iOS 8 is currently in beta, and we've been testing Beta 4 on an iPhone 5c to learn how it compares to iOS 7. You'll be able to get iOS 8 for free when it becomes available later this month (on the iPhone 6, which is being unveiled today at 6pm - see how to watch the iPhone 6 launch live and follow our iPhone 6 launch live blog) for your iPhone 4S or later, or an iPad 2 or newer.
Unlike the move from iOS 6 to iOS 7, there’s very little in terms of visual changes. At a glance, you won’t know if an iPhone or iPad is running iOS 7 or iOS 8, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to upgrade.
In fact, although it may sound like we’re jumping to conclusions, there’s really no reason not to upgrade. Like all modern iOS updates, iOS 8 is free and has lots of handy new features and tweaks that you won’t believe you lived without.
The only question concerns performance, and that’s something we won’t know definitively until iOS 8 launches in September or October. (See also: iOS 8 release date)
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: iCloud Drive
One of the headline features is iCloud Drive. Previously, although files were stored and synchronised using iCloud, there was no way to access those files directly nor add files (or unsupported file types) manually.
That all changes with the introduction of iCloud Drive. Now, you’ll have a Dropbox-style folder on your Windows 7 or 8 PC, or Mac running Yosemite.
Certain apps on your iPhone or iPad will offer to save files to iCloud Drive, but there won’t be a dedicated app as you get with Dropbox and other cloud storage services.
iCloud Drive will also work with photos and videos, so you’ll be access your backed-up photos and videos via iCloud. That’s not possible in iOS 7.
The bad news is that there’s still only 5GB of storage for free, and your photos and videos will now count against that storage. The good news is that prices for additional storage should be dropping considerably, with 20GB (total) available for a rumoured UK price of 69p per month.
This is well worth paying to be able to access your entire photo and video library without those files using up precious space on your device. Another benefit is that any photo or video you take on an iOS device logged in with your Apple ID will end up in your iCloud Photo Library. So rather than having separate camera rolls for your iPad and iPhone, it will all be accessible from any device.
Crucially, photos and videos will be stored at full resolution in their original formats (including RAW) and they’ll be accessible via the iCloud website too – a feature we’ve been waiting for since iCloud launched. Low-res versions can be stored locally on your iPhone or iPad so they’re available offline.
Whether any iCloud Drive features will be added to or accessible from devices running iOS 7 is unknown. It’s possible that updated versions of Pages, Numbers and Keynote (along with third-party apps) will be able to save files to iCloud Drive. We’ll have to wait and see.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Photos
We’ve already mentioned how photos will now live in your iCloud Photo Library, but the Photos app in iOS 8 has also been updated. We wouldn’t go quite as far as Apple has and called it ‘all-new’ but it’s certainly easier to use.
The iOS 7 Photos app had pretty limited editing capabilities, and you’d have to turn to another app, such as iPhoto, Camera+ or Snapseed for serious editing. In iOS 8 the Photos app is much more capable, allowing you to straighten wonky photos, adjust brightness, contrast, exposure, convert to black and white and make many ‘smart’ adjustments.
All edits are non-destructive, which means you can revert to the original photo at any time. Edits are also synchronised with your iCloud Photo Library, so a photo you crop and edit on your iPhone will be updated across all your devices.
Another new feature is the ability to search your photo library. You can search by date, location or album name. A new heart icon in the Photos app means you can build up a collection of favourite photos, and then tap the search button to filter your library by favourites.
Apple has also opened up the Photos app to developers, so you’ll see new filters and editing tools when iOS 8 launches.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Camera
The camera app also gets beefed up in iOS 8. Now you can set focus and exposure separately (you tap to focus, then slide up or down for exposure compensation, and there’s a self-timer so – assuming you can balance the phone somewhere – you can be in the shot too.
