For a pretty substantial update, iOS 14 doesn’t make you think that a lot has changed after you’ve installed it on your iPhone, especially if you’ve spent the summer using the public beta. Some mobile OS updates can feel like walking into an unlit room in your house after someone moved around all the furniture, as you trip over a new feature here or some unwanted overall there.

iOS 14 isn’t like that. When I first installed the software on a test phone a few months ago, I thought it looked exactly like iOS 13. And it did — right up until the minute that it didn’t. Only in this instance, it’s me moving around the furniture.

With iOS 14, Apple has made the most substantive change in years to how you navigate around your iPhone. Instead of scrolling through page after page of apps, we can now use an App Library to more quickly jump to the apps we want. Widgets have been freed from the relative obscurity of the Today screen and can now live on your Home screen. Even video is no longer walled-off, as a picture-in-picture feature lets you watch videos while you work in other apps, just as you can on an iPad. (“Or an Android phone” — yes, Android partisans, I can hear your screams.)

Instead of complete overhauls, existing apps like Messages and Maps get features that build upon what’s already there. And the few entirely new additions like the Translate app bring welcome functionality to iOS — though the beta period suggested that some fine tuning was needed.

To that end, I’m still working my way toward a final iOS 14 review. But with the full release now available to anyone with an iOS 14-compatible iPhone, it’s worth re-sharing my impressions after spending some time with iOS 14 since the developer beta first came out in June. We’ll update this iOS 14 overview with a final rating as we get another look at changes Apple’s made over the summer and more third-party apps come out to take advantage of iOS 14’s new additions.It’s way too early to render a verdict — the beta process will bring many more updates that will fine-tune features and stamp out early bugs — but we do think iOS 14 holds a lot of promise both for existing iPhones and the iPhone 12 models that will be coming this fall.

Here’s what to look out for once you get a chance to spend some quality time with iOS 14 should you decide to upgrade right away.

iOS 14 availability

iOS 14 launched Sept. 16 after developers and especially daring members of the public tested out the iOS 14 beta. We’ve got a guide on how to download iOS 14, but basically, you can head to the Settings app and select General. Select Software Update, and iOS 14 should be ready and waiting for you.

You’ll need an iPhone 6s or later to run iOS 14. (The original iPhone SE and the 7th gen iPod touch are also on the list of compatible devices.) That means if you bought a flagship iPhone as far back as five years ago, you can still run the latest version of Apple’s mobile software.

I’ve been using iOS 14 on two different iPhones, primarily an original iPhone SE and now an iPhone 11 Pro Max. (Talk about a contrast in phones.) The iPhone SE let me see how the new update ran on older phones. (The answer? Pretty well, though I noticed a hit on battery life that may or may not be attributed to the fact I bought this phone four years ago.) Installing iOS 14 on the iPhone 11 Pro Max lets me see what kind of changes Apple’s made since the first beta as well as finding out how the features act on the larger screens you’ll find in today’s phones.

With that housekeeping out of the way, here’s what I’ve discovered so far when using iOS 14.

Widgets may not be a fully-fledged feature just yet — try moving a widget tied to a third-party app from the Today screen in the iOS 14 beta and see how far you get — there’s still a lot of promise there. Instead of having to scroll all the way to the Today screen to get a glance at quick info like today’s temperature or upcoming calendar appointments, you can now place widgets on the Home screen making them easier to access.

iOS 14 hands-on

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

I’ve set up my Home screen so that there’s a weather widget tucked in among my favorite apps, so I can see the temperature at my current location. At different points in my testing, I had a screen of nothing but widgets — one dedicated to headlines from Apple’s News app, another showing me what’s up next in my TV app queue, and finally, a Smart Stack pulling info from Photos, Calendar and other built-in apps. (More on Smart Stack in just a bit.)

You have multiple ways to add widgets. You can press on one in the Today screen until the Edit Home Screen option appears, before dragging the widget to wear you want it. When a Home screen is in edit mode, a Plus button appears in the upper right corner; tap it and you’ll get an array of widgets in various shapes and sizes.

ios 14 hands on widgets

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Changing a widget’s size isn’t as intuitive as it could be. From that widget menu that appears after pressing the Plus button, you’ve got to scroll down past sample widgets, and then tap on the name of the app for which you want a widget. Only then do you get to choose from widgets that fit in a simple square or span the length of your iPhone’s screen.

