iOS 12 doesn’t officially come out until this fall, but you can try it early… if you’re courageous enough.

As with previous versions of the software, Apple has made iOS 12 available for download as a public beta so users can try it out, familiarize themselves with its many new features, and help report any bugs that may have slipped through the cracks.

Though the public beta of iOS 12 is mostly stable, it’s not final code reflective of what’ll come in a few months, which means some features don’t work properly, and it still crashes here and there.

We don’t recommend installing iOS 12 on your main iPhone. Instead, install it on a spare iOS device (assuming you have one) in case something goes wrong. This isn’t a review of iOS 12 — we’ll have one this fall — but we’ve had our hands on the beta long enough to know which key features you can look forward to.

And boy is there a lot to be excited for.

Speeding up older devices

iOS 12 runs better on older devices.

iOS 12 runs better on older devices.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Historically, the worst thing about updating your iPhone or iPad to the latest version of iOS is that it almost invariably operates slower. Whether it’s an older processor that can’t keep up or an insufficient amount of RAM, new updates often slow old hardware to the point where you’re worse off, no matter how many new features there may be.

In iOS 12, Apple says it’s made things like opening apps and displaying the keyboard much faster and from what I’ve seen, the OS feels speedier for sure on older devices like the iPhone 6 and iPad Air 2.

Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi said at WWDC apps will launch up to 40 percent faster, the keyboard will appear up to 50 percent faster, and the camera will launch up to 70 percent faster when swiped open from the lock screen.

This is great news if you’re still hanging onto an older iOS device and want to squeeze just a little more life out of it.

FaceTime gets a big upgrade

Apple’s FaceTime is already great, and soon it’ll be even greater with support for up to 32 people in a group video call. It’s unlikely you’ll ever be FaceTiming with that many people at once, but the option is there if you want or need to.

In addition to being able to video-call multiple people, you can also make an appearance as an Animoji, Memoji, or apply effects (like stickers that move with your head) during the FaceTime. I have to admit, showing up as a Memoji on a FaceTime is pretty amusing.

OK, Memoji FaceTime is really fun.

OK, Memoji FaceTime is really fun.

Image: screen recording: raymond wong/mashable

3-way FaceTime was buggy in the beta.

3-way FaceTime was buggy in the beta.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

Group FaceTimes also aren’t limited to video calling. You can choose to join a FaceTime call with video or audio.

However, in the current public beta, we found group FaceTimes to be very buggy and laggy. I noticed some serious latency during a video call with two colleagues who were toying with Memoji and Animoji over their faces, as well as the filter effects. It’s impossible to say if these are issues that’ll pop up when iOS 12 is released, but it definitely seems like Apple has some serious work to do on the back end between now and September if group FaceTime is going to launch without a hitch.

New Animoji and Memoji

Everyone mocked Animoji when Apple introduced them alongside the iPhone X, but the world seems to have begun warming up to them.

Joining the 16 existing Animoji are four new ones: ghost, koala, tiger, and T-rex. The new Animoji have just as many points of articulation as the old one, plus two new ways to animate your cartoon avatar: tongue and wink detection.

The new Animoji are whole lot of fun, but Memoji are a much bigger deal — and, in my opinion, more entertaining. Memoji work just like Animoji, except they look like cartoon faces of humans, and you can customize them. It’s kind of crazy how many options there are for designing a Memoji and it’s pretty easy to design your own from within the Messages app.

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Like Animoji, Memoji are limited to iPhone X users because the feature uses the front-facing TrueDepth camera system to track your face. But if the rumors are right and Apple releases three new iPhones, all with the face-tracking sensors, more people will be able to get in on the fun. 

One thing’s for sure: Memoji are already way cooler than the AR Emoji on Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9+ and might be sweet enough to bury Bitmoji.

Smarter notifications

Since Nougat, Android has managed notifications far better than iOS by allowing them to be grouped together instead of displaying them as individual entries.

In iOS 12, Apple has fine-tuned notifications so they’re tidier, and, as a result, less stressful to look at. For starters, notifications are now grouped by apps and thread. They appear on your lock screen like a stack and tapping on them expands them.

Notifications are now grouped by app or thread.

Notifications are now grouped by app or thread.

