iOS 12, thoroughly reviewed

By Samuel Axon

iOS 12 on an iPhone X.
Enlarge / iOS 12 on an iPhone X.

Apple's iOS 12 software update is available today for supported iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices, and on the surface, it looks like one of the smallest new iOS releases Apple has pushed out.

This isn't a surprise; Apple said earlier this year that iOS 12 would be more about performance and stability than adding new features. Some major additions that were originally planned—like an overhauled home screen—were reportedly delayed to a later release.

And it's also not a bad thing. Frankly, iOS 11 had some problems. Apple released several small updates in late 2017 and throughout 2018 to fix those problems, all while battling some frustrated customers' perceptions that the company was deliberately making older devices obsolete to encourage new sales as overall smartphone sales slowed their growth industry-wide.

And while Apple is pushing some fairly radical and unproven new ideas on the hardware side, first with the iPhone X and now the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, it makes sense to take a breather and focus on addressing those complaints from users and pundits in iOS 12. That's what a lot of iOS 12 is about.

But there's more to iOS 12 than the average user will notice. It adds or expands upon a few ways for third-party developers to make different kinds of apps or to tap into the work Apple has done on Siri, machine learning, or augmented reality to bring new capabilities to those apps. iOS 12 also adds new features to Apple's own apps—and many of those features are driven by the company's machine-learning efforts.

Apple is a changing company, and its priorities in iOS tell us a lot about what it's angling for in the near (and not-so-near) future. There's more value to this exercise than just navel-gazing: examining iOS 12 can help reveal whether the iPhone and iPad will be there for you not just now, but in a few years.

So let's see what we can learn from several weeks with the iOS 12 beta and the final golden master release.

Table of Contents

Compatibility

At WWDC 2018, Apple tried to position this as an update that's as much for older devices as for new ones. And it's true—almost everything iOS 12 adds works on the iPhone 5S in addition to the iPhone 8.

The goal is also to improve slow performance on older devices—something for which Apple has often been criticized. When users confirmed that Apple was throttling performance on older devices to preserve battery life and stop unwanted shutdowns, detractors were quick to argue that it showed Apple deliberately limiting the shelf life of iPhones to get consumers to buy new devices. Apple denied this, and offered compelling arguments behind its throttling decision. (The company also offered a discounted battery replacement program to address the issue on affected iPhones.)

Now, iOS 12 seeks to improve performance even on older devices with healthy batteries. In our tests, we found that Apple succeeded on that front—but that the performance gains vary depending on the specific device. We'll explore that more shortly.

For now, here are the models of iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch supported by iOS 12, according to Apple.

Supported iPhone models

  • iPhone X
  • iPhone 8
  • iPhone 8 Plus
  • iPhone 7
  • iPhone 7 Plus
  • iPhone 6S
  • iPhone 6S Plus
  • iPhone 6
  • iPhone 6 Plus
  • iPhone SE
  • iPhone 5S

Supported iPad models

  • 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2nd generation
  • 12.9-inch iPad Pro 1st generation
  • 10.5-inch iPad Pro
  • 9.7-inch iPad Pro
  • iPad 6th generation
  • iPad 5th generation
  • iPad Air 2
  • iPad Air
  • iPad mini 4
  • iPad mini 3
  • iPad mini 2

Supported iPod models

  • iPod touch 6th generation

Basically, iOS 12 supports every device that iOS 11 supported. Now let's start exploring the new features in iOS 12.

Notifications

You might notice the changes to notifications first. They're all about presentation; there haven't been any changes to how notifications work at a basic level.

Multiple notifications from one app can now be grouped together in both the lock screen and the notification center. Tapping on one of these groups will expand them out so you can access them individually. When you do this, there's a button you can tap to collapse back up to the grouping again ("show less") and another button to dismiss all the notifications in the group at once.

There are three configurations for this feature in the notifications section of the iOS 12 Settings app: automatic, by app, and off. It defaults to automatic. In this case, notifications from one app will generally be grouped together, but, for not entirely transparent reasons, iOS might intelligently decide not to in some cases. By app makes sure that every single notification you get from an app is grouped together no matter what. Off obviously disables the feature and returns notifications to their pre-iOS 12 behavior.

At this point, some of us have a lot of apps that send a lot of notifications, so this feature is very welcome. I would have liked to have been able to customize it a bit more, though. The automatic setting is too opaque; developers can make their apps break out notifications into two or more groups instead of one, but the user won't always know why.

You can also now hold down on a notification, then tap a settings button to bring up some new options for managing your notification settings right from the lock screen or notification center. That means that you either turn off notifications from certain apps, or you can configure them to "deliver quietly." The latter makes it so they appear in the notification center, but they don't appear in the lock screen, present a banner, play a sound, or add a notification badge to the app. Apple calls this feature "Instant Tuning."

There are a few other small notifications improvements, too:

  • You can now use Messages Tapback quick replies from the lock screen or notification center, although this is not very intuitive. Previously you could only do this in the Messages app.
  • App developers can now add their own similar custom user interactions to notifications directly in the lock screen or notifications center.
  • Apps can now send notifications quietly to the notification center on a provisional basis without the user opting in. In this case, a notification would not appear in the lock screen or make a sound but it would quietly sit in the notification center. When the user sees it, they are given the opportunity to approve or deny future notifications like it on the spot.
  • iOS uses machine learning to study how you manage your notifications and recommends how to deliver notifications in the future based on that. For example, it might recommend that you disable notifications from a certain app if you're never engaging with them.
  • You can now opt in to "critical alerts," which ignore all restrictions like Do Not Disturb.

Siri and Shortcuts

Apple dedicated a lot of its resources to making Siri more powerful in iOS 12. Most of this work is related to a new feature called Shortcuts.

Shortcuts

Shortcuts allow for custom types of Siri interactions, either as part of third-party apps or in a new app called Shortcuts that lets you create your own and add them to Siri.

For most users, the most relevant thing will be the developer angle. Developers have not had this kind of access to Siri in the past. Now you can access any number of common app actions from anywhere in the OS to a degree that was not previously possible, and Siri will recommend them to you at opportune moments by sending you notifications.

