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Apple's iOS 7 Adds Deeper Multitasking, Control Center and More Alongside a Minimalist Aesthetic

By Wesley Fenlon

iOs 7 looks flatter, cleaner, and very different--there's no green felt to be found. Apple's list of newly announced features includes some major usability improvements, including a control center for major settings and improved multitasking.

A common refrain echoed through Apple's announcements at its annual WWDC keynote on Monday, as Senior VP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi demonstrated the completely redesigned iOS 7 and the next iteration of Mac OS X, named Mavericks. "We completely ran out of green felt," he joked as he showed off iOS Game Center, which finally ditched its poker table-inspired skeumorphic design. OS X's Calendar, too, got a quip--it manages to stick to the desktop, even without its tacky tan stitching. Apple's new design philosophy permeates every aspect of iOS 7.

Led by hardware designer Jony Ive, iOS 7 has an entirely new "flat" design dominated by simpler icons, thinner text, a new color palette, and a whole lot of transparency. The change will invite comparisons to Microsoft's Modern UI in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but Apple's new UI is still recognizably iOS.

The grid layout of icons remains unchanged. There are no screen-dominating Android-style widgets to be found in iOS 7, though Apple's changes aren't just skin-deep. The new icons and other UI elements are better seen than described, especially a 3D parallax effect that moves layers of the UI as you tilt the phone, but some much-needed improvements to Notification Center, multitasking, and Siri are pushing iOS 7 forward. For starters, the App Store now updates everything automatically--no more manually updating apps to get rid of that big red notification icon--and folders can hold hundreds of apps.

The most fundamental addition of them all may be the Control Center, which can be pulled up with a swipe from the bottom of the screen to reveal important toggles and sliders for everything you want to control on your phone: Display brightness, volume, airplane mode, music controls, Wi-Fi, Do Not Disturb--it's all there. And there's a flashlight, too.

Apple released a beta build of iOS 7 for the iPhone to developers this week at WWDC. iPad builds are coming in the next few weeks, but the rest of us won't get to try it out until this fall--presumably right around the time Apple announces its new iPhones and iPads. iOS 7 supports the iPhone 4 and newer, iPad 2 and up, iPad mini, and 5th gen iPod touch. Let's walk through the rest of the new features coming to iOS 7.

Control Center maybe the most obvious Android-style feature addition to iOS 7, but it can conveniently be accessed at any time, including from the lock screen. The same goes for Notification Center, which you can now pull down with a swipe from the lock screen. As a brief aside, Apple also mentioned that iOS notifications will now sync across devices, so you won't have to dismiss the same messages on both an iPhone and iPad.

Apple also made an obvious dig at Samsung when talking about the addition of AirDrop to iOS, which allows iOS users to share photos and other files via local area peer-to-peer wireless. No phone tapping, they joked--just tap an icon on the screen, and you can send files to friends across the room.

Multitasking, too, looks like it's catching up with the freedom Android offers, though Apple took pains to point out that it offered limited multitasking in the past to preserve battery life. Now, apparently, that's not a problem--all apps will have access to multitasking capabilities, and the software will observe usage patterns to determine how often apps should refresh in the background, and so on. As an example, Apple pointed out Facebook would update frequently, while CNN, based on someone's behavior, may only update regularly in the morning and at lunch time.

Apple didn't give many details beyond this, so it's hard to say how effective the new multitasking will be, or how it will affect battery life, or how easy it will be for developers to implement. But they did show off multitasking's new integration into the UI, which looks fantastic--a double-tap of the home button now brings up a new notification center, where you can see large cards for each running app and horizontally swipe between them.

Both the camera and photo apps have seen similarly major aesthetic overhauls. The camera app now lets you switch between four shooting modes--video, panorama, photos, and a "square" cropped mode which we assume is intended to replicate the old medium format style of some film cameras.

Photos, meanwhile, has seen a huge organizational restructuring. The app now uses the metadata stored in your photos to organize them by where they were taken. Apple calls these "moments," and moments are further organized into collections. A trip to New York, for example, could be organized into "moments" like visiting the Statue of Liberty and Central Park, and those moments would be collected as a New York Vacation. Collections are further organized by the years, and you can scrub through photos from the zoomed-out year view to highlight a picture and jump straight to it.

The Photo editor now integrates some Instagram-style filters, and iCloud sharing of Photos has seen a boost, too. Photos can be shared through the newly-added AirDrop--which Apple pointed out is a standard new sharing feature, meaning any app can use it in iOS 7--or through new shared iCloud photo streams. Not to be left out, iCloud can now share videos, too.

Music is the last of Apple's base apps to see a major overhaul. That's thanks to the introduction of iTunes Radio, a free music streaming service that's gunning straight for Pandora with smart music channels and favoriting songs to play more similar music. Apple still wants to sell songs, though--the now playing page offers a click to buy a track, and a history page keeps track of everything you've listened to, so you can easily go back and buy the tracks you really liked. iTunes Radio is free for everyone--and it's coming to iTunes for Mac and PC and the Apple TV, too--and it's even ad-free for iTunes Match subscribers.

Safari's changes seem relatively minor, in comparison--they've added a new 3D file-folder like view of tabs, which are no longer limited to eight, and a new smart search field at the top will probably be how most users navigate with Safari from now on. Safari's Mac equivalent is seeing some bigger additions.

Finally, there's Siri. She's smarter, now. And also a he. Apple's offering both female and male voices for Siri in English, French and German, and the English voice now sounds a bit less robotic and a bit more human. The voice controls also have deeper access to iOS, which means doing things like playing voicemail or controlling the screen brightness. Siri can also control Twitter, access Wikipedia, and has integrated web search results from Bing.

Apple's tying Siri into new car integration, which it promises in a range of car models in 2014 from 12 manufacturers. iOS is coming to in-car screens so you can see messages, Maps, and Siri's interface on the car display. Apple tried to talk up both hands-free voice controls and that display integration, but hopefully iOS in the Car means more talking to Siri and less looking at text messages on the in-car display.

Apple hit on a few other iOS 7 features and teased even more it didn't have time to talk about. Activation Lock, for example, makes it impossible for a thief to reactive a phone even after wiping it--so long as they don't know your iCloud ID and password, that is. Those features may end up being some of the most exciting or most useful in the long run, like support for third-party game controllers and audio-only Facetime, which, like iMessage, is a big step into where the carriers make their money.

Control Center and the new multitasking features will seriously change how we interact with iOS, but it's clear the visual overhaul was the most prominent element of the iOS 7 announcement. Here are some more shots of iOS 7's new look. Apple also has a gallery on its website of photos showcasing some of iOS 7's new features.