Apple has pulled back the tarp a bit on its new mobile operating system, iOS 13. While the number might be unlucky, the outlook for users is good, as Apple is packing in a slew of improvements. The latest version of the OS includes the most radical visual overhaul in years, as well as new privacy features that simply have not been matched by other phone OSes. Slated for an autumn 2019 release, iOS 13 is available as a public beta.

How to Get iOS 13

iOS 13 debuted before the audience at WWDC 2019 in June. Developers got first crack at it, and now anyone can join in the public beta. The final version will be released alongside iPadOS and macOS Catalina in the fall of 2019.

Apple iOS 13Image via Apple

Enrolling your phone into the public beta of iOS 13 is pretty straightforward. Head over to the Apple Beta Software page and either sign up with a new Apple ID or sign in with an existing account. You’ll then be taken to the beta enrollment page. You can sign up for all of Apple’s beta programs here, but we’re focused on iOS right now.

Once you click on the iOS tab, you’ll be instructed to download a special profile to your iPhone. Yes, that unfortunately means you have to head to the beta page and sign in again on your iPhone. Click to download the file, and then confirm installation with the dialog box that pops up. Once the profile is installed, you receive beta updates over-the-air the same as any other software update.

Note that beta programs are, by definition, unfinished software, so be sure to back up your phone before you take the plunge. If you’re tired of living on the edge of software releases, fear not: Apple has a handy guide for unenrolling your device from the beta program.

iOS 13 and iPadOS

Perhaps the biggest change coming with iOS 13 is what isn’t there: namely, iPads. iPads will use iPadOS, which will be built upon iOS, but will become its own, unique software. This isn’t really new. iPads have always used a different version of OS from their iPhone counterparts, and recent updates saw more and more unique features arriving on the iPad, not the iPhone. This official split just formalizes the relationship.

The iOS 13 and iPadOS public betas provide some idea of what the differences between the two platforms will be. iOS will continue to focus on a small-screen, mobile experience, while iPadOS will be taking on more and more of a desktop look and feel.

For example, iPadOS will get a breakout keyboard that can be repositioned on the screen and special gestures for cut, copy, paste, and undo, as well as more-powerful versions of Slide Over and split-screen multitasking. In case you had any doubt that Apple considers the iPad to be, basically, a laptop, the version of Safari in iPadOS will even display the desktop version of websites.

The last few iOS updates have seemed slanted toward the iPad, with these devices getting more—and more-exciting—new features. But formally separating iOS and iPadOS has a few downsides. For example, the three-finger copy/cut/paste/undo gestures on iPadOS might lead to some confusing moments when you go to use the gesture on your iPhone, only to find it won’t work there. Sort of like how moving between Windows and macOS requires you to use different keyboard shortcuts. The new freedoms afforded to iPadOS might also highlight the limitations of iOS. I’ll be watching this carefully as I work with the betas and, eventually, the final code of each.

Through an iPhone Darkly

Of all the trends to hit technology, the rapid and rabid move toward embracing dark mode on every platform imaginable is one of the most surprising. I’m not entirely convinced there’s any benefit to Dark Mode other than it looking cool, but it does look cool and it’s a nice change and maybe that’s enough. It’s especially encouraging to see it on iOS, which hasn’t had a significant visual overhaul since the flat color design was introduced with iOS 7 in 2013.

Dark Mode Across the BoardThe iOS Dark Mode seems to take its color cues from the macOS Dark Mode, which in turn always makes me think of Ubuntu. The new iOS includes a light and dark wallpaper, similar to the macOS night and day islands that grace macOS Catalina. Many of the Apple apps have been rebuilt to support Dark Mode, including Calendar, Music, News, Notes, Photos, and Reminders.

Dark Mode even winds its smoky grasp around notifications, right-swipe widgets, the Share Sheet, and the default iPhone keyboard. This seems far more pervasive and cohesive than the Dark theme in Android Pie, which turns some but not all of the system elements a warm, blackish gray.

What’s less clear is how many third-party apps will support Dark Mode. This might lead to some jarring visual moments when your screen blazes brightly after you fire up an app that hasn’t been given the twilight treatment.

