By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 28, 2014
Guess what finally got me to upgrade my smartphone operating system?
Yep — that massive wireless security flaw.
Although Apple released iOS 7 in September, I didn’t get around to updating my iPhone 5 until just the other day. Although the new system seemed to have some cool features, I didn’t find its look all that appealing, and I was pretty happy with iOS 6. However, knowing that my heavily used smartphone was highly vulnerable to hackers forced my hand.
The update process turned out to be a bit tricky, which did not surprise me. Before the upgrade, my 32 GB phone’s memory was basically stuffed to the gills. I ended up having to delete a bunch of apps before I was able to install the new operating system. There turned out to be a long list of apps waiting to be installed on the phone. I wasn’t aware of this, but the upgrade couldn’t proceed until the queued-up apps were downloaded.
Anyway, after some mucking about, I had an iPhone 5 running a new, and newly secure, iOS 7. I’ve spent the last few days getting to know the new software, and so far, my reaction is mixed.
Why? First of all, because of the way iOS 7 looks. Many of the redesigned icons for the Apple programs I use the most are, frankly, hideous. The garish new faces of Safari, Settings, Newsstand and Calendar all strike me as terrible.
Open up the apps and a different problem arises. Instead of displaying gaudy colors, the screen succumbs to some sort of whiteout. Granted, the skeuomorphism of iOS 6 was annoying at times. But to me, the whited-out minimalism of iOS 7 is far less appealing. The new versions of Mail and Messages seem visually boring compared to their counterparts in iOS 6.
Calendar is the worst offender in this area. To look at the month view in Calendar is to see a monotonous array of gray numbers against a white background. Weekdays are gray, weekends are light gray; dates on which events have been scheduled are marked by dots of the same light-gray shade as weekend dates.
Users are given a few options, such as switch to year view, search events, add event, adjust display choices for the various calendars linked to the iPhone. These appear as text or symbols that are arrayed in strips at the the screen’s top and bottom. The text is set in Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, the spare, super-thin default sans serif font that’s used heavily throughout iOS 7.
If not for these words and symbols being shaded red, Calendar’s month view would be a monotonous symphony of gray. The only exception is when the view contains the current day, which is surrounded by a circular field of red. Unfortunately, the big red dot underscores just how empty the rest of the display seems.
Apple has removed many of the borders from the operating system. Pressing “buttons” is passé in iOS 7; now, options are selected simply by touching a word — what formerly was the label on a button. Similarly, in many apps, the gray bars at the tops and bottoms of their screens have been either de-emphasized (by being narrowed or recast in lighter shades) or removed altogether.
This confused me in Calendar, where I couldn’t figure out how to move from day view to month view until I accidentally touched the name of the month — a word that I had previously taken to be only a nonfunctional label. I learned an important lesson from this happy accident: Text in iOS 7 is often simultaneously used to operate as well as to inform.
The new design philosophy affects a system-wide feature: the scrolling wheel of options. This gadget is crucial for Calendar, because it’s how users set and adjust starting and ending dates and times for events.
Alas, I simply haven’t yet gotten the hang of how this works in iOS 7. There’s no box around the scroll wheel; instead, the options sort of fade away. Consequently, I sometimes put my finger in the wrong place and end up making changes unintentionally.
A problem specific to Calendar is that iOS now lets the user select any minute of the hour. Previously, the only options were times ending in 0 or 5. (At the top of the hour, five minutes after, 10 minutes, 15 minutes and so on through 55 minutes after the hour.) It’s nice to have more control, but one result of this adjustment is that I now find it takes a lot more time and effort to get to just the number that I want. These changes all work together to make setting times much harder than the task was in iOS 6.
I have mixed feelings about another change in the new system: The ability to navigate in many situations by swiping a finger horizontally on the screen. In Safari, swiping from left to right will return to the previous page; going right to left will move to the next page in the history, if there is one. In Calendar, sideswiping on most of the screen in day view will move to the previous or next day; sideswiping near the top of the screen will let the user see a different week.
In Calendar’s event view, swiping right from the left edge of the screen returns to the day view. Similar things happen in other apps: In Mail, for instance, one can leave a message and return to the inbox by flicking a finger sideways from the screen’s left edge. In Twitter, when viewing a specific tweet, or a user’s home screen, swiping left-to-right moves back to the previous view.
These gestures require a bit of discipline, however; if the finger doesn’t start out by the left edge, sideswiping won’t have any effect.
Calendar’s navigation switches to vertical in its other views, by the way, which I find a bit disorienting. In month, year and list display, swiping horizontally has no effect, but moving a finger from top to bottom will show earlier months, years or events. Conversely, going from the bottom to the top advances the timeline.
The new iOS also alters the process for changing or “killing” apps. As in the previous system, pushing the home button twice pulls up a row of app icons. In iOS 7, however, these appear beneath a row of miniature versions of the different apps’ displays, which appear in the center of the screen. (The home page always anchors the left side of this lineup.)
Tapping on an icon or on a screen thumbnail opens up the corresponding program. Touching a miniature screen with a finger and then swiping it toward the top of the screen will quit the app represented by that visual. This shortens the time it takes to exit programs; under iOS 6, the user had to press a finger down on an app icon for about a second, after which kill buttons would appear.
My favorite redesigned app in iOS 7 is definitely Safari, where Apple has made it much easier to navigate and adjust views. I’m a heavy user of Safari’s text-only reading feature. In iOS 6, one generally had to be at the very top of a web page to access easy reading; users also had to scroll up in order to type the address of a new web page. Now, the navigation bar has an icon representing lines of text in on its left side. On pages for which it’s available, users can activate or deactivate the easy-reading feature, or type in the address field, without having to return to the very top of the page.
Safari has also made changes at the bottom of the screen. There, the once-permanent toolbar disappears when the user begins scrolling from top to bottom. (This action also shrinks the size of the navigation bar at the top.) Scrolling back toward the start of the article, tapping the navigation bar at the head of the screen or tapping the bottom edge of the screen restores the navigation bar to its initial appearance and summons the bottom-edge toolbar.
Combined, all of these tweaks make using the program more convenient. Safari also now appears to allow an unlimited number of separate pages, although I find the way they are rendered a bit confusing. It’s also unfortunate that the program doesn’t show how many pages are open, the way Safari used to in iOS 6. These are minor complaints given all the improvements here, however.
There is one important feature that Safari still lacks, unfortunately: There doesn’t appear to be any way to search for specific words, phrases or numbers within a page. I keep a second browsing app on hand for cases when this is necessary.
What’s the bottom line for iOS 7? As I said, mixed.
The software gives the user more control over navigation by opening up the functionality of horizontal finger-swiping. But there’s a learning curve for this. Sometimes, attempts to navigate are foiled when the gesture doesn’t start at the edge of the screen; in other cases, idle tapping triggers, or starts to trigger, an unwanted effect.
But I’m slowly becoming accustomed to the ease of navigation the new system offers. While the system penalizes users for incomplete or inadvertent gestures, it also makes navigation easier. Swiping horizontally to change pages tends to be a simpler gesture to make then the old control, which usually required touching a specific box in a (relatively small) corner of the screen.
Still, I do find some of iOS 7’s aesthetic distinctly unappealing. Balancing these and the new navigation hazards against the convenient new navigation features, I think it’s a bit of a wash. But my iPhone 5 is now more secure. (I hope? So I’m told, anyway.)
All in all, I’m glad I upgraded. I just wish iOS 7 had a bigger, and clearer, upside to it.