Combined with notifications' support for custom interactions for third-party apps, this adds up to a lot of potential. You're going to start seeing apps asking you to add Shortcuts to Siri that work off those apps' features. Developers can also prompt users to record Siri phrases to map to Shortcuts right inside their apps.

A lot of this is more about Siri as a smart suggester of things in notifications than it is about voice commands, but you can manually map voice commands to Shortcuts to your heart's content. In one example, a third-party music app like Spotify could use Shortcuts to enable playing music in that app with Siri—something users have long complained was not possible. Spotify developers would have to write new code and release an update to support it, but it is possible. It would still be more limited than the Apple Music Siri integration, though, and would require users to create their own custom phrases for specific content.

Shortcuts is just the latest in a series of efforts by Apple to make third-party support about more than the user going into standalone apps. We saw that with Messages and Stickers, and Shortcuts works in a similar way. It's also the first of many features we'll examine in iOS 12 that are meant mainly to encourage movement in the developer community. Apple knows that the App Store is iOS' best asset, and adding ways for developers to create new experiences is one of the main strategies behind this year's update.

So like a lot of features in iOS 12, Shortcuts depend on outside developer support to become fully useful for most users. But in the interim, you can create your own Shortcuts until that support comes.

The Shortcuts app

That brings us to the app, which isn't installed by default. Once you install it, you'll see a lot of DNA from the Workflow app, which Apple acquired last year, in Shortcuts. Like Workflow, it allows you to define a series of steps across multiple apps and iOS services. You can map those steps to a Siri voice command, and you can also share Shortcuts with contacts or add a Shortcut to the home screen, among other things.

The Shortcuts app basically allows you to automate complex tasks with a library of actions that relate not just to Apple services and apps, but to third-party apps as well (provided developers of those apps support it). You can then pepper access to that automation throughout the OS.

The Shortcuts app has a gallery of pre-made Shortcuts that you can activate. Those Shortcuts can be examined as models for how best to use the application, or you can modify them directly for your own unique use cases.

When creating your own Shortcuts, you can work with data from the Health app, the motion sensors, location services, GPS, the clock, and so much more. And that's just at launch, with most of the options coming from Apple's own apps and services. It's kind of boggling to imagine what you could do if most popular apps in the App Store eventually supported this.

I could spend an entire article going over the various things you can do with Shortcuts. It's a powerful app with vast possibilities. The downside is that it's complicated enough that most people will likely decline to make their own Shortcuts. But expect many future Google searches turning up various articles and forum posts with step-by-step guides to Shortcut magic so that even those who don't want to completely learn it will eventually get some benefit if they're willing to dig.

Siri Suggestions

Siri Suggestions have been around in one form or another for a couple of years, but they are greatly expanded in iOS 12. Previously you might get recommendations like "Siri Suggested Websites" when typing in search queries, but now they are more powerful, and you'll find them in new places. This is most promising when you think about how it might work with third-party apps, and much of what's new here is thus tied to Shortcuts.

For example, if you always order food in the GrubHub app on the way home from work every day, and if the app developers behind GrubHub choose to put in the work to add support for this, you might start seeing notifications around 5:30pm asking if you want to order your usual from GrubHub. In another example, your calendar app of choice could have a record that a meeting starts in five minutes, but you're obviously not going to make it in time. Siri might then suggest sending a pre-canned message about how you're going to be late to the meeting organizer.

Users of the iOS 12 beta have been noticing and sharing expressions of this feature for months. For instance, in some cases Siri reads your Messages and notices if you're talking about having lunch with someone. Even if you don't create a calendar event, Siri might remember that you planned a lunch and remind you to turn on Do Not Disturb before the lunch starts.

All this could be useful, but it could also get annoying very quickly. You'll have to put in some time managing which suggestions and Shortcuts you want and which ones you don't. But I have a feeling most people won't want to put in the time, so they'll either leave everything on and thus experience a barrage throughout the day of recommendations that range from very helpful to senselessly irritating... or, they'll just turn them off completely.

Like Shortcuts, this is a power-user feature. If you really understand it and want to invest time and energy into managing permissions and creating custom actions, I can see it being quite useful. If you don't, it's not that attractive—though I think it could be a big deal for accessibility for those with certain disabilities. And it becomes all the more powerful when you factor in Shortcuts.

In any case, a lot of this draws on similar features Google has been including in Android for a while now. But, to harp on a running theme you'll find in this iOS 12 review, Apple is trying to communicate to users that this is different because of how it handles your data.

Apple says that all the processing is done locally on your device and that it's encrypted, so you're not sharing tons of data about your habits and activities with Apple. As in almost all cases with iOS involving machine learning, Apple's approach is arguably more attractive for privacy hawks, but the effectiveness of the feature isn't always going to be as strong as what you might see on competing platforms.

Other Siri changes

There are a few more minor changes that relate to Siri, too, like the ability to say "Hey Siri" in low power mode. There are two new accents (South African and Irish), you can ask Siri to show you your passwords in the password manager, turn on the flashlight, find your other Apple devices, translate phrases between new language pairs, and search Memories in Photos. Siri can also answer more questions about celebrities and food or about topics like motorsports, which wasn't previously supported at all.


Page 2

In January, The New York Times' Farhad Manjoo wrote "It's Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone." He didn't start the national conversation around so-called tech addiction, but his piece sure amped it up.

Like many generations of parents before them, parents of today's kids have been alarmed by their youngsters' new media habits. Politicians have been talking about screen addiction. Local news segments have been beating the drum. Plus, there are the concerns espoused by some mental health pundits about anxiety or depression made worse by being perpetually plugged in to society's ongoing political and cultural battles on social media.

Even Apple seems to think this is an issue—or at least, the company's executives saw this as an opportunity for Apple to differentiate itself from its competitors, some of which have business models that depend on driving more engagement with your screen. Apple set out to add features to iOS 12 that would not just allow parents to curb kids' "screen time" but would let adults impose limitations on themselves. After all, Manjoo's op-ed suggested that you might "feel enslaved by your phone" and that Apple had a moral responsibility to unlock your shackles.

