Tech Savvy: Apple announces host of updates

Every year, I look forward to getting the latest news from Apple on what to expect — either as software updates or new products.

This year, as one might expect, the conference known as WWDC was virtual. One of the most timely updates is a handwashing counter on the Apple Watch with a soap and bubbles countdown for the recommended 20 seconds. If you stop too soon, there is a little reminder to keep going. The countdown is triggered by handwashing action and pops up for the countdown meaning you won’t have to sing the happy birthday song to yourself anymore and now you can see if your own countdown clock is accurate.

Other things that jumped out for everyday practical use is a better organization plan for those with many apps across multiple screens on your phone. Just as Apple noted, it’s easy to forget what you have for apps that you use less often or ones just past the top two or three screens you swipe through. Now those apps will be organized and in a much more user friendly way than those folders where you could group apps, but where they were often even more lost as tiny icons than they were on multiple screens. I’m really looking forward to this new App Library tool.

There were lots of interesting updates on important topics like privacy, maps, and mail. And there are improvements on the user experience for the iPad and AirPods headphones. The AirPods will now move with you across even more devices seamlessly. If you are listening to the DispatchCast podcast and then going to watch something on your iPad, the AirPods switch to the new device with you. Get a phone call, and they’ll switch back to your iPhone. Spacial Audio with the AirPods Pro is offering surround sound. And no matter if you are moving your head, the sound will stay with the source — like the actors talking in front of you or the sound of Roger Federer whacking a tennis ball.

One thing I was hoping would be included that wasn’t hinted at for the conference was over-the-ear noise canceling headphones that are reported to be in the works. But The Washington Post noted most hardware announcements usually come in the fall.

There is more and more original content on AppleTV+ such as Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series.

Using the Apple Pencil, which I have come to appreciate more and more recently for everything from taking notes to drawing on the iPad, will now have more options such as taking your handwritten notes and converting them to typed in Notes. The new update also gives you more options to use the Pencil so you don’t have to go back to the keyboard to access the search feature, for instance, when you are working on a project. You will also be able to draw shapes — like an arrow or boxes — and have your uneven drawing replaced with perfectly sized lines.

One of the things Apple has always done well is making their product feel and look engaging, easy to use and make the process of opening a new device fun. That continues with additional options to express yourself with Messages and Memojis (your own personalized animated images). They are small touches, like that confetti falling with your note of congratulations to friends or family — but they are also ones that standout in the daily user experience.

For many Apple watchers, the big news was the move away from Intel to Apple’s custom silicon — which is touted as a transition for power and performance.

Here are some of the top items listed from the conference by Geoffrey A. Fowler and Heather Kelly, with contributions from Reed Albergotti, all from The Washington Post.

So what did we learn? Apple took the moment to announce long-discussed plans to shift Mac computers away from Intel processors to ones it makes itself. That could mean Macs with longer battery life and other advantages when they start arriving at the end of the year.

For most of us, the biggest impact out of the WWDC announcements will come in new capabilities and tweaks to software we use every day. We didn’t get everything on our wish list: You still can’t set Google Maps as your default map, and there’s still no Messages app for friends and family with Android phones.

Here’s the Apple updates we think will matter, most of which will be available as public beta test downloads in July and finished software for everyone in the fall.

Home screen

There’s little revolutionary in iOS 14, but the iPhone home screen will get its first real makeover in years with a feature lovingly borrowed from Android phones. You can add “widgets,” which are windows with live, glance-able information from apps, such as the weather, music or upcoming appointments. (Previously, widgets were available on the iPhone’s swipe-left info screen and the iPad home screen.) It gives you one more reason to look down at your phone screen, but it could save you a few taps from opening common apps. Don’t fret if changing your home screen sounds annoying – you have to actively add them.

Apple Watch

A feature made for our pandemic times, the new hand-washing alert on the Apple Watch is a gentle nudge to stop the spread of the coronavirus, or any other viruses or germs that are going around. With the update, the watch will look out for the signs you’re at a sink, from the way you move your hands to the sound of water swooshing by. Then the watch will give you a countdown to make sure you spend the doctor-recommended amount of time cleaning away all those nasty germs.

