The public beta of iOS 15 is in the wild and we’ve taken a closer look at some of the new features that are set to launch officially in the fall. The update comes with a few major upgrades to your favorite Apple apps, as well as many totally new features. It’s been almost a year, and a pandemic, since iOS 14 debuted and clearly the company has been hard at work. From a more natural way to FaceTime to the redesign of Weather, iOS 15 will affect the way you use all your devices across the Apple ecosystem. The decision to update can be confusing, so here’s what’s coming in iOS 15 to help prepare you before you take the plunge.
First things first: Who can upgrade?
With the introduction of the public beta program, anyone with compatible hardware can test-drive the latest iOS (as well as iPad OS and macOS) from the Cupertino kingpin. Just remember that early versions of new operating systems can come with instabilities, incompatibilities, and bugs that might disrupt daily use. We strongly recommend starting off with a spare device. If you are a fearless features explorer without an extra device on hand, make sure to create a backup of any important information you don’t want to risk damaging and then proceed to your iOS download.
Before jumping into all the bells and whistles that come with this new iOS, it’s important to understand what hardware can support the Apple software update. If you’re already running iOS 14, you’re ready to start testing. The new iOS 15 beta support includes every device back to the iPhone 6S. Devices with the A12 Bionic Chip, however, get access to more advanced features. Those devices include the iPhone XR, XS, XS Max, 11 series (including 11 Pro and Pro Max), 12 series (including the 12 mini, Pro, and Pro Max), or iPhone SE 2020. Those devices can take advantage of iOS 15 features such as Spatial Audio, interactive maps, and Live Text, which will let you highlight and copy the text in photos.
With an XR or later, you’ll be able to press down on the camera button for QuickTake video with zoom in and out shortcuts. With an XS or later, you’ll be able to store virtual car, hotel, and home keys in the Wallet. Naturally, any 5G enhancements will only work with iPhone 12 models, the only devices equipped with 5G connectivity.
iPadOS 15 promises some ample app and feature crossovers and is compatible with most existing models, including the fifth-generation iPad, first-generation iPad Pro, third-generation iPad Air, and iPad mini 4.
The big iOS updates: FaceTime and SharePlay
Perhaps the flashiest upgrade in the cornucopia of features brought to us by this new iOS update comes in the form of the Apple FaceTime facelift. Apple’s video chat feature debuted back in 2010, alongside the iPhone 4, as a WiFi-only app with a cellular version released in 2012. The following decade brought minimal changes. Aside from the introduction of audio-only FaceTime in 2013 and the addition of group video in 2018, the basic form and function of the app have remained the same. That changes with iOS 15.
The biggest change to the video chat app is the introduction of SharePlay, which you’ll also find in the new iPad and Mac software. SharePlay lets you play additional audio or video during a FaceTime call, syncing playback and allowing all parties to have the same viewing experience, regardless of location. You’ll be able to watch major sporting events, stream the TV season premieres, and listen to the latest album releases together. You’ll never have to synchronize pushing play across time zones again. While there are other, perhaps pandemic-inspired, apps that share similar features, the integration of SharePlay within FaceTime itself is significant.
It’s important to note that SharePlay will only work if all members on the call are Apple TV+ and Apple Music subscribers, or if each party has rented/purchased media through iTunes. It has been suggested, however, that the success of SharePlay could encourage streaming services—like Disney+, Netflix, and Hulu—to incorporate the feature down the line.
When you watch an episode via SharePlay, you’ll be able to control the size and scale of each window on your own device without affecting the viewing experience of others. You can also toggle back and forth between watching your friend’s reaction and tapping back onto the “big” screen to focus on the media. While SharePlay does automatically drop the volume of whatever you’re playing when someone jumps in with a comment or a conversation breaks out, you won’t be able to individually adjust the audio. When you turn up the volume on whatever you’re streaming, you’ll also be turning on the FaceTime call volume.
The feature does, however, support Spatial Audio. Spatial Audio officially hit the scene in June 2021 and provides the digitally generated impression of three-dimensional sound. Previously, you could only experience Spatial Audio in music mixed with Dolby Atmos, but the new upgrade means as long as you have a pair of AirPods Pro or Max and a compatible device, you can listen to songs streaming from Spotify, movie soundtracks, and more through the new and improved “Spatialize Stereo” pipeline. This also means that during FaceTime calls, you’ll hear the speaker’s voice rendered from the section of the screen where their window is.
Additional new FaceTime features and upgrades include the ability to screen share, blur your background, trigger grid view, and even access FaceTime via the web browser on Windows or Android devices using shareable links.
Brand new iOS 15 features: Focus and LiveText
The new, customizable Focus feature is designed to eliminate distractions and allow users to concentrate on specific tasks. Focus has been likened to Do Not Disturb, in that its primary function is to mute possible disturbances; however, the possibilities and preferences are far greater with this new feature.
Instead of silencing all notifications when you’re not using your phone, Focus lets you pick and choose what to keep out when. You can set up specific modes for individual activities—like work, social time, or sleep—and include a subset of notification types that you’d like to turn off during that time. It will even allow you to assign customized home screens to each mode, displaying only the apps you need. You can also block certain contacts while allowing messages from essential personnel to come through.
For example, you can disappear all social networking apps during the workday while keeping Slack or Gmail up and running. When the workday is over, silence those apps and allow yourself to focus on friends and family. Regardless of which mode you’ve triggered, other iOS 15 users will be able to see when you’ve triggered Focus, so you won’t need to explain unanswered texts.
