What it’s really like using the iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 betas

Apple just released the public betas for iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and watchOS 8. Should you install them ASAP or wait for the fall?

Apple iOS 15 public beta installed on iPhone 12 mini and iPadOS 15 on M1 iPad Pro.
Raymond Wong / Input

Good news: everyone, not just developers, can now download and install the public betas of iOS 15 for iPhones, iPadOS 15 for iPads, and watchOS 8 for Apple Watches.

How stable are the betas? — I’ve had the developer betas, which the public betas are based on, installed since after the WWDC keynote earlier this month, and aside from a few bugs here and there, the software has been stable enough that I just installed the public beta on two other devices. I still don’t recommend anyone install the developer or public betas on their main devices — anything could go wrong — but if you’re set on getting a taste of Apple’s new software before they release this fall, be smart and backup your data first. Installing the public betas is pretty simple.

Enrolling your iPhone or iPad:

  • Go to the Apple Beta Software Program website from your device
  • Sign in with your Apple ID
  • Accept the Apple Beta Software Program Agreement
  • Tap on “Enroll Your Devices” under Apple Beta Software Program (the down arrow)
  • Tap “Download profile” and then “Allow” when prompted
  • In the Settings app, tap “Profile Downloaded” below your Apple ID and then “Install”
  • Your iPhone or iPad may restart. If necessary, go to the Settings app after the restart, then General > Software Update

For Apple Watch:

  • Go to the same Beta Software Program website and sign in
  • Tap “watchOS” and then “Download profile”
  • Tap “Allow” on any prompts, enter your passcode if asked, and then “Install”
  • Your Apple Watch will restart
  • On your Apple Watch, open the Settings app > General > Software Update > Download and Install
  • Tap “Download and install”

First impressions of iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 — Don’t expect anything revolutionary and you won’t be disappointed. Whereas iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 brought some pretty big features like the widgets, App Library, and picture-in-picture video, iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 are the equivalent to an “S” year for software. The focus is on small tweaks and improved stability, security, and privacy.

I’ve had iOS 15 installed on an iPhone 12 mini and iPadOS 15 on the M1 iPad Pro and the marquee feature really is Focus, a new mode that’s supposed to help you better manage your notifications. Instead of a barrage of notifications coming in all day long, Focus lets you choose who, and from which apps, you want notifications. On-device machine learning helps surface the right notifications at the right time. Additionally, you can choose to let your contacts know when you’re you’ve got Focus turned on so they know not to disturb you.

Focus is an interesting concept. But the setup itself can be overwhelming at first. You have to think carefully about how you go about your day and who is and isn’t important. It’s really weird to rank people you know based on their significance in your life and how valuable their notifications might be to you. There are preset Focuses for work, personal, and sleep — then you can go in and choose the people and apps you want notifications from.

In practice, Focuses are a solution to the problem of notification overload. For example: You’re working and you don’t want Instagram notifications because they’re distracting... but what if someone DMs you on Instagram and it is work-related and urgent? There’s no way to allow certain accounts within an app to push those notifications through. (Not that you can put Instagram in a Focus yet. Many non-Apple apps currently aren’t compatible.)

There’s a new notification summary that rounds up notifications but I’m not sure I can fully trust AI to learn which notifications are important to me based on my “interactions with apps.” What if something slips through the cracks? Do you blame the AI or yourself for trusting in it? Many years ago, HTC tried something similar on its Android phones and the results were not good or useful at all. It’s still too early to tell how useful Focus will be in my life; I need more months to see if using the feature becomes a habit and improves my quality of life. Then again, maybe I’m wrong and, by the time fall comes and Focus drops to the general public, it’s the best solution to curbing phone addiction and distraction.

Will Focus really help your focus?Screenshot: Raymond Wong / Input

Sharing is caring, but there’s a catch— Another big feature in the iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 betas is SharePlay. I was pretty stoked for this one since I spent a good chunk of 2020 watching movies with friends and family over Zoom and Disney+. Sharing your screen on a Zoom is easy, but connection issues can mean a choppy or inconsistent experience for group viewing.