The iOS 13 Experience

Besides Dark Mode, iOS 13 is largely the same as its predecessors, with all the baggage that carries. I’m starting to get tired of the endless grid of apps, and of being expected to manage them with folders. I am tired of the numerous hidden panels that you swipe in from various directions, and exhausted by the terrible faux-lockscreen notification center, which I have been decrying fruitlessly for years. I miss the Home button. But despite all that, there’s no getting around that iOS is looks and feels amazing.

Everything is so responsive and so smooth. You grab an app, flick a tile, scroll through a list and it’s just a perfect experience. I don’t particularly care for all the gestures that have started crowding iOS, but they all work in a pleasing, highly polished, way. Even the way the volume slider popped in from the side and thinned itself as I adjusted the volume feels fancy. iOS 13 feels liquid and alive, which I know is due in no small part to the incredible screen on the iPhone XR I used in testing, but it’s still stunning.

Even if you don’t like iOS, and you think iPhones are overpriced garbage, the stunning, shining perfection of iOS is undeniable.

The Apple Apps

In addition to supporting Dark Mode, many of Apple’s default apps have been rebuilt for iOS 13. Here’s a rundown of what’s new in the iOS stock apps.

Notes and Reminders. The Notes app is getting a new gallery view that will be reflected on macOS as well. The Reminders app gets an even more extensive overhaul. Now, when you create a reminder, you can simply type what and when you want to be reminded, and the app parses your intent and turns it into a task. A line of machine-learning-powered suggested activities and situations sits close at hand, and the app will even prompt you if you start texting with a person you tagged in a reminder. I had some trouble getting all these features to work, but I expect it will improve the more the app is used.

Finally, a swipey keyboard! Hiding in plain sight is a new feature on the Apple keyboard: QuickPath. Instead of tapping out messages letter-by-letter, you can now drag a finger between keys to spell out words. If you’re not impressed, that’s probably because you’ve been using this feature on Android (or even previously on Windows Phone) for the better part of the last decade, or as a third-party extension for the iPhone keyboard. Regardless, I am glad to see that Apple finally offers this input technology at the OS level, and happy to report that it works great.

Apple iOS 13Photo via Apple

New Photos stuff. Apple’s default Photos app gets a major overhaul in iOS 13. Now, your collection of photos is divided up by tabs for All Photos, Days, Months, and Years. As you move from one section to the next, Photos shows you different machine-learning-powered previews that try to take context into account. In Apple’s WWDC presentation, the preview image for the Years section showed photos of the presenter’s previous trips to the conference, but this view changes depending on your current location and date.

All Photos shows you, well, all your photos, but the Days section is where the most dramatic changes are seen. Photos ditches the tired grid of square photo thumbnails for a mixture of different-size rectangles. This mosaic effect is much more visually interesting than a plain old grid, and is livened up more by autoplaying videos and Live Images—which are terrible in every other context but actually work quite well here. Notably, the app now removes pictures of receipts, whiteboards, duplicate images, screenshots, and other “junk” photos from some views to make for a more enjoyable photo-viewing experience. Everything is still there, and fully visible from the All Photos tab, but the curated view really does make for a better experience.

Photos for Days, Months, and Years

I wasn’t impressed with the changes to Photos in iOS 12. They paled in comparison with Google Photos, the default photo organizing app on some Android devices. That service can identify the same person from babyhood to adulthood, as well as offering very specific searches, such as for particular dog breeds. Back then, Apple Photos just didn’t compare, but things look better in iOS 13. The automatic pruning and contextually aware machine learning make the stuffy old camera roll engaging. I still think Google has Apple beat on search, but the reinvented Photos app is actually a joy to look at. It just looks really good.

Also on the photography side of the house are changes to the Portrait Lighting tool. You can now adjust the levels to make it appear as if a virtual set of lights has moved closer or further from your subject. A new photo editor simplifies tweaks to your pictures, and you can make those same adjustments and apply filters to video. Opening the editor was the one area where I felt iOS 13 shudder a little bit, but moving between all the possible changes I could make was smooth and seamless.

