Photo: endgadget
Photo: endgadget

iOS 15 poses a challenge that recent iPhone software updates haven't had to face. Those recent iOS updates were pretty easy to sum up. Sure, each update contained its fair share of new features and enhancements to existing capabilities, but it was usually easy to pinpoint the biggest changes and summarize them in a couple bullet points.

Try doing that with iOS 15, and you'll soon spiral into madness. This is a massive update with plenty of changes — some of them so sweeping, they also appear in Apple's software updates for the Mac and iPad as well. Just when you think you've covered most of the bases with this update, you'll find an extra iOS 15 feature, one that demands further attention because of its potential impact on how you use your phone.

You can find out for yourself just how big an update iOS 15 is now that Apple has released a public beta for its newiPhone software. The beta process is Apple's attempt to fine tune its software prior to a full release this fall. But for users like you and me, it's our chance to acquaint ourselves with just how many changes await us in iOS 15.

I've been using the iOS 15 developer beta — both the version that Apple released during June's Worldwide Developers Conference and a subsequent update that forms the basis of the first iOS 15 public beta. So far, I've come across a head-swimming number of changes that figure to evolve over the next few months as we get closer to iOS 15's fall debut. Here's what you can expect when you take the iOS 15 plunge — and whether you should.

1. FaceTime: SharePlay, screen sharing and spatial audio

Photo: endgadget
Photo: endgadget

Though it would have been a lot more helpful if Apple had launched this feature during the throes of the pandemic, FaceTime’s SharePlay feature will still be useful for many of us. Whether you want to watch an episode of Ted Lasso with your long-distance buddy or provide remote tech support to your relatives, SharePlay and screen sharing over FaceTime will make your life a little easier.

iOS 15 restores some order to the chaos with a grid view option that's less distracting, at least to my easily diverted eyes. If you've got an iPhone XR or newer, you also reap the benefit of spatial audio, in which the voice of the person speaking emanates from the part of the screen where their square is located. It's a seemingly small tweak, but it makes a world of difference in letting video calls feel more natural.

However, the biggest change in FaceTime involves Apple's new SharePlay feature, which is so sweeping that it's also included on the new versions of iPad and Mac software. With SharePlay, you're able to stream audio or video on a FaceTime call, and it will play for the other people you're FaceTiming with, with playback synced up so that everyone's watching or listening at the same time. You can also share your iPhone screen via SharePlay.

2. iOS 15: Focus mode and notification changes

Photo: Tomsguide
Photo: Tomsguide

Apple allows you to customize profiles that will allow notifications from specific apps or people when enabled.

Three placeholders are available at the start: Work, Bedtime and Personal. On your first time trying to enable each, you’ll have to set up which contacts and apps to allow. You can also choose to enable your Focus Status so people who try to reach you will see that you’re away when they’re using a compatible app. Developers of messaging apps will have to use Apple’s API to enable this, so that your friends who hit you up on, say, Telegram or Facebook Messenger will see your status too.

The biggest change to notifications, though, is Apple's new notifications summary, which you set up in the Notifications section of the Settings app. When setting up a summary, you can decide which app notifications you only need to see at select times of the day — those will then appear in on-screen summary at a time of your choosing, so you can skim through updates you may have missed without feeling bombarded throughout the day. I've found the summary to be a clever way to discover when new podcast episodes are available.

3. Live text (aka Apple’s version of Google Lens)

Many other iOS 15 updates are similar to features that competitors already offer, and the most obvious of these is Live Text. This tool scans the photos on your device for words and turns them into text you can actually use, whether it’s copying and pasting a phone number to another app or translating foreign words on a menu. This is basically Apple's answer to Google Lens, which has been around for years.

Similar to Lens, Apple’s version will show a small symbol at the bottom right of each image in the Photos app to indicate it’s found something. Tap that icon, and all the characters in that picture will be highlighted, and you can select the portions you need. I snapped a picture of my bottle of moisturizer and was able to copy all the words on the label and URLs also got identified as links I could click through. You can also use Live Text via the Camera app’s viewfinder without snapping a shot, by the way. When your phone detects words in the scene, the same icon will appear in the bottom right and you can hit it to pull up the snippets that Live Text noticed.

So far, this generally performed as expected, though it's worth noting that as its name suggests, Live Text only works on images that have a lot of words in them. But even a photo of my dinner, which included a container of yogurt with a brand name prominently displayed on it, didn’t trigger Live Text. Google’s Lens, meanwhile, will identify buildings, pets, furniture and clothes in pictures with nary a letter in them.

4. Map improvements

Photo: Tom's Guide
Photo: Tom's Guide

Case in point with Maps in iOS 15: this new update adds more detailed 3D views of cities that include better landmarks, 3D buildings, clearly labeled commercial districts, more detailed roads and trees, with all that data collected from the vehicles Apple sends around to improve its master map. That feature is rolling out to select cities, initially — San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and London — before it hits other places. Having gazed at downtown San Francisco, with a detailed Oracle Park nestled against the San Francisco Bay, I can tell you it's a look that really helps you get a sense of place when you explore in Maps.

At least everyone with an iPhone XR or later will be able to experience the new interactive globe that's now visible in iOS 15. Zoom out and you'll see a view of the earth from space, complete with an accurate star field. Zoom in and you'll see other details — mountain ranges, deserts, ocean depths — that are clearly labeled, making it feel like you've got an interactive relief map stored on your phone.

A more practical addition to Maps is the app's new 3D driving view that gives you a driver's eye perspective on roads around complex interchanges. I took Maps for a spin around the MacArthur Maze, a series of interchanges, merge lanes and potential wrong turns in the East Bay, and Maps clearly showed me which lane I had to worry about and which ones were merely flyovers. (One complaint: In this view, Maps labels the streets that are below overpasses but that have no exits — an unnecessary level of detail that I found mildly distracting.)

Also read: Apple iOS 14.7: What Are the New Features

5. Safari's new Look

We can argue about what the biggest changes are in iOS 15, but there's no question as to what will be the most controversial addition. Safari in iOS 15 sports a new look inspired by Apple's efforts to streamline the version of the browser in macOS Monterey.

Safari's tab bar is now at the bottom of the screen, which continues to be disorienting to me even after weeks of use. Eventually, Apple is betting that we'll all get used to it, especially since placing the tab bar down by your thumb makes the browser easier to navigate with one hand.

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