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Apple iOS 12 Beta Preview


Technology usually sells itself on utility. You want to listen to music, here’s an app for that. You want to get healthier, here’s a smartwatch and a slew of apps to make that happen. iOS 12, now in a public beta, is the opposite. Instead of allowing you to do more, it actually aims to help you do less. That might sound nuts, but there’s increasing concern over tech addiction and the negative impacts of being logged on at all times. New features like Screen Time and updated classics like Do Not Disturb strive to create healthy boundaries with your iPhone. It feels a bit Zen and is very much a reaction to our times, and it’s also the biggest change to iOS in years.

What Is iOS 12?

I’ve found it useful to think of the different versions of iOS not as a list of updates, but rather as representing new takes on larger themes. iOS 7, for instance, revamped the visual language for the platform. The most recent release, iOS 11, focused on making the iPad Pro a real workhorse rather than merely an expensive gadget. If iOS 12 were to have a thesis statement, it would be to save us from ourselves.

That said, there are many fun and frivolous inclusions in iOS 12, too. Memoji, Animoji, and a bevvy of other gimmicks cement the importance of the Messages ecosystem. The Apple Books app has finally been refreshed, and Apple claims the new OS is so lickity-split fast that your keyboard will pop up 50 percent faster (my word!). But that is all icing. After making us spend a decade with candy-colored visuals and endless dopamine-squirt inducing notifications, Apple now intends to help us put down our phones.

There is logic to this. The World Health Organization has recently recognized video game addiction as a distinct condition. It is not an accident that my first time encountering a slot machine felt so familiar because it was effectively Candy Crush with money involved. Smartphone usage has progressed from the surprising to the enjoyable, to the compulsive. App developers have figured out how to keep us staring at screens, so it’s up to Apple to intervene, lest we burn out and chuck our iPhones out the window en masse.

Tech addiction isn’t the only human evil Apple hopes to combat. New security features discourage you from reusing your passwords and encourage you to use complex, unique passwords wherever possible. To ease the friction of two-factor authentication, Apple now places the one-time-use passcodes you receive via SMS as autofill options in apps.

All this may seem counterintuitive. Every moment someone uses an app is an opportunity to make a buck. But Apple, and others, seem to be playing the long game. In the short term, this lets the fruit-fuelled company react to an issue of the moment. But after a decade of smartphones, there hasn’t been a major shift to the next cool thing. It seems that Apple is reinforcing the foundations of its iPhone empire, keeping us all happy by encouraging a little moderation, until the next must-have device emerges.

How to Get iOS 12

Currently, the only way to get iOS 12 is to enroll your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch in Apple’s beta program. Signing up for the iOS 12 public beta is remarkably simple, requiring just a login from your phone and few taps. Un-enrolling is simple, too.

The fully formed iOS 12, like so many apples, won’t be dropping until fall. That’s a long time to wait and will no doubt encourage some impulsive signups. Keep in mind that this is beta software and not yet a finished product. Just in my short time with iOS 12, I experienced some odd crashes and misfiring apps. Be sure to back up all of your data before you enroll in the Beta program.

If you do sign up, be sure to give Apple some feedback via the Feedback app. If you’re tired of screaming into the void about something with your iPhone, this is your chance to (maybe) make a difference. Note, however, that there are some device restrictions for iOS 12. According to Apple, iOS 12 will run on everything from the iPhone X down to the iPhone 5s, from the iPad mini 2 to the 12.9 inch iPad Pro. iPod touch users, however, have just one option, the sixth-generation device.

How Does iOS 12 Compare With Android?

First of all, there’s a strong argument to be made for not comparing Android and iOS. You can’t, after all, decide to give Android a spin on your iPhone. You can, however, decide to buy a completely different phone, perhaps based on your opinion of the operating system. With that in mind, I do make comparisons between the two, but only to illustrate different approaches to the task of making a modern smartphone work.

iOS has a very rigid and regular design, with all your apps appearing in a grid. You can move apps around, but not off the grid. All the app icons are the same size and shape. In Android, there’s a wide variety of sizes and shapes for app icons and you control what apps appear on the home screen(s), while a full list of installed apps is a swipe away. One caveat is that not all Android app icons look the same, and they may vary depending on the version of the OS. Both iOS and Android feature notifications at the top of the screen, but Apple has gone all-out with different panels that appear by swiping to the right, up, and down.

