iOS 17 review: Notable new features and streamlined touches

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Your latest iPhone update is officially here. iOS 17 brings some substantial new features and a lot of upgrades that streamline how you use your iPhone, especially when connecting with other iPhone users.

While the lock screen customizations introduced in iOS 16 formed the big visual change last year, Apple has now applied a similar makeover to your phone calls and contact lists. And at a time when there is no shortage of video call apps and services, it’s trying to make FaceTime even more compelling.

When I previewed the developer build a month or so ago, I focused on messages and FaceTime, both of which got a lot of attention in this update. After a little more time with the finished product, iOS 17 feels like a big quality-of-life upgrade for iPhone users. Without a big tentpole feature, it’s harder to pinpoint why it’s so much better — but I’ll try.

Supported devices

20 different iPhone models support iOS 17, going as far back as 2018’s iPhone XR. As many of the OS updates this year aren’t particularly processor- or machine learning-intensive, you’re not missing out on much with older supported iPhones. One exception is StandBy, which works best (or how it should) with Apple’s best smartphone screens — always-on displays.

StandBy Mode

With StandBy, Apple is dipping its toe in the smart display waters without making you buy another device. (For now.)

If your iPhone is horizontal and charging, iOS 17 will shift into StandBy mode, ditching your wallpaper and icons for giant clocks, calendar info, now playing widgets, photos and the rest. (One curious oversight: no email widget.)

You’ll need an iPhone 14 Pro or iPhone 15 Pro to ensure it works like it should — that is, always on. With all the other devices, you’ll need to tap the screen to get your information, which defeats the point. StandBy also utilizes the same iOS widget Smart Stacks so you can swipe between different information.

With iOS 17, we finally get interactive widgets, too, so you can toggle smart home lights or tick something off your to-do list without having to launch an entire app. (Another helpful feature coming to Reminders and your to-do lists is an automated grocery list feature, which will detect when you’re composing a shopping list, and draw together products you’ll typically find in the same place in the grocery store.)

Apple’s Continuity upgrades mean you can now use widgets on your Mac, even if you don’t have the same app installed on your computer. There are also more curated widgets for iOS 17, so you can select a specific photo album to populate them (no more screenshots or very dated holiday photos) and dedicate widgets to podcasts, Safari or your music.

Contact posters and FaceTime

iOS 17 review
Photo by Mat Smith / Engadget

Contact Posters remain the big visual twist for iOS 17. However, I’m still waiting for my iPhone-carrying friends to update their devices so I can see the glossy upgrade. Contact posters mix different profile photos, fonts and colors and will appear when someone calls you, FaceTimes you, or when you’re searching through contacts. This image will also appear when you try out NameDrop, Apple’s new feature for contactless… contact sharing. As I noted in my preview, the profile photo you use doesn’t have to be taken in Portrait mode to ensure the cutout effect between the image and text, which is nice.

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NameDrop offers a degree of customization, so when you share your details, you can choose what phone numbers and emails to shoot across by bringing two compatible iPhones close to each other. There’s a lovely visual undulation, sound effect and haptic buzz, making it an odd delight to share your details. Apple also teased an upgraded AirDrop, able to transfer content online even if you step away. However, that feature will arrive later this year.

With FaceTime, alongside some new augmented reality gestures, you can leave a video voicemail if someone doesn’t answer your call. Yes, you’re just sending a video, to be honest, but it’s here if you need to do just that.

Messaging gets better and better

So, Messages is good now? It’s taken some time, but I’ll admit it: I want my friends to ditch WhatsApp and return to the other green messaging app. (And to my Android friends, I’m sorry.)

Apple has improved its sticker features, including Live Stickers, animated stickers taken from Live Photos. iOS 17 now collates all of my cut–outs of dogs, selfies and babies into one drawer. This drawer also houses memoji, emoji and third-party stickers. Like static cutout stickers before, you can ‘lift’ subjects out of photos by long pressing on them in the Photos app. With iOS 17, you can add sticker effects, like “shiny” and “puffy” that reflect faux light when you move your phone. Stickers can now also be used from the sticker drawer and added to photos, documents, and screenshots with Markup – that’s the little pencil tip icon.

A new Check In feature, embedded into Messages, can auto-notify someone that you’ve arrived at a destination. If you don’t arrive by a specified time, your iPhone will even ask you to confirm you’re okay, and if you don’t respond, an alert will be sent to whoever you sent the Check In notification to. The recipient can be informed of signal status and battery life. You can even share the route you take, if you’re willing to.

The keyboard is much improved, but I’m not sure how

iOS 17 review
Photo by Mat Smith / Engadget

Apple has taken on board the criticism of its often spotty autocorrect accuracy. It says it’s using a new “transformer language model” for its autocorrect suggestions in English, French and Spanish. Almost immediately, it worked better and has improved further over the last few weeks. I noticed my phone swapped ‘bbiab’ for ‘Brian’, in an email to Engadget’s head of Video.

This is made even better by the temporary underlining on your autocorrected words, so you can see what’s changed — great for when you didn’t notice your iPhone tweaking your missives.

Tapping on an autocorrection shows a pop-up of the original, so you can easily swap it back if you want. Predictive text suggestions appear mildly improved too. iOS 17 ends Apple’s prudish approach regarding curse words, so you can now save your favorite naughty words, and your iPhone will learn them and (hopefully) use them appropriately.

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Live Voicemail and voice note transcription

Live Voicemail is one feature not yet available to me in the UK. And I’d very much like it, please. This voicemail upgrade lets you screen a call through live transcription, with the iPhone parsing what someone says, you can then pick up the call if they’re saying something you’re interested in hearing about – or just let them leave a message.

