Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Dot One

There’s a rule of thumb — especially in the institutional or corporate IT world — that it’s advisable to wait until the first “point” update or major system pack of an operating system before upgrading. That release typically includes a host of bugfixes, performance improvements, and various refinements. In the case of iOS 7, with its major interface overhaul and app rewrites, this guideline seems especially pertinent. And, indeed, iOS 7.1 includes a bevy of significant improvements.

Left: iOS 7.0; right: iOS 7.1. Hallelujah.
Italics comparison

For starters, iOS 7 introduced a bug with the display of italicised 400-weight Helvetica Neue: a noticeably heavier weight was used compared to non-italicised text. As the operator of a website with italicised 400-weight Helvetica Neue, you can imagine how happy I am that this has been fixed, and that I can remove my stupid em{font-family:'Helvetica';} hack.

Most intriguingly, there are a bunch of little graphical changes to the overhauled iOS 7. The design team has furthered their use of circles, with a crazy new phone notification screen, small changes to the phone dialer, and a new shutdown slider. This seems arbitrary at first, but it creates consistency between the buttons in the Phone, especially. These buttons are broadly the same size as the iPhone home button which creates a connection between them all (and remember: the home button on an 5S is flat, too). This continuity between individual applications and between hardware and software has been the goal of iOS 7 since its earliest days.

iOS 7.1 shift key

Then there’s the shift key. Look at the screenshots above, and try to guess which of those shift keys are active, from iOS 6 at the top, through iOS 7.0 in the middle, and iOS 7.1 at the bottom. Would you be surprised if I told you that this wasn’t a trick question, and that the activated shift key screenshot is always in the righthand column?

In iOS 6 and 7, the shift key was outlined in an inactive state, and filled in an active state — iOS 7 simply lost the glow effect. In iOS 7.1, this has been changed to a filled look for both states, and you get to guess each time you glance at your keyboard whether the shift key is active or not. The only reason I can think of for this to be changed would be for those with vision problems who can’t see the thin outline of prior keys. Improvements for accessibility reasons are fine, but this is confusing for — and I may be overreaching here — everyone. While I’ve supported many of the changes made in iOS 7, this is a huge step in the wrong direction. At least it’s not as bad as it was in the third beta.

Accessibility options, as a whole, have also been improved in this release. The parallax effect can now be turned off for wallpapers, and you can now enable shapes around buttons. The latter is clearly a feature designed for people who need it, not those who are miserable with the way iOS 7 looks. There’s also a new view in the Calendar app, but you should probably use Fantastical instead — it’s just better. Serenity Caldwell, Dan Moren, and Dan Frakes of Macworld have published a full rundown, if that’s more your speed.

There are some really tiny changes, too. The systemwide light grey has been tweaked to a more grey-blue, which looks far better. The green gradient for Phone, Messages, and FaceTime has changed from lime-like to a more leafy colour. The paging dots on the Springboard are now, blessedly, centred.

I’ve heard that 7.1 runs way faster on an iPhone 4, and it seems way more stable on iPads and 64-bit systems, like my Retina iPad Mini. Animations are generally faster, though I suspect that’s not a code optimization thing but rather a simple duration change. And, of course, there’s the usual slew of security refinements.

I’ve been using the betas of 7.1 since November which, incidentally, was a mistake for the first couple of releases. The changes are subtle and relatively minor, but when I used a friend’s iOS 7.0.x phone recently, I realized how significant these improvements feel. From the faster animations to the slight tweaks, I’m very impressed with the progress that has been made. If you have an iPhone 5S or 4 or any iPad, and you’ve waited to update until the bugs get worked out, I think you’ll be happy with the stability of 7.1. If you’re already running 7.0 on any product, this release makes it that much better.

Of course, if you hated iOS 7’s aesthetic from the start, this won’t interest you in the slightest. But you knew that, didn’t you?