It’s the gift to iPhone and iPad owners who don’t want to buy a new gadget.
Apple’s latest mobile operating system iOS 11 is now available as a free download. The redesigned software packs in big changes and minor tweaks, some you may never even see.
The update is available on smartphones as far back as the iPhone 5S. (For iPad compatibility, see here). Or you can wait and buy an iPhone 8 or iPhone 8 Plus, which hits stores on Friday, or hold off for the iPhone X coming later this year.
Here are a few highlights and tips.
Wait to update
Just because you can download iOS 11 today doesn’t mean you should. Follow some classic advice: Wait until Apple releases its first minor update, especially if you’re on an older device.
The first versions of operating systems invariably have some bugs in them. Because Apple makes public betas available, it’s likely the company has already worked through some of the major glitches. But if trouble shooting your iPhone in the middle of a Tuesday sounds like a pain, hold off.
Whenever you decide to update, do a full back up of everything on your phone first.
The control center is better, at last
The Control Center has always been a bit troubled. In its most recent incarnation, it was split into two windows: one for music and one for everything else.
In iOS 11, it’s unified, simplified and fills the whole screen on an iPhone. You can even customize what settings appear. The buttons look nice and the brightness and volume sliders work great.
Speaking of volume and long overdue changes, Apple has finally fixed the annoying giant volume slider that blocks videos. Now if you’re watching something and want to turn it up a notch, the volume appears in the corner.
Augmented reality is a kick
There is a beating heart in the middle of my house and it’s blocking my view of the front door. It’s part of the Insight Heart app, one of the early augmented reality apps available for iOS 11. Like AR in general, it is genuinely neat to play with but it’s not clear how useful it really is.
Augmented reality apps use the iPhone and iPad’s cameras, gyroscopes and accelerometers to sense where you are in the world. They can quickly map out the surfaces in front of you, like a desk or floor, and accurately estimate the lighting. The apps then places 3D images on top of a live view from the camera.
The IKEA app lets you place furniture in the room, while the Sky Guide app overlays real constellations on top of the sky. Shopping and gaming will be obvious early hits, but it will be exciting to see what unexpected uses developers come up with.
Augmented reality apps will only be accessible on iPhone 6S or later devices.
The App Store is kind of like a blog now
Apple really thinks app developers are entertaining. The company has launched a TV show about the coders, and now it’s dedicating a tab in the redesigned App Store to original posts about apps and the people who make them.
There are more than 2 million apps in the App Store. Finding the exact one you wants seems like a technical problem — the kind that could be solved by collecting data on your preferences. Instead, Apple has hired human editorial staffers to find the best apps to recommend. The Today tab features new articles and interviews every day.
It’s also a nice way to avoid bad apps that have gamed their way to the top downloads lists.
Siri is trying to sound more human
Siri’s voice has undergone a few changes to make it sound more conversational. It changes speed during a sentence, goes up at the end of a question, and even pauses to “take a breath.”
It also has a few new tricks, but the best is instant translations. Try, “Siri, how do you say ‘How much is that jaunty cap’ in Chinese?” Apple is slowly opening up its voice assistant to third party developers, so you can make bill payments or use it for third-party notes and reminders.
Apple is also feeding Siri more information about your habits to help it predict what you’ll want to do next. The smarts show up in other places where Siri doesn’t actually talk. For example, auto suggestions in Messages and search suggestions populate based on the last thing you were reading in Safari.
The iPad inches closer to being a work device
iOS 11 has some clever additions just for the iPad. It’s borrowed the Dock from the Mac, so there’s always a row of app shortcuts on the bottom of the screen. The app switcher shows previews of the last thing you were doing in each app.
Apple is finally bringing a file management system to the iPad — something that’s been long requested by anyone trying to do real work. There are a number of small changes that make multi-tasking easier, including the ability to drag and drop text, files and photos between apps.
A little something everywhere
There are new features hiding in almost every corner of iOS 11, like the Accessibility Setting that lets you type questions for Siri. There’s the updated Notes app that does handwriting detection and scans documents, and new special effects in Messages. There are new photo effects to loop Live Photos or make long exposures, and Do Not Disturb will try and keep drivers focused on the road.
Apple’s peer-to-peer payment tool, which lets people send cash to friends over Messenger or using Siri, will come to iOS 11 in a fall release.
Overall, the iOS 11 update is a refreshed look that includes with some much needed improvements. But the real draw is testing out the new augmented reality apps.