Every year, when a new version of iOS comes out, I spend the first few minutes frantically swiping through apps and digging through the settings menus, searching for big features and smaller, hidden tweaks most people might miss. (Yes, that makes me a huge nerd.)
Some years, like in 2018, the updates are hard to spot. Other years, they’re right in your face. iOS 13 is a mix of both.
Yes, there are major features that will change the apps you use every day — dark mode (!!), a new Photos app, iPadOS — but there are also more subtle, equally important tweaks.
Let’s start with the feature that received the most hype: dark mode. Yes, Apple has finally jumped on the dark mode train and it’s easily one of my favorite parts of iOS 13.
When dark mode is enabled, Apple’s own apps, like Maps, Messages, and Mail, switch to a darker color scheme with a black background. But there are other, more subtle changes: the backlight dims and the translucent background behind notification windows and app folders turn from pearly white to slate. It doesn’t instantly plunge your phone into blackness, but it is noticeable.
You can use dark mode like Night Shift, scheduling it to switch on automatically at a specific time, or you can toggle it on and off manually in Control Center or in Settings. You can also just ask Siri.
If you’re not into dark mode, it might seem like a weird trend, but there are real benefits to going dark. If you have an iPhone with an OLED screen, like the iPhone X or XS, it might help you squeeze a little bit more from your battery. If you’re using your phone at night, it can feel easier on the eyes (though there’s been debate about whether that’s true). And, if you insist on using your phone in bed, dark mode makes your iPhone addiction a little less disruptive to a partner. It also just looks cool.
The real test will be how dark mode functions with non-Apple apps. There has already been a wave of apps creating their own dark themes or night modes, but from my early testing, it doesn’t appear that many of them have adapted to Apple’s version of the feature, meaning enabling dark mode doesn’t automatically switch those apps into their own respective black themes, which can feel a bit jarring. Given that dark modes in apps are already so popular, I’m optimistic this will start to change now that iOS 13 is rolling out.
There are other big updates that will change the apps you rely on most.
More than half a decade after the first gesture-based keyboards on Android, iOS finally supports swiping in its native keyboard. The feature lets you spell out words by swiping your finger over letters instead of tapping each one individually, which can be very useful when texting with one hand. Yes, it’s embarrassingly overdue, but it’s nice to finally have the option outside of third-party apps. Now Apple just needs to add a search function to its emoji keyboard.
Apple is also changing how users share stuff. Every time you hit that share button, you get a list of suggestions based on your preferred messaging apps and who you chat with the most. AirDrop, which has always been way too finicky, now appears consistently without having to repeatedly mash the icon just to find the friend who is already sitting next to you.
Another major addition: Apple’s new “Find My” app, which combines “Find My Friends” and “Find My iPhone” into a single interface. Besides the fact that it actually makes a lot of sense to combine the two location-based apps, there’s another huge benefit: it’s much better at pinpointing lost devices.
While previously “Find My iPhone” was pretty useless if your phone didn’t have service, or your laptop or AirPods weren’t currently connected to WiFi, the new Find My uses Bluetooth from every other nearby iOS 13-enabled device to help track down the location of your gadgets. This means that as more and more people update to iOS 13, the signal of every device will help strengthen the network for everyone (provided you’re using Bluetooth, that is).
For all the flak it’s gotten over the years, Apple has continued to improve its Maps app, adding a ton of detail. Nowhere are these investments more obvious than in “Look Around,” Apple’s answer to Google Street View. Initially only available in San Francisco and a handful of other cities, the feature will be rolling out to more locations throughout the year.
“Look Around” is a smoother experience compared to Google Street View, but it’s limited to select cities at launch.
While it’s not as widely available as Street View, Look Around is impressive. Its images are higher resolution than what you see in Google Maps, and navigating around the map is faster and much more intuitive than in Street View. I don’t think it will be enough to get me to switch to Apple Maps full time, but at this point that’s more about my own habits.
Reminders, another one of Apple’s apps that always felt easy to ignore, has also been given some much-needed attention in iOS 13. It’s still not as full-featured as some third-party productivity apps, but it’s getting better. Some promised features, like the ability to add photos and links to specific tasks or tag a specific person in your contacts list, aren’t yet working, but will hopefully be in a future update.
