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iOS 7 changes are overwhelmingly cosmetic

SAN FRANCISCO -- To silence a growing chorus of discontent against an operating system design that's remained more or less static since 2007, Apple needed to go big. With iOS 7, it did. Apple's crisp, newly announced OS update gives the mobile operating system a radical new look and some first-for-Apple features for iPhone and iPad fans, like quick-access system controls, automatic app updates, and Apple's AirDrop file-sharing system.
The visual overhaul, which becomes available this fall, is a clean sweep that changes absolutely everything, from the typography and color schemes to the typical icon and button shape across the entire platform. And we mean the whole thing -- from the Safari browser to the photo app.
While there are a few notable new features in iOS 7, the new interface is by far the platform's deepest felt and most profoundly changed of the entire batch. Apple's other features are relatively uninspiring and do little to challenge competitors; however, we have a feeling that Apple is saving some major reveals for its next big iPhone announcement.

The fresh new look of Apple iOS 7 (pictures)

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Design
Gone are the skeuomorphic interface elements that make icons and apps look like leather or paper or felt. Gone, too, are the slightly bubbly icon effects. Flat graphics and a dappled, pastel color scheme bring an elegant look. When you move the phone or tablet, Apple promises a 3D effect that makes your wallpaper appear some distance behind the icons.
Circles enter the design language, along with visuals that look nearly transparent, like a pane of glass. See what we mean in the slideshow above. The most important part of any deep design work is that it feels smooth and connected from screen to screen. We had a chance to sit down with some of the folks from Apple after the keynote and check out iOS 7 for ourselves.

Navigation bars also disappear until you need them, a feature we've seen in many browsers before, and swiping left or right takes you back or forward a page, which we do find really useful -- until that moment you accidentally swipe away from the window you wanted to be on.
To note a few other additions: a new filter sorts out links from people you follow on Twitter, and makes it easy to retweet them. You can now scroll from one story in your reading list right to the next.
AirDrop
Mac users will cheer the addition of AirDrop in iOS 7, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service that will soon support the iPhone 5, fourth-generation iPad, and iPad Mini.
AirDrop works by creating local ad-hoc networks among nearby users. So if you want to share a photo, you'll hit the share button, and automatically see others around you who are also on iOS 7. From their you just tap a friend's picture and iOS 7 uses Wi-fi and Bluetooth to send your photo (and the recipient can accept or decline). It also offers the option to make yourself invisible to nearby iOS 7 users from the Control Center.
Camera and Photos apps
Apple did a lot of work reorganizing both the camera app and how images live in the photo app. CNET camera editor Joshua Goldman goes into detail here, but we'll also give you the gist.
Camera app in iOS 7
The redesigned Camera app makes shooting modes easier to find.
(Credit: Apple)
The camera app surfaces all your shooting modes so you can tap them to frame your shot, such as still, panorama, video, and a square, Instagram-like configuration. Another button will let you apply filters to the still or square shots.
On the Camera Roll side, Apple drops the endless list of photos that you may or may not break out into albums. With iOS 7, Apple treats photos as moments in time organized around geotagged locations, not just chronology. This takes a cue from Apple's desktop iPhoto counterpart.
One crowd-pleasing party trick is to zoom out and see all your photos from year to year. Sliding your finger along photos the size of confetti brings on a cool, scrubbing effect. It was definitely fun to use in our meeting with Apple, but we're not sure if Apple's photo vision aligns with our own when it comes to finding, storing, and sorting pics.
iTunes Radio
Gunning for Pandora, Google Music, Spotify, Slacker Radio, and pretty much any other music service, Apple's new iTunes Radio expands the pre-existing iTunes with familiar features that include radio stations you can build around a favorite artist, and featured stations.
Of course, iTunes Radio will be tied to your Apple ID, so you can use it wherever you have iTunes installed. It's free and will be ad-free for iTunes Match users.
We're happy to see Apple join the century, but there's not much new in terms of capabilities here that no one else is doing. Stay tuned for a deeper dive.
Siri matures
Apple's favorite digital voice assistant gains some more personality in this latest revamp. In fact, "she" has a brand-new voice; two, if you count the male version you can ask to talk to you instead. Though we have played with the new iOS, the male voice was not included in the beta release, so we'll have to reserve judgement.
A new soundwave animation appears at the bottom of the screen when you speak, and Siri's results come up in full screen, not just a tiny card. We did notice that Siri still takes some time to respond search queries, so Google Search still holds the speed record for voice searches. We also like what we heard in the keynote that Apple will be adding "high-quality" for non-English languages over time, including French and German.
By far the most substantial addition, and one that's truly useful, is that iOS 7's Siri can trigger actions on your phone's system settings, like play a past voice mail, turn on Bluetooth, and increase the brightness settings. Many voice assistants can't do this, so it's nice that Apple has increased Siri's capabilities this way -- though it isn't clear how deep into the controls your voice can go. You can also ask Siri to search Wikipedia and Twitter.
Siri in iOS 7
Siri gets some spit-polish, and the ability to turn off and on some system settings.
(Credit: Apple)
Now we just need to see Siri's listening accuracy and response time kick into higher gear.
FaceTime audio
The days of abandoning FaceTime every time you want to make a straight audio (rather than video) call from your iOS device are coming to a close. Apple announced that high-quality calls over Wi-Fi will complement video calls for those who would rather talk while on the move.
Automatic updates
A tiny, but enormously time-saving addition, the App Store gets automatic app updates in the new OS. This new feature was bittersweet because while we don't like constantly looking at the updates notification, there are some apps that we want to see the new features before we update. Apple assured us in our meeting that auto updates can be turned off in the settings.
Multitasking
Apple may sneer at Microsoft, but it certainly likes its rival's aesthetics when it comes to multitasking. Now, double-tapping the home screen brings up not just tiny thumbnail icons of your open apps, but also a tall preview (like a mini screenshot) of what you're looking at. Borrowing from Android's recent app list, swiping away a preview closes the app.
A few more noteworthy updates

