iOS 13 review: join the dark side

iOS 13 is here. Apple is bringing a very different sort of update to last year’s iOS 12, which was built around performance improvements and rethinking how much we use our phones. iOS 13 is big and flashy. It’s looking to wow users with a slick dark mode; striking updates to apps like Apple Maps, Photos, and even Reminders; and long-overdue additions like a swiping keyboard and UI improvements.

The changes are largely on the iterative or cosmetic side, though. At this point, iOS feels like it’s started to crystalize. For better or worse, what we have now is Apple’s vision of what a smartphone OS should be. (That’s even truer now that the iPad has been forked off into its own iPadOS, meaning that future iOS versions should be even more tailored to iPhones.)

This vision is clearly seen in the fact that so much of iOS 13 is spent improving Apple’s own apps and services to the point where they’re back at the standard that other third-party ones set long ago, like codifying dark mode on a system-wide level instead of letting apps fend for themselves; “Sherlocking” basic photo editors, reminders apps, and cycle trackers all in a single update; and even its latest attempt to challenge Google Maps for navigation. Apple is improving its apps because, to use iOS 13 to the fullest, you have to use them.

The end result is more of a grab bag of minor updates and improvements than a full-fledged overhaul. Think of it almost like iOS 12S. Or to extend the analogy I made last year, if iOS 12 was a heaping plate of healthy vegetables, iOS 13 is a bright, colorful candy bar. But just like a meal of junk food, it leaves you a little unfulfilled in the end.

Performance

iOS 13 has a few new headline features, and I am going to get into all of them. (I know you’re waiting on Dark Mode.) But the most important thing to know before we dive in is that, at least right now, iOS 13 doesn’t live up to Apple’s usual standard of quality. It likely won’t hurt to install it right away, but it’s probably worth waiting for the iOS 13.1 update, which is due to be released on September 24th.

I’ve been using iOS 13 in beta for the last few months and the final 13.0 release since September 10th on my iPhone X, and I haven’t experienced the annual slowdown that used to be part and parcel of the iOS update experience. It’s not the same speed boost that Apple offered last year with 12, but it shouldn’t actively slow down your phone, at the very least. That’s a low bar to clear, but it’s a necessary one.

The version of iOS 13 that’s shipping out to customers today feels rushed out the door. Between my own tests and those of other Verge staffers, we’ve run into a lot of significant bugs: apps randomly crash when opening them, cellular signals drop, the Camera app can be slow, pictures have randomly gotten new dates assigned to them, AirDrop has had issues, the text field flips out sometimes in iMessages, and more. You probably won’t run into all of these problems, but, odds are, you’ll run into some of them.

Apple has practically admitted that the 13.0 version of iOS isn’t finished. The company has already announced that iOS 13.1 is coming just days after the release of iOS 13, alongside iPadOS, the tablet version of the software. It should bring some of the other features that were announced at its Worldwide Developers Conference into iOS 13 and patch some of the bugs. There are even updates planned for later this fall that will bring things like AirPod audio sharing and HomeKit video cameras.

Historically, Apple has been pretty good about addressing buggy iOS versions quickly, and we’ll update this review once iOS 13.1 is out to see how things improve.


You underestimate the power of the dark mode

Dark Mode is probably the biggest feature in terms of user-facing content: it’s a visual reskin of nearly every single app on the platform, and it has plenty of hype. As dark modes go, Apple’s is one of the better ones. The background is a true black, not a very dark gray, and it looks particularly great on the OLED panels of an iPhone X or XS device. Unlike Google, which still hasn’t released dark versions for all of its first-party apps — even though dark mode in Android 10 was released weeks ago — Apple has managed to support dark mode in all of its major apps in time for iOS 13.


There are basically two options to use it: a toggle that switches between the two modes and an automatic function that intelligently flips back and forth based on sunrise and sunset. I found I preferred the sunset toggle since the main draw of Dark Mode for me is not being blinded by my display at night, but dark-mode-all-the-things fans will be happy with the permanent toggle.

I’d love a more granular control. As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy reading large blocks of white-on-black text, being able to disable specific apps (like Slack) from automatically switching would be nice. Another feature I’d like to see: custom wallpapers that change between light and dark mode, like Apple’s defaults do, instead of just dimming users’ existing backgrounds when Dark Mode is on.

