iPhone X in use.

Apple is gearing up for a major iOS update. On Monday, the company released the fourth beta of iOS 11.4 — the operating system you use on your iPhone — to developers and public beta testers. While some of the features may elicit yawns (ClassKit improvements for educators is unlikely to get the average smartphone consumer’s blood pumping), Apple has planned a few more commonly useful headline features.

The changes come at a key time for Apple. As the company gears up to host the Worldwide Developers Conference June 4, Apple is wrapping up improvements to iOS 11 to make way for next year’s round of updates. The company tends to announce the next major update at the annual conference; 2018’s is likely to be called iOS 12. Rumored features include an improved Siri, a unified app system, and improvements to the Animoji characters included with the iPhone X.

As Apple puts the finishing touches on its iOS 11 updates, the next software download is set to make some key quality-of-life improvements. Owners of the HomePod smart speaker that launched in February will want to pay particular attention. Here are the key features Apple has in store.

iOS 11.4 Features: AirPlay 2

The big one. Apple unveiled AirPlay 2 at WWDC 2017, but so far it’s failed to materialize in the various iOS 11 updates. The upgrade is a major boost for Apple’s media streaming technology that sends audio and video to compatible devices, similar to Google’s Cast technology. The protocol first launched in 2004 under the name “AirTunes,” and while Apple has gradually expanded to enable video streaming and screen mirroring, AirPlay 2 will be a huge upgrade.

The update enables a range of features:

  • Higher level of buffering to avoid audio cutout.
  • Multi-room support for any AirPlay-compatible iOS app.
  • Integration with HomeKit, so users can set a scene in the Home app and play relevant media.
  • Support for Siri. For example: “Play this song in the kitchen.”

AirPlay 2 will work on any iOS 11-compatible device, as well as Apple devices like the Apple TV and HomePod. A number of third parties have also pledged support for the new standard.

iOS 11.4 Features: Messages in iCloud

Finally. This feature fixes one of the key missing pieces of iCloud. Messages will sync with the cloud and download to logged-in devices. Deleting messages on one device will update devices across the board. The feature will also claw back vital storage space by keeping older messages and attachments in the cloud. This will end the confusion around out-of-sync message histories between a user’s Mac, iPad, and iPhone.

The "Messages" toggle in Settings.
The "Messages" toggle in Settings.

In the current beta versions, the feature is disabled by default. Apple provides a switch to activate the feature in the “Settings” app under the user’s name, then “iCloud.”

iOS 11.4 Features: HomePod Pairing

If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford more than one $349 HomePod, you can now pair them together. Using the new Home features found in AirPlay 2, users can link two HomePods to make them output audio in stereo, providing the option to switch them around depending on their physical position in the room.

Stereo pairing has been a much-requested feature for the speakers, which have blown reviewers away with their high audio quality. In a glowing review shared by Apple vice president Phil Schiller, a Reddit user called WinterCharm said: “I cannot wait to see how two HomePods stack up.”

iOS 11.4 Features: Calendars on HomePod

Evidence uncovered by 9to5Mac suggests Apple will upgrade HomePod alongside iOS 11.4 for calendar support. Siri Personal Requests, enabled on the iPhone during the setup process, allows anyone to send and read messages, add reminders, and make notes. The screen has been updated to include the calendar icon, suggesting support will expand soon.