Image: raymond wong/mashable

Tap on a group of notifications and they'll expand like so.

Tap on a group of notifications and they’ll expand like so.

Notifications can also be delivered “quietly” to Notification Center so they don’t interrupt you. These notifications won’t appear on the lock screen, make any sounds, or display any banners, but they will still be present in Notification Center when you actively check it. I set a specific Gmail account that I only use for online shopping sign-ups and, let me tell you, I love not seeing these emails come in during the day.

DO. NOT. BOTHER. ME. AGAIN. EMAIL.

DO. NOT. BOTHER. ME. AGAIN. EMAIL.

Image: screenshot: raymond wong/mashable

iOS 12 also has a couple of other useful notification upgrades. Siri will suggest you move notifications from your lock screen to Notification center if you don’t interact with them; I didn’t see any suggestions during my brief time testing the preview version of the software, though. 

Notifications also let you click on a link or custom button to go directly to the content, but again this wasn’t working properly in the beta. I tried clicking on a link to the Wall Street Journal from a Twitter notification, but it only brought me to the tweet. 

Lastly, iOS 12 allows certain apps you’ve approved to play a sound even when your device is locked, muted, or has Do Not Disturb turned on. These “critical alerts” will help in case of an emergency and Apple says will be for “apps in categories like healthcare, public safety, and personal security.”

Screen Time

Whether we admit it or not, most of us are addicted to our devices and just can’t find the mental strength to put our damned phones down.

That’s where iOS 12’s Screen Time feature comes in. The settings feature is a one-stop shop to see how much time you’re spending on your iOS device. It shows detailed information on what kinds of apps you’re using all day and how often you use them.

It’s valuable information if you need hard statistics to shame yourself into being less addicted to your device. But it can be overwhelming to look at because there’s so much data crammed in on a single screen.

Screen Time gives you detailed stats on your device usage.

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Screen Time gives you detailed stats on your device usage.

Will you stop using your iPhone after you see how many times you pick it up?

Will you stop using your iPhone after you see how many times you pick it up?

I’m not going to lie, it was a little frightening to see data on things like how many times I picked up my iPhone in one day (sometimes 200+ times a day), which notifications I interacted with the most (email from Outlook), and how long some of my usage sessions were.

Screen Time also has a “Downtime” setting that lets you restrict which apps you can use during a set duration. For example, you can set iOS 12 to not allow you to check email apps between 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. because you’re off work and it can probably wait until the next day.

There’s also an “App Limits” feature that lets you set time limits for entire app categories (i.e. social networking, games, entertainment, productivity, etc.), but in the beta it’s not the most intuitive to use. You’d think App Limits would also let you set app limits for individual apps, but it doesn’t. To limit apps, you need to click on your device name to bring up its Screen Time stats, then select the app you want to limit from the “Most Used” section. What I don’t understand is why there’s no way to immediately limit any app you’ve got installed and why the app categories limits and individual app limits aren’t in a singular place.

Screen Time also provides myriad ways to control restrict content and privacy. This is good for parents who want to lock down their kids’ devices so they’re not doing things like watching inappropriate content.

I love that Apple is finally adding these detailed reports so we can all quantify our digital addiction and maybe stop staring at our devices so much. But at the same time, during my iOS 12 usage, I can truthfully tell you I saw the numbers, got freaked out, but went back to my old ways. Nothing changed. But maybe you’re more disciplined than I am.

Tweaked Apple apps

Apple revamped a couple of its own apps that have gone years without getting any love.

The Stocks app has a new design and if you live in the U.S., UK, or Australia, you’ll be able see select business-related news stories populated from Apple News. Oh, and the Stocks app is finally available on iPad, too.

The Voice Memos app has a fresh coat of paint as well. Like Stocks, the app’s also on iPad version. It’s less cluttered, audio recordings are synced via iCloud to all of your Apple devices, and I like that there are controls for skipping back and forward 15 seconds.

The Stocks app now has related business articles when you click on a stock.

The Stocks app now has related business articles when you click on a stock.

Image: screen recording: raymond wong/mashable

Goodbye iBooks, hello Books. It's just Books.

Goodbye iBooks, hello Books. It’s just Books.

