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iOS 9 review: an upgrade to jump for, or skip?

The latest version of Apple’s iPhone and iPad software promises better battery life, a smarter Siri, and true multitasking – but does it deliver, and is it worth upgrading?

The first thing you notice when you fire up an iPhone or iPad after installing iOS 9 is the lack of newness. It looks like iOS 8; it feels like iOS 8 and behaves like iOS 8 – the changes are subtle.

For instance, I didn’t notice until a week in that the typeface had changed. The whole operating system uses a new “San Francisco” typeface instead of the traditional Helvetica.

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First introduced with the Apple Watch, San Francisco promises to fit more on-screen. It does precisely that, but it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it change, as is the fact that Passbook is now called Wallet.

Notifications within the pull-down Notifications Centre are now in chronological order too, which is much better and can be cleared individually or by the day, but there’s still no “clear all” button.

Cards, public transport, and a better keyboard iOS 9 app switcher

The running app cards are bigger, making it easier to see what’s happening before tapping into an app. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
One of the bigger visual changes is within the recently used apps switcher. Double pressing the home button brings up bigger cards, so you can more easily see what’s going on before tapping into an app, while location-based apps or apps that have been triggered from a Mac or iPad using “hand-off” are there, too – an obvious improvement.

A couple of Apple’s apps have been improved too. The Notes app now supports drawing and photo insertion, though only if you use an iCloud account to sync them.

Apple Maps

Public transport within Apple Maps. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
Apple Maps also has public-transport directions but is still not as good as rivals Google Maps or Citymapper. The phone app will try to identify unknown callers from your email or give a rough location based on the number, which it did for me as it could never find the number in an email for anyone who wasn’t in contact.

Apple’s News app will also launch with iOS 9 (but not in all markets), bringing headlines and stories from a collection of new sources.

The Apple keyboard is also much easier to use now that the keys are not always capped up. Pressing the shift key raises or lowers the case of the keys so that it is much easier to see whether you’re about to punch in capital or lowercase letter. Swiftkey and others have had this feature since iOS 8’s launch.

The keyboard will also display cut, paste, and text formatting keys in some apps, which are useful – although the iPhone often needs to be in landscape orientation for them to show up.

iOS 9 keyboard

Lowercase keys and keyboard shortcuts. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
Two-finger cursor control is also available, which uses the keyboard as a giant trackpad; I found it more trouble than it was worth.

Siri, Proactive and suggesting apps

The biggest feature addition for iOS 9 is Siri’s new “Proactive,” essentially Apple’s take on Google Now.

A pane accessible by swiping right on the home screen, iOS 9 displays Siri’s suggestions of people you might want to contact and apps you might want to use at that particular time or location.

iOS 9 proactive Siri

Siri’s new powers include surfacing apps and contacts it thinks you will want access to due to the time of day, location, or other triggers. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian
Siri tracks your usage and learns when you might want an app or to contact a particular person. Perhaps you call your mum every Sunday at 1600 or use Google Maps on your commute home.

It should be able to scan your email and pull up flight details, warn of traffic delays on a commute or show things from your calendar, but I haven’t flown anywhere recently, so I can’t comment on whether it actually works.

In practice, I always found it proactive to suggest the Mail, Settings, Twitter, and App Store apps – obviously, I use them a lot. Showing me the Music app when I plug in a set of headphones was vaguely useful. It will likely get better the longer you use it.

Privacy and Siri

Siri also suggests trending news you might want to read, but the headlines it promotes are only pulled from a few sources, and I didn’t find them particularly useful. Once Apple News launches in the UK, which it hasn’t yet, it might improve.

Compared to Google Now on an Android phone, Proactive isn’t quite there. But it is better than Google Now on the iPhone purely because it’s baked in and isn’t restricted to being an app.

One thing to note is that Apple professes to do all this without sending your data away – unless you use Siri to ask for something –. In contrast, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are powered through the cloud, tracking your movements and all the data privacy implications that may or may not have. This won’t matter much to most people, but for those it does, it’ll matter a lot.

My interactions with Siri, in general, seemed improved. I still find it awkward, as a Briton, talking to an inanimate object. Beyond setting alarms and trying to get it to play music while in the car, you can at least instruct Siri to “Google” things for you or “Yahoo” if you prefer, which opens in Safari. The default “search for” command uses Bing.

Spotlight can also search within apps but requires the apps to support it, which they don’t have yet. That will improve as apps get updated.

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