  • Unlock the phone, and icons drift down
  • Revamped weather app shows dynamic weather animations onscreen; pinch for all-city overview
  • Night mode for maps
  • iCloud photo-sharing
  • iCloud keychain remembers sensitive data
  • Long MMS support
  • Swipe from day to day in Calendar
  • Phone, FaceTime, and Message blocking
  • View PDF annotations
  • Activation lock to protect against theft
  • Support for 60fps video capture
  • App store volume purchase
    Maps bookmark synching
  • Notification sync
  • Smart download for TV episodes
  • Smart mailboxes
  • Wi-Fi hotspot 2.0
  • Tweaked mail search
  • Inclinometer support
  • AirDrop from activity sheet
  • Background asset downloads
  • Per app VPN
  • Single sign-on for Enterprise
Availability
Bad news if you're itching to try out iOS 7 for yourself, because you're just going to have to wait unless you're a registered app developer. The full public release comes to your iPhone and iPad this fall (with no precise date). As usual, registered iPhone developers get a crack at the new iOS 7 beta beginning today, but iPad developers will need to cool their heels for a few weeks.
Not every device is going to be iOS 7-compatible. See the ones that didn't make the cut.
Our take-away (for now)
This is the first major redesign of the iOS since the iPhone's first release in 2007, signaling a shift to a more modern look that still stays true to Apple's sharp, clean, almost cutting aesthetic. We like the daring steps forward so far, but a contingent of die-hards will buck at the unfamiliar.
Apple adds visual and usability elements all its own, but also continues to borrow (as all the mobile platform-makers do) from some rivals in drips and drabs. We see this sprinkled throughout the OS in the quick-access settings, treatment of browser tabs, and adoption of some circular design elements.
As we said before, iOS 7 brings huge changes in the visual department, which is an important part of the way you relate with your tablet or phone. Yet the really substantial, game-changing new features are few and far between.
That said, Apple has a history of keeping its most pulse-quickening news for its next iPhone and iPad announcements. For that, we will have to wait until this fall.
We'll get you many more hands-on details as soon as we can. In the meantime, what do you think? Add your voice to the comments below.

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