Apple's answer is Screen Time, a robust menu that features prominently in the Settings app, near the top, next to notifications and "do not disturb."

What it does

When you first enable Screen Time, iOS 12 will ask you whether you're setting it up for yourself or for a child with an Apple ID in your Family Sharing setup. You can manage your child's devices whenever you want.

Tapping into Screen Time settings presents you first with a graph that shows how much time you've spent on your phone—and on what kinds of activities. You can drill deeper to see graphs for either "Today" or "Last 7 Days." Scroll down and you'll find a "most used" list, which tells you exactly how many minutes you've spent in each app over the selected period. Further down still, a graph tells you how many times you've picked up your phone. Finally, there's a helpful graph that tells you which apps send you the most or the fewest notifications.

The Downtime feature lets you schedule periods during which only particular apps (along with phone calls) can be accessed. App Limits lets you restrict time spent on whole categories of apps and those apps' associated websites, like "games" or "social networking." And the Content & Privacy Restrictions menu lets you micromanage every aspect of your phone's functionality and content, like restricting whether the user can delete or install new apps, use location services, or see advertising. You can even apply a hard audio volume limit if the clashing and clanging in your kids' games drives you crazy.

You can toggle the Screen Time features on and off all at once whenever you want, and you can set a unique passcode for doing so. You can also decide whether the restrictions apply to just one device or all the Screen Time-compatible devices in your iCloud account. Also, Screen Time will send you a weekly report via notification if you've enabled it.

Apple has made this feature quite comprehensive, and I think it will cover most people's needs. Areas for improvement do exist; for example, I initially couldn't find a way to apply App Limits only to certain apps instead of broad categories or even to customize which apps belong in which categories. Ars readers asutekku and jaggedcow pointed out that this is deeply buried in the "Today" view—the app is quite complex, and some key features like that are difficult to get to. But if you're looking for time limit controls on a smartphone, you won't find anything more powerful right now.

If you don't believe addictive smartphone or tablet behaviors are a concern for either you or your kids, no problem; Screen Time defaults to off. But some of its functionality is useful for power users generally anyway.

FaceTime and Messages

Many of us spend big chunks of that glued-to-the-screen time with text messaging, so Apple made major additions to the Messages app, bringing it more in line with third-party apps like Snapchat. A group video calling feature called Group FaceTime was also promised for iOS 12.

The new Messages camera

Apps like Snapchat have proven that many people—particularly young people—want a robust feature set of... stickers. And filters. And all sorts of other stuff like that. Apple has delivered some of that with iOS 12.

You can now add animated text boxes and shapes, as well as stickers, to photos taken with the front-facing cameras. And yes, there are filters. The stickers feature can bring in assets provided by third-party creators inside apps, games, and sticker packs from the app store. Some of this was already possible, but not all of it—and it's all wrapped in a more convenient interface now anyway.

Apple has slightly updated the app strip for Messages to take up less space, and it has slightly changed the way you access past photos within Messages, moving your Photos library away from the camera button to its own entry in the app strip. The dedicated Photos panel you get by tapping that entry also offers sharing suggestions. Not everyone is going to like that Photos is in the app strip now, but it's not actually any slower in most cases. It will just take some getting used to.

This is hardly Instagram or Snapchat—Apple has a long way to catch up there, and I'd be surprised if it's interested in really catching up to teens' ever-shifting interests. But if you want to use this stuff, it's here now, and Messages is a less austere messaging app for it.

There are some missed opportunities, though. Apple could have provided more stuff to play with; there's not a lot right now.

Four new Animoji

Speaking of TrueDepth, Animojis are out in full force in iOS 12. Introduced in iOS 11, these are animated faces that you can control using the front-facing TrueDepth sensor array. They animate like Pixar characters, mapping directly to your facial expressions and head movements in real time. It's useless but fun in small doses—and it's a compelling tech demo for the Kinect-like 3D sensing technology.

You can send Animoji messages over SMS or iMessages, which are video recordings of your Animoji set to your voice captured from the microphone. In iOS 11, these were limited to 10 seconds long, but now you can record and send messages as long as 30 seconds.

There are four new Animojis, and they have two new capabilities. You can now stick out your tongue as an Animoji. (Apple said at WWDC that, in user testing, a large number of users tried to do this right away and were disappointed it didn't work. Now it does.) You can also wink one eye at a time now.

We now also have Memojis. These are custom Animoji avatars that you can create with an interface that resembles a video game character creator.

Memoji and the Memoji creator

Gamers' minds will probably go right to the 3D avatars they've created on their Nintendo Wii or Xbox consoles. Apple has done a good job providing a variety of features that should allow most people on Earth to feel represented—you can even do zany things like give yourself blue eyebrows.

You're not going to create a perfect recreation of yourself, but it can get close enough that your friends might be able to pick you out of a Memoji lineup. I have a feeling these will be even more popular than the cute critters that Apple created for Animojis previously. And if your friends don't have the latest TrueDepth-equipped iPhone, don't worry; Animoji and Memoji messages will be sent to them as short video files.

FaceTime

When Apple first presented iOS 12 to the public and to developers, it promised a feature called Group FaceTime that would basically work like Google Hangouts; you'd be able to video chat with up to 32 participants at the same time. That feature has now been pushed back to a later software update in the iOS 12 cycle—meaning it's not available for us to test yet.

However, the company did do a redesign of the FaceTime app, mostly around allowing you to use Animojis and other effects just like the ones you can use in the Messages camera. You can tap the "Effects" button to access these, and there's a strip at the bottom of the FaceTime call interface to access various features or settings.


Page 3

iOS 12 brings some significant changes to Photos, the built-in photo management app. Most of them are related to Apple's machine-learning efforts; specifically, that means more advanced search features and search suggestions, a new sharing-suggestions feature, and effect suggestions for your photos. And many of them are just to catch up with Google Photos. Just like the new Messages features, these changes strike me as the bare minimum to remain viable against competing apps and platforms.

A few users will be excited to know there is now native support for importing and managing RAW photos from a professional camera. You can edit them on iOS devices with an A9 chip or later.

