iOS 14 hands-on: Finally, you can truly customize your iPhone’s home screen

From home screen widgets to App Clips, Apple’s iOS 14 is the most exciting version of the iPhone’s software we’ve seen in a while, mostly because of how it can be used to change the way your phone looks. It’ll be officially installed on the iPhone 12 when it comes out later this year, but you can try it out on your iPhone now thanks to the release of a public beta.

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It’s a great opportunity to see how development is coming along, and see exactly how we can customize the look of the iPhone. I’ve spent a short time with the software, and this is what it’s like so far.

New-look home screen

This is perhaps the largest alteration to iOS we’ve seen in years — the ability to add widgets to your home screen. The beta offers only a small selection of widgets, however, all of which are related to Apple’s own software and features. There’s no Twitter or Instagram widget, for example. You can swipe right on the home screen to see your existing widgets, just like in iOS 13, then tap and hold to start adding more. Widgets exist for your photos, notes, calendars, maps, music, news, reminders, and more.

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If you’re like me and have a carefully laid out home screen, then adding a widget ruins it entirely. Icons shift automatically around the new shape — which at its smallest is a four-by-four block — and apps that are evicted are shifted over to a new home screen. You’ll have to sort through them and reorganize your home screen afterwards.

This is a Smart Stack widget. It contains multiple widgets to scroll through. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

My preferred widget option is the Smart Stack. It takes six widgets — photos, calendar, Siri Suggestions, weather, news, and music — and places them in a swipeable stack, taking up less space while remaining useful. You can reorder widgets in the stack, but so far, you can’t add new ones.

Siri Suggestions is a new feature, where the virtual assistant offers up a feature which you’ve used before, that Siri can take care of for you. In my case, it asked to start a 20-minute timer, something I use every night. That’s good. However, it did so at random times of the day. That’s not as great.

When I tapped widget, it opened the Timer app, but doesn’t actually start the timer. Siri has made this same suggestion on my other iPhone as a notification on the lock screen around the time I go to bed, so there’s still room for improvement in iOS 14.

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Scroll to the end of your home screens and you’ll find the App Library, which is something like the app drawer on an Android phone, except all your apps are collected together in folders. You can directly search for apps, too.

Apple names these folders itself, and you don’t have the option to change it or to add apps to them. It’s relatively accurate with its grouping, putting mediation and apps connected to wearables in the Health and Fitness folder, but Lifestyle is a bit of a dumping ground for all sorts of apps. Mine contained the Neato app for my robotic vacuum cleaner, the Fossil watch app, and the Beoplay headphone app, along with travel and shopping apps.

Apple’s iOS 14 makes it possible to change the way your home screens look, but not to the extent some may have hoped.

I was hoping to use the App Library as a way to cut down on the number of home screens I used, but the lack of editing features to group apps in logical sections makes this difficult and would force me to use the search feature more.

Apple’s iOS 14 makes it possible to change the way your home screens look, but not to the extent some may have hoped. Like Android, widgets work better when used in moderation, and consolidating important ones in a Smart Stack while retaining a relatively traditional home screen layout should maximize productivity.

I do like the opportunity to be more creative, even at this early stage. Over time, as the features improve, I have a feeling people will discover cool ways to make their home screen look unique.

Music and video

Picture in Picture is a new feature for iOS 14, where videos play over the app you’re using or your home screen. Developers will need to add support for it to their apps, so at the moment only Apple TV works natively. However, if you watch video on YouTube through Safari, you can select Picture in Picture after entering full screen.

It’s very slick indeed, with no stuttering when swapping through apps, even when playing another video from the Photos gallery. The video window is tethered to the corners of the screen though, so you can’t place it centrally.

Picture-in-Picture video works really well in iOS 14. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The Music app is one of the available widgets, although it’s restricted to showing recently played songs and playlists, rather than controls. These are still accessible by swiping down from the top right of the screen.

Once inside the Music app it looks identical to iOS 13, although Apple Music subscribers will see a Listen Now button instead of the For You button in the menu, which leads to more visual interface and greater personalization. Outside of Apple Music there’s a new universal search feature in the Library, accessed by swiping down on the screen.