Image: SCREEN RECORDING: RAYMOND WONG/MASHABLE

Apple News on iPhone has a new “Browse” tab to help with discovering new source and the iPad version of the app has a handy new sidebar to help with navigation.

Apple Books (formerly called iBooks) has been redesigned. There’s a new “Reading Now” screen so you can dive back to where you left off in your e-books as well as discover recommended related content. There’s also a pretty new “Book Store” tab that shows new releases and trending books as well as bestseller charts. Similarly, there’s a dedicated tab for listening to all your audiobooks and buying new ones.

If you use CarPlay, you can now — finally — use a map app other than Apple Maps, such as Google Maps or Waze. CarPlay also supports third-party audio, messaging, voice calling and automaker apps.

The Photos app is more like Google Photos now.

The Photos app is more like Google Photos now.

Image: screenshot: jake krol/mashable

Both of these measurements are wrong. The length is 16.75 inches.

Both of these measurements are wrong. The length is 16.75 inches.

Image: screen recording: raymond wong/mashable

The Photos app is also more Google Photos-like in iOS 12, which is great. Some of my favorite new features include the ability to identify faces in photos and then suggest sharing them to the recognized people, a list view of the media types (photos, videos, long exposures, timelapses, etc.), and improved search.

There’s also a new Measure app that uses augmented reality to easily let you, well, measure things. Getting a measurement is super simple — you draw lines between the points you want to measure — and iOS calculates the length. It’s a good app to get a rough sense of the length of something, but you can’t rely on it for a precise measurement, at least not in the public beta.

Stronger security and privacy

Apple has always said it believes in strong privacy and security, and in iOS 12 it’s taking an even tougher stance.

You know those annoying share buttons that usually appear above or below website articles? Well, apparently, they can be used to track your browsing — whether you click on them or not. Apple has said Safari will begin blocking those buttons’ ability to track you.

As far as I can tell this hasn’t yet been added to Safari in the iOS 12 beta. Safari didn’t prompt me at all when I clicked on a share button.

Additionally, iOS 12 has a feature called “defense against fingerprinting.” Basically, Safari does a bunch of things in the background to make your device harder to identify whenever it visits a website. Things like custom fonts and plug-ins can no longer be used by ad tech to identify specific devices.

Safari’s also able to automatically create and autofill passwords in Safari and iOS apps — because we’re all too lazy to come up with strong passwords even though we know better than to use 123456. 

There are a few other ways Apple’s upgrading security in iOS 12, but one really useful one that stands out: One-time use authentication codes that are texted to you automatically show up in your keyboard’s AutoFill so you don’t need to manually type it in or copy and paste it.

Siri Shortcuts

There’s no way to say this nicely: Siri is dumb when compared to Amazon’s Alexa or the Google Assistant. 

In iOS 12, Apple’s made some progress to make Siri more intelligent. It’s still nowhere near as smart as the competition, but it’s an improvement.

With Siri Shortcuts, you can create a custom voice command and assign it to an action. For example, I created a shortcut where a “show me the news” voice command opens Apple News to “see stories from Today.” 

There's not much you can do with Siri Shortcuts in the beta.

There’s not much you can do with Siri Shortcuts in the beta.

Image: screen recording: Raymond wong/mashable

Apple says Siri Suggestions will also be able to recommend shortcuts for you based on things like location, time of day, and activity (walking, running, driving, etc.).

The feature is easy to use, but as it stands in the beta, there’s just not a lot you can do. Siri was also slow to process the custom voice commands, but that may be fixed in the final software build. I’m pretty excited for Shortcuts, but it remains to be seen how useful they will be; developers will have to update their apps with the Shortcuts API in order for users to create their own shortcuts. 

iOS 12 is a whale

It may not be a sweeping redesign, but it goes without saying iOS 12 is gonna be huge. The sheer tweaks and improvements is more than I can highlight in this first preview release. 

Apple’s really doubling down under-the-hood changes and it shows. As I said earlier, the public beta version of iOS 12 is not quite ready for prime time and you install it at your own risk.

After watching virtually ever iOS 11 update run straight into a wall, over and over and over again, it’s great to see Apple tightening the nuts and bolts of its largest platform instead of resting on its laurels while its main competitor, Android, leaps ahead.

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