There's a new tab in Photos called "For You." In it, you'll find sharing suggestions and an AI-curated selection of your "Memories," automatically generated into albums. Memories aren't new. iOS uses data it has connected with these photos—like people and locations—to create the albums. But this specific way of presenting them is new. Apple has included tabs and feeds like this throughout iOS 12, continuing a process that started in iOS 11's updated App Store to add feeds of curated content and recommendations.

As far as sharing suggestions go, Photos will suggest photos to you in For You that have friends in them, and it will recommend which people to share certain photo selections with. The recommendations happen if Photos recognizes that those people are Messages contacts of yours. As far as I could tell, it only works for other Apple users, which really limits the feature—the great majority of the friends and family I photograph the most are actually Android users, so I found this feature to be useless in my case.

More useful is a new option called "Copy Link" in the sharing menu. This generates an iCloud link to one or multiple photos that you can send to contacts. The link will last for a month, and its recipients can view it even if they are not using iOS. Apple is hardly the first to do this, but the feature is welcome nonetheless.

Better search

That's neat, I guess. But I suspect most users will find more utility in the new search tab. In iOS 11, you could search for photos by tapping a search icon present in the Photos, Memories, and Albums tabs and typing in names of people or places. But it was pretty limited. The feature has improved in a couple of ways in iOS 12. First, you can now include multiple search terms. So if I wanted to search for photos of me taken in Chicago in iOS 11, I'd have to pick one or the other—type "Samuel Axon," or type "Chicago." Now I can type "Samuel Axon" and "Chicago," and iOS 12 will show me what I'm looking for.

The possible search criteria have also been expanded; for example, you can now search for events like certain conferences or concerts. And some previous ideas have been improved in small ways. In iOS 11's Photos app, you could search for photos taken "one year ago" but not two years ago. Now you can type "two years ago" and get some results.

Apple is also touting iOS 12's ability to give you photo suggestions on the fly as you type. It's an iterative improvement over what we had before; previously, you could start typing a word and Photos would start populating categories, memories, or places it thinks you might be typing broadly. Now, Photos still does that, but it also includes a feed of photos that fit your query.

New and updated apps

iOS 12 brings updates both major and minor to a number of Apple's first-party apps—namely Books, Voice Memos, Stocks, and News. Over the past couple of years, Apple—primarily a hardware and software company—has emphasized its online services more and more. In this case, services mean Apple News, the App Store, iCloud, and so on.

Apple News now lives inside the Stocks app, and iBooks has been updated to be more like the iOS 11 App Store. That iteration took the services approach to the next level by offering deeper curation and editorial features around the applications in the store.

Books

iBooks has become Apple Books. This is the existing app that has undergone the most significant changes. The built-in store for digital books has been redesigned in the spirit of iOS 11's overhauled App Store. That means you'll see editorial curation, a feed of recommended books, and significantly overhauled store pages for individual books.

When you first open the app, it goes to the "Reading Now" tab. This bubbles up a big hero image for the book you were most recently reading and populates your recently purchased books below that. Scroll down further and you'll see recommendations, like a "read it before you watch it" list of books with recent movie adaptations.

Not much has changed in the reading experience or in browsing your own library. In the "Library" tab, different sorting methods are now grouped in a dropdown instead of being top-level tabs. The "Collections" feature is now a little more prominent. At first glance, it looks like just a breakdown by certain categories like "Books," "Audiobooks," "Finished," "PDFs," and "Downloaded," but you can create your own collections by naming them and sorting books into them. Think of collections like organizing your bookshelf however you want.

The store looks completely different—as noted, it's modeled after the App Store redesign, so you should have an idea what to expect if you've looked at the App Store in the past year. Most notable is the inclusion of editorial content. The content is light, and it's mostly listicles like "books for TV and movie lovers" at this point. But more compelling things might be on the horizon in the near future now that the new store's public launch is here. The iOS App Store regularly features interesting interviews with app and game developers.

Store pages for books don't show more information than they did before, but they look much nicer. The top nav that featured selections like "reviews" or "related" has been removed, and it's just one long, scrolling page now. The gift button is no longer hidden inside an options menu, and cover art is more prominent.

I like most of the changes to Books, even though Apple isn't necessarily breaking new ground for the digital-book shopping experience. The redesign is just updating something that was looking long in the tooth and bringing some good ideas over from the new App Store experience.

Voice Memos

I might be an odd one in this regard, but I use voice memos all the time. I use it to record panels at conferences, I use it to record interviews in my work, and I use it to record notes in my personal life. But that's not because Voice Memos is an exceptionally good app. It's simply functional and it's there.

The new app is mainly a re-skin, but it does look nicer. In iOS 12, Apple is making a lot of use of these pop-up panels within apps that you can slide up to see more of or down to minimize. The interface is intuitive and simple, and it works well here, as it does throughout the OS.


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The Stocks app probably isn't used by everybody, but Apple hasn't forgotten about it. It has received a total overhaul. The main view dedicates half the screen to a quick view of how your chosen stocks are performing, and the other half is dedicated to Apple News stories related to those stocks. As an alternative, you can make the stock view fill the whole screen or the news view.

Tapping on an individual stock brings up a neat graph of the stock's performance that you can customize to show performance over a day, a week, a month, three months, six months, a year, or two years. Below that, there's a feed of related stories from Apple News. It's an attractive and efficient design, but it's nothing that numerous third-party apps didn't offer already.

The main sales proposition here seems to be the Apple News tie-in. So let's talk about News.

News

The main story with News is its integration into those other apps. The app itself has received a slight overhaul, but it's not dramatic. The main two views—"Today" and "Spotlight"—are pretty much unchanged. Apple has consolidated the "Search" and "Following" tabs into one tab called "Channels," which is fine.

You can still save stories for later, but your own list of saved stories has been moved from its own tab to an obscure link at the bottom of the channels tab. When I have used the News app in the past, I used saved stories a lot so that's a strange change in my mind.

Whether Apple News is worth this level of ubiquity across the OS depends on how good you think Apple News is. Apple says it wants to ensure higher quality through human curation—not just algorithmic curation—the latter is arguably more easily gamed by unscrupulous publishers. I like that vision, but Apple is not discerning enough with the publications it surfaces to make the claim that this service is any more quality-focused than say, Google News. Some of the publications Apple welcomes to the platform are great. Others are, well, not. This is for a lot of reasons, ranging from clickbait headlines to poor editorial quality to stark ideological bias that plays loose with facts.