There are also some places where it’s just plain broken or nonexistent, like Apple’s iWork suite of apps or its iTunes Remote app, which the company hasn’t updated. Presumably, those will get sorted out soon. Third-party apps will also need to be updated to support the toggle, but those updates should start to arrive alongside the iOS 13 launch.


Photos

Dark Mode may be Apple’s flashiest addition to iOS 13, but the new Photos app is probably the best part. Apple made two big changes: it’s completely overhauled the design of the Photos app, making it easier to flip through your years of accumulated photos, and it added a serious set of editing tools for both pictures and videos that will probably put a bunch of third-party apps out of business.

The simpler change is the app’s design. Instead of just showing increasingly zoomed-out views of all your photos for the day, month, and year, Apple is switching to a more useful view that curates your best shots for that time period. In theory, you’re seeing less information at a given time, but it’s far more useful than tiny thumbnails. Everything works sequentially, too. Select a given year in the year tab, and you’ll jump right to the month tab at that exact location. Tap in on the month you want, and you’ll flip to the curated “days” mode, which selects the best pictures and videos. Tap in on days, and you’ll head to a view of every single picture taken on that date (including duplicate shots and screenshots). The whole thing is super fast, even when jumping back years, and it’s a far nicer way to peruse pictures.


The editing tools are the other big addition. If you’ve ever used Instagram’s tools, Apple’s are pretty similar. You can just tap in to edit a picture, and you’ll get a scrolling list of different adjustments to make, including exposure, highlights, shadows, contrast, black point, and more. Each value can be adjusted from -100 to +100, which can radically change the way your photos look at the extremes, but more subtle adjustments can be the key difference between posting a good shot and a great one.

You can compare your adjusted version to the original at any point in the editing process by tapping on the image preview. You can also toggle on or off any adjustments you’ve made to see the impact of, say, adjusting the vibrancy of the overall shot. Video editing is also available for the first time, and while it’s a little more limited than the photo editing tools, you can do basic tasks like rotating or cropping a video, which were previously impossible in the Photos app.

The tools aren’t going to replace full-fledged photo editing tools like Adobe’s Lightroom, however. There’s no good way to adjust white balance, for instance, and all of the editing tools apply to the picture as a whole, without any selective application. There are also no presets for bulk editing pictures in the same style.

But if you just need to tweak things before you shoot a picture to a group chat or upload it to Facebook, what’s here should be more than sufficient. Crucially, it’s all built into the default Photos app, which means you don’t have to leave Apple’s app to make these adjustments anymore. You can browse, edit, and share everything all in one place.


Apple Maps

If you’re a dedicated Google Maps user, there’s likely nothing I can say here — or that Apple can add to Maps — that will make you switch. But given that it’s the default mapping application on iOS, it’s nice to see that Apple is still working hard to match Google’s standard. It might be worth considering the switch, if only because Google Maps is beginning to feel a little bit bloated.

There’s a new Google Street View-like feature that lets you look around real-world locations, although it’s not even close to being as comprehensive as Google’s version. Apple has a new standard for its base maps, which are more accurate and have better data for things like roads, beaches, parks, buildings, and more. But it’ll take some time before that’s available everywhere.


There are some practical additions as well. The new favorites and collections features for saving your favorite locations are genuinely useful, and the real-time transit information (assuming you live in a city where it’s available) is crucial to making Apple Maps a viable tool to use to get around. But all of this is work to help get Apple up to par with Google, and there’s very little here that actually surpasses it.

These changes will likely matter a lot more to CarPlay users, though, considering the updates that Apple’s made to its in-car software with iOS 13. There’s a whole new UI that finally lets you view mapping directions and your current music playback at the same time. It’s a trivial-sounding feature that’s long overdue for the software. (Check out Dan Seifert’s impressions of CarPlay in iOS 13 here for a closer look at what’s new.)

The downside is that it seems like Apple isn’t opening up that new multifunction dashboard view to third-party mapping apps like Waze or Google Maps. That means if you want to use one of iOS 13’s best features, you’re stuck using Apple Maps.


Reminders

Apple has given Reminders its biggest update since iOS 7 rolled around, with a new design, new sorting options, and a Siri-powered smart toolbar for entering reminders that make it easier to attach photos, dates, and locations to them.

None of this is anything that better to-do list apps haven’t done for years, but the changes are important for one simple reason: Apple’s app is the default. It works with Siri better than any third-party app, and it’s the main option preinstalled on every iPhone. These new additions are great, but there are plenty of better productivity apps out there that still make Apple’s effort look bare-bones by comparison. It’s good that Apple is finally updating it and adding features, but the speed of the progress just highlights how little competition Apple’s default apps have because of the lack of meaningful competition.

