Ever since the move away from skeuomorphics in version 7, iOS has been in a state of flux -- one that many iPhone and iPad users and reviewers noted came at the expense of stability. With iOS 9 due out in public beta next month and to the general public this Spring, Apple continues refining the appearance and behavior of the software that powers the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. And just as it's doing with OS X 10.11 El Capitan, Apple is adding a variety of under-the-hood improvements and new tricks that focus on proactivity, UI refinements, and best of all, stability and performance.
Here are a few of the features iOS users should be looking forward to later this year.
Find more, faster
As in El Capitan, Search in iOS 9 is growing up -- and growing more inclusive in the information it provides. It can now offer suggestions about local establishments and access to frequently used contacts and data (you can text or call people in your contacts list right from the search results). Queries that once had to be dictated to Siri can now be typed in manually; and Search can act as a calculator and even perform conversions.
Perhaps one of the most useful search-related features is the one found to the left of the Home Screen. When you swipe to the right from the home screen, you'll see a pre-populated list of information iOS 9 thinks is important to you: recent contacts, recent apps, suggestions to find nearby locations like gas stations, theaters and bars, and some of the latest headlines, based on trending local news. Each section also has a toggle to display more (or less) suggestions. In its new incarnation, the Search screen will be really handy, both as a quick launch for contacts and apps, but also as a way to find local businesses and other hotspots.
Proactive results are a running theme throughout iOS 9, as the OS -- via Search or Siri -- tries to anticipate your needs and offer to help you out. Event invitations and contacts in Mail are suggested as Calendar and Contact entries, respectively. Plug in your headphones or connect to a bluetooth receiver and the last played media will display on the Lockscreen, saving you a trip to the Music or the Podcast app. When you hop in your car, Maps guesses where you're heading based on recent history and offers an estimated time of arrival based on current traffic conditions right on the Lockscreen. And when a phone call comes in from a number that's not in among your contacts, iOS 9 will look to see if that number resides in old emails.
Get there faster
When using guidance in Maps -- tell Siri to take you to work, for instance -- iOS 9 will prompt you when to leave based on current traffic, and then volunteer traffic updates along the way, as well as alternative routes around traffic any tie-ups ahead. (That'll come in handy when Siri suddenly announces that there's traffic two miles ahead due to an accident and suggests ways around it.)
The built-in Maps application has been updated to display recent locations underneath categories that automatically search for local selections -- the same kind of information that populates the search screen when you swipe left off the Home screen. Categories such as Food, Drinks, Shopping and Transit are listed, and tapping any of those selections conveniently displays subcategories that help you further refine what it is you're searching for, all without typing anything in.
That Transit view is new to Maps, and is designed to help you plot detailed instructions on how to get to a destination using public transportation. Though only a few major cities in the U.S. will be supported initially, the ones that are built in have detailed instructions including the exact entry and exit points to subways stations and bus stops. So if you live in New York City, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Mexico City or in one of the 300 cities in China Apple cited, you're in luck. (Turns out that China had a detailed database Apple could use for the transit information, hence the large number of Chinese cities included.)
Room to grow
When iOS 8 was released last year, a lot of users ran into installation problems because they lacked the space needed to download the software and update their devices. That shouldn't be a problem this year. iOS 9 can now stream updates so that the data doesn't have to be first downloaded and fully unpacked; this means updates require less space to run. In addition to that, the software update sizes are much smaller -- again avoiding the error that prevents installation due to insufficient disk space. (iOS 8 needed 4.6GB of room; iOS 9 only needs 1.8GB.)
iOS 9 is also better at discerning which application assets are needed; they're selected, downloaded and installed on a per-device basis, automatically and without user intervention. The components for apps and software updates downloaded are exactly those needed to run on your current device. That helps eliminate space being taken up by app features and libraries that are never used.
Finally, Apple has added a workaround for devices without enough space to install updates: automatic app deletions. The technology will keep your app data intact while removing the largest apps to temporarily allow space for the update. Once the update is done, the apps are automatically downloaded and installed again. It's a deceptively simple solution to a nagging problem.
Faster performance, better battery life
As in El Capitan, which beta users have said runs faster and smoother than its predecessor, performance in iOS 9 gets a boost across the board. Apple's built-in apps can already take advantage of Metal, which better utilizes the CPU and GPU, translating to faster app launches, smoother animations and improved scrolling. Metal is a new set of APIs designed to replace OpenGL as the standard programming language for Apple's devices; it's used for desktops and laptops as well as iDevices. (Third party apps need to be rewritten to take advantage of these features.)
There are also smarter behaviors to improve battery life: the built-in sensors determine whether the iPhone display should remain off when alerts are received (such as when it's in your pocket or lying face-down on a table). And there's a low power mode that can be activated in Settings>Battery or by toggling on the lower-power mode when the iPhone warns that battery life is low.
iPad users get new multitasking features. While apps have been able to multitask for a while now, the iPad interface only handled one app on the screen at a time -- a limitation or a feature depending on your perspective. This changes with iOS 9 with the addition of Split View, Picture in Picture, and Slide Over, each of which lets the user interact with two apps at once. Some might say that Apple is catching up to rivals' features with a few of these additions, but they're welcome options nonetheless.
Little tweaks (and apps) that add up
Another welcome addition is that devices with Touch ID now require six-digit passcodes for better security. The more digits there are, the harder it is for unauthorized users to guess at passcodes. I would have required six-digits for everything, perhaps even a passphrase, but this is certainly better than four-digit passcodes. Baby steps.
Several apps get noteworthy updates, but the biggest change comes to Notes, which receives many of the features found in El Capitan. As in OS X, Notes can understand dropped-in content from other apps, including the use of a sharing pane that allows you to add to Notes from within other apps. You can also add photos, turn lists into checklists, and use your fingers to sketch out ideas. Notes isn't just for text anymore.
There are also two new apps: the one called News allows you to browse news via custom sources that you choose, while the Android-to-iOS app will help Android users migrate their data over to the iPhone. Apple CEO Tim Cook is constantly referring to switchers to the Apple mobile platform, and now those users can easily migrate existing data from one platform to the iPhone.
One more thing
As noted earlier, iOS 9 will be available for the first time this year as a public beta. If you want to check it out before the final release, you can do so by signing up here. But a word of caution: iOS 9 will still be in beta, meaning it can be wonky at times. So unless you really, really have to try it out, you might want to wait until the final release in the fall. As we found out with iOS 7 and iOS 8, cool new features are only cool when they work.