Apple explains the significance of its new iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 updates directly in the release notes. iOS 14 “refreshes the core iPhone experience” with redesigned widgets that can be placed anywhere on the home screen and a new app library feature for managing app and organization overload. iPadOS 14 has a slightly shorter reach, with Apple saying it “introduces new Apple Pencil features and redesigned apps that take advantage of the iPad’s large multi-touch display.” One marks the biggest change in recent years for the iPhone and the other continues to increase the creativity and productivity power of Apple tablets.
For both platforms, the new software includes a long list of improvements to Messages, Maps, Music App, Siri, and more. And Apple continues its quest to put privacy at the heart of it all, with new protections for your personal data and indicators that reveal how often apps access your device̵
But first let me touch on something that is equally important to the new features: performance and reliability. Apple shipped iOS 13 to shreds last year, quickly releasing iOS 13.1 (with bug fixes galore) just five days later, and I’d argue things didn’t really seem stable and reliable until a couple more updates later. Despite what feels like a sudden launch, iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 seem to be in a much better place outside the gate. Sometimes I still encounter the weird bug – widgets don’t update when they should, minor visual glitches and so on – but I haven’t encountered any shows. In everyday use, everything is solid.
Widget and app library
Android users: It’s time for your iPhone friends to have their moment. Apple previously dipped its toes in the waters of widgets by letting you add them to the leftmost “Today” panel, but with iOS 14 the company is going all-in. Now you can put widgets wherever you want on all home screens. You can choose between small, medium and large sizes, and each app can have different categories of widgets. (For example, NBC News has dedicated widgets for major headlines and the latest COVID-19 stats.) Apple’s menu for choosing a widget is elegant, but it’s not always obvious how to actually add widgets to the home screen. Also, it is not possible to re-adjust the size of widgets after placing them; if you decide that a larger or smaller version would fit better, you need to go through the adding process again. Hope Apple fix it soon as it’s pretty confusing that the “edit widget” option doesn’t include resizing.
I’m a big fan of widget stacks, which allow you to stack multiple widgets on top of each other so you can quickly scroll between them. If you don’t want widgets scattered around your home screen, this allows you to find a perfect place for many of them. You can go a step further and create “smart” stacks that automatically rotate the visible widget based on the time of day, your location and your typical usage patterns.
Developers need to update their apps to offer the new widget style; if you were already using some older ones, those now get second class treatment and are still limited to Today view. (The new widgets can still be placed on the Today screen as well, if you prefer.) Despite the short-term release of iOS 14, new widgets are already starting to appear for OneDrive, Wikipedia, Todoist, Merriam-Webster, and a growing number of apps. I think app makers will be more enticed to create widgets now that they are a more important part of the iOS experience. If there’s one disappointment, it’s that widgets aren’t very interactive, a compromise likely made to preserve battery life, but which limits their potential.
And then there’s the new App Library, which tries to tidy up your iPhone’s home screen, even if you’ve never been able to do it yourself. Scroll to the far right page and you’ll find Apple’s Classified Folder Collection, which groups all the apps on your phone based on App Store metadata. You can’t edit or customize what’s in each folder and that’s annoying as Apple’s categorization can lead to very strange combinations. Why is the Phone app in “social” instead of “utility”? Pocket Casts gets thrown in “information and reading”, while Apple’s Podcast app goes into the more sensible “entertainment” folder. Each App Library collection feels like a mixed bag, which drags down the availability factor of the whole concept. Thankfully, you can just scroll down for an alphabetical list of all the apps on your phone.
Aside from folders and lists, I love the ability to delete apps from the home screen and move them to the app library without deleting them completely. And you can also set newly downloaded apps to automatically appear in your app library (and alphabetical list) without taking up home screen space like they used to. In itself, it’s a big win to keep things in order.
If there’s ever been a time to blow up your home screen and rethink how information and apps are arranged on your phone, this is it. Try something new and keep it for a few days. If the experiment fails, you can always put everything back in place. But widgets and the app library can make interacting with your iPhone significantly more efficient.