Apple’s catching up with SharePlay, which lets you watch movies or listen to music together over FaceTime. But there’s one major caveat: you and your bud(s) need to both be subscribers to the same supported streaming service or the feature doesn’t work. For example, if your friend isn’t an Apple TV+ subscriber, you can’t watch anything on there together. This means no free viewing for non-paying users. The same goes for Apple Music or any other SharePlay-supported service. I might have jumped the shark on FaceTime killing Zoom...

Live Text is Google Lens, but better — We all thought it when Apple announced Live Text for iOS and it’s exactly Google Lens but with a better UI. In iOS 15, the camera can now recognize text and when you tap the Live Text icon in the lower right corner, the text will pop off allowing you to copy, select, look up, translate, or share it. Like Google Lens, this is handy for copying or pulling up telephone numbers or websites or translating text into another language. Live Text also works within the Photos app (you’ll see an icon for it in the corner as well). Live Text has worked pretty well for me so far. There’s the occasional failure to detect text, but moving your device’s camera closer or farther away usually fixes things. It’s by no means perfect — it took me a few tries to find the sweet spot to grab the below text off this handwritten sticky note — but when it works, it’s so good. If you’re an iPhone or iPad user and have never used Lens, Live Text is gonna impress

Live Text has a much nicer UI compared to Google Lens. But functionally, they accomplish the same thing: detect text from images.Screenshots: Raymond Wong / Input

FaceTime upgrades — Portrait mode, grid view, and audio enhancements make FaceTime more user-friendly. I especially appreciate grid view because the current spiral of callers is just bad design, but you know what would have been great? Some new Animoji. Sure, there are some new Memoji customization options, but damn it, my whole family has exhausted all the Animoji during FaceTime calls and we want more. I can’t be the only one who enjoys being a silly lion on calls...

iPad widgets and multitasking — I don’t have much to say about iPadOS 15. Most of the features in iOS 15 are coming to iPadOS 15, too. I will say it’s good to see widgets on iPadOS (not sure why they didn’t come alongside widgets for iPhone in iOS 14), but I don’t love how their positions are not pinned into place on the home screen. In landscape orientation, widgets that take up six rows awkwardly condense to fit four rows in portrait mode; it can be very disorienting. Also, I have no idea what’s going on with the weather widget. Tapping it brings you to in Safari — which, why? The iPhone’s weather app is great. Why won’t Apple make an iPad version, especially now that it owns Dark Sky? It makes no sense.

The App Library is also new to iPadOS 15. You can access it on the last home screen or from your dock. Finally.

Widgets don't stay pinned when you rotate in iPad running iPadOS 15.Screenshot: Raymond Wong / Input

As for the new multitasking menu. It’s useful and a good visual cue if you never got accustomed to iPadOS’s invisible Split View and Slide Over features. But I wouldn’t call it a major game-changer for the iPad’s multitasking.

See that those three little dots at the top of an open app? You can tap them to bring up a multitasking menu with options for Split View and Slide Over.Screenshot: Raymond Wong / Input

Tons of little things — There are, of course, many more little features Apple has tweaked all throughout iOS 15 and iPadOS 15 that bring polish to the software. I highlighted a few of my favorites, like the return of the text magnifying glass (yes!), in a roundup here.

Quiet watchOS 8 update — Similarly, watchOS 8 for Apple Watch is a small step, not a giant leap forward. Portrait mode watch faces were just added in the second developer beta released last week; they’re cool. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to try features like the digital car keys or ID. The watch’s biggest update is the Mindfulness app (previously called the Breathe app). It’s got some new animations and the new Reflect sessions to help you stop for a moment and be more thoughtful or considerate or thankful. I like it and the fact that Apple includes separate Reflect prompts with emoji for children. It’s a nice addition if you’ve become more self-aware about reducing stress and building better habits, but, if you never saw value in the Breathe app, you’re unlikely to care about its upgrade to the Mindfulness app.

You’re gonna download them — All in all, if you have a compatible device, there’s a very high chance you’ll update them to the latest software versions come this fall. Why wouldn’t you? They’re free. I wouldn’t say iOS 15, iPadOS 15, or watchOS 15 change the game the way iOS 14 did, but such is the nature of software updates: slow and steady. Not every year is going to be a banger and that’s okay. Reliability is just as important.