Siri Shortcuts app. When I reviewed iOS 12, Siri Shortcuts completely blew me away. It’s very similar to Automator on the Mac, letting you create little programs of your own. That might be humdrum on a desktop, but it’s unheard of on iOS. It’s definitely not the kind of thing people would use day-to-day, but it’s enormously powerful, and there has never been anything like it on iOS. Back in iOS 12, Shortcuts was an optional download, but Apple is now bundling the Shortcuts app with iOS 13 and including some tools that attempt to match your activities to existing Shortcuts. Like most machine learning experiences, this will take some time before it really deliver results. That said, I did find the Shortcuts app at least more approachable than I did the first time, and impressively easy to use on the small (compared to the iPad) screen. It also was the one app that crashed while I was using the beta.

Apple iOS 13Photo via Apple

Updated Apple Maps. Lastly, and perhaps least, Apple Maps has been upgraded with oodles more detail, as well as a Google Street View competitor the company calls Look Around. To Apple’s credit, the Maps app has evolved in leaps and bounds since its initial release, which didn’t even include the neighborhood of Queens I lived in at the time. Google is still the leader in this area, but Apple remains undeterred. Apple will be rolling out its improved maps of the US throughout the year, while Google has basically shot 360-degree photos of every inch of inhabited land on this planet. Heck, Google Maps has mapped the inside of my favorite bar. Apple says that currently only parts of Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco support Look Around, which is a bit disappointing considering I can see some fairly iconic American architecture from my window at PCMag.

Look AroundA challenge for Apple is making Maps usable without making it look like that other maps application from that other company. To its credit, Apple Maps looks unique. The map fills the top of the screen while a tab at the bottom gives you information about what’s nearby. I found its search function and directions to be at least as useful as Google Maps, although I strongly suspect that any differences between the two would only be revealed through weeks of dedicated use.

Where Apple really seeks to differentiate its Maps app is through privacy. While Google has built a business around learning about you and delivering content you want, as well as ads you might not, Apple says it doesn’t play that game. At WWDC, Apple’s presenters made more than a few jabs at Google’s expense, saying you won’t need to toggle a switch to protect your privacy with Apple Maps and that the company treats privacy as a human right.

A Private Party

The stance that Apple takes on privacy is probably one of the biggest highlights of iOS 13, and certainly some of its most interesting features center on privacy. Apple has, for a while, been positioning itself as the secure, private alternative to Google. It’s true that Apple’s business model focuses on sales rather than the ad data that fuels Google, and Apple has tried to make this an advantage by highlighting that it doesn’t need to harvest your data. Of course, this risks turning privacy into just another bullet point to bolster the sale of high-end products, making it less of a human right and more of a commodity, but I digress.

In iOS 13, Apple is changing how apps can access your location. You can still grant an app permission to use your location or have the app prompt you for permission every time it wants your location data. It’s easy to see how this fine-grained control could easily become annoying, but Apple is walking a line between keeping apps useful and protecting individuals’ privacy. I’m curious to see how this plays out, especially since so many apps are curious about your location. Apple also has said that it will prevent apps from abusing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth scanning to infer your location, though how that will work is unclear.

New Location Permissions

If you opt to grant an app on-going access to your location, Apple will assemble reports of what the app was doing in the background. This is a particularly interesting idea, since it peels back the obfuscation of app design and lays the activity bare for people to peruse. This could easily become just another metric that’s ignored by most users, but the fact that it’s there at all is a step in the right direction.

Apple is also changing how you log in to apps and services in iOS 13. While you might be familiar with the buttons that say Login with Google or Facebook or Twitter, these options sometimes reveal personal information and can be used to track you across the web. That’s still arguably better than passwords, but Apple has its own solution: Sign in with Apple. Like the established options, Apple takes care of the credentials for you, but the company says it won’t track your location or reveal personal information. Apple says that this feature will be rolling out across all its platforms and will be available on the web, which potentially makes it a strong option for protecting user privacy. That said, developers will have to add the Sign in with Apple button, and it’s not clear what would incentivize them to do so.

