The iPhone may have been born at Macworld San Francisco, but it’s grown up at WWDC. For the first few years Steve Jobs used the company’s annual developers conference to show off new hardware, and since 2011, Tim Cook has used the stage to demonstrate the latest version of iOS, handing out a new batch of APIs and whetting our appetite with the new features that accompany it.

But this year, iOS didn’t get its usual growth spurt. If anything, iOS 9 is more of a slow maturation for Apple’s mobile operating system, focusing on just a few central elements for improvement and optimization. On the WWDC stage, Apple skipped its usual countdown of major features to talk about areas where iOS is most in need of improvement: system intelligence, built-in apps, true multitasking, and foundation strength.

But that doesn’t mean upgrading to iOS 9 won’t breathe new life into our devices. Even without any jaw-dropping innovations, iOS 9 is packed with enhancements that will help us work and play smarter and faster than before.

What’s New

iOS 9 focuses on optimization, but still introduces split-screen multitasking, a more proactive Siri, and more.

There’s just one new app in iOS 9, but it might be the first in a while that isn’t instantly banished to a junk folder. Called News, Apple has developed its very own aggregator that collects all of the stories you want to read under one roof. Impeccably designed and richly curated, News promises to deliver the most beautiful presentations of articles from top publishers like The New York Times, ESPN, and Bloomberg Business, as well as RSS feeds from many of our favorite blogs. And News will learn your habits and tastes and refine your selection of stories as you use it.

But the smarts baked into News is nothing compared to Siri’s new tricks. Along with a better understanding of the things we want (like the ability to to search through your photos and videos based on dates, locations, and album titles), Siri will go from useful to indispensable in iOS 9, pushing its intelligence far beyond voice queries. Pull down on the Home screen to bring up the Spotlight search bar and you’ll have a world of information at your fingertips. You’re no longer limited to just finding apps and songs; Apple has super-charged Spotlight with an abundance of new knowledge, and it looks to give Google a run for its money. Type a sports team and you’ll get the latest scores and stats. Type weather to see the forecast. And the same applies to stocks, calculations and conversions.

Siri is also becoming more proactive in iOS 9, working behind the scenes to deliver content before we ask for it (or even know we need it). Swipe to the right on your first Home screen and you’ll find a new page of suggestions based on the people, apps, and places that are most appropriate for what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. All throughout the day, Siri’s search screen is constantly updated to reflect your changing routine; suggested contacts and apps, nearby places, and stories of interest are all cycled to provide an accurate snapshot of what you’re doing. If you check your Twitter feed every morning, a shortcut to your favorite client will be there when you wake up. Or if you call your boyfriend before bed each night, his contact will always show up at night.

On the search end of things, Spotlight has gotten smarter, too. Type the first few letters of a contact and you’ll be able to instantly call or message them. And Spotlight can even search within your apps and iCloud documents, finding files and suggesting apps based on what’s inside them, not just their names. For example, searching for “salt” could bring up recipes inside the Epicurious app, Apple Music songs by Veruca Salt, a shopping list you may have made, and any news about Salt Lake City.

Finally, iPad users are in for a big surprise. Say goodbye to the carousel and say hello to a whole new way to work, with three fantastic methods for multitasking. Apple is finally giving us a way to run more than one app at the same time, whether we want to quickly check a web site or grab text from a note (Slide Over), watch video while you’re working (Picture in Picture), or run two apps side by side (Split View).

What’s Improved

Transit directions are finally coming to Apple Maps — for certain cities.

More than any other iOS release, version 9 is designed for maintenance and optimization, bringing a slew of little changes that will help us work longer and more efficiently. It starts with battery life, a long-standing issue for iPhone users. Since Apple’s not about to make its devices any thicker, iOS 9 will help maximize every bit of juice inside them.

Apple has reengineered both the apps and the operating system as a whole to extend the battery, but the coolest feature is the new Low Power mode that adds an extra hour to every charge by reducing performance and networking functions, and cutting off background activities. Users without a lot of free space on their iOS devices will also enjoy smaller over-the-air updates, and phones old and new will benefit from an overall speed and responsiveness boost as well as beefed-up security measures.

On the app front, you’ll find transit directions in Maps, but only if you live in certain cities — 300 of which are in China. Outside the Middle Kingdom there are but 10 locales supported: Baltimore, Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. (Apple has promised that many more are on the way.) Maps also offers selections on the search screen for popular restaurants and shops that are nearby.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of iOS 9 is a new Notes app. One of the original 15 apps, Notes has always been one of the more inferior apps in Apple’s arsenal, but it’s getting a major overhaul. For starters, you’ll find a long-overdue share extension that lets you save attachments to new or existing notes, and there’s a new set of tools for sketching, attaching photos, and creating checklists. Plus, a handy Attachments Browser will help you find anything with ease.

Another app that’s gotten a major facelift is Passbook, so much so that it’s gotten a new name. Now called Wallet, the app is still a place to keep all your credit cards (including, at long last, Discover), gift cards, boarding passes, and coupons, but in iOS 9 you can also keep rewards and loyalty cards, as well as store credit cards.

With iOS 9, Apple has slowed the relentless pace of new features to focus on the things that make up the foundation of a great OS. We might have to wait another year for the next big thing, but in its way, iOS 9 is every bit as important as iOS 7 was.
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