Recently, Google has revamped its material design to include bolder, rounded text and large white cards with rounded edges. If you’ve used Google Maps recently, that’s the look that’s coming to Android. Of course, if you don’t like the look of Android, you can install a new Home App and change the look and feel of your phone entirely. Apple, for its part, has stuck with the design language that has served it well for the past few years, using its trademark font over blurred, transparent panels. The Apple App Store had a major visual refresh last year, and that white-space-heavy design is now appearing in the Books ereader app, as well as News and Stocks.

Some things just aren’t comparable, however. The iOS App Store continues to be a monumental force, but Google has nearly closed the gap. As a media retailer, iTunes still appears to be the top dog compared with Google Play Movies and the recently re-branded YouTube Music. But streaming video options like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and, yes, YouTube have taken the spotlight from traditional media purchasing models.

In the realm of security, Apple has always quietly portrayed itself as untouchable and unbreakable, ahead of the competition, but that’s changing. Google, has made impressive strides not just in policing its own app store, but in extending malware protection to people installing apps from third-party marketplaces. Google’s security team is no longer talking about what they are doing to hold the line or improve. Instead, they are looking ahead to new smartphone use cases that require an ultra-secure foundation, such as controlling medical devices. Call it hubris, or call it a sea change. But it’s worth remembering that Apple’s so-called walled-garden approach has worked to bring not just security but the impression of security for over a decade.

And then there’s fragmentation. Because Apple controls both the hardware and software, it can tailor the experience to best effect. Even that feels like it’s changing, however. Instead of just one device, Apple now supports five different sizes and specs of iPhones, three different iPads, and one iPod. Google, on the other hand, has tried to position the sheer bulk of devices running Android as a feature, not a bug. It’s about individuality and choice, you see. Sometimes that simplicity means you won’t receive the latest version of the OS however. According to Google’s own stats, the Android 8.0-8.1 is only running on 5.7 percent of devices. Android 6.0—nearly three years old—still commands 25.5 percent of users, and Android 7.0-7.1 covers 31 percent.

To my mind, the choice between the Apple and Android long ago exited the realm of the objective and is now an entirely subjective choice. Which device you buy will depend as much on what you bought before as it will on what you want to buy in the future, either because of cost, prestige, friends and family, or ethics.

Apple iOS 12

You’re Using Your iPhone Too Much…

The main new thrust of iOS 12 makes its home in the Settings app under the Screen Time heading. Here, you see a list of options and a color-coded chart displaying what you used your iPhone for, and for how long. Tap the chart, and you can set limits on your most-used apps (more on this later) and see some (possibly) shocking statistics.

The most surprising stats aren’t at the top, but way down at the bottom. Here you’ll find charts for how often you pick up your phone and how often and frequently you receive notifications. The latter is particularly helpful when you’re using the new features to limit the frequency of your notifications, but sadly, you can’t take those actions from this list. The number of pickups, however, is a truly embarrassing figure. How often do we pull out and unlock our phones—at even the most inappropriate moments—stare at the homescreen for a few moments and then put it away? Too many. If there’s anything that will spur you to change your phone habits, it’s this sad metric.Apple iOS 12

All these charts are, for the most part, trapped in the Settings app. You can, however, add a widget to the right-swipe panel. This is a highly simplified readout of how much time you’ve looked at your screen today and how that compares with your overall average.

Note that you can clear your usage data when you can no longer bear to look at it. Interestingly, I couldn’t find a way to opt out of usage tracking.

…So Stop Using Your iPhone

Screen Time isn’t just charts; it also lets you take action, and this is the big change in iOS 12. Downtime is a new mode that, once enabled, will lock you out of most of your apps between the hours you designate. You receive warnings as your Downtime approaches, and then your apps will be replaced by a white screen with the Screen Time hourglass icon. Back on the homescreen, all your apps will be grayed out and an hourglass icon placed next to their names. Only the core functions of the iPhone—calls, clock, and so on—are available. The desktop looks downright uninviting, which is the point.Apple iOS 12

Apple’s approach is bold and slickly designed. However, I’m intrigued by Google’s approach in its forthcoming Android 9 release. On that platform, your whole screen goes black-and-white at set times. This is a very strong visual deterrent to using your phone that still leaves apps accessible.

You can, of course, opt to override iOS’s Downtime settings. If you want to put more roadblocks between you and your device, you can opt to set a PIN to override Downtime. That’s also handy if you’re a parent trying to enforce restrictions on a child’s device.