I had our Executive Editor Aaron Souppouris — whose London accent is incomprehensible to a lot of people — test this feature in the US. If your phone is locked when the call comes in, the system prompts you to unlock to read live. Once unlocked, Live Voicemail caught every word he said, which is pretty impressive.

It’s a different approach to Google, which introduced its own call-screening tricks to the Pixel years ago. In Android’s implementation, the device screens calls and asks the caller questions. It’s a little more… interactive. In iOS 17, you get a live transcript of their message and can choose to interrupt them by leaving the message. Or just get the jist. Google’s technique means people know they’re being screened which I dislike.

iOS 17 review
Photo by Mat Smith / Engadget

Machine-learning transcription isn’t new on iPhones (you’ve been able to dictate on your phone for years), but it’s the implementation in iOS 17 that is. When someone sends you a voice note on Messages, the iPhone can now auto-transcribe the contents of that voice note, as long as the audio is clear enough. I think I made my point during our iOS 17 preview, but It’s my favorite feature this year. 

Improvements beyond the iPhone

Despite the unchanged design, Apple has packed an assortment of updates into the new AirPods Pro. All of the conveniences from the 2019 model are here as well, alongside additions like Adaptive Transparency, Personalized Spatial Audio and a new touch gesture in tow. There’s room to further refine the familiar formula, but Apple has given iPhone owners several reasons to upgrade.
Billy Steele/Engadget

The iOS 17 benefits even stretch to your AirPods — if they’re the latest ones. With second-gen AirPods Pro, you’ll get adaptive audio — and dropdown icons on your phone to toggle the new features on and off. This adjusts the level of noise cancellation in a noisier environment and is bolstered by a new Conversation Awareness feature, which, when it detects you speaking, will lower the volume of your music or podcast. Unfortunately, it does the same when you cough. Check out our deep dive on the new features here.

If you own AirPlay-compatible devices, iOS 17 will offer up speaker options and automatically connect when you play audio on your iPhone, further streamlining the process. However, with my HomePod, I had to be very close for the auto-connect popup to appear.

While we’re talking audio, voice assistant Siri picks up some minor, but notable, improvements. No more ‘Hey Siri’ just ‘Siri’ — they’re cool like that now. Siri now handles back-to-back commands, too.

Cross-device improvements even reach AirTags and other Find My-enabled peripherals. Other people can now track these, so two people can monitor the same item.

Elsewhere, Safari now offers separate browsing profiles for your work and personal – or any other way you’d like to divide up your internet exploring. iOS 17 also introduces group password and passkey sharing.

Another simple upgrade to your iPhone experience is any two-factor authentication codes and messages sent to your email will be automatically inserted into your web browser, a feature that’s been available for codes in text messages for years. Better yet, iOS can now automatically delete these texts or emails after you’ve inserted the code, clearing out space, especially in Messages, for the texts that matter.

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Missing parts

During the big iOS 17 reveal at WWDC 2023, Apple noted that some features of the new OS wouldn’t be available at launch. One of the big ones is a Journal app.

Apple says that Journal will glean details from other apps, like Messages and Podcasts, automatically suggesting things you might want to recall and write about. The Journal app is scheduled to land before the end of the year.

There are a few other things not here at the time of public release, too, like the enhanced AirDrop capabilities I mentioned earlier. Music collaboration was also teased, with the ability to invite friends to your playlists and let anyone add, reorder, and remove songs – or react to poor choices with emoji.

Another feature I’m waiting on is intelligent form detection for PDFs. Apple says iOS 17 will eventually be able to identify PDF forms across Files, Mail and any scanned files you’ve snapped. If it means I don’t have to pull out my laptop every time I need to fill in a PDF form, I’m on board.

There are some major accessibility upgrades too, which might get lost in the barrage of features. The big one is Personal Voice. After 15 minutes of talking at your iPhone, (reading set phrases aloud), the iPhone can simulate your voice, a la DeepFake tricks we’ve seen in recent years. While it’s cool to have a robo-Mat, the use case is anyone who may lose the ability to speak, or finds it difficult to do so now. (It also sounds pretty artificial, having toyed with other similar voixe models in Descript and other services.) With Personal Voice, you can convert written text into a voice for FaceTime, Phone calls and other compatible communication apps.

Another feature tucked away in Accessibility settings is the ability to speed up haptic touch. Haptic Touch is the long touch feature that replaced the (arguably better?) 3D Touch first found on the iPhone 6S. A long press on an icon or a photo takes longer than pressing hard on 3D Touch. Now you can tweak the settings (Accessibility-> Touch-> Haptic Touch). This immediately sped up all the menu browsing and secondary features I accessed through long presses — give it a try.

Wrap-up

iOS 17 review
Photo by Mat Smith / Engadget

With iOS 17, the visual differences are obvious. But underlying those are many small upgrades, especially for iPhone users that communicate mostly with other iPhone users. If you’re using FaceTime, you can leave a video message or use a handful of wacky augmented reality gestures. If you’re calling them or messaging other iOS 17 users, there are Live Stickers, Check In, Contact Posters, NameDrop and voice note transcription — already the standout feature to me this year. (I’m still waiting for more of my acquaintances to get up to speed and download the update, so I, selfishly, can use these features more.)

If you’re already using AirPods Pro, they’re better, too. Conversational Awareness is already making me look less of an ass when I order my drink at the coffee shop.

Alongside broader quality-of-life improvements to typing and Messages, Apple has also continued to push forward with accessibility features, too. We’re still waiting on that journaling app and several more features. Still, there are enough notable changes this year, combining the new (StandBy) with the improved (predictive typing) to keep your iPhone fresh without having to invest in new hardware.

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