The widget menu is also where you’ll find the option for creating a Smart Stack, a name Apple’s given to a curated collection of widgets. Tap the Smart Stack option and you have the option to pick the apps to be included in your Smart Slack before placing it anywhere on one of your Home screens. (Again, you’re limited to Apple’s built-in apps at this point in iOS 14’s lifecycle, but I imagine that will change now that the full release is out and Apple can start approving third-party widgets.)

(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

The Smart Stack is supposed to change dynamically, bringing up the glanceable info you need at certain points of the day (appointments when you get to work, say, or music for when you’re at the gym). Staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic has limited m ability to test that feature, but I’ve noticed the Smart Stack change from time to time. You can always manually flip through the different widget screens to get the info you want.

iOS 14 App Library: Order out of chaos

The nature of my job means I download a lot of apps, but even if you don’t visit the App Store as frequently as I do, your approach to app management is probably the same as mine. You download the app, it lands wherever there’s a free space on one of your Home screens, and you promptly forget where it is until the next time you need to launch it. Sure, we all make sure to keep our frequently used apps on the first Home screen, and maybe even the second, but after that? The app might as well be in the next county.

Apple has spotted how we’re doing things, and Apple would like us to clean up our act. That’s why another big highlight of iOS 14 is the new App Library, which gathers all of the apps on your phone into one place.

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It’s a pretty well-organized place from what I’ve seen. The top two folders in the App Library showcase Suggestions — again based on the apps you typically use and when you’re likely to use them — and Recently Added, which does what it says on the label. Below that, your apps are organized by category, and tapping a cluster of apps reveals the full list. If you’d rather not hunt and peck, there’s a search bar at the top.

You access App Library by swiping left from your last Home screen, and the feature wouldn’t be much use if you still had to travel across a wasteland of app pages just to get to the screen to better manage all that software. iOS 14 gives you the option of hiding extraneous screens from view. When you’re editing your home screen, just tap on the row of buttons just above the dock. All your pages will appear as thumbnails, and you can unclick the ones you want hidden. The apps remain on your phone, but the screen clutter disappears.

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(Image credit: Tom’s Guide)

This is a much more sensible approach to app management than in previous iterations of iOS. My only complaint is that the only method provides to edit your home screen is by moving icons around on your phone itself. That can be hard to do, as apps on the edge of the screen have an unfortunate habit of darting over to the next page. I had a very hard time moving those apps on my iPhone SE, and even a minor bit of difficulty dragging them from the edge of the iPhone 11 Pro Max’s larger screen.

Apple dropped app management features from iTunes about three years ago, and iTunes itself has been a goner since macOS Catalina. I wish Apple would re-introduce a less frustrating method than physically dragging and dropping apps, especially now that iOS 14 shows the company is serious about having us curate our Home screens more thoughtfully.

iOS 14 Messages: Going big on Groups

Messages has become one of the more popular built-in apps on the iPhone, even more so as people look for ways to stay in touch. So it’s not a surprise that see some of the more substantive changes among Apple’s returning apps in iOS 14. In particular, Apple has focused on group chats, which have become handy ways to communicate with a lot of friends and family at once.

Some changes are cosmetic, but still helpful. You can now assign images — be it photos, emoji or animoji — to distinguish one group chat from the others. It’s not a major addition, to be sure, but it’s a handy visual cue that lets you pick out chats at a glance instead.

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More important additions to group chats are inline replies and mentions. The former feature lets you reply to specific texts, removing some of the confusion when lots of people are weighing in on a conversation, while the latter can ping you when there’s a specific thread or text in a message that demands your attention. Again, both enhancements should make group texts easier to manage.

But I think my favorite change in Messages is the ability to pin conversations — you can select up to nine and they’ll remain at the top of the Messages app for easy access. Tapbacks and unread replies circle above the pinned conversation. At first glance, it sounds like a minor organization improvement, but it’s easy to manage and it keeps your most important conversations close at hand.

iOS 14 Maps: New ways to get around

The launch of iOS 14 has meant the addition of one of the new Maps features Apple promised back when it first previewed the update — Guides that offer curated write-ups on places to visit and things to see that can help you plan vacations or just figure out if there’s something worth seeing in your vicinity. At this point, Guides are limited to some pretty frequently visited locations (think New York and LA), but they have the potential to expand Maps beyond a navigational tool into an app that also helps with discovery.

ios 14 hands-on maps

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Some Maps changes have been in place for a while now, and at least one will be very welcome if you use a bicycle to get from point A to point B. Along with the ability to plot out routes if you drive, walk, use public transit or hail a ride sharing service, a new Cycling option lays out the directions for people who want to ride their bike. (There’s also going to be a route planner for electric vehicles, but that option isn’t appearing on my phone at present.)

