ioS 8

Deep-dive review: iOS 8 packs some snappy new features

Additions to Apple's new mobile operating system include interactive notifications, an updated Photo app and tighter integration between iOS and OS X devices.

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A feature new to iOS 8 is Family Sharing, which allows you to consolidate up to six iCloud accounts under one credit card. All members under Family Sharing have access to each other's purchases, including music, movies, TV shows, books and other content bought from the iTunes store.

One of the benefits of Family Sharing is that each member can have his or her own AppleID and password. Apple also allows the creation of Apple IDs for children under 13 years old; but Restrictions and the Ask to Buy feature is turned on automatically for those accounts, and they need to be added to the family group by a legal guardian or parent.

Another benefit: Family Sharing automatically creates a shared family photo album and family calendar across your devices and automatically links family members with the Find My Friends app and service.

Perhaps the most useful feature for parents is this: When someone under the Family Sharing plan tries to buy something, parents get a notification that must be approved before the purchase and download can begin. This means no more accidental runs on your credit card due to purchases from children.

Support for iCloud -- Apple's umbrella term for a set of Internet services used to silently sync data across your Apple devices -- has been beefed up in a very visible way. iCloud now has a modifiable file system in which you can create and store documents and other data. This new feature, called iCloud Drive, is essentially like a built-in DropBox for iOS and Mac users.

Like before, documents can be started on one device and finished on another, with all changes and edits applied across your other devices; the main difference is that you can create folders and arrange the data as you would any other directory on your Mac or on your iOS device via the in-app document picker. Even better: iCloud Drive is accessible not just on your Apple devices, but on your Windows PC, as well.

Search and Mail improvements

Spotlight's search functionality has been expanded to display a new range of search results. Right from the Home screen, Spotlight can search for applications in the App Store, Wiki entries and map data for nearby places, as well as news stories. You can still search for content -- like songs, TV shows, and books -- but now the search shows results for matches on the iTunes Stores, too, and data like movie show times.

Mail gains some useful new features as well. For instance, you can delete, flag or mark an email as read using gestures. Swiping a finger all the way to the left on an email in the mail list deletes it, while a slow swipe to the left brings up options to Flag, Trash or access more functions, including reply, forward, move to junk, and the option to be notified if anyone replies to that email thread.

ios8 swipe email options Michael de Agonia

Swiping left in Mail displays email options.

Swiping across an email to the right brings up the option to Mark as Read (or Unread, depending on the message status). This is a customizable option under Settings>Mail, Contacts, Calendars>Swipe Options, but there aren't many options to choose from. You can either Mark as Read/Unread or flag the email using the swipes; I would have really loved to see an option to Move to Junk. I think I would have used that feature more than anything else on the iPhone, actually.

Email subscribers to a Microsoft Exchange server can be happy knowing that Mail now supports automatic replies for out of office notifications and that Mail is aware of free/busy status in Exchange calendars.

Mail also recognizes reservations, flight confirmations and other data. When this occurs, Mail sends a notification prompting you to add that data to a calendar event or its appropriate location.

Stay healthy

Before iOS 8, I was using TactioHealth to consolidate all of my health and fitness data from my assortment of devices and apps. Now, with the built-in HealthKit, Apple is offering a single repository for this data, which is then displayed in the app called Health using a customizable dashboard. Third party apps can tap into the data that resides there and also have the ability to add their own data.

HealthKit tracks all sorts of data, including active calories, blood glucose, body fat percentage, caffeine intake, cycling distance, flights climbed, heart rate, lean body mass, respiratory rate, steps taken throughout the day, walking and running distance, and even vitamin intake.

There is even a medical ID card that contains your information, including medical conditions, medical notes, allergies and reactions, medications and emergency contact information. All of this is opt in; the app doesn't go poking around for your data without your permission.

Apple is working with several hospitals on patient trials using the HealthKit services, according to Reuters. If this catches on, this could be huge for everyone.

Like HealthKit, HomeKit is a repository for specific data. Unlike HealthKit, HomeKit is focused on device data associated with home automation products. Devices with HomeKit support can even be operated with your voice, via Siri.

Continuity

One of the major features of iOS 8 won't be available to the general public until the arrival of OS X 10.10 (aka Yosemite), due in October. That's because the next set of features links iPhones and iPads with Apple's traditional Mac lineup in a set of features called Continuity. Continuity is made up of: Handoff, AirDrop, Automatic Hotspot, and, eventually, SMS relay.

