Updated: iOS 9 features and updates

Siri, design and Apple Maps

  • Update: iOS 9.3 public news has been added, detailing features like Night Shift, a nighttime reading mode that tones down the bright blue light.

iOS 9 launched back in September and it’s a lot better than iOS 8, thanks to new features that make the iPhone and iPad software easier to use.

Siri is smarter, Apple Maps has been improved and the notifications drop-down menu is now sorted logically. Best of all, every device that works with iOS 8 works with iOS 9. Since launch it’s improved even further too, with the roll out of iOS 9.1.

iPads benefit big from this current operating system update. New iPad multitasking functionality, especially for the iPad Air 2, finally fulfills the tablet’s promise of productivity on the go.

While iOS 9 and even iOS 9.3 beta lack some key Android features, there’s a lot to like about it, now that new hardware is available in the form of iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus and iPad Pro.

iOS 9.3 update

iOS 9.3 is Apple’s first major update with brand new features to highlight. While iOS 9.1 added new emojis, iOS 9.2 tweaked Apple Music and Apple News and iOS 9.2.1 just fixed bugs. But iOS beta actually bring new functionality.

iOS 9 features and update

Specifically, the preview software debuts Night Shift, which automatically tints your iPhone and iPad with warmer colors. Bright blue light can keep you up at night, studies have shown.

Night Shift uses the time and geolocation to determine the sunset and the display returns to normal in the morning. It’s a feature we’ve seen from third-party apps like f.lux on Mac, but a first directly from Apple.

Educators wielding iPads can dive into a new classroom app and multi-student login. Passing an iPad around the class can let students save their work to individual profiles and pick up where they left off.

Beyond that, Notes can be locked behind Touch ID for additional security, and the Apple News and Apple Health apps have been tweaked with minor design and content changes.

iOS 9 compatibility and download size

iOS 9 isn’t about a fresh coat of paint like iOS 7 was, it’s about rust-proofing glitchy software that launched alongside iOS 8 in 2014. Everything is designed to run smoother, especially with the update to iOS 9.1, and it does.

iOS 9 features and update

There are fewer app crashes and hard restarts required compared to when iOS 8 first came out. I’ve experienced no white screen of death problems so far, just occasional design flaws.

Even better, iOS 9 works with devices as old as iPhone 4S and iPad 2. Apple didn’t axe any old phones or tablets from its compatibility list in the transition to the new operating system.

It was also a relief to see that this free update is a 1.4GB file and doesn’t require the 4.7GB of free space to install on your tiny, 16GB devices.

Siri and search

The most obvious iOS 9 change involves Siri and spotlight search. Sliding to the left-most menu reveals a robust list of “Siri Suggestions,” filled with your most recent contacts and apps.

It provides quick access to your four most recent contacts and four most recent apps. There’s a “show more” and “show less” toggle to increase that to the eight most recent. Sadly, you can’t unpin and disallow certain apps from showing up before your parents see you’re on Tinder.

iOS 9 features and update

Apple Maps gets some attention here, too. “Nearby” shortcuts are a fast way of finding Parking, Restaurants, Gas Stations and even Desserts, which all link to a Yelp review-filled Maps menu. In true Apple fashion, there’s no customization or option to re-sort which shortcuts come first.

iOS 9 concludes this Siri-run search menu with news snippets from sources like the New York Times and CNN. Strangely, there are four headlines, but if you hit the rather stingy “Show More” text, it reveals a total of five. A glitch to be solved in the future, perhaps?

The news presentation here isn’t as flashy as Samsung’s Flipboard-based menu, which is also the leftmost Android menu on the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. Apple saves the magazine-style stories for its new iOS 9 News app.

iOS 9 features and update

Holding down the iPhone or iPad home button to issue normal Siri commands leads to smarter answers. I randomly asked “Bring up photos from May 28, 2015” and Siri immediately opened the pictures I took at Google IO on that date.

I still find Google Now to be more advanced overall, but this same phrase on an Android just leads to my Samsung Galaxy S6 Active opening up random web results. That… doesn’t really help, Google. Apple is catching up and boasts that Siri is 40% faster and 40% more accurate. It shows.

Notifications, recent and photo scrubbing

iOS 9 features and updateSmaller iOS 9 menu changes (which are also present in iOS 9.1) have solved big pet peeves I’ve had with iOS 8, one of which I felt Apple should just steal from Android.

Notifications are now sorted chronologically instead of illogically grouped by app. This was always a problem when I accidentally put my finger on the Touch ID home button, forever sending all time-sorted lockscreen notifications into the app-sorted notifications menu. Now they all reside in the swipe-down-from-the-top menu once the phone is open.

Apple re-stylized its Recent menu, which is the one you see when double pressing in the Home button. It now sports a larger Cover Flow format, rather than its former zoomed out look.

