The last couple of iOS updates were hanging on the wrong side between too little and too late. The user interface is six years old now and while it has been repeatedly polished in every revision so far, it was decidedly starting to look stale. And it’s not just a matter of visuals either. iOS 5 brought little to nothing in terms of new features and some would even argue that iOS 6 was actually a step back. It seems though that Apple has found inspiration again and is ready to take the game to the opposition.

The UI that launched on the original iPhone way back in June 2007 has finally been put to rest. Android has stepped up in big strides since Gingerbread to dominate the smartphone game. Meanwhile, Windows Phone keeps bringing new features, and even the conservative BlackBerry broke with the old ways and completely redesigned its platform. It was about time Apple did something different with the iOS.

The iOS 7 is among the largest upgrades the OS has ever been given – not quite the game changer that the iPhone OS 2 and the App Store were, but it certainly took a lot of effort. It not only brings some key new features and a few cool system apps, but it also completely overhauls the user interface and tweaks the right things under the hood.

Key features

  • Complete UI overhaul with adaptive colors and system-wide Back swipe gesture
  • New system icons and folders, animated icons available
  • System-wide parallax effect
  • Dynamic wallpapers
  • Control Center with toggles, multimedia controls and shortcuts
  • Updated Notification Center with three tabs
  • All apps multitasking with new card interface
  • Updated Safari browser with unified search filed
  • iTunes radio
  • AirDrop file sharing
  • Inclinometer within the Compass app
  • Camera filters with live preview and new square mode
  • New Photos app with better photo organization, picture editing
  • Weather app with live weather animations
  • Updated Maps with Night mode and Turn-by-Turn walking directions
  • New Siri interface, new supported commands, new voices
  • Contact Blacklist
  • FaceTime audio
  • Activation lock
  • Automatic app update
  • Cellular data usage breakdown
  • Chinese-English, Italian, Korean and Dutch dictionaries
  • iOS in the Car coming in 2014 in selected cars

Main disadvantages

  • Very iTunes dependent for uploading files and multimedia
  • No open file system means you often have to duplicate files
  • Limited integration of 3rd party social networks and services
  • No widgets
  • Air Drop works only between selected iOS 7 or later running devices
  • No lockscreen shortcuts (besides those in the Control Center)
  • Very basic camera UI with limited features and settings
  • Limited codecs support
  • iTunes radio only works in the US

The iOS 7 indeed has gone flat, but brings dynamic wallpapers and parallax view to make those flat icons pop to life. Indeed, the parallax effect is one of the few among the newly introduced features that is truly unique to iOS (yes, it is available as an app for Android, but here it’s baked right into the OS). There is lots of transparency throughout the iOS, brand-new flat theme, all-new system apps, live icons, and a lot more.

From a functionality perspective, Apple has finally decided to give us connectivity toggles organized within the new Control Center, iTunes radio streaming service, the notification center has been completely redesigned, there is AirDrop for easy sharing between different iOS devices, and even more capable Siri.

Of course, there are still missing features. And while our prayers of an open file system were always likely to remain unanswered, those for better utilization of the lockscreen (with widgets and shortcuts) had a chance. Well, you can’t have it all, they say.

The iOS 7 update will be seeded to iPhone 5, 4S and 4; iPad 2, 3, 4 and mini; and iPod Touch 5 generation. But not all features will become available on all devices. We also believe the iOS will be the last upgrade for the iPhone 4 and iPad 2.

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Flat user interface with Control Center

The six years old iOS user interface is now gone for good. Lots of people expected Apple to revamp the UI with the iOS 5 but it didn’t happen. The iOS 6 also didn’t turn out to be the revamp many were hoping for. This time Apple knew it had no choice if it wanted to stay relevant at the top of the smartphone game.

