iOS 12: Putting a Focus Back on Usability

By Lancelot Lin

If you’ve bought an iPhone sometime in the past five years, chances are you got a notification telling you to update to iOS 12. I spent the past two weeks testing it on my iPhone 7 plus to give you this quick rundown of the changes and improvements Apple packed into their latest and greatest.

Performance

iOS has never really had an “S” year like iPhones do. For the past few releases, the software engineers at Apple have dutifully taken a giant leap forward.

Last year’s iOS 11 bought a completely revamped control center and overhauled the iPad’s interface with changes borrowed from MacOS. 2016’s iOS 10 axed the “swipe to unlock” feature that has been a cornerstone of iOS (and a lawsuit) and beefed up iMessage to include reactions, effects and third-party apps, among other features.

That’s why it was a bit strange when Axios reported in January that Apple delayed a number of major updates until 2019, choosing instead to focus on performance and reliability. To be fair, that announcement was a welcome one given iOS 11’s buggy history. (The phrase “planned obsolescence,” although a myth, also comes to mind.)

So, then, has it worked?

In a word, yes. Little actions like swiping into the widgets pane of the notification center feel noticeably faster and smoother than before. Quickly switching between apps produces less jitteriness and stuttering, and, the camera launches faster.

They aren’t monumental improvements, and the update won’t perform better in resource intensive apps like games, but given the hundreds to thousands of little interactions I have with my device in a day, even my two-year old iPhone 7 Plus felt pretty close to a new device.

Grouped notifications

This is a pretty big deal, simply because the way iOS dealt with notifications before was horribly messy. Notifications would appear one after another in the notification center, where they would sit for weeks at a time before I bothered to clear them. When I wanted to go back and find an alert or message that came through earlier, I’d have to make an educated guess as to when it came in, scroll back down and try to pick it out in a sea of white boxes.

If you hadn’t taken the time to go through all your apps and decide which deserve to send alerts, notifications center would start looking like a messy email inbox with maybe a handful of relevant notifications lost in a haystack of irrelevant alerts.

So Apple went and took a page out of Android’s book and introduced grouped notifications. When multiple notifications for the same app or conversation come in, they appear stacked. Tap on a stack and it expands to show you every notification that’s appeared.

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The end game is that it’s now much easier to pick out exactly what you’re looking for, since you can look for the app instead trying to pinpoint the individual alert.

Apple also added new options to controlling how you get your notifications, including an option to “deliver quietly” to the notification center without pinging your phone. I haven’t found it to be particularly useful, but those that want a more discreet experience might enjoy it.

Screen time

The entire concept of “smartphone addiction” isn’t exactly new– there has been plenty written about how developers use psychological tactics to entice us to use our devices as frequently as possible. I’d be lying if I said that incoming notifications never triggered an urge to immediately pick up my phone.

That’s why both Apple and Google have rolled out their own versions of programs that track how much time you spend within certain apps, which was was something that previously required a third-party app to do. (RescueTime was the one I tried previously)

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The idea is to give you an idea of how much time you’re spending on your phone, show you what in particular you’re doing and if needed allow you to set time limits. Apple’s implementation even tracks how often you pick up your phone.

There’s also a chart that shows you how many notifications each of your apps is sending you, which might be an interesting way to show which apps take up most of your time, but not something I can see myself referring to on a regular basis.

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