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iOS and iPadOS 17: The MacStories Review

In the year when the vision is elsewhere, what do you get the OS that has everything?

Well, last year was weird.

For the first time since I started writing annual reviews of Apple’s two mobile operating systems – iOS and iPadOS – I published a review without the iPad part. Or rather: I had to publish it a month later given the mess Apple found itself in with Stage Manager for iPadOS 16 and its half-baked, embarrassing debut.

I don’t want to go over the specifics of that entire saga again and how we got to a shipping version of Stage Manager for iPadOS 16 that didn’t meet my expectations. Spoiler alert: as we’ll see later in this review, Apple listened to feedback and fixed the most glaring issues of Stage Manager in iPadOS 17, striking the balance between “guided multitasking” and freeform window placement that was missing from last year’s debut. Stage Manager for iPadOS 16 will remain another blip in the iPad’s long and storied history of ill-fated multitasking features. There’s no need to talk about it again.

I want to explain, however, why the past 12 months have been different than usual in iOS and iPadOS land beyond the fact that I couldn’t work on my iPad Pro for the first half of 2023.1

Following the launch of iOS 16 with its Lock Screen widgets and after Apple wrapped up work on the last big-ticket item on the iOS 16 roadmap (Live Activities for the Lock Screen and Dynamic Island, which launched in late October), it felt like the entire Apple community only started thinking about one product for the next six months: the headset. What would later be known as the Vision Pro and visionOS platform became the topic of conversation in Apple-related publications, podcasts, and YouTube channels. Leading up to WWDC 2023, anticipation surrounding the upcoming headset eclipsed anything related to other platforms.

And rightfully so. As I explained in the story that I wrote after I was able to try a Vision Pro at Apple Park, the excitement was justified. It’s always a rare occurrence for Apple to introduce a new hardware product with associated software platform; but to do so with a mind-blowing experience unlike anything I ever tried before in my life is truly something special. Apple had been working on visionOS and Vision Pro for years, and we were all thinking about it and waiting for it at WWDC. And the company delivered.

This context is necessary because the visionOS/Vision Pro development timeline explains what’s going on with iOS and iPadOS 17 this year. Both OSes are grab-bag style updates with a collection of welcome enhancements to different areas of experience. I quipped years ago that modern iOS updates need to have a little bit of everything for everyone; that has never been more true than with iOS 17, albeit for a different reason this time: most likely, because Apple didn’t have time to also deliver big, vision-altering upgrades on the iPhone this year.

iOS and iPadOS take a bit of a secondary role in 2023, happily conceding the spotlight to a new software platform that hasn’t launched yet, but which developers around the world are already testing in person.

To be clear, I am not complaining. iOS and iPadOS 17 may not have an industry-defining, obvious tentpole feature, but in their approach to offering miscellaneous improvements, they’re fun and interesting to cover. Of the two, iPadOS is the one that suffered from lack of development resources the most and whose strategy could be easily summed up as “it’s iPadOS 16, but we fixed Stage Manager”. Which, again, given the circumstances, is absolutely fine with me.

While Apple was busy with visionOS this summer, I was having fun exploring iOS 17’s collection of app updates and, as we’ll see in this review, extensive upgrades to one system feature: widgets.

As always every year: let’s dive in.

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  1. Did I ever tell you the story of how I used a Microsoft Surface in secret as my main computer from January to June 2023 until Apple unveiled the new Stage Manager for iPadOS 17 and everything was good with the world again? How I spent six months in computing wilderness and questioned every single one of my tech decisions? And how I ultimately accepted that I prefer Apple platforms because, at the end of the day, they're made by people who care about great design and user experience? I did, and you can listen to the story here↩︎

iOS 17, iPadOS 17, and macOS Sonoma Expand Password Management and Access System-Wide

Passwords permeate our lives. With an ever-growing number of sites, services, and apps to log into, people need help generating, managing, and accessing them. There are excellent third-party apps that can help, but the reality is that most people aren’t going to download a third-party app, and even fewer are likely to pay for one. That’s why Apple’s work with passwords is so important.