Handoff is a great new feature in which your Apple devices are aware of what each is doing. If you need to switch to a different device, you can continue your work on that device automatically. For example, if you're browsing the Web on your Mac and decide to go outside, you can continue reading that webpage on the iPhone by swiping up the icon located on the lower left of the Lock Screen. That icon changes depending on what app you are using; swiping up on the icon will open whatever you were doing on the Mac on the iPhone, continuing your work on one device exactly where you left off on the other.

It works in the other direction, too. If you start an email on the iPhone and return to your Mac, an email app icon will display on the left hand side of the Dock. Clicking on that icon will open up the email you were composing on the iPhone right where you left off. And that's just one example; Handoff works with many of Yosemite's built-in apps, and the technology is open to developers so they can incorporate these features into their apps.

AirDrop lets iOS and Mac users share documents, photos, videos and other data wirelessly and securely. The difference with AirDrop in Yosemite and iOS 8 is that (finally) Macs can wirelessly transfer files to iOS devices and vice versa.

Automatic Hotspot is a feature I initially underestimated. This is a zero-configuration personal hotspot, allowing your Mac to access the Internet using a cellular-connected iPhone or iPad. With this feature, any cell-enabled iOS 8 device logged in with your iCloud information can be easily set up to be used as a hotspot. iOS 8 devices just show up under the Mac's Wi-Fi list -- a single click grants you access to the internet.

This feature can really come in handy. My neighborhood suffered a power outage over the summer. On a whim, I clicked on the Wi-Fi icon in the Mac's menu and noticed that my iPad and iPhone were listed. One click later, my MacBook Pro was back online, no muss, no fuss. That's impressive.

Another great feature is the ability to make and receive phone calls from the Mac or another iOS device. For example, if your iPhone is being charged on the other side of the house and you receive a phone call, your Mac and other iOS devices now display the Caller ID information, and you can pick up the call on any device. It works the other way, too -- if you dial a number from your Mac or iPad, the devices will use the FaceTime app to route the call through the iPhone, including numbers from contacts or webpages.

Finally, SMS support lets your Mac or iPad send SMS and MMS messages right from their respective apps. (Previously, only iMessages between Apple devices were possible in the existing app.) This feature is due in October.

As you can see, the features in Continuity extend the usefulness of Apple products by allowing new kinds of interaction between devices. Unfortunately, unless you signed up for the public beta program, you'll have to wait until Yosemite is released in October. Trust me: These features are worth the wait.

Encouraging development

Speaking of waiting: Many iPhone fans have wondered whether Apple engineers would ever allow the use of third-party software to extend functionality and, with iOS 8, that wait is (mostly, kind of) over. iOS 8 has some features that will give developers the ability to extend the operating system without compromising security through Extensions.

As I mentioned earlier, Notification Center will now support third-party widgets and actionable alerts; additionally, the Sharing button can be customized with third-party actions and additional sharing options. For instance, developers can add actions like Translations or their own photo filters to Apple's Photos app. Documents and specific app data are available to other apps via secure APIs, so that data is no longer living in its own silo.

While the built-in keypad now provides contextually sensitive suggestions on a per-thread level, that's not the only news for virtual keyboard fans. Extensions offer support for additional third party keyboards as well, so expect a flood to hit the market shortly after iOS 8's release.

iOS 8 also opens up other possibilities for developers by allowing access to Touch ID results, as well as new directions for their apps with Camera, HealthKit, HomeKit, PhotoKit and CloudKit APIs. These new APIs grant developers access to specific aspects of the operating system without compromising user security.

Developers also have access to other underlying technologies called SpriteKit, SceneKit and Metal that should help create some amazing games. Finally, Apple has introduced Swift, a new programming language for building iOS apps.

Following up last year's successful iOS 7 launch couldn't have been easy. But overall, the new features in iOS 8 are really handy, and are implemented in ways that don't slow down the system or bog down the interface with clutter.

There are some features that Apple has taken longer to implement compared to its competition -- such as the ability for apps to access each other's data or support for third-party keyboards -- but Apple added these features without compromising on security by creating APIs specifically to address those shortcomings.

Bottom line

Do I recommend iOS 8? Like any first-release software, there are a few rough spots and lingering bugs -- but for the most part, iOS 8 is as responsive and snappy as iOS 7 before it.

iOS 8 introduces some new features that you will be using on daily basis, including the handy actionable notifications and -- when Yosemite is released in October -- all of the features under Continuity. Many people will love the fact that applications are now allowed to extend the operating system beyond Apple's original specs, and still others will like Apple's new health-tracking initiatives.

There is no doubt iOS 8 is packed full of really handy features, and other than the obligatory warning regarding first-release software, I can sincerely recommend upgrading to iOS 8.

This story, "Deep-dive review: iOS 8 packs some snappy new features" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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