These are more than just turn-by-turn directions for bikes. Apple lets you know if you’re using a bike lane or if you’re sharing the road with cars. Your proposed route can flag if there are times when you’ll have to walk your bike and a handy elevation tool warns if you’ve got a steep climb ahead. You can even tell Maps to avoid routes with hills, heavy vehicle traffic or stairs.

To see just how much thought Apple has put into the Cycling directions, swipe up on a route. That normally shows potential stops along the way, such as coffee shops or places to eat. For bike routes, Maps includes any bike repair shops, too.

In fact, there are some elements of Cycling routes that I wish Apple would integrate into Maps’ other routing options. That elevation warning would also be handy for plotting out walking directions, which I say as someone who once decided to get a good walk in on my way to a meeting only to realize that Maps’ route had me climbing up one of the steepest hills in San Francisco.

The newcomer to iOS 14 is Translate, which promises to translate phrases and even conversations from 11 different languages. The main interface lets you speak or type words, phrases and sentences that it can translate into both text and audio. Star any favorites for words and phrases you use frequently, and they’ll be saved to a separate tab.

The real magic with Translate happens when you flip your iPhone into landscape mode and the screen splits into two separate languages, with the app able to tell who’s speaking what language and adding a translation on the appropriate side of the screen. (You will need to select your languages before starting a conversation, though, as if someone starts speaking Spanish when French and English are the selected languages, you’ll have one confused Translate app.)

iOS 14 beta hands on translate

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Apple calls this landscape orientation Conversation mode because two people speaking different languages can have their words translated. You wouldn’t want to use Translate for a lengthy conversation, though, as you’ve got to tap the microphone each time one of you speak — there’s no free-flowing exchange of views here. That can make Translate a little bit awkward to use, at least initially, and there were some interface quirks I ran into during the beta testing that I hope have been eliminated. (I’ll be checking over the next few days.) 

One feature you’ll appreciate with Translate is that you can download languages to keep them stored on your iPhone. This is helpful for when you’re traveling and you may not have an internet connection, but more importantly, it means that all the translation is taking place on your device, keeping all your words private whatever the language.

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The translation skills don’t stop with this standalone app. Safari now has a knack for languages in iOS 14, with the ability to translate web pages from seven different languages. The feature was in beta when I gave it a go, but it worked very well in my experience. It’s also simple to use: just tap on the “aA” icon in the URL bar and select Translate from the drop-down menu.

iOS 14 interface: Compact notifications

I dread getting a phone call on my iPhone, and it’s not just because it’s likely a robocall. Rather, an incoming call takes you right out of you’re doing, whether it’s browsing the web, playing a game or reading an email, replacing that activity with an incoming call notification that fills the entire iPhone screen.

iOS 14 introduces some interface chances, highlighted by the fact that call notifications now appearing in a box at the top of the screen. Tap the green button to pick up or the red one to dismiss the call, but now your entire iPhone screen won’t be taken over the next time someone tries to give you a ring.

ios 14 hands on

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Siri follows the lede of incoming phone calls in iOS 14. Instead of taking you to a separate Siri screen when you want to do something like launch an app or get a quick weather, all you have to do is summon Siri. A round Siri icon appears at the bottom of the screen, and whatever reply Siri comes up with shows up at the top. It’s an elegant way to include Apple’s digital assistant without taking you out of your flow.

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iOS 14 Siri: The assistant’s new tricks

Interface improvements aren’t the only change to Siri, as a new version of iOS revives Apple’s claim that Siri is smarter than ever before. It may be true that Siri has been filled with 20 times the facts it knew just three years ago, but I still need to spend some time asking Siri questions and getting a reply other than “Here’s what I found on the web” before I believe it.

Apple touts a number of other Siri tweaks here and there — you can ask the assistant for cycling directions through Maps and you can share your estimated arrival time using Siri. But one of the new features underscores my ongoing frustration with the voice-powered assistant — at least when I was working with the beta. In iOS 14, you can record audio messages via Siri and send them out with Messages for now and third-party messaging apps that add support for the feature later in the year.

ios 14 hands on

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So what’s the problem? Over the summer, Siri was very fussy with how you phrase that request. Ask Siri to record an audio message for a contact, and you’ll be able to dictate a text message — a feature that’s been part of iOS for a while. To actually record your voice, you need to specifically ask Siri to create an audio recording, which doesn’t strike me as very natural. We’ll see whether other people shared my frustration and that feature’s been updated for iOS 14’s full release.

