Two days after iOS 9 was released, I updated both my iPhone 5 and iPad 3. So I’ve spent roughly a week with the new system software, and I feel I’m ready to share a few first impressions of use. Like I did by writing about iOS 7 on the iPhone 4 two years ago, and iOS 8 on the iPad 2 and iPad 3 last year, I think it’s important to continue the tradition of mentioning how it feels to use the latest iOS version on older devices. Not everyone purchases a new iPhone or iPad every year, and people who don’t are often left wondering how the new iOS might work on their iPhones and iPads that now are almost at the bottom of the list of supported devices.
The range of devices supported by iOS 9 is surprisingly ample, the principle being that if a device was able to run iOS 8, then it’ll run iOS 9. Performance-wise, according to what I’ve been reading on the Web so far, the consensus seems to be: If you were satisfied by iOS 8’s performance on your (older) device, then iOS 9 won’t disappoint. I agree with this assessment, and I’ll go as far as saying that iOS 9 feels even smoother and more stable in places where iOS 8 stuttered every now and then. I noticed this on the iPhone 5 especially.
Of course, not all the new features introduced with iOS 9 are available on older devices: Ars Technica gives a detailed overview of feature fragmentation. It’s a pity I can’t take advantage of features like Split View multitasking or Slide Over on my iPad 3, but it’s not the end of the world either (I’ll eventually upgrade to an iPad Pro when I can). The only feature I’m really missing are Safari content blockers. In case you were wondering, the requirement for this feature is an iOS device with 64-bit processor, which means iPhone 5S or newer, iPad Air or newer, iPad mini 2 or newer, and the 6th-gen iPod touch. As I observed on social networks, slightly older devices would benefit a lot from content blockers, as there are certain sites with so many ads and underlying related code that browsing them is an exercise in frustration and a blow to the device’s general performance. Too bad (and ironic) that they can’t take advantage of this iOS 9 feature.
Animations and transitions feel very smooth on the iPhone 5, even smoother than under iOS 8. Navigating the springboard, entering and exiting apps, flicking through apps in the new multitasking interface, unlocking the phone, accessing Spotlight — so far my iPhone 5 has never stuttered or otherwise hesitated. I’ve noticed a marked improvement when invoking both Notification Centre and Control Centre: their interface appears to be more responsive, and the animation more fluid. This is also true for the iPad 3. Even my wife’s iPad 2 appears to have smoother animations and transitions than under iOS 8, especially the multitasking interface, while pulling down Notification Centre the few times I tried proved to be a more jerky, stuttering affair. A slight delay I’ve seen on the iPad 3 is when opening an application that wasn’t already in memory: the app icon darkens (registering your tap to launch it), stays darkened for half a second, then the app launches. Perhaps some users will find this annoying: for me, it’s not really an issue. The delay is so small as to be largely forgivable. Another slight delay happens in certain apps when you have to enter text: the virtual keyboard may not spring up as readily as, say, Control Centre. But again, I haven’t seen this happen consistently enough to be an issue, and once the keyboard is up, it’s perfectly responsive. Apart from these exceptions, I’d say iOS 9 visual performance on the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 is satisfying.
General performance and feel — iOS 9 feels like the most stable .0 release in a long time. No strange behaviours, no unexpected crashes (old apps that stopped working under iOS 9 and crash on launch do not count — these are expected crashes) or reboots, no inconsistencies in general responsiveness. iOS 9 feels light enough and solid, especially on the iPhone 5, but also on the iPad 3. The feeling is that you’re using a very well optimised system, not something that an iPhone 5 or iPad 3 can barely sustain and may break at any moment. I’m generally impressed by how well iOS 9 is behaving on the iPad 3 in particular. Maybe if you’re a more nervous user, frequently jumping in and out of apps, you may notice more lag here and there. I have not, so far. If you still use an iPhone 5 or iPad 3, are still on iOS 8.4.1, and you’re not sure whether to update to iOS 9, I’d say go for it. What you gain, however small, will be more than what you lose (nothing, basically, although if you’re still using very old apps there’s the remote possibility of running into something that worked on iOS 8 but won’t on iOS 9).
