After an underwhelming iPhone launch, iOS 15 arrives with useful new features
Last week's debut of the iPhone 13 at Apple's annual launch event was all about incremental changes to a vastly successful hardware line-up that has made the company one of the most valuable in the world.
There were some camera improvements in the iPhone 13, a bigger watch face on the Apple Watch Series 7 and a new iteration of the iPad. The new iPad Mini, bizarrely enough, seemed to attract most of the buzz.
It really seemed like Apple saving its powder for another year when the world is in better spirits and willing to get on board with format-busting new technologies, be it augmented reality glasses, a foldable iPhone or - whatever.
The Guardian's tech columnist John Naughton seemed to sum it up best when he suggested giving the iPhone 13 a miss, saving you money and the planet's resources in the process.
People are holding onto their phones for longer anyway, he points out.
"And yet the manufacturers are still, like Apple, annually releasing new models that are generally just an incremental improvement on what went before rather than a great leap forward. Why?"
Because there's still plenty of money to be made and an expectation on the part of Apple shareholders that the annual hype fest will propel earnings - and the share price.
More interesting to existing iPhone owners will be the debut of iOS 15, the newest operating system, which became available today and is compatible with any iPhone back to the iPhone 6S.
Some of the new functionality in Apple's iOS 15 software update
Here are 5 features to look out for in iOS 15:
FaceTime extends beyond Apple devices
If you are not an iPhone or iPad user, you probably haven't spent much time talking to people in FaceTime chats. Apple users love the video calling platform, but rivals such as Zoom, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have had an edge in them being completely platform-agnostic.
Apple finally goes some way to catching up by making FaceTime calls available on an Android or Windows device - via a web browser. Why it doesn't just release a FaceTime app for Android as it has done with Apple Music, I don't know. But at least now, a friend or colleague with an iPhone can just send you a link to click to have a FaceTime call.
The web-based FaceTime calls "remain end-to-end encrypted so privacy is not compromised," according to Apple.
If you have gone all-in on the Apple ecosystem, with Apple devices and hosting your precious files, email back-ups and photos on iCloud, your Apple ID and associated password are the key to everything. Apple doesn't just reset passwords if you forget them. You have to go through an account recovery process that can be a bit painful, particularly if you aren't near another Apple device you can use to authenticate it.
Apple appears to have addressed that pain point with Recovery Contact. It allows you to designate one or more trusted contacts to receive a code when you've been locked out of your account. They will then call you up or tell you the code in person, allowing you to regain access to your Apple account.
When you point the camera in your iPhone at something that has text on it, the Camera app will now detect the text and give you the option of selecting it. Then you can copy it to save the text as a note or plug it into a search engine to find out more about it. You can also choose to have the selected text translated into another language, which will prove very handy when we get to travel abroad again.
Android phones, and indeed iPhones, have had these features for quite some time, via Google Lens. Now Apple is building it into its own Camera app and in a way that will appeal to Apple users who haven't bought into the Google app ecosystem.
Find erased and switched-off devices
Despite having the ability to render your Apple devices unusable if they are lost or stolen, they remain thief-magnets. The Find My Network Apple created to locate Apple devices has saved many people the angst of searching for a lost iPhone and even seen some of them knock on the front door of the person who stole their phone.
In iOS13, Apple introduced a feature of Find My Network that meant your device could be located even if it didn't have access to a Wi-fi or mobile phone network. It used other Apple devices nearby to get a signal out.
But what happens when the device is switched off. It goes dark right, off the grid? Not any more. With the Find My Network app in iOS 15, devices that are turned off or even erased, can still be detected and located.
The key is the Apple device being close to another Apple device before it was turned off or ran out of battery power.
As MacRumors points out:
"Apple has not outlined just how this feature works, but either the U1 chip, Bluetooth, or NFC continues to be powered in the background even when your device is off or out of battery, though in the case of battery, tracking may last a limited number of hours."
Those features were not available in previous versions of iOS and mean there's even less of an incentive for people to steal an Apple gadget now.
SharePlay - coming soon
The pandemic continues to be an isolating experience for many, keeping people from travelling to be with each other and, in our own case, locking us down so we can't even pop over to a friend's house for a chat.
In the next new months, an iOS 15-based feature for FaceTime called SharePlay will debut for Apple devices. It will let you share experiences over FaceTime with friends and family, such as listen to music, watching a TV show or movie, complete a workout or share a screen to view an app together.
SharePlay will be compatible with Apple Music, Apple TV+, and Apple Fitness+, as well as Disney+, ESPN+, HBO Max, Hulu, MasterClass, Paramount+, Pluto TV, SoundCloud, TikTok, Twitch and others. But there are two glaring omissions - Netflix and Spotify.
According to Apple: "SharePlay will be accessed through iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and with shared playback controls, anyone in a SharePlay session can play, pause, or jump ahead. SharePlay even extends to Apple TV, so users can watch shows or movies on a big screen."
Unless the big streaming players join this effort, SharePlay will have limited appeal. But it could make the shared experience concept, already possible via Facebook and other platforms, much more seamless and interactive at a time when we really need it to be just that.
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