The biggest update is the addition of a fully automatic time-lapse mode. This dynamically chooses an appropriate interval for the scene and then creates a silent video of the images which can be played back on the device and shared just like any video. It’s a shame you have no control over the interval, but from our tests, the automatic results are pretty good.
The iPhone 5s was the only device to get a high-speed burst mode for photos, but supported devices will get an improved burst mode when they’re upgraded to iOS 8. There are no details yet about how much of an improvement this will be for the iPhone 5, 5c, 4s and the numerous iPads compatible with iOS 8, but we’re hoping it will also involve the same sort of best-photo-suggestion that the 5s has.
The iPad will receive its own update to the camera app in the form of the previously iPhone-only Panorama mode.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Notifications
New in iOS 8 is the ability to deal with notifications without leaving whichever app you happen to be in. When a notification is displayed, you can pull down to reveal extra options, such as accepting or declining a meeting request, or replying to a message using the text box.
For emails, you can see the subject line and choose to mark them as read, or delete (or archive) them. Similarly, you can snooze a reminder, or mark it as completed.
Interactive notifications aren’t restricted to default apps. You can reply to a Facebook notification, for example, or reply to a tweet.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Messages
Borrowing from other messaging apps – notably Whatsapp – you can record a quick audio clip and send it with a swipe in iOS 8. The recipient can tap on the waveform to listen to it, or simply raise their iPhone to their ear to listen to the message like a phone call.
In a similar way, you can record and send a video via messages by tapping the record button, then swiping up to send it.
Yet another Whatsapp-style feature is group conversations. Nothing new there, you might say. But, you can now create named groups, and choose who to invite to the conversation. It’s easy to leave the conversation when you want, and you can mute new messages by using the Do Not Disturb function.
The ability to share your location – as you can already in Find My Friends – is now a feature of Messages. When you tap on the Details button at the top-right of a conversation, you get a new screen where you can send your current location, as well as choose to share your location for a longer period.
The screen also shows the attachments you and the contact have shared, such as photos and videos, without having to scroll back through the thread and ‘load earlier’ messages repeatedly.
Yet another minor, but handy, improvement is the ability to see the most recent 20 photos and videos from your camera roll, and select more than one to send at once. This new feature is also available in the Photos app and anywhere you can share photos.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Mail
The biggest update here is the ability to flip through previous messages while composing a reply. It’s a real boon, and lets you check what people said – and for specific details – without having to save a draft and then return to it later.
There’s also a Gmail-style swiping system for quickly deleting messages. A short swipe to the left shows More, Flag and Trash (or Archive) options, but a long swipe deletes or archives the message – depending on your settings - in one fell swoop. This makes it much faster to clear out your inbox.
A swipe to the right gives you the option to mark the message as read (or unread if already seen).
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Family Sharing
Even in iOS 7, you’ve been able to install purchased apps on multiple devices. With iOS 8 comes Family Sharing which allows you to have one ‘family’ account. Up to six devices can share music, movies, books, apps and more. Whenever someone purchases something, it’s immediately available on all other devices – and you don’t have to use the same Apple ID or password.
Family sharing also gives you a shared family photo stream where photos and videos get added to a family album that’s automatically created.
Other pre-existing features are integrated into Family Sharing too, including Find My iPhone and Find My Friends, so you can easily see where everyone is, and find lost devices, from any other device in the group.
It’s also easier to have a shared family calendar so everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and reminders can be set to appear on all devices for family events.
A new parental control is also introduced, so kids can’t go mad in the app store on Dad’s tab. The ‘head’ of the family can set limits, so kids have to request permission to make purchases, which the head can approve or decline remotely.
Family Sharing is also age sensitive, so as long as each user’s device is set up correctly, content will only be available to those old enough for it.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Details
There are lots of other little tweaks here and there, including the addition of recent contacts which are displayed above apps when you double-press the home button. Tap on a contact and you’ll get various options such as calling them, sending a message and starting a FaceTime call or video chat.