In practice, Apple News feels basically like an RSS reader that has a tab for curated stories and a lot of recommended stories that you may or may not want to see. Apple has been talking up its services businesses a lot lately. I just wish some of the services were better, and News is one of the first examples I'd use to illustrate that point.

iPad updates

iOS 11 was a big deal for iPads. iOS 12? Less so—at least in terms of new features. Most things we've covered here with iPhones as an example also apply to the iPad.

The biggest additions that are specific to the iPad are gesture-based controls, which are identical to those originally introduced with the iPhone X. Swipe partway up from the bottom of the screen, and you'll get the multitasking interface. Switching or closing apps works the same way as before once you're there. Swipe all the way up from the bottom while you're in an app, and it takes you back to the home screen. Swipe down from the top-right and you'll get the control center, which also works like it used to.

I like these gestures better than their predecessors that relied on the home button, but that's just personal preference. I don't think they're actually more or less efficient.

Apple has redesigned the status bar to be more like the iPhone X, too. The battery charge and Wi-Fi indicators appear in the top right, and the time is in the top left. The date is in the top left by default, too. That leaves a big gap in the middle across the top of the device.

The Books and News apps have been redesigned on the iPad. The changes are pictured above, but they're similar to what we already went over with the iPhone. Additionally, Voice Memos and Stocks—two apps previously exclusive to the iPhone—are now available on the iPad.

This is a bit niche, but it's worth mentioning: photo importing is now a very different experience on the iPad Pro. You can import RAW photos and edit them directly on any iPad with an A9 chip or later. We didn't test this, but those who have are generally positive about it

As with iPhones, Apple focused on improving performance for iPads over adding new features in this OS update. We'll talk more about performance soon.

Diving into the settings panel

As is often the case, much of the meat of iOS 12 is buried in various options in the Settings app. The options that Apple includes, and even where it places them, can be revealing about Apple's priorities with the update. These are some of the noteworthy additions and changes.

Automatic software updates

Automatic updates are off by default. But if you turn them on, iOS will stop pestering you with notifications and pop-ups letting you know that an update is available—though it will let you know when an automatic update is planned.

When the feature is enabled, your device will automatically download the update and install it overnight. The updates will only install automatically if the device is connected to Wi-Fi and to a power source.

Here's the toggle switch for enabling automatic software updates, with Apple's related explanation.
Enlarge / Here's the toggle switch for enabling automatic software updates, with Apple's related explanation.

Apple is already miles ahead of Android in terms of getting users on newer versions of the operating system quickly, and this will probably widen the gap even more. But that probably matters more to Apple than it does to you.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to test this feature yet—we’ll have to see how it works once iOS 12.1 is released, and so on.

Updated password management

iOS comes with a password manager that looks just like Keychain on the Mac, which accesses the same data in iCloud. Not everything here is new, but it is a more convenient and robust experience.

At the top of the "Passwords & Accounts" settings panel, you'll see an option called "Website & App Passwords." This takes you to a searchable list of all your stored passwords. Tapping on an individual password shows it to you and offers you the chance to update the password for that app or website; you'll be taken to the app or website to change it directly, and the new password you choose will be stored in iOS' password manager.

Further, it warns you if you are re-using a password on multiple websites, since that would be a bad practice for security. iOS will suggest a strong, automatically generated password as an alternative when you try to change it.

Passwords are stored in iCloud and accessible across devices using your Apple ID. Outside of the settings panel, you can ask Siri to access your passwords. Apple has also made it easier to use third-party password managers; for example, you can now access passwords stored in those managers from the QuickType bar when using apps or websites, but this requires the developers of those password managers to support it.

Finally, iOS 12 lets you see security codes sent to you via SMS in AutoFill after they're sent to you, so you don't have to copy and paste or type them from memory when dropping them in fields in apps or websites.


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iOS 11.3 added a new battery health menu in the Settings app, where you could see the maximum capacity of your battery as it ages over time. This also tells you whether the OS is throttling performance to solve problems that occur with a degraded battery. You may disable that throttling if you want to.

Battery Health was in beta when it launched, but iOS 12 takes it out of beta. Nothing else has changed in that panel, but the top-level battery settings menu has a notable new addition: graph views for battery usage and activity, along with metrics like “last charge level,” “screen on,” and “screen off.” Battery usage by app is still there, too.

Using these graphs, you can see at what points in the day you’re hitting your battery particularly hard. To be honest, I don’t find this information actionable. It satisfies my curiosity, but it doesn’t offer any solutions. If you’re killing your battery playing games on your subway commute home, you probably already knew that, and the only solution is still to just play fewer games.

The battery settings panel will also offer “insights and suggestions” to improve battery life, but it’s basic stuff—for example, it might warn you if the auto-brightness feature is disabled, noting that turning it on would help with battery life.

New app settings

Some first-party apps have new options in their settings panels. Stocks didn’t have settings at all before; now it does. That panel lets you disable background app refreshing and customize how Stocks can access Siri and search-related features.

There’s a Voice Memos settings panel now, too. It offers the same choices as the Stocks settings panel but also lets you enable or disable location-based naming, tweak audio quality, and set a time for voice memos to automatically be deleted.

The new Measure app for AR creators simply lets you pick between imperial and metric measure units.

New Siri settings

We already went over the new Siri features and Shortcuts. Settings lets you choose which apps can make Shortcuts suggestions with Siri.

Navigate to “Siri & Search” settings, and you’ll see “suggested shortcuts” at the top. It might recommend that you create a voice Shortcut to a particular note you work with a lot in the Notes app, in one case. You can tap one level deeper to see a longer list of suggested Shortcuts.

As with a lot of the other suggestions featured in iOS 12, I didn’t find these to be very useful—at least not at first. Maybe they’ll get better with continued use.