With iOS 14, your home screen will only remain an outdated grid of apps if you insist on keeping it that way. Before, I had all my essential apps on my first home screen and then a huge range of classified folders on page two. It’s probably more organized than many people get! But I’ve cleared the folder screen entirely and am determined to make searching for apps in Spotlight (just swipe down on any home screen) become second nature. But you don’t have to start over like I did; if you just want to cut down on clutter and hide random app pages, iOS 14 makes that easy too.
Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t given iPadOS the same treatment; there, these latter widgets can still only be placed in a sidebar on the first home screen. Despite the large amount of workspace, you can’t put them anywhere else. This limitation is baffling to me, but I guess it’s one of those cases where the company ran out of time. Hopefully you will gain more freedom from widgets in a later update or, at worst, with the arrival of iPadOS 15. It’s also odd that the app library is completely non-existent on an iPad, so you’re still stuck having to find one. home or a folder for each app on your device. It’s frustrating that one platform gets such a handy and useful tool to keep things organized and the other is left without it altogether. Clearly these features weren’t as much of a priority as the new Apple Pencil feature which I’ll cover later.
iMessage remains the best iPhone app, and this year Apple is looking to enrich a richer chat experience with inline replies, mentions and the option to pin conversations with anyone you want (including groups) at the top of Messages . But I think the company has given too much thought to some elements of the user experience.
For example, pinned conversations take up a lot of space in your message list as those people appear as enlarged avatars at the top of the screen. Seeing text bubbles appear there every time a new message arrives still feels a bit strange and unless you’ve just received a message, all you usually see is just that person’s avatar, so you lose the context of where those conversations left off unless you touch them. This is not a problem with the normal message list.
I’m sure some people will prefer clear visual separation, but I wish Apple had offered a choice between oversized avatars and keeping the old view with pinned conversations just … pinned on top of the heap, as expected. The built-in mentions and replies work well and I appreciate that you can now fine-tune notifications for busy group chats so that you only get them when you mention them.
New default settings
It’s been a long time, but iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 let you choose your default apps for email and web browsing. Developers need to update their apps to be eligible, but many of the big hits (including Chrome, Gmail, Microsoft Edge, Outlook, and more) have already done so.
After changing the setting, your favorite app will load instead of Mail or Safari every time you click on an email link or URL. It works as promised, but after trying the freedom to change these defaults, I hope Apple opens up more next year and allows us to choose new favorites for messaging, music, and more. At the moment, there is a bug where your default settings will revert to Apple’s apps if you restart your device, but I assume it will be fixed soon.
Compact and picture-in-picture notifications
Yes, it really took up to iOS 14 for Apple to stop incoming phone calls or FaceTimes to cover the entire screen. But long last (it’s appropriate here) you will no longer get abruptly pulled out of what you were doing, whether it was scrolling through Instagram or playing a game, when you get a call.
You can answer or decline a call directly from the compact notification. Scroll down to access the full screen normal call interface, where you can access the numeric keypad and other settings. Swipe up to ignore the call. There’s a small learning curve for steps, but these new compact notifications are less disruptive and a huge improvement over the old way. Siri also shares this compact view, and developers can add it to their apps (like Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) so you don’t have to worry about those aggravating screen captures again. The more compact call notification design fortunately extends to iPadOS 14.
iOS 14 also supports Picture-in-Picture mode, which was already available on iPad. If you’re watching a video in Safari or an app that supports the feature, you can do more tasks and use other apps while the video continues playing in a corner of the screen. You can resize the PIP window and move it to the corner that works best. If all you care about is listening to the audio, slide the video off the left or right side of the screen and you’ll still get the sound. Picture-in-picture is useful for entertainment, but can also be used for FaceTime. You can now reduce the video call and still see who you are talking to if you need to check an email or text message. It’s a really useful feature to have on iPhones with large displays.