The more important change to the Recent menu is that there’s a shortcut icon tucked away at the bottom for Continuity (an app open your nearby Mac, iPad, etc) and location-based apps (if you’re at a store like Starbucks and have the app installed).

Previously, these icons were stuck on bottom left corner of the lockscreen, which meant locking your phone just to press the wake button again to access the lock screen shortcut. Now it’s available in two spots, whether or not your phone is in a locked state.

Finally, flipping through the default Photos app is less of a hazard, because there’s a mini slideshow at the the bottom of the app. It’s the fastest way to scrub through photos and reduces the chance you’ll bring up that embarrassing picture while showing someone other photos.

Apple Maps

iOS 9 is the company’s big push to improve Apple Maps, and it does just that… to some extent. Namely, this comes through with long-overdue public transit directions.

Routes for buses, trains, subways and even ferries are here, and I put it to the test on the New York City subway while navigating Manhattan. I survived this Apple Maps expedition without booting up Google Maps.

iOS 9 features and update

Besides New York City, transit directions are available in Baltimore, Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, Toronto and Washington D.C. About 300 cities in China, including Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai, are also getting the transit treatment.

Does it fix everything? No. The problem with Apple Maps wasn’t just its lack of transit directions or too-often wrong routes, it was the fact that the app’s design just couldn’t compete with Google Maps. That’s still the case.

iOS 9 features and update

Google is busy adding ridiculously minute details, like chalking out your vacation dates to the map overtop of your hotel. Apple’s cumbersome app won’t let you finger ahead to see the next directions. It just springs you back into place. I can go from Los Angeles to London on Google Maps while in the middle of turn-by-turn directions if I wanted to. With Apple Maps, I can’t look ahead one block.

While I appreciate its new Nearby feature that lets you discover stops along the way, Apple Maps’ foundation is a little too flawed for me to give up on Google Maps just yet. It doesn’t matter if Siri insists on opening up Maps whenever I ask for direction by voice.

iPad multitasking, new keyboard and notes

iOS 9 is very much an iPad-focused update, with several of the most exciting new features only available on Apple’s 7.9-inch and 9.7-inch tablets.

Multitasking

True multitasking finally comes to the newer Retina-class slates: the iPad Air 2, iPad Air, iPad mini 4, iPad mini 3 and iPad mini 2. This may help Apple’s sluggish tablet sales among enterprise users.

Slide Out opens a second app from the left, working a lot like the drag-from-the-bottom Command Center gesture, and gives it about a third of the screen. That’s been enough space to check my email while already surfing the web, or to respond to iMessages while in the middle of writing a certain iOS 9 review in a Google Doc.

iOS 9 features and update

While the main portion of the iPad screen can consist of any app, the one-third panel is limited to Apple’s app suite of 19 apps. I get it. It’s clearly because the apps here are tweaked ever so slightly to fit the abnormal layout, but it’s still disappointing.

I should also note that while Mail, Reminders, Notes and Photos are useful in this Slide Out view, it’s hard to understand why Apple’s 19 multitasking apps includes Tips and Feedback. (Actually, scratch that, I may use that last one right now.)

Picture-in-Picture is another multitasking mode, one that’s focused on continuing to allow you to play videos and stream FaceTime calls while still using the tablet.

iOS 9 features and update

It puts the video in the corner of the home screen as soon as you hit the home button, and the small window can be resized and dragged around while you work in other apps. This works fine for all videos playing in Safari, just don’t expect it to work in the native YouTube app.

Split View is the closest thing there is to computer-grade multitasking on a tablet running iOS 9 or iOS 9.1, and it’s only available on the iPad Air 2. It converts the small Slide Out panel into two apps running side by side with equal space. Both are active, with full multitouch support.

iOS 9 features and update

All three multitasking modes give the iPad a much-needed productivity boost and they right the wrongs of Apple’s “multitasking” iOS 4 announcement, which ended up being apps kind-of, sort-of running in the background.

All of this is limited to the iPad. As much as you may want it on a phone in exchange for lugging around that 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus or iPhone 6S Plus, there’s no such multitasking in the iOS 9 update for Apple’s phablets.

New keyboard

The iPad takes the lead here, too, but there are still important changes that makes the iPhone’s QuickType keyboard even better in iOS 9 and iOS 9.1.

First, it’s easier to tell the difference between capital letters and non-capital letters, thanks to the new San Francisco font type. I no longer have to look at the shift key to try to determine whether it’s on or off.

iOS 9 features and update

Second, Apple turned off the pop up animation for every key press. You can still turn it on in the settings menu by following Settings> General > Keyboards and checking off “Character Preview.” However, I found it much less of a distraction without it on.

The iPad gets the most out of the keyboard changes with new shortcuts that flank the suggestion word bar at the top. They depend on the app, but I found cut, copy and paste almost always appear on the left, and sometimes undo and redo, too. Bold, italics, underline and attachment shortcuts hog the right side of the bar and are sometimes joined by up and down arrows.

iOS 9 features and update

Previously, this was unused space, and now it’s put to good use. I really wanted iOS 9 to add right and left arrow keys in this space, but Apple went in another direction. It made the entire keyboard a trackpad whenever two fingers touch down on the display.