Not even the keyboard has been left out. A new QuickType feature adds word suggestions at the top. It goes beyond similar features on other smartphones, such as Windows Phone 8, by using context for more appropriate suggestions.
It works quite well – even in the beta version – and once you get used to scanning the suggestions, particularly for long words, you can save a good deal of time by tapping on words to complete them in your message, or add entirely new words you haven’t started typing yet.
Apple has at last allowed third-party keyboards into the fray, so you’ll be able to opt for a Swype-style keyboard if you want to type even faster. Plus, as before, you’ll be able to dictate your messages when you have an internet connection.
Talking of Siri – in a roundabout way – there are a couple of updates to the personal assistant in iOS 8. Nothing major, especially if you were hoping for Siri to leapfrog over Microsoft’s Cortana, but Siri can now be summoned simply by saying “Hey Siri”, even if your iPad or iPhone is in sleep mode. It’s just like “OK, Google”, but it only works if your device is plugged in, such as in the car.
Actually, there is one way around that limitation: you can say "Hey Siri" if Siri is already running on screen but not listening. It’s a shame you can’t choose to enable ‘Hey Siri’ regardless of whether there’s external power, but the reason is likely to battery related.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Continuity and Handoff
If you have a Mac running OS X Yosemite, you’ll be able to use iOS 8’s continuity features. One of these is Handoff where you can start writing an email on your iPhone and finish it on your Mac.
Handoff also brings the iCloud Tabs feature (the one you’ve probably already used in iOS 7 to swap between iPad and iPhone when broswing the web) to the Mac.
It also works with other apps such as Pages, Maps, Messages, Reminders and more, and developers will be able to use the Handoff feature in their own apps.
Not part of Handoff, but still under the continuity theme, you’ll be able to answer a phone call on your Mac, as long as it’s on the same Wi-Fi network. You can also make outgoing calls from a Mac running Yosemite, without first having to find that buried iPhone. Similarly, you can send a text message from your Mac to any contact on your phone.
If you’re not in range of the router, you can use the new Instant Hotspot feature to connect your Mac to your iPhone.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Health
Although not quite the Passbook-style app that was rumoured, the new Health app could be a real hit. As well as storing your medical ID (information which can be shown on the lock screen in an emergency), it can enable previously separated devices to talk to each other, such as an activity tracker and heart rate monitor.
It puts all your health and fitness data into a single dashboard, including sleep stats. Using the new HealthKit developer tool, third-party apps such as MyFitnessPal, Nike Fuelband and Fibit will be able to share their data with the Health app.
As well as being able to see all your data in once place, it could also enable you to compete with friends who have trackers from different manufacturers. (There’s already an app that does this, of course.)
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Performance
We’ve run some initial tests using iOS 8 Beta 4 on an iPhone 5c which we compared with results from iOS 7.1.2 which we ran prior to the upgrade. The results are by no means conclusive, but we saw almost exactly the same figures for Geekbench 3 as well as SunSpider 1.0.2. Our graphics test, GFXBench 3.0 won’t run under iOS 8, but we’ve no reason to suspect that framerates will be any different between the two versions of iOS.
The worry for most people is that upgrading will cause their iPhone or iPad to run slowly, and that’s something that’s tended to happen with the oldest supported devices at each iOS revision.
For iOS 8, that means the iPhone 4S and iPad 2. As it isn’t possible to downgrade to iOS 7 if you change your mind, it’s best to hang back and wait to see what other people find before taking the plunge. We’ll bring you the latest benchmark results as soon as iOS 8 launches to the public.
iOS 8 vs iOS 7: Verdict
As we said at the start, the wide array of new features in iOS 8 – and the fact that it doesn’t cost anything – means it’s a no-brainer to upgrade. Some features will prove more useful than others depending on your situation. For some, Family Sharing will be the killer features; for others it will be iCloud Drive and iCloud Photo Library.
For most people, it will be the little touches here and there – interactive notifications and the updated camera app – which make your iPhone or iPad easier and nicer to use.