Apple iOS 13Photo via Apple

Another neat trick is that Apple will give you the option to use a dummy email address with Sign in with Apple. Just tap, and Apple creates a unique email address that forwards to the email associated with your Apple ID. Each dummy address is unique, so you can delete them if you start receiving too much spam.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a key feature of Abine Blur. Granted, Blur can do a lot more, like create prepaid credit card numbers on the fly to keep your banking information secure, store your passwords, create dummy phone numbers, and so on. Blur also costs $40, while Apple is offering its email obfuscation for free, but Blur works on all platforms—not just Apple. It’s also noteworthy that some of Blur’s email domains and credit card numbers get rejected, because they’re deemed untrustworthy by some sites, so Apple may encounter a similar problem with its email-hiding scheme. Still, I’m glad to see a feature like this get more attention and especially excited for a big name like Apple to endorse it by including it with iOS.

Losing your phone or computer is a major threat to your privacy, since it’s got all your stuff. Apple already has the excellent Find My iPhone service, but is bundling this together with Find My Friends and extending that same protection to its Mac line. Interestingly, Apple says it will be able to detect stolen Mac laptops that are shut down or closed. This matters to iPhone owners because Apple says that anyone’s iPhones and iPads nearby the stolen device will pick up a Bluetooth signal from the absconded laptop and relay the information back to the owner. It’s a really cool idea, and Apple says it can do it all without invading anyone’s privacy, but it did just effectively turn iPhone users into a crowd-sourced Lojack for laptops. I like this idea, and I have no reason to assume that Apple isn’t protecting the privacy of everyone involved. On the other hand, it is ostensibly doing this without asking the permission of users. Considering the way people reacted when the company gave all its customers a U2 album, I wonder what the response to this feature will be.

Animoji Accessories and Memoji Stickers

Animoji Are FunIt wouldn’t be an iOS update without an expansion of the highly memeable Animoji tool. This feature uses face tracking to mimic your movements on-screen with a customizable cartoon creation called a Memoji, or premade digital mask, such as an alien or a tiger. It sounds frivolous, and it is, but it’s also pure fun. Watching your fake face respond in such a lifelike way is still amazing; it even mimics your blinking.

I don’t use a device that can run Memoji in day-to-day life, and I often forget what a joyous experience it is. These cute faces mimic my every movement, and interpret my facial experessions. When I make a surprised face, the rainbow unicorn on my screen puts its ears up and cartoonishly widens its eyes. You might think you’re immune to how fun these things are, but reader: you are wrong.

iOS 13 adds makeup and accessories to the customizable Memojis. You can add various shades of lipstick and eyeshadow, as well as a surprising number of piercings and dental enhancements. Hair options include more styles, textures, and colors in iOS 13, and you can adorn your Memoji with hats, glasses, and AirPods, because, you know, branding.

Memoji Stickers For AllYou can also now take your Memoji 2D with Memoji Stickers. These are just like the sticker packs you can add to the Messages app, and they cover a range of emotional experiences. The difference is that they’re automagically created using your custom Memoji, making it a bit like those Bitmoji everyone seems to love but that I find unnerving. You can use your Memoji stickers directly from the keyboard, so it’s available in every app.

Memoji and Animoji have been exclusive to Apple’s high-end iPhones that are equipped with front-facing depth-sensing cameras, such as the iPhone X, XS, and XR. Memoji stickers, however, don’t have any of the AR tricks, so Apple is rolling them out—along with the Memoji editor—to many more devices. If your iOS device has at least an A9 chip in it (as the iPhone 6s or SE do), you can get in on the action. I’m really happy to see this, since the rising cost of flagship mobile phones is getting outrageous, and Memoji are just a lot of fun. Expect to see a lot of these popping up all over the place soon.

Under the Hood

While you probably won’t notice apps taking advantage of new APIs or appreciate the improvements in AR that are now available (unless you get that nifty Minecraft app), Apple does seem to think you’ll notice tweaks that improve how your iPhone performs. The company says that Face ID should unlock 30 percent faster, and apps should launch twice as fast. Both of those things are already very, very fast, so how anyone would notice is a mystery to me. Apple also says that apps and updates will be smaller, by 50 and 60 percent, respectively, leading to faster downloads.

Some of the iOS 13 upgrades will depend on the other pieces of Apple hardware you own. For instance, you will soon be able to “hand off” a podcast, call, or song to your HomePod by bringing your iPhone close to it. You’ll also be able to share audio with two sets of AirPods simultaneously, for a group-listening experience, and have Siri read your incoming messages aloud so that you can respond without reaching for your phone.

