AAfter iOS 14 rocked the iPhone’s interface with matchable widgets and an app library, iOS 15 didn’t look so dramatic at launch. Given that several major features, such as SharePlay, were delayed, it seemed a little different from the public beta. But now, with iOS 15.1, everything seems to work completely. It’s time to try out Apple’s latest mobile OS.
SharePlay is finally here
We had to wait until iOS 15.1 for SharePlay – one of the few significant features within this otherwise quiet update. All SharePlay stuff is supported by FaceTime. Here we have a guide for using SharePlay, but the main thing is that not all applications are compatible.
- Known and reliable
- SharePlay works well – especially with TV Plus and Fitness Plus
- Additional support for older iPhones
- Focus modes are customizable and useful
- SharePlay lacks broader application support
- There aren’t many compelling extensions for Safari yet
- Relatively less update with iOS 14
You must start a FaceTime call before you can do anything on SharePlay. Then, when you connect with someone, you can open a supported app and you will see a warning at the top of the screen asking if you want to upload your content to your FaceTime contact. They will then see a pop-up window asking you to join them.
Shared shows and content are impressive without delay and can be watched by anyone who watches them, so your friends can pause the TV show if they need to go for a snack. The picture-in-picture box offers an overview of all callers. It’s a bit tight on the iPhone, but it works well on Apple TVs and iPads. When shows offer multiple subtitles and audio options, everyone can listen / read in selected languages.
There are also a few games compatible with SharePlay, but you’ll probably aspire to free options, like a charade-based game, Heads-Up. (Testing with other Engadget editors was a lot more fun than it was entitled to.)
Fitness Plus, Apple’s on-demand exercise service, also works with SharePlay. Sure, you’ll need an Apple Watch to participate, but it’s a fun way to share a workout and have someone to complain to along with you. The app did a great job releasing Fitness Plus audio when my companion was talking. Sometimes he would pick up an ambient noise, like a remote slamming of a door, but it was cool to be able to hear someone else sweating (and cursing) along with me while I was still in the privacy of my apartment.
Unfortunately, your favorite streaming service may not work on SharePlay. There is currently no YouTube or Netflix, but Apple has managed to connect to TikTok, HBO Max, Hulu, Showtime, Paramount Plus and the NBA. There are some third-party fitness apps (including SmartGym), but nothing significant.
There is potential here, I just wish this feature wasn’t connected to FaceTime. I would be grateful for the SharePlay capabilities with say Apple TV +, and then enter the details of who I want to share with when I choose something – that order would make more sense.
While I may not be a regular FaceTime, I can appreciate updates in iOS 15. For example, you can share your FaceTime calls outside Apple’s walled garden, to anything using a web browser. This works best on Apple devices, but is relatively stable compared to the open beta we tested earlier this year. You’ll also immediately notice a new network view that brings Apple to parity with other video calling services, such as Google Hangouts or Zoom.
There’s also surround sound, which is why every person in your FaceTime call sounds like they’re coming from a certain direction. It does not change life, but it is a beautiful flowering. What’s even better are the new voice isolation and wide modes, the latter of which intentionally draws in more ambient noise. They are also available outside of Apple’s own video calling app. I inadvertently turned it on for some WhatsApp video calls with the family as I tried to comfort the grumpy child – the caller had no idea my niece was completely broken. Of course, the efficiency of noise removal can vary, but in general I thought it was impressive.
Apple’s attempt to help us get a part of our lives back from our smartphones is welcome. Compared to Screentime, which came with iOS 12, the Focus seems more robust. It’s better equipped to help you stay away from your phone, and less to tell you what you already know – you’ve spent more than 40 minutes reading Reddit when you should be asleep.
Focus offers several different profiles, developing one Do Not Disturb switch from before. For starters, there are three reserved places: Business, Sleep Time, and Personal, but that doesn’t stop you from adding more ways to focus to cover, perhaps, a trip to the gym or when you offer your phone to your kids.
There’s also a switch inside the Focus menu that allows compatible apps (there aren’t many) to notify anyone trying to contact you that messages have been “quietly delivered”. If it is very important, they can “send anyway” and will continue to ping you. Of course, this is only when it comes to iOS users. Android users will not have any indication that their message will not be read.
In iOS 15, you can automate transitions so that your device ‘locks’ you when you need to submit a draft for review, rather than getting stuck in the latest Apple Arcade game. This can be based on location, time or even AI memory. The phone learns when you manually switch between modes and will suggest the same transition, hopefully, before you do it yourself.
You can also approve apps and contacts within Focus settings. If they are not in the list, notifications will be collected until you change mods.