John Ive personally monitored the redesign of the flattened iOS and made sure it still carried Apple’s character. iOS is the last major platform to abandon skeuomorphism and go for a flat look, but it certainly wanted to make the transition its own way, rather than simply copy the competition. And the great news is the UI changes didn’t come at the cost of new features. We still got connectivity toggles, file sharing, automatic app updates, improved multitasking with cooler interface, live wallpapers, among others.

iOS 7 looks a lot different to its predecessor, but its logic of operation is mostly the same. All of your apps are on the homescreen, folders are available and there is the familiar dock that can take up to four shortcuts.

All system icons are different though, the clock now has an animated icon showing the current time, the system fonts have been altered, there are lots of semi-transparent elements and new gestures.

Let’s start from the beginning – the lockscreen. It’s totally different and yet it works in a very similar way. The slide to unlock bar with virtual guide is now gone and you can swipe anywhere on the screen to unlock your iDevice. The text is somewhat illogically placed right above the tiny arrow for the control center which points up, but you actually still need to slide to the right to access the homescreen. We would have preferred swipe to left gesture to be also working, but that’s not the case.

The lockscreen also has the camera shortcut at the bottom, you can swipe up from there for quick access to the camera app. Double tap on the Home key will bring the multimedia controls as usual. Lockscreen notifications are available as well.

Sadly, the integration of third party social services is still pretty limited and you won’t be able to upload stuff to social networks and service outside of the officially Apple-approved ones from here.

The final major change about the user interface is the Back gesture available in all iOS 7 default apps (we guess developers will be able to extend the support to third-party apps after the launch). Whether you are in settings, App Store, Messages, Notes, Reminders, Safari, etc. you can swipe from the right side of the screen and you’ll go a step back. Let’s say you are in Settings -> General -> About, a swipe from the right will take you back to General and another swipe will give you the root directory of the Settings menu.

The phonebook has been updated with the new iOS borderless look and simple color scheme. The logic behind the phonebook app is completely the same though, there is just one new feature – Blacklist.

You can either add contacts to the blacklist from the Settings menu, or you can simply go to a contact and hit Block this Caller key at the bottom. Once blocked you will no longer receive calls, FaceTime and messages (SMS, MMS, iMessages, emails) from this contact. You can of course unblock at any time.

The long awaited iOS interface redesign is finally a reality. It can be a dream come true for many, but others will have a point too in calling it a blatant copycat, and even a cartoonish mess. But there’s no denying that iOS 7 is a major step forward for the platform and a real breath of fresh air after the uninspiring iOS 5 and the fiasco of a iOS 6. This time we get a completely new UI and a host of cool new features that really make a difference from a user perspective – exactly what Apple used to stand for at its best.

Like all things Apple though, there is no way that everyone will love the new look. It’s always like that with major redesigns – even if everything about the new design was perfect there would always be a large group of people to hate it for various reasons – some like the old design better while others simply hate change. Apple could have helped its case a little by starting last year with iOS6 and making this a two-stage transition, but that’s not the point now.

What matters is, in its 7th iteration, the iOS is finally looking fresh again. Looking 2013, if you will. It has a lot of eye-candy: new icons, the parallax effect, the translucent elements and menus, new features, services and capabilities, upgraded system apps, etc. There is a lot to look forward to in terms of features, too, and we believe this is a proof that Apple is still capable of competing in the development race. It will take Apple some time to get back to their cruising speed after hitting the brakes with two iOS revisions in a row, but iOS 7 is evidence that Apple can still move forward.

Now, some may have issues with the fact that the new services and features are already available on other mobile operating systems. Android has had toggles, real multitasking and automatic updates for ages; Windows Phone has the live tiles and flat structure; even BlackBerry has lots of those in the new BB10 OS. Yes, it may not be spot on time, but Apple has never relied solely on the platform itself to attract users – it’s got the premium hardware and an unmatched app catalog for the purpose.

What’s important is that the OS doesn’t get in the way as was the case last year. iOS 7 is not only cool enough to keep people interested over the next months, but it also sets up properly for the launch of the new generation of iDevices in the fall. Apple’s done with buying time, and back to investing in the future. Let’s hope the hardware to come in a few months’ time will keep it up.