If Downtime is too restrictive (or not restrictive enough) App Limits let you get granular. You tap Add Limit and then select from a list of broad iPhone app categories, from Games to Education to Health and Fitness. You then set a time limit for how long you want to use those apps, and can even break down different times for different days. You may, for example, budget more time for Games on the weekend than during the workweek. When you approach your time budget, the app is locked in the same manner as when Downtime is active.

Need some more time? You can snooze your App Limit by 15 minutes or an entire day. These, like other opt-outs to Screen Time features make the entire exercise feel more helpful and less authoritarian.Apple iOS 12

Careful readers will notice that App Limits and Downtime are very broad. Neither lets you nominate specific apps to limit. Instead, Apple lets you whitelist critical apps in the Always Allowed panel. Like it says on the tin, these are apps that will always be accessible, regardless of App Limits or Downtime settings. By default, the Phone, Messages, and FaceTime apps are always available. You can remove all of those except the Phone app. Your iPhone will always remain a phone.

I like the opt-in nature of the Always Allow feature, and I think it shows how much thought Apple put into all of Screen Time. However, I wish it could be a little more granular. For example, I am guilty of wasting time texting at all hours of the day. I need some limits, but not having to tap through screens could be a hindrance in a high-stress situation. I’d like Apple to offer more granular options for Messages, specifically. Perhaps allowing basic SMS, but restricting the ability to access the growing raft of additional apps and features within Messages.

Parental Control With Screen Time in iOS 12

The Content and Privacy settings take Screen Time well into the realm of Parental Control. To access these features, you must create a PIN code. Once you do this, you can limit the activities, settings, and content that’s allowed on the device. Alternatively, you can simply require that your Content and Privacy PIN be entered before restricted items are accessed.

Apple iOS 12The breadth of what Content and Privacy controls cover is shocking. For instance, you can restrict apps from being used or downloaded, and in-app purchases from being made. You can limit what kinds of movies, music, and web content are accessible. You can even limit changes to the device’s passcode and whether background apps can run. These are the kind of deep controls that Apple almost never makes accessible to users and definitely doesn’t let third-party parental control apps access.

I am especially impressed with how Apple handles blocking adult content in the browser. The least strict enforcement allows all websites, while the most restrictive only allows access to the specific websites you nominate. A middle ground blocks most adult content and allows for black- or white-listing. In my testing, I found that Apple automatically blocked Pornhub. When I attempted to add it as an exception, I was prompted to enter my Content and Privacy PIN.

For the rest of its content blocking, Apple relies heavily on its existing ratings systems. For podcasts and music in the iTunes store, that’s fine. The company is very assiduous about correctly identifying explicit content on these platforms. For Movies and TV Shows, however, it uses the MPAA ratings. These can seem a bit murky and arbitrary. Violence tends to get a lower rating than sexual content, for example.

Do Not Disturb and Notifications

In iOS 12, similar notifications are now stacked. Android has been grouping notifications for a while, but in typical Apple fashion it’s done with a neat, visual twist. Instead of a flat wedge, grouped notifications are shown as a stack, vanishing somewhere in the depths of your screen. Tap, and you expand the stack. Simple! A similar feature is coming to Mojave, the latest version of macOS.

What’s confusing is that iOS doesn’t just stack notifications from the same app. For example, all of my Apple News notifications were stacked by the individual publication. I’d like to have more control over these stacks, because it doesn’t do enough to stem the rising tide of notifications—at least as implemented in the beta.

Apple iOS 12You can also long-press on a notification to preview its content, and then access more delivery options from the three-dot overflow menu in the upper right. You can either have notifications delivered quietly, prominently, or not at all. If you select the last option, some apps may provide additional options for notifications. There’s an option for Quiet Delivery; with this you won’t hear an alert sign or even see an actual notification. Instead, a badge appears on the alerting app.

Android tried something similar in recent versions, pushing developers to create different channels for different types of notifications within each app. Users could then toggle those channels on and off. I prefer this method, but I think Apple’s will be more successful. It implements nearly all of these controls at the OS level, rather than relying on developers to get on board.

iOS’s Do Not Disturb feature also gets a much-needed overhaul in iOS 12. You engage the distraction-silencing feature as usual, from the swipe-down control panel. Now you can opt to have Do Not Disturb switch off after an hour, when you leave a specific location, or when a specific event on your calendar ends. If you’ve avoided using this feature because you worried you’d forget to deactivate it, now’s the time to try it.