However, what makes that work impressive is the lengths to which the company has gone to make good password practices easy for users. The password updates to iOS 17, iPadOS 17, and macOS Sonoma are fantastic examples, making it easier than ever to share passwords and for users to begin adopting passkeys, a superior method of authentication compared to traditional passwords.

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iOS 17’s Check In Feature Simplifies Making Sure Friends and Family Get Home Safely

We’ve all been there. You say goodbye to a friend or family member after a late evening and then begin to worry if they’ll make it home safely. You ask them to share their location and text you when they get home, but it’s late, and you know they’ll probably forget to text, so you finish your fun evening together, anxiously checking Find My Friends over and over.

Check In is a new iOS 17 feature that helps eliminate that anxiety by automating the process of letting your family or friends know when you arrive somewhere safely. I finally had the chance to try Check In recently with my son Finn, who’s the only other person in my family who is currently on the iOS 17 beta. The testing conditions were a bit contrived, but what I found was that Check In is fast and easy to use and does an excellent job of explaining the information you’re sharing and how it works before you leave for your destination.

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I Used a Game Boy Camera for FaceTime Video Calls in iPadOS 17 and It Was Glorious

A major change introduced by iPadOS 17 that is going to make video creators and gamers happy is support for UVC (USB Video Class) devices, which means an iPad can now recognize external webcams, cameras, video acquisition cards, and other devices connected over USB-C. I started testing iPadOS 17 thinking this would be a boring addition I’d never use; as it turns out, it’s where I had the most fun tinkering with different pieces of hardware this summer.

Most of all, however, I did not anticipate I’d end up doing FaceTime calls with a Game Boy Camera as my iPad Pro’s webcam.

I’m in the process of writing my annual iOS and iPadOS review, and in the story I’ll have plenty more details about the changes to iPadOS 17’s Stage Manager and how I’m taking advantage of UVC support to play Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck games on my iPad’s display. But in the meantime, I wanted to share this Game Boy Camera story because it’s wild, ridiculous, and I love it.

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The Apple Watch Ultra Needs More Band Choices

Source: Apple.

Source: Apple.

It was a warm, humid morning in North Carolina when I went out for a run today. I came back a sweaty mess, which got me thinking about my Apple Watch Ultra.

I’m no mountaineer, but I love the Ultra’s long battery life and big screen. It’s been my constant health and fitness companion for everything from sleep tracking to a variety of workouts. However, there’s one thing in particular that I miss from the standard Apple Watch: band choices.

The last thing I wanted to do after a post-run shower was put my Apple Watch Ultra back on with its soggy Alpine Loop band. So, I did what’s become a regular post-run habit of swapping bands and tossing the sweaty one in the laundry. Besides the Starlight Alpine Loop that came with my Ultra, I have a Black/Gray Trail Loop. Of the two, I like the Trail Loop better because the Alpine Loop’s clasp sometimes digs into my wrist as I type. However, I use both regularly because one is almost always waiting for me to do a load of laundry.

I’ve been running more. As a result, my two bands have begun to dictate when my laundry gets done, whether I have much else to wash or not. That led me to Apple’s website to buy a third band, where I was immediately struck by the lack of choices.

A small selection of the many band options for the standard Apple Watch. Source: Apple.

A small selection of the many band options for the standard Apple Watch. Source: Apple.

If you own the standard Apple Watch, you have dozens of options at a wide variety of price points. Apple offers the Sports Loop, Braided Solo Loop, the Solo Loop, the Nike Sports Band and Loop, two types of leather bands, stainless steel bands, and Hermès bands at price points from $49 for many models to $599 for the Hermès Orange/Blanc Swift Leather Casaque Double Tour. There are so many bands for the standard model that there’s an entire website and app dedicated to collectors of the bands, which makes sense because, after all, the Watch is a wearable that’s not just a wrist computer. It’s also a fashion accessory.

Three may be company, but it's not enough for Watch bands. Source: Apple.

Three may be company, but it’s not enough for Watch bands. Source: Apple.