But I don’t see any value in following the recommendation to create a Shortcut that will let me ask Siri to show all my Photos memories in Los Angeles, given that I live there and that probably 80 percent of all my photos are taken there. The list also suggested that I create a Shortcut to get driving directions to an apartment 2,000 miles away in Chicago that I moved out of eight years ago. It recommended Shortcuts for seemingly random websites I viewed once, weeks ago, and didn’t care about.

In other words, the recommended Shortcuts are mostly junk, which is too bad, because it’s a neat idea in theory. Granted, I have accumulated out-of-date data in my contacts and in other places this feature is drawing from—but most of us have, so unless you’re willing to put in some work to keep all that nice and tidy, you’re going to see some weird recommendations.

Finally, you can now choose Irish or South African accents for Siri, which is surely welcome for those in Ireland or South Africa or even if you just want a little variety.

Miscellaneous other Settings changes

There are several other small changes in Settings worth taking a look at. Here are a few.

Performance

Late last year, iOS device users on Reddit and elsewhere managed to confirm that some older iPhones were throttling performance to a significant degree to mitigate the negative effects of battery degradation. iPhone owners had previously experienced unexpected shutdowns due to battery voltage problems on aging batteries, and the throttling was Apple’s solution.

As noted before, some people took the news that Apple had implemented a solution that makes older phones run more slowly as evidence that the company was deliberately trying to reduce the lifetimes of devices to drive faster upgrades in the face of slowing smartphone sales.

I’ve written before that it was probably the best solution available at the time and that the planned obsolescence conspiracy theory was ridiculous. Still, Apple should have done a better job communicating what it was doing to users and developers.

The company’s failure to do that contributed to ongoing consumer frustration that their phones don’t last long enough. To turn that narrative on its head, Apple has made improving performance and stability a priority in iOS 12—particularly on older devices.

Stability

It’s difficult to objectively measure reliability after a few weeks of using iOS 12, partially on beta releases before the golden master arrived. The best I can do there is say that I didn’t encounter any unexpected behaviors, crashes, or anything else like that while testing the golden master.

iOS 11 saw a number of patches to all sorts of issues, which didn’t help the perception that Apple didn’t have its house in order on that front. Apple is trying and hoping for a better track record in iOS 12. We'll see.

Performance

But while the verdict is still out on stability, we can test performance today, which we did using the golden master—an end-of-beta software release to developers that should be identical to the final public consumer release of iOS 12.0.

Because this is such an important part of iOS 12, Ars contributor Andrew Cunningham went deeper with this in a dedicated report, so you can find more in-depth thoughts and more tests there. But here’s what we found when testing app launch times in iOS 12 this week.

iPhone 5S

 Application iOS 10.3.3 iOS 11.0 iOS 11.4.1 iOS 12.0 GM Difference (%)
Safari 1.2 seconds 1.5 seconds 1.4 seconds 1.1 seconds -20.6%
Camera 0.9 seconds 0.9 seconds 1.0 seconds 0.8 seconds -16.2%
Settings 0.9 seconds 1.3 seconds 1.2 seconds 0.9 seconds -26.1%
Mail 1.4 seconds 1.8 seconds 1.7 seconds 1.4 seconds -18.5%
Messages 0.8 seconds 1.1 seconds 1.0 seconds 0.9 seconds -14.2% 
Calendar 0.8 seconds 1.2 seconds 0.9 seconds 0.9 seconds -9.6% 
Maps 2.2 seconds 3.2 seconds 2.6 seconds 2.3 seconds -10.7%
Notes 1.5 seconds 2.0 seconds 1.9 seconds 1.6 seconds -15.9%
Cold boot 26.6 seconds 38.6 seconds 27.7 seconds 25.3 seconds -8.7% 

iPhone 6 Plus

 Application iOS 11.4.1 iOS 12.0 GM Difference (%)
Safari 1.2 seconds 1.0 seconds -17.3%
Camera 1.0 seconds 0.8 seconds -18.3%
Settings 1.0 seconds 0.8 seconds -21.7%
Mail 1.3 seconds 1.1 seconds -10.5%
Messages 0.8 seconds 0.7 seconds -7.2% 
Calendar 0.8 seconds 0.7 seconds -11.9% 
Maps 2.3 seconds 1.9 seconds -16.3%
Notes 1.4 seconds 1.2 seconds -15.1%
Cold boot 25.5 seconds 22.2 seconds -13.0% 

iPad Mini 2

 Application iOS 11.4.1 iOS 12.0 GM Difference (%)
Safari 1.8 seconds 1.6 seconds -9.0%
Camera 1.0 seconds 1.0 seconds -7.1%
Settings 1.5 seconds 1.3 seconds -13.5%
Mail 2.2 seconds 2.1 seconds -7.4%
Messages 1.1 seconds 1.0 seconds -9.2% 
Calendar 1.1 seconds 0.9 seconds -18.5% 
Maps 3.5 seconds 2.6 seconds -26.2%
Notes 2.5 seconds 2.3 seconds -8.7%
Cold boot 27.3 seconds 23.3 seconds -14.5% 

There are notable improvements on older devices across the board compared to iOS 11. In general, you could categorize the improvements as taking these older devices back to the level of performance they experienced during the iOS 10 era, before iOS 11 slowed things down.

Anecdotally, I installed iOS 12 on my own aging iPad Air, which had become nigh unusable. It is much faster now, such that I was planning to buy a new iPad due to my iOS 11 performance woes, and now I have decided not to after all. Apple improved my iPad Air performance so much I was basically talked out of a sale. But your gains will vary based on which device you're using, as you can see in the tables above.

For more detailed thoughts on iOS 12 performance, dig into our dedicated article on the subject.

Planned obsolescence?

Apple is fighting fiercely against the planned obsolescence perception. At the September 12, 2018 iPhone XS reveal event last week, the company talked up its environmental efforts, naming device longevity one of its three pillars of environmentally sustainable practices. The presentation specifically cited iOS 12's improvements to performance for older devices. It also highlighted a recycling program called Apple GiveBack, which would give you an assessed value for your older phone so it can be refurbished and sold to a new customer at a reduced cost.

