Before and after: What’s changed with iOS 7?

iOS 7, the seventh version of Apple's mobile operating system – the brain of every iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch – will be rolling out to the public this month. The free update will be available on 18 September, but I got my hands on the early developer beta release in order to bring you these "before and after" shots that show off the new OS.

You may recall that two iterations ago iOS 5 brought significant new features, such as Siri, the first pull-down notification centre for iOS, and a locked screen that had quick access to the camera. Then iOS 6 came along and made a few unexpected changes that weren’t well received, like ditching Google Maps for a new (and supremely unreliable) Apple Maps app. iOS 6 also got rid of the iPod app in favour of dedicated apps for Music, Podcasts, and iTunes.

So what's new this time around? Well, iOS 7 looks stunningly different. I'll admit it took me a few days to warm up to the so-called "flat" design, but many of the core features and functionality have been upgraded so significantly that I eventually started to associate the new design with the improved experience.

As you'll see in the images which follow, iOS 7 looks flat in the sense that it does not look three dimensional, and it’s non-skeuomorphic. The images pinpoint some of the most significant changes, showing them back-to-back with how they appeared in iOS 6. Take a look, and let us know what you think in the comments. Do you dig the new design? What about the new functionality?

For more on iOS 7, see 5 overlooked features of iOS 7, a must-read for early adopters, as you'll want to know about some of the new privacy settings and other less-touted changes.

Before: iOS 6 design

The design of iOS 6, and really all versions of iOS prior to version 7, had icons that looked like buttons. As some design experts have pointed out, there's even an imaginary outside source of light that shines down on the app icons. It's been said that this design evokes the feeling of physicality. Buttons look like they’re what they represent, rather than just images on a screen.

After: iOS 7 design

iOS 7 is said to have a "flat" design, and by that people mean that most of the 3D elements referenced in early versions – icons that look like "buttons," an external source of light casting shadows, and so forth – are gone. The design of iOS 7 pertains to computers and a true digital experience that has little to do with real-world physicality.

Before: iOS 6 app design

Zooming in on the icons themselves, you can better see how the top edge of these apps is lighter than the bottom. All that shading and illusion of shadows was key to the look of iOS 6 and earlier versions. In the next image, you'll see just what makes the new design "flat."

After: iOS 7 app design

Look how much less three dimensional these iOS 7 app icons appear. The Calendar app is the best example. Its background is solid white with no shading or shadow. The Settings, App Store, and iTunes Store apps have some colour change from top to bottom, but it's subtle and not meant to look like it's coming from an external light source. Rather, the colour gradation seems to be coming from the app itself, almost like it has a soft glow.

Before: iOS 6 control centre

Double tap the iPhone or iPad's home button when the device is locked, and you'll find these handy iOS 6 controls, primarily designed to help you pause, or skip forward or backward while listening to music or podcasts. As you'll see in the next image, iOS 7 puts many more controls within quick reach of your fingertips – and not just when the screen is locked.

After: iOS 7 control centre

I love the new control centre in iOS 7, and not just because it's available at any time by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, but also due to the number of things I can control from it, including screen brightness and whether Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are enabled. The Flight mode button is also in the new control centre in iOS 7, which will make frequent flyers happy.

Before: iOS 6 folders

With iOS 6, you could organise app icons into folders, with a strict limit on the number of apps you could put into any one folder (12). iOS 7 folders hold a lot more icons, and it's easier to see and move them around, too, as you'll see in the “after” image below.

After: iOS 7 folders

iOS 7's app folders make much better use of screen real estate, enlarging significantly when you tap to open them – even though there are fewer apps visible at first. Look closely, though, and notice the two dots on the bottom of the folder, which indicate there's a second screen's worth of folder content. While the first folder screen holds only nine apps (as opposed to the 12 supported in iOS 6), you can now have pages of apps within a folder. I was curious whether there would be a limit to how many apps I could put into a folder: I got up to 45 apps and stopped, though it felt like I could have gone on forever.

Before: iOS 6 multitasking bar

In iOS 6, you'd get to the multitasking bar by double tapping the home button any time your phone was unlocked; this let you jump quickly from one app to another. The problem? You couldn't actually see the app page. Also, swiping once would move the set of apps in the multitasking bar over by four apps and then stop. Both of those problems have been addressed in iOS 7…

After: iOS 7 multitasking bar

iOS 7's revamped multitasking bar shows a preview of all your apps – which reminds me a lot of a similar feature in Android – so you better know what to expect when you actually jump to the app. You can also swipe this multitasking bar left and right, and it will move much more fluidly, rather than showing the next set of apps that fits on the screen and then stopping, as it did in iOS 6.

Before: iOS 6 notification centre

In iOS 6, a pull-down menu contained custom notifications, as well as quick access to Twitter and Facebook. The new notification centre in iOS 7, on the other hand, is greatly expanded and now contains three separate tabs, as you'll see with the next entry…

After: iOS 7 notification centre

A new notification centre in iOS 7 shows your daily summary: Appointments and reminders for the current day, as well as a summary of what's happening tomorrow. That's only the first tab, though. The next two, called All and Missed, show custom notifications from whatever apps you want to include. All shows all your notifications and Missed highlights those that didn't catch your attention the first time around.

Before: iOS 6 photo album

iOS 6's photo albums let you save photos into sets, but didn't contain any easily viewable time and date stamps or other features that naturally organised them. iOS 7 does.

After: iOS 7 photo album

The Photos app looks incredibly different, and the way it now segments photos into sections based on date helps you navigate images much more easily. Unfortunately, Apple still has a long way to go in terms of how iOS handles image organisation. You still can't name or tag images. When you group images into new albums, they don't move from the Camera Roll area.

Before: iOS 6 sharing

Here's how the sharing button looked in iOS 6 (here, it's a photo being shared).

After: iOS 7 sharing

The menu for sharing an image (and other content) now looks a lot more attractive and uses the screen space more effectively. Not shown in this image is yet another new feature: AirDrop. AirDrop lets you share photos, contacts, and other content wirelessly with another iOS user, and it works over both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This may sound familiar to Android users, who've had a similar feature for quite some time.