iOS 16 review: unlocking the lock screen

Technology
The lock screen is the centerpiece of what iOS 16 brings to your iPhone. | Photo by David Pierce / The Verge

Apple’s trying to turn your phone into more than just a bunch of apps

The story of iOS 16 is all the things that your phone does when you’re not using it. Apple has been saying for years that we need a reset in our relationship with technology and that picking up our phones hundreds of times a day is not the right outcome. Apple, of course, is probably the company most to blame for that problem. And so, part of the idea with its new smartphone software is that there might be ways for your smartphone to be useful without you having to use it so much.

Like every year, this new version of iOS (which is available for the iPhone 8 and newer starting on September 12th) is filled with improvements and changes to practically every app and screen on the iPhone. In recent years, that’s been just about all the new versions have been. iOS is an excellent, mature piece of software, and Apple’s clearly not looking for an excuse to reinvent the wheel anymore. But this year, Apple found a part of its software that hasn’t gotten much attention recently and gave it a makeover.

The lock screen is the true star of iOS 16. Apple has reconceived its purpose altogether, shifting it from just a clock and a bunch of notifications to something much more like a second homescreen. Lock screen widgets were an instant upgrade to my phone life: I can now see my calendar without unlocking my phone or even swiping right to get to that page of widgets everyone always forgets about, and I have a tiny widget that launches a new note in my notes app.

My favorite iOS 16 widget comes from the habit tracking app Streaks. I have “take 5,000 steps” as a daily goal (we’re still in a pandemic, I work from home, and 5,000 steps feels like an accomplishment some days now) and a widget on my lock screen with a meter that slowly fills up as I approach that number. It’s a subtle reminder every single time I look at my phone that I probably need to go outside and touch grass.

The iPhone has never been good at these kinds of light-touch interactions. Before iOS 16, most things required you to pick up your phone, unlock it, swipe to the right homescreen, and open an app. Apple has tried to shrink that process through Siri voice commands, and part of the Apple Watch’s whole appeal is easier access to simple tasks. But “put a bunch of them on your lock screen” might be Apple’s best solution yet. And when you pair it with the always-on displays on the iPhone 14 Pro, the iPhone becomes a fountain of useful information without requiring a single tap.

Screenshots showing the new lock screens in iOS 16. Image: Apple / David Pierce
You can do a lot with a lock screen, but setting things up is a lot of work.

Still, Apple hasn’t quite finished the job here. For one thing, these widgets are still irritatingly noninteractive; they can update with new information, but the only way to use them is to tap on them to open their app. Why can’t I long-press the Calendar widget to see my whole day? Why can’t I tap on the “drink water” Streaks widget to actually log my water consumption?

The new Dynamic Island on the iPhone 14 Pro is a slight improvement in this sense, at least while you’re actively using the phone: you see a tiny sliver of information in the pill at the top of the screen, and you can tap it to open the app or long-press to expand to the full widget. I’d still rather be able to play and pause from the pill itself, though. Live Activities are also a sort of interactive widget, with the live updating sports scores and such, but only a few first-party apps seem to be using it so far. (Kudos to Clock, the perennial early adopter of iOS features.) In general, widgets are still basically app shortcuts, and I’d rather them be tiny apps.

haptic feedback while typing. After weeks of using it and getting that gentle buzz every time I hit a key, I don’t know how I ever just smashed my fingers onto motionless glass. I’m not sure it’s made me a better typer, but it’s a much more pleasant typing setup. The second is marking conversations unread in Messages. For too many years, my general texting behavior has been to either respond immediately or forget all about the message and never get back to it. Now, I can mark a message as unread and find it later. It’s still ridiculous that iOS 16 doesn’t let you filter to just show unread messages, but I’ll take what I can get.

unsend and edit a message. If you and your recipient both use iOS 16, it works seamlessly: the text changes in place, with a small blue “Edited” symbol underneath that you can tap to see all versions of the message. (You can edit up to five times and up to 15 minutes after you first sent it.) If you’re not all on the latest Apple software on your stuff, you’re doomed to that hideous “David edited this message” text that Android users will learn to know all too well. The unsend feature, meanwhile, only works iMessage to iMessage; there’s no retrieving that text you sent an Android friend. And don’t hold your breath for RCS to solve that problem.