The Music app in iOS and iPadOS 14 has a new default tab, Listen Now, which has custom sections like “Favorites” and “Made For You” and the usual recommendations based on your listening history. Music also has a much better layout on iPad now, with a sidebar for quick navigation and full-screen lyrics (for Apple Music tracks). Searching for Apple Music subscribers is more convenient, as there is a new top line for quick access to albums, playlists, and other filtered results.
I’m an Apple Music subscriber only because it comes with my Verizon wireless plan, and I largely ignore the service on my iPhone, preferring to sync my music files like the old days. My favorite thing about the Music app is actually the now updated playback screen, which has a background of changing colors that match the album cover of whatever you’re listening to. In the first beta of iOS 14, Apple really went wild with bright colors. The effect was super captivating and made the albums more alive. But the final version leans more on muted tones, which could have been done to improve accessibility.
Many of us don’t travel very often currently, so this is one way to make the new Maps features less valuable than in years past. But Apple is still paying some attention to the app with iOS and iPadOS 14: Maps has added directions for cyclists and will now guide cyclists along cycle paths and bike paths. It will also show you the height of a ride, if the roads along your route are busy, and you’ll get a warning if there are any steep inclines or stairs along the way. Initially, directions for bicycles are available in New York City, San Francisco Bay, and several cities in China, but Apple has promised that many more areas will be added in the coming months. Look, I can’t ride a bike, so I can’t talk about whether Apple’s suggested routes are sensible or overly convoluted. But the company is starting small with cycling in part to get it right.
Maps now also includes route calculation for electric vehicles, so your trip will include stops at the charging station. In an effort to keep up with Google Maps, Apple has also added curated recommendation guides on things to do and places to eat in popular cities, once we finally get back to doing it. Starting with iOS 14, you will start seeing safety camera warnings and safety cameras. Another nice touch is that you can now quickly use your iPhone’s camera to improve your location and orientation in Maps by simply pointing it at nearby buildings. This is useful in urban cities where tall buildings can interfere with GPS reception, making it harder for the app to tell which direction you are facing or Exactly what intersection are you close to.
App clips allow you to use certain features of an app without downloading the whole thing. If the developers adopt this new iOS 14 feature, you’ll be able to do things like pay for street parking, order takeaway, rent a scooter or e-bike – all using just the necessary snippet of the app a natural size. it normally serves that purpose. App clips can be shared via messages, embedded in QR codes or web-launched, and will temporarily remain in your app library in case you need them or decide to install the entire app. They also support the “Sign in with Apple” feature which allows you to hide your actual email address and other personal information.
As we’re still in the early days of iOS 14, the selection of apps that have App Clips integrated remains very sparse. I was able to test Panera Bread, which you can access by searching for the chain in Apple’s Maps app and choosing your preferred location. Tap “order food” and you’ll be taken into an app-like experience that lets you select items from the Panera Bread menu and purchase them using Apple Pay. The clip stayed in my app library so I can go back to sorting if I’ve been distracted by something else on my phone. It was as simple as possible and I hope other restaurants and cafes will support the feature soon.
Last year, Apple shipped the iPad in turn by renaming its software to iPadOS and adding new features designed for the tablet’s form factor. For iPadOS 14, instead of rethinking the home screen as it did on the iPhone, Apple wanted to make the Apple Pencil more useful than ever.
Start with a new feature that Apple calls Scribble. It allows you to write in any text field on your iPad with the pencil, and that writing is automatically converted to typed text. You can also select your scribbled handwriting in an app like Notes and copy it as plain text for easy pasting elsewhere.
This all works extremely well, and most of the time my handwriting is transferred to plain text with no obvious errors. However, Apple’s handwriting recognition isn’t foolproof. If you are in a hurry and write in a messy way, you will probably have to fix a few things. Scribble comes with its new gestures for manipulating text with the pencil, such as scratching a word or phrase to erase it or circle a phrase to highlight it. You’ll get rid of them in no time, but other gestures, like holding down the pencil tip to create more space for handwriting or drawing a vertical line to separate or connect words, are easier to forget.
iPadOS 14 also adds sidebars to a number of apps including music, photos, files, and shortcuts, which in turn makes using them more efficient and productive. The sidebars might seem like a minor thing, but they give the iPad a more Mac-like feel.
