iTunes Radio: Apple puts Pandora on notice
Apple's long-awaited iTunes Radio is now an official service, available in the newly released iOS 7. The service's functionality and performance are virtual identical to Pandora, the company that has long been the king of Internet streaming radio stations.
Users simply add a new station by searching for an artist name or song title. From there, iTunes Radio will intelligently assemble a mix of songs with a similar sound, allowing users to discover new artists.
One of the key drivers for Apple and record labels alike is music discovery. All of the content streamed through iTunes Radio is available for purchase through the iTunes Store, allowing users to own the song and listen to it at their convenience.
Users who subscribe to Apple's iTunes Match service for $24.99 per year will be able to listen to iTunes Radio without any commercial interruptions. That capability comes in addition to the scan-and-match cloud syncing functions already available through iTunes Match.
Photos: Apple automates picture organization
One of the biggest application overhauls in iOS 7 is the Photos app, which has been redesigned to automate picture organization and take full advantage of Retina displays.
The Photos application is now divided into three menu options: Photos, Shared and Albums. The default is Photos, where pictures are automatically organized in a way that allows users to more easily find the shot they may be looking for.
At the macro level, photos are presented based on the year they were captured. A summary of the year appears to the right, showing where the pictures were taken, and offering a nice recap of places the user may have traveled.
Taking advantage of the iPhone's Retina display, tiny thumbnails of the images are presented with just enough detail to get an idea of what the picture is. Users can hold their thumb over the tiny images to view a larger thumbnail, and release their finger to pull up that particular image.
Siri: Smarter with new system controls
Siri, Apple's voice-driven personal assistant, has become even more helpful with iOS 7 by granting users the ability to control settings such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and even screen brightness.
By holding the home button and invoking Siri, users can issue a command such as "increase the brightness," or "turn off Bluetooth." Users can also enable or disable the new built-in flashlight functionality.
When asked to turn on "Airplane Mode," Siri will even warn users that it will no longer be functional, as the software requires an Internet connection to operate.
Settings that are changeable are accompanied by onscreen controls that a user can manually change by tapping. For functions that Siri is not able to accomplish, such as enabling "Personal Hotspot", disabling LTE, or turning off location services, the system provides a quick link to the respective section in the Settings application.
Siri has also gained new, more natural sounding voices, and the option to choose a male voice as well.
App Store: Auto-updates and new discovery tools
The daily routine of manually installing application updates will become a thing of the past, while discovering new software will get easier, thanks to the enhanced capabilities of Apple's App Store in iOS 7.
Users annoyed by the seemingly omnipresent red update badge on the App Store icon will particularly appreciate iOS 7 when it debuts this fall. The App Store will automatically check for an install updates in the background, if the feature is enabled.
Users can control the new auto-update functionality in the "iTunes & App Stores" section of the iOS Settings application. There, Updates, Apps and Music can all be enabled or disabled under the "Automatic Downloads" section. As in earlier iOS builds, users can also decide whether auto-downloads are allowed to use cellular data.
Camera: New Instagram-like filters, square pictures
Apple's new Camera app in iOS 7 adds some features reminiscent of Instagram, the photo sharing service recently acquired by Facebook, in an update that unifies and simplifies the user interface.
Switching between modes is now a simply a Coverflow-like flick control of the various modes, positioned above the capture button.
HDR capture is now activated or disabled by tapping on the blue onscreen HDR indicator, rather than being hidden in a menu (along with Panorama capture) as was previously the case. When off, the HDR indicator goes grey.
And Apple's new Camera app photo filters, accessed by tapping on the grey overlapping circles, will likely remind users of Instagram, which popularized the idea of applying effects to photos to enhance them before posting to its social network of image feeds.
Weather: Apple's updated app gets animated
One of the most significant aesthetic changes in iOS 7 is found in the iPhone's native Weather application, which has been redesigned with moving three-dimensional graphics that illustrate the current conditions.
Many will first notice that the Weather icon no longer has a static indicator of 73 degrees. That potentially confusing decision, which lasted for years on the iPhone home screen, has been removed, and the new icon simply shows a cartoonish sun partly covered by a cloud.
Upon opening the application, the changes are immediately apparent: The entire background is an animation mimicking the current weather conditions. On a mostly sunny day, clouds will slowly drift by, while thunderstorms will bring down strikes of lightning from the virtual sky.
