Apple threw all its design toys out of the pram last night, ditching skeuomorphism and all its trappings for a steamroller-flat design with a colour scheme stolen from a magic fairy tripping on crystal meth. Although it's not out 'till something our Yank friends call 'fall', we've managed to get our hands on a copy of the beta, and have taken it for a little ride.
The most visceral change in iOS 7 is the aesthetics, and that change is nowhere more apparent than on the home screen. You can read our in-depth analysis of the design differences here, or you can just look at the screenshots below. The icons have lost their depth and reflectiveness, and replaced that with a rainbow-hued palette with only the faintest hint of a colour gradient in apps like Weather.
The changes aren't purely cosmetic, however. Spotlight search has been moved: on iOS 6, you get at Spotlight by swiping all the way to the left. In iOS 7, Spotlight is accessible straight away from any of the homescreens, by pulling down anywhere on the home screen that isn't the dock.
Although it sounds complicated, it's a relatively intuitive gesture: the app icons move as you pull down on them, giving you a smooth visual cue. And, of course, it means you can now get to Spotlight from any of the home screen. Score.
The other subtle difference is the transition effect for jumping in an out of apps. iOS 6 kinda zooms in and out of the centre of the app; iOS 7 zooms in and out of the app's icon on the home screen. It provides a comforting sense of continuity, and it's also just a bit damned cool.
Speaking of damned cool, there's also the parralax effect:
This will be handy in the future for identifying iPhone users by the way they're rocking back and forth slightly while standing still.
The new Control Centre and revamped Notification Centre on iOS 7 are already the clear-cut best improvements in iOS 7. Control Centre catches up to Android's power toggles, and to some extent gets rid of the need for widgets. The gesture to swipe up from the bottom of the screen is simple and works every time; it also cements the iPhone as the best phone for one-handing, by far.
Within the Control Centre tray, you get toggles along the top (Airplane mode, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb, Rotation Lock), a brightness slider, music controls, and a couple of extra toggles along the bottom: flashlight, timer, calculator, and a camera button. The flashlight toggle works exactly as you'd expect; the other three, though, jump you out into the standalone app. Although that's fine for the camera app, it feels a bit jarring for the calculator app -- more like another glorified App dock, than a control centre.
Notification centre has also seen a notable upgrade: it's now sub-divided, into 'today', 'all', and 'missed'. Basically, you get a quick-glance guide to upcoming calendar events, reminders and weather in the 'today' tab, notifications of messages and emails in 'all', and missed calls in 'missed' (duh). It simplifies the notification drawer pretty neatly, solving the fairly chronic over-crowding problem the notification drawer in iOS 6 has.
One other OS-wide change is the implementation of swipe-to-go-back. In almost any system app or menu (especially Settings), swiping left on the screen will take you back, exactly as if you'd pressed the back button in the top left.
Taken together with Control Centre and the revamped (and far more effective) notification centre, it's clear that Apple is pushing the one-handed operation status of the iPhone. iOS 7 lets you get to far more stuff without having to bring that second hand into play, or even stretching for the top left corner.
iOS 7 has plundered webOS's card-based multitasking system with shameless aplomb. Since webOS was widely regarded to have one of the best systems going, that's a good thing. Apps are now represented as cards, rather than just icons at the bottom of the screen; the cards even update in real time, so you can see exactly where you left an app.
iOS 7 also promises more intelligent multitasking, learning intelligently which apps are allowed to run in the background and which aren't. That's not unlike what other manufacturers are doing with their Android skins; time will tell if it's worked for Apple.
The 'slide to unlock', iconic since the very first iPhone, is gone. Now, you just swipe left anywhere on the screen. Notification centre and control centre are accessible from the lock screen, giving you a lot more access, but potentially more information than you'd want to give out if you're a privacy freak. It'd be reassuring to disable those, if you're a member of the tinfoil-hat brigade.
Every app has been changed to conform to the new design language. Most are just the same as before, but with the design flattened by the loving hands of Sir Ives, and the colour palettes changed round a bit. There are a few completely redone apps, though: Safari, which has replaced its separate search and address bars with a unified bar a la Chrome, plus a more 3-D look to the browsing; Compass, which pulls in the gyroscopes as well to turn it into a beautiful-looking spirit level; and the camera app, which is much simpler.
Overall, iOS 7 is the massive step forward that's been promised; but for a beta of software moving in a bold new direction (for Apple, at least), it already feels well-polished. The navigation is clearly thought out and consistent: swipes are now an entrenched staple of the OS, rather than an afterthought.
Moreover, iOS 7 feels like the upgrade it needed to be. It's not just a refresh for the sake of ditching the green felt; the new hubs like Control Centre implement at-your-fingertip controls better than anything out there (yep, better than Android -- there, I said it), and whizzing round the OS feels like a delight again. Apple's just put itself back in the game.