Apple is trying to make these devices last longer not just in your hands but also when they leave your hands and go to someone else. It might seem counterintuitive that Apple would seek to make devices last longer when its bottom line depends on selling devices more frequently. But Apple actually has some incentives for keeping phones working in a customer's hands for a long time beyond its environmental goals.

As already noted, Apple is focusing more on services than ever before. The company knows that drumming up the hype to buy a new phone every one to two years isn't sustainable, so it is starting to think more about the lifetime value of a customer after the initial purchase. Basically, that means up-selling the user on services like Apple Music, app subscriptions, and more.

If a customer owns a phone for a long time, the potential lifetime value of that customer in the services side of the business increases. Apple is also trying to mitigate the lost revenue from frequent upgrades by selling phones that are much more expensive, with higher profit margins, than earlier devices. Now it's about making that once-every-four-years purchase a big one, then hooking you to an IV of paid subscriptions and content purchases throughout those four years.

iOS 12's performance improvements are made out of the hope that you'll stay and spend money on the platform for longer.


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Many of the most notable additions and improvements in iOS 12 are behind-the-scenes features that developers can tap into to make new and improved games and apps. Chief among these is ARKit 2, an improvement to the augmented reality development API that Apple first introduced in iOS 11 last year.

Augmented reality has featured prominently in all of Apple's events since. Tim Cook has gone so far as to say that augmented reality will be a watershed moment rivaling the initial launch of the app store. He told the following to The Independent in fall 2017:

Think back to 2008, when the App Store went live. There was the initial round of apps, and people looked at them and said, "This is not anything, mobile apps are not going to take off." And then, step by step, things start to move. And it is sort of a curve, it was just exponential—and now you couldn't imagine your life without apps. Your health is on one app, your financials, your shopping, your news, your entertainment—it's everything. AR is like that. It will be that dramatic.

Despite Cook's enthusiasm and Apple's heavy focus, AR hasn't broadly won over consumers yet—not unless you count Pokémon Go, anyway. But Apple believes that's because it's still laying the groundwork for something coming in the future—a consistent theme to some of iOS 12's big strategic moves.

Think of ARKit like an augmented reality equivalent to a video game graphics engine. Game developers use pre-built graphics engines so they can focus on making content for new games without having to re-invent the wheel for showing that content on the screen every time they make a new game. ARKit does the same—but for AR functionality.

When it first launched, it was very limited; it only worked on horizontal planes, and it didn't support any kind of persistence between users or even between sessions with a single user. ARKit 2 changes that. I went into a great deal of detail on ARKit earlier this year after WWDC, so dig in there if you want all the details. Here are the bullet-points:

  • ARKit 2 adds support for saving and loading maps of environments and the objects placed within them between sessions, either for one user returning to a scene later or for two users interacting with the same scene at the same time or at different times.
  • It also adds a new, more efficient method for building apps that are built primarily or exclusively around 2D image tracking. Those apps can now perform more efficiently and effectively if they utilize what's new here.
  • In an earlier version of iOS, Apple added to ARKit the ability to track said 2D images—for example, an app could show you a 3D model of a character from a movie when it sees the movie poster in view. ARKit 2 makes that possible with 3D objects, too, from cars to toys to sculptures. Apple has introduced an app called Measure that lets developers map these objects for use in their apps.
  • ARKit 2 supports advanced environment texturing—in this case, this means reading things like ambient lighting to make sure objects are lit realistically and drop convincing shadows.
  • It also includes improved face-tracking, which among other things means the ability to track one eye at a time or to track tongues when they're stuck out.

Though we won't go into more detail here, it suffices to say that ARKit 2 is a very powerful platform for AR apps on the iPhone. Add to that AR sensors and the A11 and A12 CPUs in the latest iPhones, and iOS 12 offers the most promising augmented reality platform consumers have yet had access to.

But do consumers want augmented reality? Apple thinks so, but it's all hypothetical right now. If it seems a bit odd that we keep talking about AR in our Apple reviews and reports even though consumers have not widely adopted it yet, we do it because it is clearly a major priority inside of Apple. So whether that investment is going to pan out for the company and its customers or not, it would be difficult to give an accurate sense of what Apple is doing with these products and software releases without factoring AR in.

In many cases, iOS 12 is an update meant to prepare the platform for cool things down the line, but it doesn't necessarily deliver those cool things today. ARKit 2 is a perfect example of that.

CoreML and Create ML

If ARKit 2 helps developers make augmented reality apps without rebuilding everything themselves from the ground up, CoreML does the same for machine learning. Apple's spiel with CoreML is that it gives app-makers the potential of machine learning without requiring them to be experts on that extraordinarily complex and still-growing discipline.

Machine learning is key for features like Siri suggestions, photo search, and even palm rejection on the iPad when you're using an Apple Pencil. In iOS 11, Apple introduced CoreML to extend those capabilities to iOS developers—it’s all about enabling the execution of machine learning capabilities locally on the device for any app.

This update in iOS 12 optimizes performance—for example, Apple claims mobile processing speeds up to 30 percent faster thanks to a technique called batch predictions. It also uses quantization to make models up to 75 percent smaller on the device, and Apple says it improves the flexibility and customization of CoreML to support new and different types of models in the future.

CoreML is also joined by Create ML, a new tool that allows app developers to create their own machine learning models using their own data right in Xcode, Apple's development environment for iOS apps. In one example, it could be used to train an application to recognize certain people among a plethora of photos, just like Apple's Photos app does. A developer could round up thousands of photo image files, label each of them as either containing the target people or not, drag and drop all that into Xcode, and let it all run on the local development machine.

Developer-oriented features like CoreML, CreateML, and ARKit are meant to set the stage for cool future apps, but again, it remains hard to judge them from a consumer perspective today. For the most part, the apps simply don't exist yet—though there are some interesting early examples, like Memrise. And it doesn't help that Apple's own applications of machine learning are hardly industry-leading. I'm talking about things like Siri search suggestions—they're fine, but companies like Google are doing more impressive things.

The potential for Apple's machine learning platform is also limited by the company's outward commitment to user privacy. Neural networks are much more effective (particularly in edge cases) when they have massive amounts of data to learn from, so it makes sense for a company focused on machine learning to draw user data from millions of in-use devices and to run the models on vast cloud computing networks.