So why, with so many standard Apple Watch bands, are there just three models in three colors at a single price point for Apple Watch Ultra owners? Looking at the Sports Band alone, there are nine options available for the standard Apple Watch. I really don’t get it. I like the three choices offered for the Ultra, but I’d like more colors, styles, and price options. I certainly don’t think the limited choice is because the Ultra has been a flop because I see them when I’m out all the time.

I recognize that I could buy a band from a third-party company. Perhaps that’s what I’ll end up doing because what I really want is something akin to the Sports Band that can be cleaned without putting it in the laundry. Alternatively, I may start using my collection of standard Apple Watch bands. They work, but I don’t think they look great with the Ultra’s big watch face, so that’s not ideal either.

Why aren't there special edition bands for the Ultra too? Source: Apple.

Why aren’t there special edition bands for the Ultra too? Source: Apple.

What I would prefer is an Ultra band update schedule comparable to the standard Watch. Apple has made it a tradition of refreshing bands in the fall and spring and issuing special editions, like the Black Unity and Pride Edition models, at other times of the year. I expect we’ll see new bands for the Ultra this fall, and while I’m sure the Ultra market is significantly smaller than the original Watch’s, my wish for 2024 is to not have to wait another full year for new Ultra bands.

The Verge Marks the iMac’s Silver Anniversary

Yesterday, the iMac turned 25, and The Verge had an excellent trio of articles, plus a visual history, covering the computer’s impact on Apple, the computer industry, and culture.

The series includes a look back at the introduction of the iMac in 1998 by Jason Snell and the many controversial design choices the iMac introduced like foregoing a floppy drive and including USB-A ports. The iMac also introduced color and transparency to consumer electronics that spread throughout the gadget world, but I agree with Jason’s take that the most important contribution of the iMac was that it pulled Apple back from the brink of financial disaster:

[P]erhaps the iMac’s strongest legacy is Apple itself. The company was close to bankruptcy when Jobs returned, and the iMac gave the company a cash infusion that allowed it to complete work on Mac OS X, rebuild the rest of the Mac product line in the iMac’s image, open Apple Stores, make the iPod, and set the tone for the next twenty five years.

The Grape iMac.

The Grape iMac.

Alex Cranz looked at how Apple marketed the iMac to college students at the turn of the millennium to build a foundation of life-long customers:

When it launched the iMac, it also launched a then exorbitantly pricey marketing campaign focused not just on traditional Mac owners but also students. “Being the first computer truly owned by a student entering college gives a company like Apple tremendous brand leverage over future computer loyalties,” Laine Nooney, a computer historian, professor at New York University, and author of The Apple II Age: How the Computer Became Personal,told me over the phone. “That marketing isn’t just paying for a couple of years of sales… it’s helping create a generation of users.”

The M1 iMac.

The M1 iMac.

However, as important as the iMac has been to Apple historically, the lack of an update in over 800 days can’t be overlooked. The iMac’s role in Apple’s lineup is a shadow of what it once was. The Verge’s Monica Chin’s contribution to the site’s series wonders aloud what’s next for the all-in-one desktop:

The iMac was once the computer that everyone I knew had on their desk. That is now, without question, the MacBook. The laptop, as a category, has come so far and permeated culture so thoroughly in the past two decades that it’s hard to see any desktop — regardless of its purported numbers — as a mainstream option. I wouldn’t be surprised if, like the Mac Studio, the iMac leans more into a niche over the next few years. Maybe that’s offices that want a beautiful setup. Maybe that’s people with yellow bedrooms. 

Or maybe it’s the high-performance space. If there’s an opening in the market for a premium desktop like the Mac Studio, I don’t see why there’s not a larger one for a premium iMac. It could essentially be a MacBook Pro with a much larger built-in screen than any MacBook Pro can provide. Plus, maybe this one could also come in yellow.

My first Mac was a white plastic Intel-based iMac. I also owned an early aluminum model. However, other than testing a loaner M1 iMac, my Apple desktops in the years since have been Mac minis and my current Mac Studio paired with a MacBook Air for on the go.

I guess I’m part of the problem. I love the simplicity and elegance of the iMac, but the power and modularity of the Mac Studio paired with a laptop fit my needs much better these days. Still, my sense is there’s room for both a consumer-level iMac that serves as a shared family computer or a simple space-saving desktop solution and a more powerful, big-screen iMac for tasks like photo and video editing.