Most giant tech firms have been beating the AI and machine-learning drum for years now, and Apple is following suit. At WWDC, Apple was quick to point out all the places machine learning was being put to work, from Siri Shortcuts to Photos. Apple’s flagship AI remains the Siri voice assistant, which gets a makeover in iOS 13. Using neural text-to-speech technology similar to that already demonstrated by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, Siri should sound more natural and have a more human-sounding cadence.

In the area of Accessibility, enhanced voice-control options are also coming to the new versions of iOS and macOS. Using just your voice, you can open apps, virtually tap or interact with screen elements, and move between your Mac and iPhone. Apple’s demo of these improvements was quite compelling, featuring a wheel chair user easily planning a trip with a friend.

Other changes in the Apple ecosystem will be rippling through iOS, as well. Apple recently announced that it was killing iTunes on macOS and splitting its media responsibilities between dedicated Music, Podcasts, and Apple TV apps. The Music app on iOS has been doing the heavy lifting music-wise for a while, but enhancements to the other apps could end up on your iPhone, too. For instance, Apple is using machine learning to index the spoken content of podcasts, making it available for search in the macOS app. It worked great in the Catalina beta, but didn’t work at all in the iOS version of the Podcast app. It’s also unclear what the forthcoming mobile game subscription package, called Apple Arcade, will bring to iOS.

Apple-Google Tit-for-Tat

Have you ever noticed how a movie will be coming out and there will be another weirdly similar title from a competing studio arriving at around the same time? Like how A Bugs Life and Antz dropped within a month of each other. Apple and Google have entered into a very similar kind of rivalry.

Google has already put out Android Q for beta testing, and it’s expected to drop later this summer. Like iOS 13, the new version of Android puts a big emphasis on privacy and security, with stricter limits on what information developers can access—especially location information. At its I/O developer conference this past spring, several of Google’s top people emphasized the importance of privacy, in addition to cool new stuff like AR sharks in Google search.

Will Apple do a better job protecting your privacy than Google? On one hand, Apple has a business model that doesn’t depend on syphoning off your personal information (though it has a store full of apps that do have that business model). On the other hand, Android is used by more people and more devices—devices often sold cheaper than iPhones—so whatever steps Google makes toward improving customer privacy arguably has a bigger global impact.

On the other hand (yes, there are three hands now), having both of these companies trying to outdo each other in terms of privacy and quality of service could be great for consumers. Both companies have taken actions in the past year that I could never imagine just five years ago.

The arrival of iPadOS is a bit of a wild card in this conflict. There are, as of this writing, no really exciting tablets for Android. That space has been ceded to Apple. But some of the most exciting and visible aspects of iPadOS—such as the ability to pin widgets to the desktop—are definitely more in the Android vein and don’t seem to have a future on regular old iOS.

Dark Mode is a welcome visual refresh, but I am starting to think that iOS is past due for a more dramatic refresh both in form and function. Inflexible pages of apps and the bloat of hidden panels (from the left, up, and down) are bogging down the simplicity that is supposed to be at the heart of the iOS experience. iOS looks and feels amazing, but further improvements may require Apple to start taking risks with fundamentals of the iOS design. Otherwise, iOS is going to feel archaic, and no amount of Spielberg and Oprah will fix that.

A Lucky Number?

The release of iOS 13 is still a long way off, but there’s already a lot of exciting potential. Apple hasn’t always put out a head-turning upgrade every year—some years’ updates have focused more on behind-the-scenes impact. iOS 13 seems to be balancing eyeball-grabbing new features, like Dark Mode, with smart but largely invisible engineering, like reduced app and update sizes. The privacy improvements in iOS 13 could be very powerful, provided they see wide enough adoption, and the extension of popular features like the Memoji editor to lower-end devices is especially welcome, as companies grapple with a stagnant market for expensive flagship phones. On top of all that, iOS 13 is fast, smooth, and stunning to use.

PCMag doesn’t give ratings to beta software. For now, we’re withholding a rating on iOS 13, but it’s off to a very strong start; we’ll be sure to revisit this preview as we learn more. When the final product is released this autumn, we’ll expand this piece with more hands-on testing information and a rating.