You can also use focus modes to customize your interface. Within the settings for each mode, you will need to make each new page of the home screen as an additional panel. Once enabled, you will only see the panels enabled in that particular focus mode – even though the app tray is always only a few strokes away…
If it’s any kind of support, I’ve set up a ‘sleep’ focusing mode that interrupts messages and most things after 10pm, protecting myself from some of the chaos of the international Engadget team and friends who are largely night owls. It has worked well so far.
Smarter iOS again
Apple’s machine learning takes a few more steps forward in iOS 15. These are small additions, but they indicate where Apple is running its mobile OS.
Several of them are based on images. Visual Look-up will, uh, search for photos on your iPhone, identify people, places, and more. It’s something Google has been doing on Lens for years – which you could use on your iPhone as well.
Live Text is a little more compelling. It can identify and extract text from a photo, which you can then paste into emails or notes. You can even translate this text in real time, which makes it useful for menus and characters as we gradually re-enter our boundaries.
Spotlight in iOS 15 also got some smart machine learning skills. You can now search your Photos app without having to open it. Type “dog,” “ramen,” or “baby” and you’ll see your own pictures of what you enter, if you have any. This also works for people if you have assigned photos to their faces. Even more impressive, it will search the text inside your photos, even though I haven’t needed it yet. However, this can be bad: I have a photo of a Lulu Lemon bag (don’t ask), which is covered in random words. Apple indexed them all.
Throughout iOS 15, you’ll notice a new “Shared with You” section that’s entirely based on your Messages app and the content and links people send you. You’ll see it in Safari, Photos, Podcasts, Apple Music, and more.
Any content that someone shares with you on Messages will be populated in the appropriate app. It works flawlessly, but it’s also just for all Apple stuff. I benefited the most from sending and receiving photos, but I could see that the utility is very much tied to how many of my friends and family watch TV Plus – or are iPhone users to begin with.
Safari has also received some surprising changes. Yes, the address bar has now been moved to the bottom of the screen – closer to your fingers on the growing iPhone. While it takes a while to remember that the URL box is alive now, it makes sense. And, if you absolutely can’t tolerate that, you can rule out this design change. That’s a rare part of the flexibility from Apple.
Safari on iOS 15 also introduces extensions, as Safari has on Macs. Unfortunately, the best extension (and the only one I use) is Noir that tries to impose a ‘dark mode’ effect on any website you browse on Safari. This is another area that could be more attractive in a year.
Many other Apple apps have also picked up subtle upgrades. Apple Maps continues its slow path to redemption with improved transportation instructions and augmented reality walking instructions. There is a deeper level of detail for several cities, including New York, San Francisco and London, including bike paths.
With the Weather app, you can now set notifications when rain or snow falls, borrowed from Dark Sky, a weather app Apple recently purchased. And the Health app does a better job of informing about trends, such as weight and physical activity. This week, I was informed that my VO2 levels have improved since attending HIIT classes every day, which means that regardless of weight loss or what I see in the mirror, my cardiovascular system is getting stronger.
If you pay for iCloud or Apple’s One service, you’ll get a few add-ons with iOS 15. It now includes a built-in private relay that will disrupt traffic at both ends of your Internet connection – iOS will indicate when it’s on or off. It is useful simply because it is so ingrained in the OS that there is no need to turn it on or off. Paid service also adds the ability to create your own email addresses that are automatically forwarded to your main email account. They work in places where the Apple Login feature is not supported, which does a similar thing.
Like iOS 14 before it, Apple supports devices from the iPhone 6s onwards, including the first iPhone SE and the 7th generation iPod touch. However, some features, especially those that rely on AI and machine learning, depend on more modern mobile chips. You’ll need a device with an A12 chip, first used in the 2018 iPhone Xs, to use FaceTime’s new way of voice isolation, surround sound, and blurred background portrait mode. Offline support for Siri and further upgrades Siri performance also needs the same A12 chip or later. Fantastic cinematic video recording mode also remains exclusive to iPhone 13 Pro models.
iOS 15 is a silent update. It can be difficult to see what has changed unless you are actively looking for differences. This is not an iOS release to remove the start button. Instead, Apple focuses on sharing as a way to woo people outside of iOS, while keeping those already committed to its apps deeply rooted.
With FaceTime web links, SharePlay, and those new Shared With You sections, the company urges you to share photos in messages, stretch in a Fitness Plus yoga session with friends, or watch Ted Lasso’s latest season with family hundreds of miles away.
Apple wants you to do all that stuff Apple’s way, instead of via WhatsApp, Netflix or Peleton. It’s still a big question, but Apple has so well intertwined all these often different parts together that it’s easy to see what it’s trying to achieve, even if the content or flexibility isn’t quite there.
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