Our other favorite new features are LiveText and Visual Look Up. LiveText lets you take a photo or screenshot and then isolate and copy any included text, which you can then transfer to Notes or pin in an email or text message. At this point, Live Text works very well with printed pages, but it will certainly do its best with handwritten notes, too (though the quality of your handwriting plays a role in its efficacy). LiveText also means you can call phone numbers directly from an image, simply press and hold the number and a menu will pop up with options to FaceTime, call, or text.
Visual Lookup is a tool that analyzes your photos and uses Siri Knowledge to gather information about the subject. All you need to do is tap the “Info” icon at the bottom of the screen to pull up Visual Lookup search results. Curious about what kind of plant has popped up in your garden? Wondering what local book store carries a copy of a cool graphic novel you spotted in a friend’s apartment? Want to know more about the history of a painting hanging up on your wall? Visual Lookup will have the answers…most of the time. This feature is still new and definitely suffers from frequent cases of mistaken identity, but its future is bright. Still, Apple is already playing catch-up to Google in this arena.
Not so tiny and definitely mighty redesigns: Safari and Maps
Alongside brand new features and updated functions, iOS 15 brings a number of aesthetic overhauls to your favorite apps.
Apple’s native browser Safari has gotten a major visual overhaul. With iOS 15, you’ll find the browser’s URL bar at the bottom of the screen, which makes searching for and navigating multiple pages easier to do with one hand. As you scroll, the tab bar will disappear, popping up again with a quick tap. While this change seems small, it may take a minute to correct the muscle memory that pushes you to reach for the top of your phone.
This version of Safari will also introduce a grid view, so you can see an overview of all open tabs, a major improvement over the obscured stacked tabs we see now. This addition accompanies a new grouped tabs feature, that will also be found in the new macOS Monterey. Like Google Chrome’s “Group Tab” function, this feature allows you to group related tabs together and save them for future browsing—an action that Group Tab currently doesn’t allow without an extension.
To start a new tab group, you can swipe up from the search bar and create an empty group or compile all currently open tabs. When you want to add a tab, you can press and hold the pages’ search bar, triggering a pop-up menu, where you can select “Move to Tab Group” and place the tab accordingly. To switch between groups, press and hold on the currently viewed group, and select from other existing groups in the pop-up menu. You can also swipe left or right on the tab bar to jump back and forth between open tabs. As of the latest beta released prior to publication, jumping between grouped tabs only requires you to swipe right or left.
Safari isn’t the only app to get a new and improved look. While I am a loyal Google Maps user, the new Apple Maps update may convert me. Anyone with an iPhone XR or later can take advantage of an interactive globe, including a view of Earth from space and detailed imaging of mountain ranges, forests, and oceans.
A new 3D driving view displays lanes, roads, and buildings from the driver’s perspective for a much more practical upgrade. If you live in—or plan to visit—London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York, you can make use of more detailed 3D views of each impressive city. Public transit riders will be able to find nearby stations more easily, follow detailed directions regarding route and stops, and save their frequently used lines. When walking, you’ll be able to hold your iPhone up and Maps will analyze your surroundings to deliver comprehensive walking directions that you can follow using augmented reality. That could mean more turning around in embarrassing circles trying to figure out whether or not you’re facing West.
Anything big coming for my iPad?
The rollout of iOS 15, macOS Monterey, and iPadOS 15 are, of course, intrinsically linked. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the larger updates to impact both iPhones and iPads: updated multitasking. The iPad’s larger screen makes multitasking much simpler than on a phone, so iPadOS gets the bulk of the benefit. A multitasking icon, consisting of three dots that live at the top of your display, makes it easier to trigger Split View and Slide Over modes. A new menu offers a new “shelf” that shows all the open windows for any distinct app. Apps can be dragged and dropped to create new split or full screen combos and the aforementioned icon will light up to let you know which app in the split-screen you’re focusing on. While these new functions aren’t earth-shattering, they may help users organize their screens efficiently, though remark upon the distance Apple still needs to go in order to truly make multitasking user-friendly.
The rest of the best extras
As mentioned, iOS 15 is jam-packed with updates, upgrades, and new features big and small. Describing in detail each and every addition would be a masterful feat, one that would take far too long to read. So here are the other additions we think are worth mentioning:
Weather now sports an updated design, with more detailed, moving backgrounds that reflect outdoor conditions. It also includes a full-screen weather map that mimics the background of the nightly news weather report. Colored bar charts couched in the vertical forecast to tell you about temperature range.
Notes now includes user-created hashtags, so you can categorize each note. Other features follow Google Docs with the ability to see the recent edit history of a shared note and to tag other members within the note itself to alert them to changes or tasks.
Health now features a sharing tab so family members and caregivers can stay abreast of a loved one’s stats. You’ll also be able to use the new Trends function to dive deeper into your habits and make what the company calls “meaningful changes.”
Alongside LiveText and Visual Lookup, the Memories feature in Photos will begin incorporating songs from Apple Music to your collections. While Memories is not my favorite iPhone feature (too many sudden reminders of pictures I keep meaning to delete), the idea of creating a virtual photo album with a custom soundtrack, adjustable filters, and more controlled playback is certainly enticing.
Overall, iOS 15 promises some interesting new inventions, upgrades, and Apple-specific apps that are catching up to, and perhaps surpassing already released programs from other tech giants. If you just can’t wait for the fall to try out these new features, and/or you want your voice to be heard via Apple’s Feedback and Bug Reporting platform, test-driving the beta version of iOS 15 might be the (share)play.