I wrote last year that Emoji were too bland for me to get very excited about. While that’s still generally true, I do appreciate that Apple added a ton of new customization options, including the ability to add makeup, jewelry, and ear accessories like AirPods, to the avatars, which makes them feel a little more personal.
You can also now turn your Memoji into a sticker pack for Messages, similar to how you’d use Bitmoji or Samsung’s AR emoji. It’s still not my favorite feature, but I can easily see the stickers being popular.
iOS 13 brings a big update for the Photos app. Photos are now organized into years, months, and days, as well as an “all photos” view. The change can be a bit jarring at first — I don’t exactly think about my photos in these terms — but it definitely gets more intuitive as you use it.
In the “months” and “days” view, you’ll see your photos grouped chronologically, and into events. This makes it easier to find photos you snapped during specific trips and activities, rather than having to comb through everything else. The “everything else” — screenshots, photos of documents, duplicates, and screen recordings — are in the “all photos” tab, but are filtered out of days, months, and years. You can also use pinch and zoom gestures to navigate between views really quickly, which is even faster than quick scrolling through all your photos.
The new Photos app also makes it much, much easier to retouch your photos. The editing controls are easier to find and adjust — so much so that I find I’ve been using my preferred photo editing apps less and less for quick tweaks. Also great: you can finally edit video natively in the Photos app. In addition to color-correcting adjustments, you can also rotate, crop, and change the perspective of your clips, eliminating the need for shoddy third-party video editing apps.
If you have an iPhone XS, XS Max (or a new iPhone Pro) you’ll also get some Portrait mode upgrades. You’ll now be able to adjust Portrait mode settings after the fact, which is kinda cool if you like to experiment with your photos, but probably isn’t as big of a deal as Apple’s made it out to be.
There’s also a new Portrait mode style, “High-Key Light Mono,” which is essentially a fancy way of saying “black and white Portrait mode.” It’s fine, I guess. It might work well with photos of objects, but was much less impressive in my testing with the selfie camera on the iPhone XR.
Much like “Stage Light” portraits, Apple’s algorithms still aren’t very adept at separating smaller foreground details, like strands of hair, from the background. This makes the final image look more like a shoddy Photoshop job than the Instagram-ready portraits Apple’s advertised.
If iOS 12 was about stability and performance, this year’s release is about getting a lot of small details right. Some of the best additions in iOS 13 are subtle tweaks that might be easy to miss on your first pass.
Apple has implemented new “smarter” battery charging, in order to help stave off your iPhone’s battery going bad too quickly. What this means is your phone may charge more slowly when you leave it plugged in for a long time. It will initially charge to 80 percent, and then will charge the final 20 percent more slowly. This is meant to prevent iPhone batteries from degrading, since leaving a device plugged in for too long can cause batteries to give out more quickly.
When I first started using iOS 13, I was worried this may impact charging times when I really needed to charge up quickly, but I haven’t noticed any issues. Whether the new charging trick will meaningfully extend my iPhone’s battery life, I can’t tell, but I’ll take all the help I can get.
Another, less obvious change: the ability to pair two sets of AirPods to the same device, which will launch with the iOS 13.1 update. At first glance, this might seem like a feature you’ll never use. But the ability to stream audio to two people at once is a real game-changer for traveling. Previously your only option was a wired headphone splitter, which is useless when you have no headphone jack. The only downside is that this is only compatible with AirPods and Powerbeats Pro, so if you use any other headphones you’re out of luck.
Apple also made some significant changes to make iOS more secure by limiting app makers’ access to personal data.
Most notably, Apple is introducing “Sign-in with Apple,” which allows you to sign up for an app’s service without handing over your actual email address. The feature isn’t available yet, but it’s due out in an update later this year.
App developers can be some of the worst offenders when it comes to privacy violations, so it’s great to see Apple address the issue in a way that doesn’t add more friction to the sign-up process. My main concern, though, is whether or not developers will actually bother to use it. Personal information and email lists are incredibly valuable to developers, and being choked off from that data can be a pretty serious limitation.