As an additional note, the Reminders update mercifully kills one of the last pieces of skeuomorphic design on iOS. (Although, sadly, the Notes app still has the weird textured paper background for some reason. Probably for public apologies from celebrities.)


Location, location, location

Location features are a big deal in iOS 13, with two big changes: it’s making it harder for developers and companies to track where you are, thanks to new permissions settings, while also making it easier for you to find your own lost or missing devices (or just keep tabs on friends and family).

The permissions changes come in the form of new options for giving apps permission for your location: you can now limit it to only have that information once or only while the app is open. iOS will also ping you if apps are trying to ask for your location in the background.

There’s also a new Find My app, which combines the Find My iPhone and Find My Friends apps into a single app that allows you to track both, which makes a lot of sense. The app is good. It’s easy to find devices on your account or any devices that are sharing their locations with you, like friends you’ve added in Find My Friends or family members as part of Apple’s Family Sharing program who have opted in to sharing their locations. [Editor’s note: the new Find My app no longer offers a widget and is therefore trash. —Dieter]


Odds and ends

As is always the case, there’s a whole host of minor improvements in iOS 13. In fact, it almost feels like there are more of these than usual, given the relatively tame scope of the update.

On the quality-of-life side of things, there’s finally a new volume indicator that no longer blocks the entire screen when you’re adjusting the volume on your phone. The share sheet has also been updated; there are fewer horizontally scrolling lists in favor of customizable vertical lists that are contextually based on the app you’re in. Siri’s voice is also smoother, which is nice, although it’s hard to notice unless you’re going out of your way to have extended conversations with Siri.

Messages is getting some new features, the biggest one being actually functional search. Whatever Apple did here, search actually works now, making finding old messages a thing I can do.



Additionally, users will be able to set a profile picture that will show up when you message someone, similar to WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. (Apple seems to have realized that, unlike its marketing videos, people don’t take the time to set custom images for all of their contacts.) Memoji is getting more features, with more customization options and automatically generated iMessage stickers that basically turn them into customizable emoji.

Apple has also added swiping gestures to the keyboard, something it is so, so late to do. But it’s still nice to have. (Although I’ve grown so used to not having it available that I often had to remind myself that it was even possible.) As a first effort, it’s passable, but it’s not quite as good as something like Gboard.

There’s a new Health app, which automatically pulls highlights of your fitness data — for example, it’ll let you know if you’re taking more or fewer steps than average — as well as a long-overdue menstrual cycle tracker, which will also sync with the similarly new feature on the Apple Watch.

On the privacy front, there’s a new Sign in With Apple feature that’s supposed to offer a more secure option to social media sign-ins. Apps that support the feature aren’t live yet, although The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern has an early look here. The big question is whether more mainstream apps like Facebook or Twitter will support it, something that Apple is reportedly going to make mandatory next year.


Apple Arcade is available as part of iOS 13, but the biggest impact here is mainly that the App Store has gotten some real estate shifted around to accommodate that, shunting the “updates” section away under Account settings. (Tap the icon in the top right with your account profile picture.) Check out more about the first wave of games here if you’re considering whether to subscribe.

There’s also Apple TV Plus, which will release on November 1st, although Apple still has yet to reveal what kind of changes that launch will make to the TV app when it does come out.


iOS 12 was supposed to represent a new vision for Apple, a solid foundation of stability that would have paved the way for a revolutionary version of its mobile software. But iOS 13 hasn’t lived up to those promises. There are some new privacy and security features that are genuinely interesting and look to continue on the path that Apple started down last year with its promises of more responsible software. But for the most part, it’s a largely minor update that’s more sizzle than steak. When a dark mode is the biggest feature in the update, that’s a pretty lackluster year.

If everything worked well, the boring nature of iOS 13 would be fine! But it doesn’t, leaving an update that doesn’t bring much to the table and (at least at launch) will likely give you more issues.

But iOS 13 highlights the double-edged sword of Apple’s interconnected app ecosystem. At this point, it’s clear that the company believes that the best way to use its hardware is to use as much of its software as possible: the new Reminders app deeply ties into iMessage, but you won’t see those features if you use WhatsApp or Things.

That means, though, that Apple has to spend time to make sure all its apps are good, which means the future is likely going to have more iterative updates like iOS 13 going forward, not fewer.

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