Apple has been very clear that it won't do that with iPhone and iPad users' data. Whether the company is making that commitment out of sincere conviction or because its leadership sees this as an excellent way to differentiate its products from competitors in a time when consumers are becoming increasingly aware of privacy concerns, it's a welcome policy. Nevertheless, the choice puts the company's machine learning platform on comparatively weak footing.

Privacy

The machine learning systems are not the only parts of iOS 12 that Apple has infused with strict user privacy policies and thinking. They are ubiquitous throughout the operating system.

As you saw in our exploration of the various settings panels in iOS 12, there are links to privacy policies peppered all over the place for transparency. That has been going on since one of the updates to iOS 11, and it continues in iOS 12. Privacy notices are everywhere.

Generally, apps have to ask for explicit permission to gain access to any data that is not part of the app itself. That includes things like contacts or Face ID data.

Apple has also rolled out some new privacy-related changes in iOS 12. Safari is now more aggressive in preventing certain kinds of user tracking from websites. That means preventing websites from collecting information for your device that would enable retargeting you with ads on those sites and others (a specific dig at Google’s entire business model, really).

Safari also now prevents sharing and commenting widgets from tracking you in ways they once could. You can do even more privacy tweaking in the settings panels for Safari and other features and applications in iOS 12 (for example, you have the option to block all cookies). Some of these options are new, some are not, but the point is that there are a lot of ways you can micromanage what data you’re sharing with whom and under what circumstances.

As many consumers become increasingly skeptical about companies like Facebook and Google, whose business models rely on harvesting and monetizing users’ personal data, an opportunistic Apple has begun pushing privacy messaging as hard as possible. Apple wants to capitalize on that consumer frustration by positioning itself as the privacy tech company.

PR grandstanding aside, I generally think Apple is doing a good job here. There are still more features I’d like to see, but if you’re privacy-conscious, iOS 12 is a small step forward.

Grab bag

As always, there are a bunch of small tweaks and additions in iOS 12 that don't fit neatly into buckets. This is not a comprehensive list, but here are a few more features worth noting:

Additionally:

  • Third-party navigation apps now have a way to work with CarPlay
  • The Live Listen accessibility feature now works with AirPods
  • You can now swipe up to re-attempt Face ID authentication after a failure
  • You can store contactless student ID cards in Wallet
  • You can now enable favicons in Safari tabs
  • Apple has added a new API called Portrait Segmentation that makes separation of human faces from the background in photos more precise, and it has taken portrait lighting out of beta
  • You can now search for songs in Apple Music by lyrics
  • The Podcasts app now supports MP3 chapters
  • The Today feed in the App Store can now show personalized content
  • Apple has added measures to prevent taking screenshots accidentally while waking up your device

Present tension

If you were looking for a radical new feature that just wows you, you won't find it in iOS 12. Nor will you find reinventions of some parts of the iOS experience that are aging quite poorly, like the home screen as we know it today. Apple postponed efforts on those fronts to make less flashy improvements to the experience and to lay the groundwork for experiences to come.

What iOS 12 really does is make older devices more usable. And it deploys an array of tools that developers might use to create much more impressive and powerful apps in the future.

App developers can now expose their apps to Siri in new ways, they can create their own machine learning models more easily and run them locally on users' devices, and their augmented reality projects can be made much more compelling and realistic. That might pay off eventually. In the meantime, users get better performance and unprecedented control over everything from how and when their kids can use the family's iOS devices to how personal data is shared and tracked by apps and websites.

None of this is sexy, but it's almost all good.

As for the not so good, Apple is also trying to apply machine learning models to improve everything from search to personalized content feeds. None of these new features impress.

Part of that is because Apple is playing catch up with some of its competitors here, and a small part of it is because the company has shackled itself a little by focusing more on protecting users' data. I loathe to criticize Apple for this policy; I think it's the right one. But if you're looking for the best applications of machine learning and virtual assistants in your mobile OS, you won't find it with iOS 12. Apple's approach is a disadvantage when it comes to serving up the most powerful experiences. I'm happy to make that tradeoff, but not everyone will be.

Along with this year's new iPhones, iOS 12 tells us a lot about the company's priorities. People are buying smartphones less often, and Apple can't fight that tide. Instead, it is shifting its focus. By making more expensive devices that users can keep for longer and by offering subscriptions and other paid services and integrating them throughout its software (not just siloing them inside of individual apps), Apple is looking beyond the initial device purchase for revenue.

No, iOS 12 doesn't offer that much by way of new features that are immediately useful, apart from Shortcuts, if you use Siri a lot and weren't already using Workflow. But it's nevertheless easy to recommend installing iOS 12 for the performance improvements alone. Screen Time is also compelling, as it gives the user more control over their experience than before.

iOS 12 won't satisfy users' hunger for the old Apple that was making bold, flashy innovations annually, but it succeeds at making the company's mobile offerings more attractive anyway. Maybe next year we'll get a flashy reinvention of the home screen, but for now, we get an iOS that just works a little bit better for most people—whether they're today's users or tomorrow's app developers.

The good

  • Improves performance on older iOS devices
  • Introduces an impressive array of tools that helps you gain transparency and manage your privacy settings, security options, and more
  • Adds and expands upon generally well-thought-out tools that help developers develop new kinds of apps and access new functionality to improve existing apps
  • Supports all the same devices that iOS 11 did
  • Strong user privacy and personal data management tools and policies
  • Modernizes (to some degree) a few parts of the OS that were outdated, like messaging and the book store
  • Shortcuts can be very powerful if you invest the time to learn to use them

The bad

  • Siri is still so-so at best compared to competitors—and third-party app support with Shortcuts isn't going to single-handedly fix that
  • We're already seeing features that were promised getting postponed to later updates, like Group FaceTime
  • Most of the bigger features of iOS 12 depend on developers jumping on board and using them to deliver better app experiences, which could take a while

The ugly

  • Features driven by Apple's machine learning systems just aren't going to work that well for most people—many feel like less-good versions of what competitors offer

Update: Made a small number of corrections and clarifications based on reader comments. Thanks readers!