You’ve probably heard that iOS 17 isn’t as noteworthy an update as more recent overhauls to Apple’s iPhone software. And that’s true in the sense that the new version focuses mostly on needed improvements here and there that don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. But to leave it at that undersells the importance of iOS 17 — the changes, while small, add up to an improved iPhone experience overall.
In the course of sprucing things up, Apple devotes a fair amount of attention to upgrading the apps you use to communicate with other people — Phone, FaceTime, and especially Messages. iOS 17 also offers system-wide improvements that largely succeed at simplifying everyday tasks on your iPhone. And of course, iOS 17 ushers in the usual tweaks to existing apps, some of which you’re going to embrace right away.
A summer long iOS 17 beta program gave us a sneak preview of the operating system and Apple a chance to further fine-tune an update that’s all about fine-tuning. The end result is the full release of iOS 17, now available as a download for any current iPhone that supports the software and coming as the installed software on board the iPhone 15 models arriving September 22.
The Question of Updating to iOS 17
The question of updating to iOS 17 isn’t a matter of “if” — eventually, nearly every iPhone user stays current with Apple’s mobile software — but whether you should take the plunge right away. I’ve been using iOS 17 for months now across multiple iPhones, starting with the developer beta that came out in June, and that’s the question I plan to answer with this iOS 17 review.
iOS 17 Compatibility
Only three devices lose compatibility with Apple software updates now that iOS 17 is here. The iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X won’t receive any updates past iOS 16.
If you want to run iOS 17, you’ll need an iPhone XR or later. That’s essentially any phone that Apple has released since the fall of 2018, including the iPhone 15, iPhone 15 Plus, iPhone 15 Pro, and iPhone 15 Pro Max joining Apple’s phone lineup. Here’s how to download and install iOS 17 on your current iPhone.
The end of software support for the iPhone X may feel like a particularly noteworthy moment. That was the phone that ushered in Apple’s new era of phone design — well, excluding the two most recent iPhone SE models at any rate. But five years of software updates is about what Apple offers iPhone owners, so it’s been a good run for those phones.
iOS 17 Review: Communication Features
The apps you use to stay in touch with other people — the phone, FaceTime, and Messages — see the most noteworthy changes in iOS 17. And while the first two apps gain some neat tricks, it’s Apple’s texting tool that ushers in some truly welcome improvements with this update.
The biggest iOS 17 Phone addition is a Live Voicemail feature that allows you to better screen calls from unknown callers or to see if the calls coming from people you know are truly urgent and need to be dealt with right now.
In a feature that will be familiar to anyone using a recent Pixel phone, calls that go to voicemail will be transcribed in real time on your iPhone screen. If the call turns out to be something you need to deal with, you can tap the Accept button to pick up. Transcriptions happen entirely on your iPhone, meaning your messages aren’t being routed through an Apple server.
Live Voicemail creates real-time transcripts (left), but sometimes in the iOS 17 beta, those transcripts don’t always appear. People calling you won’t get your normal voicemail — instead, a robotic voice greets them and tells them to leave a message, alerting them that you might pick up the phone. I think that’s a helpful approach to minimize surprises should you pick up while also encouraging people not to hang up if they’ve been routed to voicemail.
During beta testing, I had my struggles with Live Voicemail, with transcriptions not always appearing; instead, I would get the less helpful “A message is being left” text. But whether Apple made some tweaks or I just got used to using the feature, I’m finding Live Voicemail to perform better as iOS 17 arrives. The trick, apparently, is to have your phone unlocked when phone calls come in so that transcriptions aren’t hidden in the name of privacy; tapping the Voicemail button that appears when there’s an incoming call seems to help, too.
I understand the desire to have some degree of privacy with incoming calls, but I do wish Live Voicemail performed with a little less intervention on my part. Nevertheless, it’s a clever addition that really shows off your iPhone’s on-board smarts.
The other big change in the Phones app is the ability to create Contact Posters — think of these as on-screen business cards with a more creative bent. You can select a picture of yourself — even a memoji if you’re so inclined — and tweak the background as well as the font style, size, and color.
Contact Posters live in your Contacts app, and you can exchange them with other iOS 17 users. (More on that a little later.) Once you do, they’ll pop up on your lock screen whenever you’ve got an incoming call.
I’d describe Contact Posters as a nice-to-have feature, not a must-have. But if you feel that iOS lacks a degree of personalization, this addition addresses that.
FaceTime has never really lived up to its promise for me, as my video chats through the app tend to feature choppy video and awkward camera angles, as opposed to the polished product you tend to see in Apple adverts. But if you find FaceTime a better experience than I do, at least iOS 17 brings in some new features.
The best of the iOS 17 FaceTime changes comes if you’re using the front camera on an iPhone 12 or later for your video chats: Hand gestures now trigger video effects. Say you form a heart with your two hands — animated hearts will flash around you. The peace symbol makes balloons appear, and two peace signs triggers the confetti. It’s a fun addition that figures to liven up calls.
