The next version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 15, is officially here. It brings a slew of new features and improvements to your iPhone, including an easier way to use Safari, preconfigured modes to instantly change your home screen setup, and huge upgrades to FaceTime. We'll walk you through all the new capabilities, including what's new in iOS 15.1, but first, here's how to download it.
Updated October 2021: We've added new iOS 15.1 features, like SharePlay and ProRes.
Is Your iPhone Compatible?
If you have an older iPhone, you might be wondering if it supports iOS 15. Well, if it's an iPhone 6S (2015) or newer, then your device has made the cut. But you should also know that features like Portrait mode on FaceTime, Live Text, augmented reality directions in Maps, and spatial audio, among others, will only work on iPhones powered by an A12 Bionic Chip or newer. That means you'll need an iPhone XS or newer to make the most out of the update.
How to Install iOS 15
Before installing iOS 15, back up your iPhone. The final version may not be plagued with as many bugs as the beta, but losing all your data in exchange for fancy new features isn’t worth it.
Backing up is simple if you do it via iCloud. Head to Settings. Tap on your name at the top and then tap iCloud. Scroll until you see iCloud Backup and toggle it on if it isn't already. If it's already on, tap Back Up Now to force a fresh backup. If you go back to the previous page, you can toggle off things you don't want to back up. This is the easy way to back up your device. If you don't have enough iCloud storage to back up your device, our How to Back Up Your iPhone guide goes into other options.
Time to install iOS 15. Note: You might see the option to install iOS 15.1 instead—it adds a few new features (and bug fixes) we mention below, but it's the one you'll want. First, plug your iPhone into a charger (such a heavy-duty update eats up a good amount of battery life) and make sure you're connected to Wi-Fi (unless you're using a computer to install it). Then head over to Settings > General > Software Update. Then, tap on iOS 15 and choose Download and Install. Once that's done, tap ‘Install Now’ and from there, your iPhone will automatically begin updating. Once it cycles through the process and the device restarts, you're all set. It'll take some time, so try not to do it when you need to use your phone for something important.
Now, onto the features!
A Fancier FaceTime
Apple's video-calling app received some major upgrades, making it closer in features to videoconferencing services such as Zoom and Google Meet. For starters, there's a grid view for multiperson chats that works like Zoom's conference calls. There's a Portrait mode—like the similar feature in the Camera app, it keeps your face in focus but blurs out your messy room in the background. You can also create FaceTime links to share and invite others to a video chat, and these can be added to your calendar. Those with the link can join these calls through Google Chrome or Microsoft's Edge browser, even if they're using an Android phone or a Windows laptop (the calls are still end-to-end encrypted).
Video calls sound more natural too, with FaceTime using spatial audio to space out sounds based on where your friends are on the grid view of a group call, making it feel more like you're all in a room. And there are two new options for the microphone: Voice Isolation and Wide Spectrum. The former will cut out all ambient noise, so the person on the other end just hears your voice. The latter will try and pick up all sounds in your surroundings.
New Ways to Focus
If you've ever felt overwhelmed by the endless list of notifications on your iPhone, well, worry no longer. In iOS 15, notifications have a new look and some new ways to manage them.
There are contact photos for your messages, larger icons for notifications that come from apps, and a new Do Not Disturb mode to silence them all. When you don't want to be disturbed, your friends and family will see when you have Do Not Disturb turned on in Messages, exactly like a status update. They can still send a message through though, just like Do Not Disturb modes in other apps like Slack.
A new Notification Summary function lets you check unimportant alerts at specific times of day, like in the morning or evening. It's powered by on-device machine learning that identifies your phone usage patterns and parses what notifications should fall under the summary and when it should deliver them to you. Don't fret—your Messages and missed phone calls won't fall into Summary. You also have to opt into it. Head to Settings > Notifications > Scheduled Summary to check it out.
Perhaps the best new feature is a way to organize your entire iPhone's home screen to match your mood. You can choose between profiles like Work, Personal, and Sleep, (or create up to 10 Focuses), and your home screen will show apps and widgets related to the respective mode. So if it's 9 am and you switch to work, you can customize your home screen to show work apps, widgets, and messages from coworkers only. These modes can be turned on for an hour, start when you leave or enter a specific location, or can be timed to your calendar events.
You'll still be able to access all your apps via the App Library, or you can turn the “Focus” off at any moment. Uniquely, your friends and family can see if you're in a Focus if you don't want to be disturbed via the Messages app, but a Status API will allow any messaging app to implement this functionality.
Live Text, Photo Memories, and Better Safari
One of the coolest features in iOS 15 is Live Text, and it's tied to upgrades in Apple's computer vision technology. Point your camera app at anything with text, and you'll see a text icon on the bottom right. That'll let you highlight the text so you can easily copy and paste it to another app. This works for images with text in your Photos library too—just tap the same text icon on the bottom right. If there's a phone number in the photo or an address, Live Text will turn it into a link so you can tap it. Phone numbers seamlessly launch in the phone dialer and the address opens in Maps.
