Apple’s iOS 12 software update is available today for supported iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices, and on the surface, it looks like one of the smallest new iOS releases Apple has pushed out.
This isn’t a surprise; Apple said earlier this year that iOS 12 would be more about performance and stability than adding new features.
Some major additions that were originally planned—like an overhauled home screen—were reportedly delayed to a later release.
And it’s also not a bad thing. Frankly, iOS 11 had some problems. Apple released several small updates in late 2017 and throughout 2018 to fix those problems, all while battling some frustrated customers’ perceptions that the company was deliberately making older devices obsolete to encourage new sales as overall smartphone sales slowed their growth industry-wide.
And while Apple is pushing some fairly radical and unproven new ideas on the hardware side, first with the iPhone X and now the iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR, it makes sense to take a breather and focus on addressing those complaints from users and pundits in iOS 12. That’s what a lot of iOS 12 is about.
But there’s more to iOS 12 than the average user will notice. It adds or expands upon a few ways for third-party developers to make different kinds of apps or to tap into the work Apple has done on Siri, machine learning, or augmented reality to bring new capabilities to those apps. iOS 12 also adds new features to Apple’s own apps—and many of those features are driven by the company’s machine-learning efforts.
Apple is a changing company, and its priorities in iOS tell us a lot about what it’s angling for in the near (and not-so-near) future. There’s more value to this exercise than just navel-gazing: examining iOS 12 can help reveal whether the iPhone and iPad will be there for you not just now, but in a few years.
So let’s see what we can learn from several weeks with the iOS 12 beta and the final golden master release.
Table of Contents
At WWDC 2018, Apple tried to position this as an update that’s as much for older devices as for new ones. And it’s true—almost everything iOS 12 adds works on the iPhone 5S in addition to the iPhone 8.
The goal is also to improve slow performance on older devices—something for which Apple has often been criticized. When users confirmed that Apple was throttling performance on older devices to preserve battery life and stop unwanted shutdowns, detractors were quick to argue that it showed Apple deliberately limiting the shelf life of iPhones to get consumers to buy new devices. Apple denied this, and offered compelling arguments behind its throttling decision. (The company also offered a discounted battery replacement program to address the issue on affected iPhones.)
Now, iOS 12 seeks to improve performance even on older devices with healthy batteries. In our tests, we found that Apple succeeded on that front—but that the performance gains vary depending on the specific device. We’ll explore that more shortly.
For now, here are the models of iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch supported by iOS 12, according to Apple.
Supported iPhone models
Supported iPad models
Supported iPod models
Basically, iOS 12 supports every device that iOS 11 supported. Now let’s start exploring the new features in iOS 12.
You might notice the changes to notifications first. They’re all about presentation; there haven’t been any changes to how notifications work at a basic level.
Multiple notifications from one app can now be grouped together in both the lock screen and the notification center. Tapping on one of these groups will expand them out so you can access them individually. When you do this, there’s a button you can tap to collapse back up to the grouping again (“show less”) and another button to dismiss all the notifications in the group at once.
There are three configurations for this feature in the notifications section of the iOS 12 Settings app: automatic, by app, and off. It defaults to automatic. In this case, notifications from one app will generally be grouped together, but, for not entirely transparent reasons, iOS might intelligently decide not to in some cases. By app makes sure that every single notification you get from an app is grouped together no matter what. Off obviously disables the feature and returns notifications to their pre-iOS 12 behavior.
At this point, some of us have a lot of apps that send a lot of notifications, so this feature is very welcome. I would have liked to have been able to customize it a bit more, though. The automatic setting is too opaque; developers can make their apps break out notifications into two or more groups instead of one, but the user won’t always know why.
You can also now hold down on a notification, then tap a settings button to bring up some new options for managing your notification settings right from the lock screen or notification center. That means that you either turn off notifications from certain apps, or you can configure them to “deliver quietly.” The latter makes it so they appear in the notification center, but they don’t appear in the lock screen, present a banner, play a sound, or add a notification badge to the app. Apple calls this feature “Instant Tuning.”
There are a few other small notifications improvements, too:
Siri and Shortcuts
Apple dedicated a lot of its resources to making Siri more powerful in iOS 12. Most of this work is related to a new feature called Shortcuts.
Shortcuts allow for custom types of Siri interactions, either as part of third-party apps or in a new app called Shortcuts that lets you create your own and add them to Siri.
For most users, the most relevant thing will be the developer angle. Developers have not had this kind of access to Siri in the past. Now you can access any number of common app actions from anywhere in the OS to a degree that was not previously possible, and Siri will recommend them to you at opportune moments by sending you notifications.
Combined with notifications’ support for custom interactions for third-party apps, this adds up to a lot of potential. You’re going to start seeing apps asking you to add Shortcuts to Siri that work off those apps’ features. Developers can also prompt users to record Siri phrases to map to Shortcuts right inside their apps.