Call me cynical, but I wonder how much incentive there really is for developers to implement “Sign in with Apple” if it means a potentially serious impact on their business. Facebook, which admittedly has a much worse record on privacy issues, proposed a similar feature in 2014 with Anonymous Login and it never launched due to lack of developer interest. Apple, to its credit, plans to be more aggressive in implementing Sign in with Apple — developers that only offer social login buttons are required to also offer Sign in with Apple.
This could cause services to simply start pushing users toward making unique accounts instead of ones tied to an existing social network. Without clear incentives for developers, I worry Sign in with Apple could be met with similar ambivalence as Facebook’s Anonymous Login. I hope it’s not.
Apple is also making it more difficult for apps to abuse location and Bluetooth permissions. When apps have been consistently using these in the background, iOS will push an alert to let you know and give you the option to turn them off. When you first update to iOS 13, you’ll likely start to see these pop-ups right away, which also serves as a good reminder of which apps are sucking up more data than they really need.
Also nice: when an app first asks for permission to use your location or access Bluetooth, you can opt to grant it permission just once, instead of every time you use the app, always, or never.
Siri Shortcuts, which was really confusing when Apple introduced it last year, has gotten a little easier to use in that shortcuts don’t require you to record a specific voice command — you can set them to be one touch away in the “Siri Shortcuts” today widget. I’ve been enjoying these a lot, but I wish you could have shortcuts accessible from anywhere on the home screen.
There are a few other, smaller features that might be easy to miss that are worth quickly calling out:
For as much work as Apple has put into its iPad over the years, it’s been two years since we last saw the tablets play a major role in a new version of iOS. Those days are now over. Apple has slowly been giving its apps more desktop-level capabilities, but the introduction of iPadOS — a dedicated operating system just for the iPad — takes these ambitions to the next level.
One of the best updates is that the iPad version of Safari can finally, finally support desktop-level web apps. This means you’ll no longer be forced to navigate mobile versions of sites and can instead use the full desktop experience.
One of the best examples of this is Google Docs, which has long lacked a decent iOS app. Now, you can delete the app and just use Google Docs right in Safari without sacrificing any functionality. I wrote a big chunk of this review in the Safari version of Google Docs on an iPad Air and it was by far the easiest time I’ve ever had writing on an iPad.
The iPad’s multitasking capabilities also got a big boost. Not only can you run three apps at once — two side by side and one in “Slide Over” — but you can run the same app in two different windows at once. For now, this only works with Apple apps, but even with that limitation it significantly ramps up what you can get done.
There are also some new gestures. You can use Apple Pencil to take a quick screenshot when you swipe up from a corner of a page. And there are new pinch, zoom, and swipe gestures for selecting text and copying and pasting. I’ve found these a bit clunky so far, but they could definitely help you move more quickly if you can get the hang of them.
Another feature that makes the iPad more useful is Sidecar, which lets you use an iPad as an external display for your Mac, much like Duet Display. It hasn’t been working in the betas I tried, but it’s a great way to improvise a second display while on the go.
Scrolling through long web pages and documents is easier, because you can hold down on the scroll bar to quickly scrub through the page.
What might be most exciting about iPadOS is that its mere introduction lays a ton of groundwork. By giving the iPad its own version of iOS, which can be updated independently from iOS, Apple is signaling that the iPad is no longer just about figuring out how to repurpose iPhone software for larger displays. The iPad, particularly the iPad Pro, is more than capable of desktop-level work. But in many cases its software has been holding it back.
That’s because iOS is designed first and foremost for iPhones. By breaking iPadOS away from iOS, Apple is showing it’s prepared to finally treat the iPad as a separate product with very different capabilities.
All that would be enough to make iOS 13 a huge update, but there’s even more coming with iOS 13.1 (rolling out Sept. 30). There’s Apple Arcade, the company’s new gaming subscription service; new ways to control Screen Time limits; and the ability to have Siri read you messages when you have AirPods in and can’t look at your phone.
Still, with every new version of iOS, there’s always some people who hesitate and wonder if they really should download it, usually because they’re worried it will make their phone slower. Apple attempted to put a lot of those fears to rest last year with iOS 12, but the doubters are still out there.
But after using iOS 13 for more than two months, I can not only say that iOS 13 is “safe,” you’ll be seriously missing out if you don’t update.