Rumors point to an iMac refresh this fall, so the drought should be over soon. I just hope what Apple introduces takes some chances aimed at broadening the iMac’s user base beyond where it is today.

An In-Depth Look at StandBy and the StandBy Chargers We Recommend

John: Part of the widget story for all of Apple’s OSes this fall is StandBy, an iPhone-only mode that displays widgets, a clock, or photos when your device is stationary and charging in landscape orientation. When StandBy was first rumored before WWDC, I was skeptical. It didn’t sound like something I needed or would find useful. Boy, was I wrong. I’ve been using StandBy daily since just after WWDC at my desk and on my nightstand, and I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’ve begun using it elsewhere, too. So, today, I thought I’d hit the highlights of what StandBy can do because it’s a lot and not immediately obvious and, along with Federico, recommend several chargers that we’ve been using to enable it.

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The Case for Videogame and App Preservation

On the same day that the App Store turned 15, the Video Game History Foundation released a study that concludes 87% of all classic videogames released in the US are no longer commercially available. The study looked at a broad cross-section of platforms and found that this isn’t a problem that’s limited to one corner of the videogame industry. It’s universal. As a result, a large segment of videogame history is at risk of being lost forever.

The Video Game History Foundation’s mission is to preserve videogame history, and along with libraries, museums, and archives, they’re seeking exemptions from US Copyright law to make game preservation easier. On the other side of their efforts is the gaming industry, which argues, among other things, that commercial re-releases and remasters of classic games are satisfying preservation needs.

That debate is what prompted the Foundation’s study:

It’s true that there’s more games being re-released than even before. But then why does the gaming community believe that so few classic games are still available? What’s the real story here? If we want to have a productive conversation about game preservation, we need an accurate understanding of where things stand right now.

We conducted this study to settle the facts. It’s not enough just to have a hunch. We need hard data.

The results of the Video Game History Foundation’s study tell a different story than the one the videogame industry tells and is one that’s equally applicable to mobile games and apps on Apple’s App Store. Federico and I have written about app and game preservation before, including during the 10th anniversary of the App Store. And while I applaud Apple’s decision to promote classic iOS games as part of Apple Arcade, the Foundation’s study shows that it’s not enough. It’s a start, but for every game that is given a new lease on life as part of Arcade, there are dozens that lie dormant and unplayable.

The problem extends to apps too. Craig Grannell, with the help of Internet sleuths, set out to recreate the list of 500 apps and games that debuted on the App Store as its 15th anniversary approached. Grannell’s Google Spreadsheet currently lists 355 titles, and guess what? By my count, only 43 of those apps and games have live App Store URLs, which works out to 12%, almost exactly the same results as the Video Game History Foundation’s study. Grannell’s spreadsheet may not have been compiled as rigorously as the Foundation’s study, but the point stands: we’re losing access to culturally significant apps and games on the App Store alongside the videogame industry.

That’s why I was happy to see the Video Game History Foundation take the important step of gathering the facts that support their preservation efforts. Its focus is on games, but hopefully, it will help raise awareness about preserving apps too.

A good way to learn more about the Video Game History Foundation’s study is also to listen to the latest episode of its podcast, where Kelsey Lewin and Phil Salvador of the Foundation were joined by Brandon Butler, Director of Information Policy at the University of Virginia Library and Law and Policy Advisor at the Software Preservation Network.

watchOS 10: The MacStories Preview

Apple itself is hailing watchOS 10 as the largest software update since the introduction of the Apple Watch. I’m not sure I quite agree with that characterization, but it’s certainly the biggest update we’ve seen in many years. The tenth iteration of watchOS includes an exciting fresh take on some of its core interactions, including a reassignment of the hardware side button and a brand-new widget interface. Apple has released the watchOS 10 public beta today, which you can access as part of the Apple Beta Software Program.

There’s a lot to dig into here, but we’ll leave most of the digging for my official watchOS review later this year. For now, let’s take a look at the highlights of watchOS 10, what exactly has changed, and what seems to be working after just a few weeks of usage.

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