Search has been redesigned in iPadOS 14 with a new compact interface that better classifies the most relevant results, makes web search faster, and allows in-app search of apps like Mail, Messages, and Files. Launching apps from search is faster too, which is something I find myself doing more and more as there is no app library yet.
One area of iPadOS that remains unchanged is multitasking, which seems even more complicated and less cohesive than it should. Apple needs to refine the way multitasking elements like split screen and Slideover come together. The company has decided to shake something up this year, but hopefully the evolution of iPad multitasking is in the cards for next fall.
For years now, Apple has been working to tighten iOS security and privacy and give customers more control over how many apps they can collect from their iPhone. iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 focus even more on transparency, with new color indicators appearing in the top right corner when apps actively access the camera (green dot) or microphone (yellow dot).
After the update, you will quickly notice a new authorization request when an app “wants to find and connect to local devices on your network”; this is necessary for smart home apps to communicate with gadgets in the house and for apps to stream to TV, for example. You will also see a small banner at the top of the screen whenever you paste something into a text field, which tells you where the copied text originated.
I think the microphone and camera indicators are great additions and should always be there, but I wish Apple would allow you to configure or disable these other prompts, at least the clipboard ones, which struck me as a bit over the top in my time with iOS 14.
Another new privacy trick is the ability to grant apps access to your approximate location instead of the usual pinpoint accuracy. Of course, you’ll want to keep regular permission for an app like Waze or Uber, but does Tinder or your favorite weather app really need to know your exact location? Probably not. I’m already limiting a lot of apps to this new rough setting and I’m feeling good.
Finally, you now have control over the photos in your library that an app can see. When an app like VSCO requests access, you can choose specific images you want to edit or grant access to the entire camera roll. I generally still offer full access to most photo apps, but it’s a useful tool if you want to be more granular than the all-or-nothing choice Apple has offered before. If you accidentally choose a single album and want to give an app full privileges instead, you’ll need to go to settings and find the app to change access to photos.
By the end of the year, app developers will need to start creating “report cards” that clearly illustrate the type of data their apps collect. And Apple plans to continue making it harder for advertisers to secretly track you through apps, even as it’s giving the advertising industry a few more months to adapt to the upcoming changes. For now, you can still see all the ad trackers that Safari has blocked on any website.
iOS 14 marks the biggest change to iPhone software in years. At least, it does if you want it. Leveraging widgets (once again available) and the app library can legitimately enhance the everyday experience of using your iPhone, opening up new ways to keep things fresh and personalized for whatever suits you. If you ignore these new features entirely, it’s still worth updating to iOS 14 for less annoying call notifications, richer Messages app, and other additions like Picture-in-Picture.
iPadOS 14 doesn’t radically shake the user experience in the same way, but it continues to build on the strengths of the Apple tablet range. Scribble turns the Apple Pencil into more than just a tool for drawing or retouching photos, and apps now make better use of the iPad’s larger screen space with sidebars and drop-down menus. The end result is an iPad that looks more productive than ever, even though it still has the same minor issues that may limit its appeal as a laptop replacement for some people.
There’s more that I haven’t touched much here, including Apple’s brand new Translate app for iPhone, a solid first effort that will likely cut down on Google Translate downloads. The Home app has seen a handful of improvements, such as suggested automations when adding a new device to your smart home and adaptive lighting for smart bulbs. AirPods Pro has gathered a trippy spatial audio feature that seeks to replicate surround sound. And Apple has continued to make leaps and bounds in accessibility: There is now a headphone setting that can tune audio output for your hearing, and iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 can add VoiceOver support for apps that don’t they integrated it.
Unlike iOS 13, which comes with bugs, these latest updates are mostly stable and reliable for everyday use. The release came sooner than expected, with no new iPhone to showcase these new features, but maybe that’s for the best. More than most previous updates, iOS 14 shows how Apple’s software can breathe new life into the hardware you already own.