Under the Hood

If it weren’t for the new Screen Time controls, the big story of iOS 12 might be its performance enhancements. According to Apple, some actions on your phone will be twice as fast, as a result of upgrading. Want more stats? Apple also claims that your camera will appear 70 percent faster, the keyboard will load 50 percent faster, and apps will launch with 40 percent more pep. Share sheets, which have always been dog-slow, are reportedly twice as zippy in iOS 12.

I can’t measure the difference in those terms, but iOS 12 feels fast, even in this beta. Websites in particular load and scroll so smoothly that it puts my laptop to shame. But that experience feels restricted to iOS elements, like share sheets and Siri searches. Opening apps feels like a chore in comparison.Apple iOS 12

Augmented Reality, ARKit 2, and Measure

Apple continues to invest in augmented reality, and boasts a host of improvements to its ARKit in iOS 12. This includes the new USDZ file format and the ability to share the same AR space as other people. You might even see some AR elements creeping into the Messages, Safari, Mail, and News apps, although I saw neither hide nor hair of it. That’s the trouble: although AR is really exciting and Apple is clearly investing a lot in making the iPhone a platform for AR, it’s largely invisible. Unless you find an app that uses AR, you can’t really appreciate the improvements.

To that end, and to improve all our lives, Apple now includes the Measure app. Half the app is taken from the old compass app and simply shows whether or not your device is level. The other half is entirely new, and lets you measure distances in the real world using AR integration on your phone. Just tap to drop a point, target the thing you want measured, and drop a second point. The app immediately displays the distance.

Apple iOS 12What makes this more than a tired tech demo is how well the Measure apps works. It’s superb. The iPhone subtly vibrates when the cursor moves over a logical measuring point, like the corner of a screen. These are “sticky” and the cursor snaps to them. You can seamlessly move between horizontal and vertical surfaces without having to instruct the app, and you can create multiple measurements in the same space. In testing, I measured the diagonal width of an iMac screen and then bisected that width.

Incredibly, the Measure app does all of this without any fancy hardware. I tested it using an iPhone 8, which doesn’t have the fancy two-camera arrangement found in higher-end devices.

This is in stark contrast to Google’s recently released AR measurement app. I struggled to get Google’s offering to lock on to targets, and it required that I manually choose either a horizontal or vertical measure. Worse, Google’s app only let me make a single measurement at a time.

I make this comparison because it seemed that Google was way out in front in terms of AR and VR. Google, after all, had already launched several related products and had years working in the space with its now-defunct Project Tango. Apple has clearly done its homework and I’m excited to see what else it will do with the technology.Apple iOS 12

Siri Shortcuts and Photos Upgrades

Faced with the onslaught of voice assistants and the great-sounding but otherwise rather blah HomePod smart speaker, Apple has a lot of ground to make up with Siri. In iOS 12, it gets a number of tweaks and improvements, mostly small and nearly all under the hood. One feature you can take advantage of is Siri Shortcuts. These are customizable tasks that you assign a trigger phrase to, and Siri will execute when you say the phrase.

It’s a really neat idea, but the execution in the beta of iOS 12 is so confusing that I repeatedly checked to make sure I was looking at the right menu. The trouble is that Apple doesn’t present you with a blank slate for creating Shortcuts. Instead, a list of possible shortcuts is populated as you take actions. For example: During the course of testing the beta I needed to search for “pornhub.” After I did so, that search became an option in the shortcuts menu. This makes sense on paper, since it doesn’t overwhelm users with too many options, but I couldn’t find a way to mix and match my own shortcuts without waiting for my phone to notice I might need it.

In Apple’s Photos app, iOS 12 brings powerful new search features. Now, you can use different search terms like people, places, groups, and so on. More importantly, you can string these search terms together. For example, I typed in “plants,” and tapped the word from the typeahead options. It now appeared in a gray rectangle, similar to how email addresses appear in Gmail. I then added New York City, which also become a gray rectangle in the search box. Now, Photos showed me all the plants I’d photographed in NYC.

Apple iOS 12 BetaIt’s a handy tool, but not yet tremendously impressive. Google Photos is able to detect the same person from infancy to adulthood based on faces, and can tell the difference between different dog breeds. Perhaps I don’t have enough photos on this test device to fully appreciate Photos’ search powers, but they feel spare by comparison, in this beta. Apple clearly has a lot of ground to make up against Google Photos in terms of search, but is easily on par with critical functions such as photo editing and automatic album creation.