Two very nice improvements in iOS 9 — The first, believe it or not, is the new system font, San Francisco. I’m so glad Apple decided to use it on iOS and OS X too, not just on the Watch. I find it to be much more readable than Neue Helvetica in so many places, and especially in all the instances of smaller text (like in share sheets or when previewing mail messages in Mail’s list view). It’s better spaced than Neue Helvetica and I don’t have to squint to make out certain groups of words. Very nice. The second improvement is in the user interaction with external keyboards when in use with an iPad, by implementing very useful and very familiar keyboard shortcuts. I’ve already talked about this in my previous article Keyboard shortcuts in iOS 9 bring back memories.
A third new feature in iOS 9 I also find quite useful is Low Power Mode (only supported on iPhones). As explained in the Settings > Battery screen itself, Low Power Mode temporarily reduces power consumption until you can fully charge your iPhone. When this is on, mail fetch, background app refresh, automatic downloads and some visual effects are reduced or turned off. I particularly like how the feature is implemented: if you turn it on yourself, Low Power Mode will automatically engage when battery level drops to 20% (the battery percentage will appear in the iPhone’s status bar even if you normally keep it hidden). If you leave the setting off, when battery level drops to 20%, you’ll get the usual ‘battery low’ warning, but iOS 9 will also offer to turn Low Power Mode on temporarily, until you can charge your iPhone. If you dismiss the first warning, a second warning at 10% battery level will again offer to turn Low Power Mode on for you. Smart and helpful.
If you have an iOS device of this vintage and have questions for me regarding iOS 9 performance in specific places I have not mentioned, let me know; you can reach me on Twitter or App.Net, I’m @morrick on both networks. I plan to add more iOS 9 commentary if I notice other things worth covering.
Coda — A couple of weird things
Weird thing №1 — virtual keyboard glitches
After updating to iOS 9 on my iPhone 5, I noticed strange glitches in the rendering of some keys in the virtual keyboard:
As you can see, the affected keys are the Shift key, rendered as a black square; the Delete key, rendered as a white rectangle; and the International key, the white square between the ‘123’ and Dictation keys (it normally has a globe icon). What I noticed about this UI glitch:
- It doesn’t appear in all applications.
- It only happens with the keyboard’s dark theme.
- It doesn’t happen on the iPad.
- The correct key icon appears briefly when tapping the key.
- When double-tapping the Shift key, the correct Caps Lock key appears.
At the moment I still haven’t installed iOS 9.0.1, so I don’t know if the problem has been resolved.
Weird thing №2 — A battery mystery
Since updating both the iPhone 5 and the iPad 3 to iOS 9, two weird episodes happened, both related to the battery. I went to bed one night and set up an alarm on my iPhone 5 for the following morning. I placed the iPhone on my night table, activated Do Not Disturb, and went to sleep. The iPhone still had 38% of battery left. A bit low, but nothing the iPhone can’t handle, given that it’s going to stay several hours on standby. The next morning I woke up an hour later and found strange that I didn’t hear the alarm. I woke the iPhone from sleep to check if I really set the alarm the night before… and the iPhone was dead. The first thing I suspected was some odd background process that kicked in and drained the battery overnight, but I hadn’t noticed any unusual battery drain in the previous days, and I hadn’t installed any new app. I got up and connected the iPhone to the mains, making a mental note to check back for any unusual app or service behaviour once the iPhone was fully charged. Charging it to 100% took longer than usual, and what happened next left me equally baffled: battery life seems to have noticeably improved since the incident. The iPhone was at 100% battery level yesterday morning, and at the time of writing — 34 hours later — it’s down to 20% after moderate use.
Something similar happened to my iPad 3. The other morning I noticed the battery was almost depleted (4%), and I connected it to the charger. After the usual amount of hours needed to bring back the iPad to 100% battery, I went to check and, strangely, it was only at 63% of charge. I thought that maybe there was something wrong with the cable, but everything was fine and the lightning near the battery icon indicated that the iPad was indeed recharging (moving the cable didn’t interrupt the flow of current, so there was definitely nothing wrong with the cable or the connector). It took almost twice the amount of time usually needed to fully charge the iPad, but again, like with the iPhone, now the iPad’s battery appears to be discharging more slowly and to last more than before (and I’m not using the iPad more lightly than usual, either). In Mac terms, it’s as if both devices got their power managers (or System Management Controllers) reset. If something similar happened with your iOS devices as well, let me know. It’s certainly an intriguing matter.