A more practical addition is the arrival of voicemail when someone doesn’t answer your call. I’m pleased to report it works as advertised, as you can record a video message for the other person to respond to later. The missed call alert appears in both the FaceTime and Phone apps, which strikes me as overkill, but that’s a minor complaint when a long-missing feature is finally added to the mix.
Of all the communications apps, Messages comes out of iOS 17 looking the best, even if not every change in iOS 17 Messages figures to be instantly welcomed by users.
Prior to iOS 17, iMessage apps such as Apple Cash, Photos, Digital Touch, and what have you appeared right above the keyboard in the messaging app. iOS 17 clears things up by reducing everything to a Plus button just to the left of the text field. Tap the button, and your iMessage apps fan upward, with the most frequently used options at the top.
Not all the iOS 17 beta testers were fans of the feature, though I figure that, like most changes, it’s something you’ll adapt to over time. The move to a Plus button allows the keyboard to take up more space on your screen and cuts down on accidental taps, which was something that bothered me about iOS 16. Overall, it’s a sensible change that I think most users will come to appreciate.
The other change that might draw your eye: the new photo picker that appears when you tap the camera icon to the left of the text field. Apple promises that this new picker will improve your ability to choose and send photos, though I can’t say that I’ve noticed much of a difference. It just seems like a different way to access the camera roll — one that keeps the photos you’re sending in a line along the bottom of the screen while the camera viewfinder fills up the rest of the display. I didn’t see much of an advantage to this approach during beta testing, and I still don’t now that iOS 17 is out.
My biggest complaint about iOS 17 Messages is that, at times, the app seems to suggest iMessage apps that aren’t as relevant as the ones I’ve used most often in the past. I’ve used Photos and the Messages app store far more frequently than, say, GamePigeon, yet it’s the latter app that regularly appears in the space directly above the keyboard. It’s possible that my usage will dictate what gets suggested, but that hasn’t been the case so far.
Messages also finally integrates the SharePlay feature that Apple initially previewed at its Worldwide Developers Conference last June. SharePlay lets you watch or listen to content with someone else over a FaceTime call. The feature works with Apple TV, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount+, and Twitch, with more apps on the way.
I’ve played around with SharePlay a little, and it certainly seems like an interesting way to connect with others, especially when you’re talking about watching a movie or TV show. That said, it’s worth noting that not all media apps have adopted SharePlay support yet. And even among those that have, the experience can be a bit hit-or-miss, with some users reporting issues like audio syncing problems or an inability to hear the audio from the shared content. These issues may be ironed out over time as more apps and services update to support SharePlay, but for now, your mileage may vary.
iOS 17 Review: System-Wide Features
While the updates to communication apps are noteworthy, there are also several system-wide changes in iOS 17 that enhance the overall iPhone experience.
One of the standout features in iOS 17 is Focus Mode. This feature allows you to customize your iPhone’s notifications and app notifications based on your current activity or state of mind. You can create different Focus Modes for work, personal time, fitness, or any other activity, each with its own set of rules for what notifications and alerts are allowed to come through.
For example, during your work Focus Mode, you can configure your iPhone to allow only work-related notifications and silence all other distractions. You can set up custom home screens for each Focus Mode, so when you activate it, your iPhone displays the apps and widgets most relevant to that activity.
Focus Mode can be activated manually or triggered automatically based on your location or the time of day. It’s a fantastic way to regain control over your digital life and reduce distractions when you need to focus on specific tasks.
iOS 17 also introduces a redesigned notifications experience. Notifications are now grouped by app, making it easier to manage and dismiss multiple alerts from the same source. Additionally, Notification Summary lets you schedule when less important notifications are delivered, so you’re not constantly interrupted throughout the day.
Quick Note is a handy feature that allows you to create notes from anywhere on your iPhone. Simply swipe from the bottom-right corner of the screen with an Apple Pencil (or your finger), and a Quick Note window will appear, ready for you to jot down thoughts, ideas, or reminders. Quick Notes sync across your Apple devices, making them accessible on your iPad and Mac as well.
Improved Multitasking and App Library
iOS 17 introduces improvements to multitasking and the App Library. You can now easily switch between apps using a new multitasking menu that appears at the top of the screen. The App Library gets a visual overhaul, making it simpler to find and organize your apps.
Safari receives some notable updates in iOS 17. Tab Groups allow you to save and organize your open tabs into groups that sync across your devices. The web browser also gets improved performance and a redesigned address bar with a more accessible layout.
The Weather app gets a visual refresh with more detailed graphics and data, including additional weather maps and information.
Enhanced Privacy Features
Apple continues to prioritize user privacy, and iOS 17 includes new features like Mail Privacy Protection, which prevents senders from knowing when you’ve opened an email, and App Privacy Report, which provides insights into how apps use your data.
In summary, iOS 17 is an update that focuses on refining and enhancing the iPhone experience. While it may not introduce groundbreaking changes, it offers valuable features like Focus Mode, improved notifications, and updates to communication apps like Phone, FaceTime, and Messages. The system-wide improvements, such as Quick Note and enhanced privacy features, contribute to a more seamless and secure iOS experience. Overall, iOS 17 is a worthwhile upgrade for iPhone users, providing a more polished and customizable user experience.