App Library

In a long-overdue option to bring order to apps on the iPhone and iPad, the App Library will show your apps in folders automatically based on category. The new view will appear at the end of your homepage and use information such as your location and the time of day to decide which apps get the most prominent position. Anyone who’s ever wasted time trying to move jiggly little apps into folders should appreciate the help. As a bonus, it will make folders that automatically update and change based on what apps you use the most or downloaded most recently.

Privacy

It’s difficult to understand what apps are doing with our data. Now Apple will at least force apps to report some information about how they’re using our data, in simplified boxes that show up in the App Store. Modeled after nutrition labels, these will tell you what kind of data apps are collecting that’s linked to you, and how it is being shared. That’s good for people who take the time to look, but it doesn’t solve our bigger privacy problem.

And one more thing: iOS 14 apps will also ask your permission to track you across other apps and websites. Lots of apps do this to deliver targeted ads at you.

Mail, browser

Well, this only took a decade: iPhones and iPads can now choose a different, non-Apple default app for email and Web browsing. You’ve long been able to install competing apps but could not change the default that iOS opens when you click on a link. Now you can switch to a competitor such as Firefox or DuckDuckGo.

But Apple forgot an important one: Maps. Apple forcing us to use its own Maps app – which only this year is gaining directions for bicycling – is the sort of anti-consumer move that riles government antitrust regulators.

Sleep

WatchOS 7 adds a built-in sleep-tracking capability, but it comes with some strings attached. You activate it by choosing your ideal time to go to sleep and when you want to wake up. At your selected time, your watch’s screen will turn off, and it will begin looking for signals that you’ve fallen asleep. In the morning, it will wake you with an audio alarm or a jiggle on your wrist. A feature called Wind Down lets you create a pre-bed routine, such as playing music that makes you sleepy.

Unlike other sleep-trackers on the market, this Watch app won’t track your sleep cycles or tell you whether you were restless. You just get a daily readout on how long you were in bed and asleep. Your watch will need to have at least 30% battery life left before you go to sleep – which means you’ll have to find some other time every day to charge your watch.

Keys

File this one away for your next car purchase: iPhones and Apple Watches will eventually be able to replace car keys on compatible autos. Tesla vehicles already do this using a phone’s Bluetooth connection. Apple’s approach uses different technology, either the near-field communication system used by Apple Pay or the ultra-wideband wireless that Apple built into its latest devices. You’ll even have the power to temporarily share a key with a kid – curfew will never be the same! But it will require a car with compatible hardware; the first is the 2021 BMW 5 Series, available next month.

iPad

The iPad’s OS 14 may look familiar to Mac users, with more sidebars, drop-downs, toolbars and search features that seem lifted directly from the Mac operating system. Meanwhile, over on the Mac, a design overhaul will make it look slightly more iPad-like as part of the Big Sur operating system, including bringing more mobile features to the Messages app, such as confetti animations. Apple’s default browser, Safari, is throwing in a new translate tool and the ability to customize its home screen.

Clips

Sometimes you want to use an app but not download it. App Clips is Apple’s attempt to make it easy to use a feature offered by an app without installing it. For example, if you pass a busy store and want to get on a waiting list, point the phone at a special QR code and the option would pop up on your screen. There’s an option to then download the app, but the beauty is being able to skip downloading something you don’t need.

Misc.

A few things made us smile even if they’re not a huge deal:

The Apple Watch will track dancing, because that’s totally exercise, too. Close your rings with the Macarena.

Memojis, Apple’s cute animated avatars, can now wear face masks along with a bunch of other new options. Covid-chic.

When you’re using AirPods and put down one device and pick up another, the wireless connection should travel with you. We’ll believe it when we see it.

The Maps app on iPhones and the Apple Watch adds bicycling directions, which is useful for socially distant commuting.

The iPhone will get a recording indicator along the top, so you know when you’re being watched out of the front or back camera.



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