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iOS 11 review: A big deal for iPads, but not iPhones

Getting started

As usual, we recommend backing up your device before going through any OS installation. Even though Apple has made the iOS upgrade process more seamless than it used to be, there’s still a chance things can go wrong. In this case, it’s worth making a local iTunes backup, since it’s much easier to restore from that instead of using iCloud.

When it’s available, you’ll get a prompt to install iOS 11. If you’re in a hurry, though, you can also head to the “General” section of the Settings app to check for the update. You’ll want to be connected to power and WiFi throughout the installation process. The iOS 11 download weighs in over 2GB, and the setup process took around five minutes longer than iOS 10 on my iPhone 6S.

Once the installation is complete, you’ll find that the iOS 11 lock screen looks ever so slightly different. Instead of having clear backgrounds, the pin number pad has shaded buttons. And if you swipe up from the initial lock screen, you’ll quickly see all of your notifications. After you get past that, though, it’s pretty much the same iOS design as last year on the iPhone: Swipe right to get to the today page, and swipe down from the top for notifications. You know the drill.

I chided Apple for not changing its iOS design much a year ago, so it’s even more disappointing to see that things haven’t improved much. It’s not that iOS 11 looks bad on the iPhone; it’s just a bit stale. And the changes that we do get aren’t exactly improvements.

A new Control Center

When you swipe up from the bottom of an iPhone running the new OS, you’ll find a dramatically revamped Control Center. Gone is the two-screen format from last year; this time around, Apple crammed all of the Control Center’s shortcuts into one screen. Honestly, it feels like a jumbled mess at first. That was my initial impression when Apple first announced iOS 11, and it hasn’t changed much during my time with it.

The icons aren’t exactly hard to figure out, but they’re so close together on my iPhone 6S that it always takes me a second to figure out what I need to hit. They could be a bit more comfortable on a Plus model, but that screen size is too big for my taste. In addition to buttons, the new Control Center has sliders for quickly adjusting your brightness and volume. And, as before, you can use 3D Touch to unlock additional options.

Media controls now have their own dedicated spot in the Control Center, but you can also jump deeper into them with a 3D Touch tap, or a long press on earlier iPhones. Doing so opens up the ability to move around a track, as well as switch between different media devices. That’s useful if you need to choose between multiple wireless headsets or AirPlay devices.

Thankfully, you can customize the crowded Control Center to your liking by removing and adding shortcuts. Never use the flashlight? Just drop it and replace it with a shortcut to Notes or Voice Memos. You can also change the placement of Control Center icons, so you can easily put your most used buttons on top. Don’t be surprised, though, if the Control Center starts to fill up the majority of your screen as you add more icons.

While it won’t be useful for everyone, I appreciated being able to quickly record my iPhone’s screen from the control center. And for anyone who needs accessibility features, including quickly accessing the magnifier or tweaking your phone’s text size, you’ll likely find something unique to enjoy as well. While it’s nowhere near the extreme customization you’d find on Android phones, the revamped Control Center offers iOS users a small bit of customization in a normally restricted OS.

Better camera performance

You can expect to do a lot more with photos in iOS 11. Apple revamped Portrait mode in the camera to support flash and image stabilization, both of which should make it much more useful in dimly lit areas. Developers will also be able to take advantage of the Depth API to create new filters using data from Portrait mode. And good news for storage hounds: Apple is moving toward more efficient file formats (HEIF and HEVC) on the iPhone 7 and later to reduce the size of your gallery.

When it comes to the actual Photos app, you’ll be able to transform Live Photos with three new effects: loop, bounce and long exposure. The first two are pretty self-explanatory — they’ll repeat the Live Photo, and move it back and forth — while the latter mimics the dreamy effect you’d get from a lengthy exposure on a DSLR. They’re fun effects, but not particularly revolutionary at this point.