Translate, and other app enhancements

Apple pre-installs its new Translate app with iOS 14. It utilizes the Neural Engine, which is part of Apple’s A-series processors, and can operate on- or offline. Text can be input verbally or by typing, making conversations possible. There are 11 languages available right now, including Italian, German, Korean, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese.

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Tap the microphone icon to access live translation. It shows the words it has heard in its original form, and a translation into your language of choice underneath. There’s an option to playback the translation in either an American or British accent if you select English, and the gender is matched to your setting for Siri.

In its current form, the app is a little unreliable, and frequently crashes. It works best with simple, clear, concise sentences, and isn’t as effective in situations with lots of background noise, or if the speaker is speaking quietly.

I already use Voice Memos extensively, and there is a new Enhance Recording feature that works well. When you edit a voice recording there’s a new icon that resembles an “auto-enhance” icon found in a photo app. Tap it during playback and it minimizes background hiss and reduces echo. The difference is noticeable and doesn’t affect voice tones, but don’t expect it to remove distracting background sounds.

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Remember the Headphone Audio Level measurement and the Decibel meter added to WatchOS last year? Apple has added another hearing-related feature to iOS 14, designed to further protect you from hearing damage in loud environments.

Here, it’s focused on headphone listening, and works in real time. Connect a pair of compatible Bluetooth headphones and a live decibel meter can be added to the Control Center, allowing you to keep the volume at a sensible level. However, the feature didn’t work for me with anything other than the AirPods; I had no luck with the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless and Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus.

It’s easy to pin Messages in iOS 14. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I’m not an iMessage person, but pinning messages to the top of the Messages app is very helpful, and it’s a very easy feature to perform — just long-press on the message and tap the Pin option. I like that the pinned messages are removed from the feed and placed as icons at the top of the message list, unlike pinned WhatsApp conversations, which simply stay at the top of your message feed. I found it easier to keep track of conversations this way.

Siri’s new icon is unobtrusive in iOS 14. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Finally, Siri’s redesign is well thought out. Activating Siri no longer brings up a massive page over what you’re doing, just a simple icon at the bottom of the screen, and answers are provided in legible cards at the top of the screen. If you use Messages, then Siri can record an audio message and send it for you, which is a nice addition.

However, Siri remains a feature many don’t use at all, and there’s little motivation to change that in iOS 14.

Reliability and overall impressions

I’ve been using iOS 14 on an iPhone 11, and have not encountered any reliability problems. Installing it was easy, too, performed simply by visiting the relevant Apple website and installing a profile on your phone. I’ve not been using iOS 14 on my primary device, but so far, I haven’t run into any show-stopping issues.

That’s not to say everyone will have the same experience, so approach with caution. Also, I have noticed the temperature of my phone varies more running iOS 14. It never gets too hot, but there are some points where it noticeably warms up, even performing simple functions.

So, is it worth installing now?

There’s no doubt iOS 14 changes the way your iPhone’s home screens look dramatically, and it’ll be interesting to see how creative people come up with ways to streamline their iPhone and increase productivity with the new widgets and App Library features. Outside of this, iOS 14 is much like other recent increments of Apple’s software – many small changes it takes time to notice, some of which are designed to work in the background anyway, adding up to a cohesive, easy-to-use, and mature mobile operating system.

So far, my biggest disappointment is that I have not been able to test out App Clips, the small snippets of an app that make tasks like paying for goods in a store through the dedicated app a little more convenient. This is one feature I am looking forward to, as Google’s Instant Apps have never quite lived up to the promise. The availability of App Clips will increase as developers create them and we get closer to full launch.

Apple’s iOS is a joy to use anyway, and iOS 14 brings with it a little more creative freedom without sacrificing the familiar Apple style and usability, plus some sensible enhancements that make living with it on a daily basis even better.

How to get iOS 14 now

Apple’s new iOS 14 software will be officially released later this year, but if you’re feeling brave you can install the public beta version on your iPhone right now. Here’s how to install iOS 14 beta on your iPhone.

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