With the new iOS version, Photos gets sharing recommendations, which suggest you share certain photos with people in your contacts (and vice-versa). Other iOS 12 users will be prompted to share their own shots from the same event. I didn’t get the chance to explore this feature in the beta.

Security and Privacy

I spend a lot of time writing about hackers and online scam artists, but physical security is a far more serious issue. As of iOS 12, your iPhone will share precise location data with 911 operators and first responders when you make an emergency call. This is a great assurance in an age where most people only have a cell phone to rely on in an emergency. Note, however, that just because the iPhone can send the information doesn’t mean that the responder who receives the call has the equipment to acquire the location data.

In the world of passwords, Apple is removing a lot of the stress of better password hygiene. Your iPhone can now automatically suggest complex and unique passwords for apps and websites, and even flag instances of repeated passwords. That’s great, since recycling passwords is an invitation to be hacked. Siri can also now search passwords stored in the password list (a useful repository, tucked into Settings > Passwords & Accounts > Website & App Passwords). In iOS 12, you’ll also be able to send and receive passwords between Apple devices, including your Apple TV—handy for logging in to watch your favorite streaming services. Best of all, one-time-passwords sent via SMS to verify your identity will be available as autofill options in apps.

I haven’t yet been able to test these features, because my test device didn’t have all my passwords loaded into it. I’ll test it for the final release. In the meanwhile, I’m glad to see Apple working to make it easier to follow best practices when it comes to personal security. Building on its built-in and third-party ad-blocking in iOS, Apple is going further in iOS 12. From now on, Safari will prevent social-media sharing buttons (like those at the top of this article) from tracking you without your permission. Apple says that Safari will also prevent websites from “collecting your device’s unique characteristics,” which can be used to identify you and track your movements online. Both of these are welcome additions to iOS.

What’s not clear is whether or not the final version of iOS 12 will include a fix to protect iPhones from intrusion by law enforcement. Apple announced that a patch was coming soon, but no word as to when it will appear.

Group FaceTime, Memoji, and More

Do you like chatting via FaceTime with a friend? How about 32 friends? Now you can live that nightmare and simultaneously video-chat with one person for every year I have been alive. I haven’t yet been able to fully test this particular feature—I don’t have 31 friends, first of all. However, Apple’s renderings show a black space with different video windows floating in it. Whoever speaks becomes more prominent, or you can tap on a particular person to focus the view. While it sounds like a bit of a mess, group video chat has long been missing from iPhone, unless you use a third-party service like Skype or Facebook Messenger. Coupled with the ability to shift a group messaging chat into a group FaceTime, it’s a strong enhancement for Apple’s messaging platform.

If you’re not keen to use your own face, you can partake of the new ghost, koala, tiger, and t-rex animoji available on the iPhone X. These animated avatars mimic the movements of your face, and can now feature, in Apple’s words, tongue and wink detection. You can create short videos using these digital masks, and recordings can now last up to 30 seconds for maximum animoji karaoke value. You can also use them during FaceTime sessions. If animoji are too impersonal, you can now create a custom memoji (think Bitmoji, but Apple). I’ll be testing all these features with an iPhone X as I work more with iOS 12.

Apple iOS 12

Within the Messages app, you’ll notice an improved app strip giving you access to the nifty stickers, games, and so on. With iOS 12, you can now add stickers and other effects to video and photos shot from within Messages. It’s not just convenient, it’s a strong statement from Apple that if you have an iPhone, you don’t need Snapchat or Facebook Messenger to have fun with pictures and video.

Messages has, for years, been the secret weapon in the iOS arsenal. It’s fast, secure, and now offers fun extras completely unique to Apple users. Sure, the company may be aping Snapchat and the like, but it’s working, and if it’s encrypted end-to-end, then I say God bless it.

Healthy Boundaries for Your iPhone

Taken together, iOS 12 represents the biggest change in years for how iPhone users engage with their apps and their devices. It might not be as visually noticeable as when Apple shifted to flat visual design, or even noticeable at all, since you have to activate features like Screen Time. But it’s a strong acknowledgement of a growing unease with the way technology has become entwined in our lives. Fake news, data collection by social media and search engines, and smartphone addiction all feel like symptoms of some larger malady, but Apple is saying that there is a way to strike a healthy balance, and all we have to do is flick a switch.

Apple iOS 12 is off to a strong start with this public beta. We’ll be taking another look at it once it’s released, and are especially interested to compare the final product with Android 9, as both OSes address many of the same issues.

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