The animations even reflect the current time, with darker nighttime animations and brighter conditions during the daylight as clouds float or snow falls.
Messages: New group chat user pics, hidden timestamps
While it wasn't given as drastic of a redesign as some other native iOS 7 applications, Apple's new Messages app sports a tweaked look and some subtle but useful new features.
The feel of messages has changed in iOS 7, as each text bubble seems to have its own "weight" when scrolling. As the bubbles move when the page is scrolled, they will pull apart, only to come back together when scrolling is stopped, with a gravity-like effect applied to the items on screen.
A new Contact button in the upper right corner of any text messages quickly brings up options to call or FaceTime the person being texted. This is a change from iOS 6, when users had to scroll to the top of a conversation to access those options.
When using group messaging, if a person has a picture associated with their contact information on the iPhone, it will appear in a small circle next to their chat bubbles. Users who don't have pictures will have their first and last initial displayed.
More detailed message timestamps can also be viewed through a hidden new feature in iOS 7. Simply swiping and holding to the left will push sent messages to the side, and bring in specific message-by-message timestamps from off the screen. Letting go of the screen releases the page and throws the timestamps back offscreen.
Mail: New gesture support and reworked UI
Although not as striking a change as some other first party apps in iOS 7, Apple's makeover of Mail offers a number of usability changes that are welcome improvements over its predecessor, including gesture controls and a cleaner layout.
Mail in iOS 7 continues Apple's theme of an uncluttered look with maximum usability, made effective by a predominantly white background behind thin black text. Popping out from the monochrome design are blue circles demarcating unread messages, and orange circles or flags for flagged content.
Starting from the Account Setup page in iOS 7 Settings, things are already a bit different. For the first time, users have a way to easily add multiple "From" addresses to one IMAP or POP account, instead of listing out each one in a single text field. With the new system, users can also choose a default account from which emails are sent directly from the Settings menu.
Additionally, iOS 7 now lets users choose whether to send a deleted IMAP or POP account message to the "Archive" folder. Previously, only iCloud supported archiving, though attached Gmail accounts had a similar method that would send messages to the "All Mail" tab in Mail.
iBeacons: Enhancing app location awareness through Bluetooth
Acting as iBeacon, a user with an iOS 7 device in hand could trigger events around them, allowing them to, for example, turn on lights and unlock and open doors simply by signaling the user's proximity to devices listening for it via Bluetooth Low Energy.
The BLE specification also supports the concept of device leashing, which could, for example, enable a peripheral like a watchband to communicate its location to a configured smartphone. The specification also supports peripheral push notifications, which Apple supports in new APIs in both OS X Mavericks and iOS 7.
iOS 7's iBeacons can be used by app developers to do things like build an interactive tour of a museum, where the user's attention is directed to specific exhibits as they walk freely within the building.
In more general terms, the feature can also be used enable indoor navigation similar to GPS in settings such as an airport or underground subway station where GPS signals aren't available, or specifically to enhance navigational accessibility for the blind or users with other impairments.
New look: Animations and flat graphics create a sense of space
The iOS 7 user interface overhaul is a striking departure from past aesthetics, and one that has garnered a fair share of press, but a complete rebuilding of system animations is equally impactful despite going largely unnoticed.
Starting with the Lock Screen, there are already a multitude of changed elements, including the "slide to unlock" bar, which no longer exists. User still need to "slide" or swipe right to unlock the iPhone, but the animation has been modified to move an entire layer of the screen instead of just a small slider. The Lock Screen also fades in from black when the iPhone wakes up, which is a nice touch.
Notification Center, which is now accessible from the Lock Screen as a system settings option, slides down as it did in iOS 6. The translucent panel that pops into view has some added physics, however, as it "thuds" to the bottom of the screen, bouncing back as if rebounding from a fall.
Swiping up from the opposite end of the screen brings the new Control Center into view, with the window gliding to just below the clock before slightly retracting in a very "rubber-bandy" movement. This panel, also accessible from anywhere in the OS, doesn't rely on magnitudes of motion, meaning it bounces back the same degree, no matter how fast or slow the swipe.
For a more in-depth look, see AppleInsider's entire Inside iOS 7 series.