A screenshot of an edited text message about football, and another showing the menu to unsend it. Image: Apple / David Pierce
Editing and unsending messages is great, as long as you can remember to long-press.

One feature I had high hopes for was the dictation improvements in iOS 16. In theory, you can dictate both more and better than ever: it now has emoji recognition, so “heart emoji” actually renders the heart emoji, and it also tries to automatically insert punctuation. You can also now dictate and type at the same time, which is a bit confusing if you accidentally brush the mic button without realizing it and suddenly your text field is filled with background chatter the mic picked up. These features were so hit-and-miss that I just stopped using them altogether. And honestly, if you can remember the names of all the emoji, you should be studied by scientists.

As phones have gotten bigger, Apple’s started shifting its UI emphasis down toward the bottom of the screen. The URL bar in Safari, the Spotlight search bar, and all sorts of other tappable UI fields have been moved down to save your stretchy thumbs. It’s definitely the right idea, but it takes some time to get used to the look; typing something and seeing the results up above felt odd for weeks before I stopped noticing it.

(One other thing you might notice at the bottom of your iPhone? A small translucent pill that says “Search.” This replaced the old button that showed how many homescreens you have and seems to exist entirely to remind users that Spotlight exists. And, PSA: Spotlight is awesome. You should use Spotlight. A quick search is still the fastest way to find an app or a contact, and it’s even a halfway decent way to search through your emails and texts.)

Features like this make up the bulk of iOS 16, and there are a lot of them. (Apple’s full change log is hilariously long.) In all, the changes do make the phone noticeably more functional and easier to use. The only ongoing problem I’ve had is with video apps, some of which fail in really screwy ways when you try to rotate from portrait mode to full-screen landscape. But developers should fix that quickly enough. Even in the early betas, iOS 16 was more stable than most new software, which says something not only about Apple’s capabilities but also about how much it’s really writing from scratch here.

iPhone 14 Pro showing the new Dynamic Island feature Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge
The Dynamic Island could be a cool space for widgets but only if developers get on board.

As ever, though, third-party developers will be the ones who decide whether iOS 16 is a roaring success or just another iterative update. If they embrace the Dynamic Island, develop interesting lock screen widgets, create Focus filters that give users even more control over what they see and when, and flip their UI to the bottom-up style Apple wants, they could help make the iPhone feel more coherent, more useful when you’re not touching it, and a little simpler when you are. If they don’t, and you mostly use third-party apps, you might not notice much about this year’s new OS.

I’m also hopeful developers and sites quickly adopt passkeys, the new password-free authentication system that iOS 16 supports. Right now, you can hardly use passkeys anywhere, but practically the whole industry is behind the idea, and I expect them to catch on quickly. As they do, your iPhone (or other device because passkeys aren’t an Apple-only thing) becomes the key to your security. And in the few places I could test passkeys, snapping photos of QR codes to authenticate to my device, it worked well in iOS 16.

As far as Apple is concerned, I think the company is on the right track. It is clearly invested in turning the iPhone into more than just a collection of apps; it wants the phone to be lively and interactive and to get you what you need without requiring you to enter into somebody else’s universe. (The business and antitrust implications of that thinking are complicated and fascinating and not for this review.) I like the idea that my iPhone has all my stuff and the wherewithal to show it to me in the right places without me having to go looking for it. But to really make this work, Apple’s going to need to push even harder on notifications, widgets, Live Activities, and even the Dynamic Island.

All the big-picture stuff aside, iOS 16 makes most parts of the iPhone at least a little bit better. That’s where Apple is now: polishing, tweaking, fine-tuning. If Apple has whiz-bang new ideas about how tech is supposed to work, I bet they’re not coming for the iPhone. The iPhone’s just going to keep getting a little better every year for a lot of years to come.

What are you gonna do, switch?

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