Perhaps a little stranger is an integration between Apple Music and the Photos app. When you open the Photos app and go to the For You tab, you'll be greeted with a new version of Memories—this feature automatically generates a mini-movie of specific trips or events and automatically chooses a relevant song from Apple Music (but only if you have a subscription to the music service). You can customize the movie as you view it by changing up the pace, switching songs, changing filters, or swapping images. It's not far off from a Google Photos feature introduced in 2018, but Apple gives you far greater control with music integration here.
Safari is now easier to use with one hand. The URL bar is now situated on the bottom, and it hides away when you scroll to maximize your screen's real estate. You'll notice Safari looks a lot more similar to the interface on macOS or your iPad on the new tab page—there's your favorite websites, reading list, and content shared with you. You can swipe through tabs easily and group them together. And finally, for the first time, Safari extensions are coming to iOS. These are available through the App Store, though don't expect every single extension you use on a computer to be present just yet.
With SharePlay in iOS 15.1, you'll be able to share movies, music, Fitness+ workout, and your screen with anyone you're FaceTiming with. Want to listen to a new album with your friend in sync at the same time? You can bring in tunes from Apple Music. Maybe you want to watch a movie with your long-distance partner while video chatting? Easy. You can AirPlay the movie to your TV at the same time to watch it on the big screen.
Apple says any other developer with a content streaming app will be able to add support, though services like Disney+, HBOMax, ESPN+, and TikTok are already on board. The implementation gives a lot of control to the developer. For example, if both video call users are trying to stream a movie on Disney+, Disney could allow the other user to sign up for a free trial, allow one free movie to stream via SharePlay a month to anyone, or block access completely if neither party has an account. It's the developer's choice.
Speaking of travel, the improved version of Apple Maps the company introduced last year is now rolling out to four new countries: Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Australia. Apple's map data is getting even more detailed in iOS 15. You'll find more street-level details in commercial districts, elevation information in cities, as well as custom designs for landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. When driving, Maps will now show highway interchanges in 3D so you have a better idea of exactly which lane you need to be on. These features are coming to CarPlay later in 2021, too.
If you ride public transit, Maps will tell you when to get off, and if you don't know which way to head once off the bus or outside the subway station, just point your phone at the buildings in front of you to have Apple's augmented reality point the way. It's similar to AR Live View in Google Maps.
Shared With You
Select items your friends share in Messages now sit in a new “Shared With You" section in certain apps. For example, if someone shares several photos of a trip you were a part of, these images will reside in the new Shared With You section in the Photos app. If you are sent a news article, you can find it in a Shared With You section in Apple News. The idea is to give you another opportunity to see what your friends and family members sent, in case you didn't have time to look at it earlier. New Shared With You sections are available in Apple Photos, News, Podcasts, Safari, TV, and Music.
When you use Spotlight, the search bar that pops up when you swipe down on the home screen, you'll notice a fresh design with more details when you search for contacts, celebrities, and movies. Plus you can search for your photos through it and use it to install new apps. You can now easily access it right from the Lock Screen too, by simply swiping down on the display.
With Apple's Health App, you can now share your health data with family members or caregivers. That way, they can easily keep an eye on metrics and receive notifications for any unusual trends over time. There's also a new Walking Steadiness metric that routinely analyzes your fall risk.
You can store your Covid-19 test results and vaccination records in the app, too. If the specific medical location or vaccine provider doesn't support this feature, you can download the record using a QR code or browser and store it in the Health app to access whenever. If you have successfully added your vaccination record, the app can now create a vaccination card in the Wallet app, so you can easily flash it before entering businesses or a restaurant.
This new service is available to anyone who subscribes to iCloud already with no changes in pricing. It adds the ability for you to generate one-off burner emails when you're signing up for a service on the web; expands HomeKit Secure Video support; and adds a feature called iCloud Private Relay (currently available in beta with a final version coming later), which encrypts all the internet traffic leaving your device so that no one can view your data, somewhat like a virtual private network.
Other New Features
There are tons of other features in iOS 15. Here are a few more that stand out.
- ProRes Video: If you have an iPhone 13 Pro or Pro Max, iOS 15.1 added the ability to record ProRes video, which you can turn on by heading to Settings > Camera > Formats > ProRes. Then, in the camera app, you'll see a ProRes option in the video tab. This format gives you greater control when editing, but the file sizes are much larger.