It turns off the keyboard and lets you move the cursor all around without your finger having to be over the top of it (read: in the way of it). This works especially well when trying to highlight text right before hitting that copy and paste shortcut.

Notes

Notes has never been the most compelling app, but Apple’s iOS 9 update makes it less of an Evernote-afterthought with a few new tricks.

iOS 9 features and update

I was able to add checklist icons for a quick and simple to-do list and include photos thanks to a new attachment icon in the shortcut bar. Maps and URLs can be included, too, but the need for these two tools isn’t as pressing in such a “jot something down” app.

Right next to the little camera attachment icon is a squiggly line, which of course means I could draw a sketch by using my finger. It’s complete with different pen sizes and colors.

iOS 9’s enhanced Notes app isn’t enough to drop my subscription to the more feature-packed and easily searchable Evernote, but it’s an important step forward for Apple’s ecosystem loyalists.

Apple News, Wallet, iOS 9.1 and Verdict

Apple is giving two of its existing pre-installed apps a complete overhaul and a name change in iOS 9, and both are improvements over the old way of doing things.

Newsstand has been revamped as Apple News, or just News, and it gives us a free, magazine-styled layout. Passbook has become Wallet, and expands instead of changes the idea behind it.

Apple News

Really, you should get all of your news straight from TechRadar, but if you need to learn about other events happening in the world, Apple has a News app within iOS 9 and iOS 9.1, available in the US, UK and Australia.

iOS 9 features and update

It’s a slick-looking news aggregator, but, truthfully, it’s not the most ground-breaking app design because it does exactly what Flipboard does: lays out RSS content in a magazine-style format.

It collects stories from publications and topics I favorite, then does its best to deliver a rich newsfeed I actually care about. It has two things going for it over traditional Safari browsing: it’s fast and it keeps my personalized data separate from my Apple ID.

Wallet

iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus users have been waving their phones in front of NFC stations to pay for stuff in the US since October 2014, and as of July 2015 they’ve been doing it throughout the UK.

iOS 9 expands Apple Pay by adding gift and loyalty cards, therefore the app that contains it, Passbook, is being renamed Wallet. Goodbye, cumbersome QR codes that few retailers even used.

Loyalty cards aren’t a part of iOS 9 today, with the first retailers like Whole Foods, Walgreens and JC Penney promising to launch Wallet-integrated app updates.

iOS 9 features and update

However, the new app icon is here and so is this handy trick: double pressing in the home button on a locked iPhone (but not an iPad) brings up the Apple Pay menu.

This is convenient because the Wallet app is so tempting to hide in a folder. There’s no reason to keep it on the home screen until you really need it. But it’s nice to have quick access to it the few, precise times you actually do need to pull something out of your “Wallet.”

With loyalty cards launching, shortcuts like this are going to become even more important. I just wish Apple devised a way to access a flight boarding pass when my iPhone screen isn’t locked.

I have to lock my always-in-use device in an airport line, then press the lock button again to wake it in order to access the lockscreen notification. Apple Watch does it correctly with a shortcut that always rests in the notification dropdown right before a flight. I’m hopeful I don’t have to wait for iOS 10 for something similar.

iOS 9 features and update

iOS 9.1

Since launching iOS 9 Apple has brought out a small update, bringing the OS to version 9.1. The headline feature is 150 new emoji, brought about through its support of Unicode 8, so you can more easily express the fact that you’re painting your nails or playing at detective.

iOS 9 features and update

The update also adds a trio of new wallpapers, but the most significant additions are the least visible ones, as iOS 9.1 fixes a number of bugs, improves general stability and boosts the performance of multitasking, the Calendar, Game Center and Mail.

Verdict

iOS 9 is well worth downloading. The keyboard is easier to use, Siri suggestions make menu navigation faster, notifications are rightly sorted by time and, on the iPad, there’s actual multitasking.

Not everything that’s new is perfect or worthwhile. Apple Maps still needs a lot of design work, Apple News is a clone and the same old Apple ecosystem problems persist. You still can’t delete useless pre-installed apps (and now we know why) and Siri still loves opening Safari and Maps, even if you’re loyal to Chrome and Gmail.

Even with all of the iPad advancements, you won’t find multiple accounts like you would on Android, and good luck switching to Google’s operating system. Apple makes it tough to leave iMessages, as group conversations fall apart when you switch to those ugly green bubbles your Apple-loving friends hate.

That said, iOS 9 is an incremental advancement over iOS 8, which is exactly what Google has done in the transition from Android 5.0 Lollipop to Android Marshmallow. Much of it is behind the scenes improvements, but we’re already seeing the positive effects and it’s got even smoother with the launch of iOS 9.1.

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