A lot of this is more about Siri as a smart suggester of things in notifications than it is about voice commands, but you can manually map voice commands to Shortcuts to your heart’s content. In one example, a third-party music app like Spotify could use Shortcuts to enable playing music in that app with Siri—something users have long complained was not possible. Spotify developers would have to write new code and release an update to support it, but it is possible. It would still be more limited than the Apple Music Siri integration, though, and would require users to create their own custom phrases for specific content.
Shortcuts is just the latest in a series of efforts by Apple to make third-party support about more than the user going into standalone apps. We saw that with Messages and Stickers, and Shortcuts works in a similar way. It’s also the first of many features we’ll examine in iOS 12 that are meant mainly to encourage movement in the developer community. Apple knows that the App Store is iOS’ best asset, and adding ways for developers to create new experiences is one of the main strategies behind this year’s update.
So like a lot of features in iOS 12, Shortcuts depend on outside developer support to become fully useful for most users. But in the interim, you can create your own Shortcuts until that support comes.
The Shortcuts app
That brings us to the app, which isn’t installed by default. Once you install it, you’ll see a lot of DNA from the Workflow app, which Apple acquired last year, in Shortcuts. Like Workflow, it allows you to define a series of steps across multiple apps and iOS services. You can map those steps to a Siri voice command, and you can also share Shortcuts with contacts or add a Shortcut to the home screen, among other things.
The Shortcuts app basically allows you to automate complex tasks with a library of actions that relate not just to Apple services and apps, but to third-party apps as well (provided developers of those apps support it). You can then pepper access to that automation throughout the OS.
The Shortcuts app has a gallery of pre-made Shortcuts that you can activate. Those Shortcuts can be examined as models for how best to use the application, or you can modify them directly for your own unique use cases.
When creating your own Shortcuts, you can work with data from the Health app, the motion sensors, location services, GPS, the clock, and so much more. And that’s just at launch, with most of the options coming from Apple’s own apps and services. It’s kind of boggling to imagine what you could do if most popular apps in the App Store eventually supported this.
I could spend an entire article going over the various things you can do with Shortcuts. It’s a powerful app with vast possibilities. The downside is that it’s complicated enough that most people will likely decline to make their own Shortcuts. But expect many future Google searches turning up various articles and forum posts with step-by-step guides to Shortcut magic so that even those who don’t want to completely learn it will eventually get some benefit if they’re willing to dig.
Siri Suggestions have been around in one form or another for a couple of years, but they are greatly expanded in iOS 12. Previously you might get recommendations like “Siri Suggested Websites” when typing in search queries, but now they are more powerful, and you’ll find them in new places. This is most promising when you think about how it might work with third-party apps, and much of what’s new here is thus tied to Shortcuts.
For example, if you always order food in the GrubHub app on the way home from work every day, and if the app developers behind GrubHub choose to put in the work to add support for this, you might start seeing notifications around 5:30pm asking if you want to order your usual from GrubHub. In another example, your calendar app of choice could have a record that a meeting starts in five minutes, but you’re obviously not going to make it in time. Siri might then suggest sending a pre-canned message about how you’re going to be late to the meeting organizer.
Users of the iOS 12 beta have been noticing and sharing expressions of this feature for months. For instance, in some cases Siri reads your Messages and notices if you’re talking about having lunch with someone. Even if you don’t create a calendar event, Siri might remember that you planned a lunch and remind you to turn on Do Not Disturb before the lunch starts.
All this could be useful, but it could also get annoying very quickly. You’ll have to put in some time managing which suggestions and Shortcuts you want and which ones you don’t. But I have a feeling most people won’t want to put in the time, so they’ll either leave everything on and thus experience a barrage throughout the day of recommendations that range from very helpful to senselessly irritating… or, they’ll just turn them off completely.
Like Shortcuts, this is a power-user feature. If you really understand it and want to invest time and energy into managing permissions and creating custom actions, I can see it being quite useful. If you don’t, it’s not that attractive—though I think it could be a big deal for accessibility for those with certain disabilities. And it becomes all the more powerful when you factor in Shortcuts.
In any case, a lot of this draws on similar features Google has been including in Android for a while now. But, to harp on a running theme you’ll find in this iOS 12 review, Apple is trying to communicate to users that this is different because of how it handles your data.
Apple says that all the processing is done locally on your device and that it’s encrypted, so you’re not sharing tons of data about your habits and activities with Apple. As in almost all cases with iOS involving machine learning, Apple’s approach is arguably more attractive for privacy hawks, but the effectiveness of the feature isn’t always going to be as strong as what you might see on competing platforms.
Other Siri changes
There are a few more minor changes that relate to Siri, too, like the ability to say “Hey Siri” in low power mode. There are two new accents (South African and Irish), you can ask Siri to show you your passwords in the password manager, turn on the flashlight, find your other Apple devices, translate phrases between new language pairs, and search Memories in Photos. Siri can also answer more questions about celebrities and food or about topics like motorsports, which wasn’t previously supported at all.