Every year, around the same time, Apple releases at least one new smartphone. But the best part of that annual cycle is actually the free software update that precedes the launch of the latest iPhone.
On Monday, Apple released iOS 12, its newest mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads, just four days before the launch of the next-generation iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max.
But unlike previous years, the software update doesn’t really feel much different than the previous software, iOS 11.
iOS 12 doesn’t really have a standout feature that changes how everyone will use their iPhone
In iOS 12, the biggest changes are grouped notifications, which stacks your notifications by app, and sometimes by person; the new ScreenTime and App Limits features, which let you see how much time you spend on your phone and control the amount of time you spend in apps; and Siri Shortcuts, which let you train Siri to perform an action based on a specific phrase you create.
Grouped notifications are a nice touch, and app limits are great for those who need it, but the biggest change — Siri Shortcuts — might be overlooked if you don’t actually use Siri. (Personally, I hardly ever use Siri since I own an Amazon Echo that replies much faster, and doesn’t have trouble understanding my commands.)
So, the biggest change in iOS 12 might actually be under the hood: Apple said iOS 12 offers big performance boosts, especially to older devices.
But that may be a case-by-case basis. I urged my fiancée, who owns an iPhone 6S Plus, to update her phone this week — mainly so she could tell me if she noticed any differences with the new software. She told me she hasn’t noticed any difference in terms of performance or speed.
I’m in a similar boat, despite owning a newer iPhone model: In my first four days of owning iOS 12, I have noticed system animations are a bit faster, but the apps themselves don’t load or perform any differently. In general, I have not noticed any meaningful difference in my day-to-day activities on my iPhone X compared to the previous software.
A quick comparison to past years
Previous iterations of iOS offered more meaningful upgrades for users:
- iOS 11 introduced a redesigned App Store; a redesigned Messages app; the ability to customize the Control Center, Do Not Disturb While Driving; and a more natural-sounding Siri
- iOS 10 introduced “Raise to Wake”; the ability to delete Apple’s default apps; the Bedtime feature that tracks your sleep; a “Clear All” option for notifications; and the ability to view what’s on your computer on your iPhone
- iOS 9 introduced Low-Power Mode; shortcuts that take you “Back to App” or “Back to Search,” a feature that shows you the battery level of your Bluetooth-connected devices; and the iCloud Drive app to access your Mac files on your iPhone or iPad
- iOS 8 introduced the ability to respond to notifications without leaving the app; support for third-party keyboards; “swipe to delete” for messages and emails; improved Spotlight search; and the ability to send audio messages
- iOS 7 introduced a complete redesign of the operating system from the overall look to features like Notification Center to apps like Safari; the ability to go “back” on a previous page within an app by swiping left; the ability to change your default apps for weather and mail; and added the Control Center for the first time
Just comparing iOS 12 to the past five years, this new software upgrade definitely feels more like iOS 11.5.
Refinement is not a bad thing
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a major software update be mostly about “improved performance.” iOS doesn’t need new features for the sake of having them. And as you use your device, you’ll likely run into one of the new features introduced in iOS 12 eventually — like the “For You” tab in the Photos app, or the improved augmented-reality software — even if it’s not an everyday thing.
But generally speaking, Apple’s new iPhone software is an “S” upgrade from last year, in the same way this year’s iPhone hardware is also an “S” upgrade: It looks and feels mostly the same, but you’ll notice a few optimizations here and there. Still, I would’ve loved to see more. For instance, I personally wish Apple would re-examine its Clock app, particularly its alarm system: You can’t use Apple’s awesome “Bedtime” music for your normal alarms, and you can’t customize the snooze function — it’s always exactly 9 minutes.
Apple will be rolling out new features for iOS later this year, including the new Group FaceTime feature promised for iOS 12: I’ll be looking forward to those features, because right now, I don’t notice much of a difference from iOS 11.