- Auto Macro Toggle: In the iPhone 13 Pro models, the camera switches lenses when you get close to a subject to enable macro mode, but sometimes it keeps switching back and forth. To prevent this, iOS 15.1 now lets you toggle this Auto Macro feature off (Settings > Camera > Auto Macro). Now, to enable Macro, you'll need to manually switch to the ultrawide camera and move close to a subject.
- iCloud Backup: You can temporarily back up your data to iCloud, even if you don't have enough storage, to transfer your data to a new iPhone.
- Weather app: Apple bought the popular Dark Sky weather app last year, and it looks like we're finally seeing the fruits of that acquisition now. The Weather app has a fresh design, with more detailed graphics, a background that more precisely changes to current weather conditions, and access to high-resolution weather maps.
- Messages: Rather than scrolling through one long message of multiple photos, iMessage now neatly organizes numerous images (sent simultaneously) into a stack you can swipe through. To view all of them at once, you can also tap on the collage icon.
- Visual Look Up: Just like Google Lens, you can point the camera at landmarks, plants, pets, or books, and get information about whatever you're looking at.
- Mail Privacy Protection: This feature prevents senders from seeing if you opened an email, and it hides your IP address and location.
- Siri: Talking to Siri in iOS 15 is more secure than ever because your audio now doesn't leave your device. You can control a variety of on-device functions without an internet connection, like asking Siri to turn on Dark mode or set an alarm, and it'll run much faster.
- Find My: You can now find your AirPods Pro or AirPods Max through the Find My app.
Apple showed off a majority of the new features available in iOS 15 at its Worldwide Developers Conference this past summer, but not all of them are available at launch. Below are a few that have been delayed.
App Privacy Report
Available by heading to Settings > Privacy > Recent App Activity, this feature will show what apps have been accessing your camera, microphone, location, and photos over a seven-day period. It'll even highlight what third-party domains the app has contacted, so you can truly see where your data is going. Unfortunately, the pleasant interface you see above isn't available yet. At the moment, after 7 days, you'll get a downloadable report that you can only open in a text editor on a PC or Mac.
Apple is continuing its quest to take over your physical wallet. Last year it let you add car keys, but in iOS 15, you can add additional keys. Add a home key if you use a smart lock, an access card you may use to enter your office, or a hotel room key—Apple says Hyatt is rolling out this functionality to 1,000 properties worldwide, and yes, you will be able to tap your Apple Watch to enter your room.
Even better, you can scan your driver's license with the iPhone's camera and add it to the Wallet app. This is only available in participating states, starting with Arizona and Georgia first. Later on, it will also be available in Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah. One of the first places you'll be able to make use of your digital ID is the airport; Apple says the Transportation Security Administration is enabling checkpoints that support the feature.
iOS 15 was originally going to include a few child safety features for the Messages app and iCloud Photos. If a child with an iPhone receives a sexually explicit photo on iMessage, the photo will be blurred, a warning will appear, and parents will receive an alert if the child views it.
There's also child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) detection. Essentially, Apple can scan hashes of images (not the image itself) uploaded to iCloud Photos on your iPhone or iPad with CSAM hashes in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. If the company detects a specific amount of CSAM images, these photos can be viewed by Apple moderators, and will then be reported to the NCMEC. However, after significant backlash over privacy concerns regarding these new features, Apple is delaying them. You can read more about it all here.
iPadOS 15 shares the same DNA as iOS and that means it has many of the aforementioned features. But Apple didn't debut a standalone name in 2019 for no reason. Here are a few iPad-specific perks (and two also available on iOS).
Multitasking finally received a small boost—at the top of the screen, a new menu lets you quickly toggle on Split View or Slide Over, no swiping needed. Swipe down on it and the app will move to the edge, letting you see the home screen to choose a new app to open alongside it. Whenever you want to switch apps, swipe down on the app to choose something else from the home screen. If you want to cycle between multiple app windows, you can put your instances into a new area called the shelf.
These new multitasking options support new keyboard shortcuts so you don't need to tap the iPad's screen to utilize them.
The Notes app has turned into something that sort of resembles Google Docs. You can now mention your contacts in shared notes and they'll get an alert, you can add tags for organization, and there's an activity view to see exactly what has changed in the note. The best new perk? Quick Note. It turns Notes into a systemwide feature you can access anywhere on the iPad. Just swipe in from the corner and a Post-It-like notepad shows up you can use to jot down your thoughts quickly.
The most visual feature is the ability to place widgets anywhere on the home screen just like you can on your iPhone. There are larger widgets to make use of the more copious screen real estate, and Apple has even brought the App Library over so you're not left dealing with dozens of home pages. You can access the App Library from the iPad's dock.
And finally, language translation has finally received an overhaul. Now, the Translate app automatically knows when someone is speaking and will translate the conversation in real time, no need to tap a screen. Translations now work systemwide too. Just select text and tap Translate in the context menu to convert it. This is also available in iOS.