvement that will let help users with 16GB phones upgrade without having to sacrifice their memories.

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Newsstand R.I.P – Newsstand loyalists are few and far between, but I am one of them. Or, was one of them. The magazine aggregator that featured in iOS 8 is no more, replaced by a near useless folder with icons to dedicated apps for each of the subscriptions. It seems an odd thing to do, why get rid of it unless you somehow build it into the new News app?

WATCH: What's new in iOS 9?

Should I download iOS 9?

If you’ve got a compatible iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, I recommend you go ahead and update to iOS 9. There isn’t really any reason not to. It’s free, your device will be up-to-date and there are enough new features to make it worthwhile.

But, probably more than ever, iOS 9 is the start of a new era of the OS. Whereas everything used to be siloed off into individual compartments, it is now connected. Siri can create notes inside third-party downloads, Spotlight search isn’t restricted to the built-in apps and content blockers can directly affect what’s displayed in Safari.

If you’re an Android user this sense of openness won’t be something new, but it signals a change in direction from the once staunchly closed off iOS ecosystem.

Then you’ve got the more visual improvements. The changes to the keyboard are welcome, and while it’s far from perfect, the new Notes app is a massive improvement. Multitasking is implemented, and importantly works fantastically well. I still have reservations about the way apps are organised in the split-screen UI, but that’s a minor quibble.

Notifications are still poor though, and Apple’s insistence on pre-installing a shed load of useless apps is frustrating. Maybe these will finally get the updates they deserve in iOS 10, or iOS X.

Verdict

A very good update for iPad owners with a enough useful additions to make it worthwhile.

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