Siri has been a mainstay on the iPhone since iOS 5, and I feel like it’s still a matter of trial-and-error to make the assistant understand what I’m requesting.

iOS 14: Other notable changes

If we spend any more time running down iOS 14’s additions and enhancements, we’ll have to make way for the iOS 15 preview. But there are a few other things I ran across in my testing that deserve some mention.

Picture-in-picture video: The multitasking feature that’s been a part of the iPad makes it over to Apple’s phones in iOS 14. Now when you watch a video, you can tap a button in the playback window to turn it in to a floating window that follows you as you move on to different apps.

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You can drag the window around the screen if it’s covering up that email you’re composing or that text message you’re trying to read, and you can resize the window to a point. (You’ve got to retain the same aspect ratio as the video that’s playing.) Obviously, it’s a feature that’s a lot more handy on an iPhone with a larger screen.

Picture-in-picture has been limited to built-in media players like Apple’s TV app, but I imagine that third-party apps will look to adapt it now that we’ve got a final version of iOS 14. 

Reminders: Create a list of to-dos in the Reminders app in iOS 14, and you’ll be able to share that list with other users (provided they’re running iOS 14 as well, of course.) It works a lot like the similar share feature that’s been a part of Notes for a while now.

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Website Privacy Report: This Safari feature shows all the cross-site trackers that Safari is blocking with its Intelligent Tracking Preventing capabilities. I’m glad that Safari is putting the work in on protecting privacy, but the tool doesn’t really have any actionable items for you to safeguard your browsing activity.

Voice Memo improvements: An Enhance Recording feature in the Voice Memos app promises to improve the audio of your recordings by downplaying any background noise. The feature appears as a magic wand icon on the screen where you edit your recordings, and you enable it with a simple tap. I recorded a voice memo with some loud music playing in the background, and while the drums and horns were still evident in the recording, the Enhance Recording feature did minimize them somewhat. I’ll revisit this feature soon to see if there’s been any further improvement.

Magnifier app: If you have a hard time reading the fine print on something, you’ve likely used the Magnifier feature on your iPhone. (Triple press the side button on the iPhone X or later, or triple press the home button on older iPhones to launch the feature.) In iOS 14, Magnifier is split out into its own app, with tools for both zooming in and adjusting brightness. You can also snap images without saving them to your camera roll if you prefer. And yes, the old triple-press trick still works for launching Magnifier if you have a hard time learning new tricks.

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Captions on Photos: Go to the photo app, and tap a photo you like. Swipe upward and you’ll see a field for adding captions. I can see this being an interesting tool for adding details and memories about your shot, but I’m not sure if there’s a wider application for it just yet.

iOS 14: What we haven’t tested yet

There are other iOS 14 features we’re still waiting to test — mostly because they really didn’t manifest themselves during the beta process for iOS 14. 

In cases like App Clips — a new way to download only specific capabilities of certain apps — developers need time to take advantage of the feature. In other cases, Apple simply hasn’t turned everything on yet. For example, iOS 14 is going to let you choose apps other than Safari and Mail as your defaults for web browsing and sending email, but that feature’s not live yet, even as iOS 14 has come out. (Apple needs to approve apps that can replace its default browser and mail clients.) We’ll keep an eye peeled during the beta process as this and other capabilities become available.

iOS 14: Outlook

We’re not ready to fully rate iOS 14 at this point. There are still some features to test more fully (and in some cases, to test for the first time). We’re also looking to see how many bugs have lingered into the release version and how quickly Apple snuffs them out. That’s been a problem with recent annual iOS updates, so we’re curious to see what Apple does different this year.

That raises the question that comes up any time there’s an iOS update — should I updated now? Obviously, you’re going to want to upgrade at some point, as it’s terrifically easy to keep your iPhone up-to-date. (Just ask your Android-loving friends when they’re getting Android 11 for an interesting contrast.) No word of show-stopping bugs has emerged in the initial hours after iOS 14’s release, but that can always change. The rule of thumb is that unless you’re prepared to deal with a hiccup or two, it’s best to wait for the first maintenance upgrade before you take the plunge with a new iOS.

Based on the beta, though, I’m encouraged by what I see. A lot of the changes Apple has introduced to existing apps seem well-thought-out while changes to widgets and the introduction of App Library seem like big improvements over how we used to navigate around our iPhone. There’s still more testing to do, but IOS 14 seems like a step in the right direction for the future of Apple’s smartphones.

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