Five iOS 17 features iPhone users can test now

The ways we talk to and avoid talking to one another have evolved since the first iPhone came out in 2007.

Calling people without warning is now for parents and significant others only, sending voice memos is for good gossip, and leaving a voicemail is unnecessary.

Those shifts are reflected in many of the new features Apple is adding to iPhones in iOS 17, which is now available as public beta for anyone on an iPhone Xr or later, or a second generation iPhone SE.

Once a year, Apple updates the iOS software that runs on millions of iPhones. The formula goes like this: Preview the new iOS in the summer, release a beta version the public can mess around with a month later, and deliver the final version to the public in the fall when the new iPhones are announced.

We’ve been testing out the first new features on iOS 17 and think there are some to look forward to, and a few you’ll forget about after the novelty wears off. Not all features will be included in the beta, including the new Journaling app which is arriving later.

How to test iOS 17 (and why you should wait)

Testing a beta version of software, especially on a device that has become so central to our existence, is not for the faint of heart. Glitches, bugs and half-baked features are all part of the experience, and many will only work with other beta testers.

Don’t try this unless you have fully backed up your phone and are OK with the risk. To install it first you have to sign up at beta.apple.com. On your phone, go to Settings → General → Software Update → Beta Updates and tap “iOS 17 Public Beta.” Go back a screen and hit Download and Install.

FaceTime messages and Voicemail transcription

The future of voicemail is complicated. That’s because the iPhone is trying to please a lot of different people. Gen X and Boomers who are still into leaving voice mails, and Gen Z and Millennials who would rather die than listen to one, but are OK texting minute-long voice messages about their day.

In iOS 17, the voicemail screen will now show a transcription of what the person is saying in near real-time, so you can decide if you want to pick up. This feature is a nod to the early days of voice messages, when you didn’t have caller ID and would listen to your answering machine live to “screen” calls.

For the other side of spectrum, the same technology will be applied to voice messages — audio recordings you can send in text messages — so you can see a transcription if you’re not able to listen.

But the real dark horse is video messages for missed FaceTime video chats. The ability to leave a chaotic short video could appeal to people already accustomed to TikTok, or alienate people who don’t want yet another thing to reply to.

The new communication features in iOS 17 are already eliciting strong reactions, including our own Tech Friend Shira Ovide, who has zero tolerance for voice mail of any kind. “Tell all my friends and enemies that I don’t want your audio voicemail and I DEFINITELY don’t want your video voicemail.”

Standby mode, so your old phones can live on

With Standby Mode, Apple has made an interesting way to give old devices new purpose instead of collecting dust in a drawer or selling for a paltry sum. Installing the beta on an older phone is safer, and a great way to test this feature out.

When your iPhone is charging and placed on its side, it will go into the new mode and turn into a smart display of sorts. It will show the time and you can add additional features, like headlines or photos or other widgets. The feature is meant to give your current phone more use when it’s not in your hand (whenever that is), but what makes it more interesting is how it jumps on what many people already do with old devices — turning them into sound machines, clocks and music players. The screen will automatically turn off unless you have an iPhone 14 Pro and set it to always on. And yes, there are already companies selling special sideways charging stands.

Even if your two year old iPhone will make a handsome dedicated alarm clock, that’s not a great reason to upgrade. Take our quiz to see if it’s actually time for a new phone.

Screening inappropriate images

Unsolicited sexual images are an old problem. Apple is trying to address it with a new opt-in feature called Sensitive Content Warning. When turned on, the feature will automatically detect nude images and videos and blur them out, showing you a warning and the option to see or decline. The blurs aren’t very specific, so you won’t be able to base your decision on a vague outline. It will apply to images sent in Messages, FaceTime messages and over AirDrop.

NameDrop, a way to share your contact information

This feature is just delightfully late. There used to be an app called Bump that let you tap your smartphones to transfer contact information. Google bought it in 2013 and we’ve been manually entering our numbers into people’s phones ever since. NameDrop (ha) uses the iPhone’s near field communication or NFC capabilities so you can transfer your contact information just like you would pay for a latte. Hover the top of your phone over another device and they’ll have your information. It also works with Apple Watches.

This is actually just one the changes in a new AirDrop upgrade. The same physical action can start a file or photo transfer, or start a SharePlay session for playing music together.

The little bits, from private browsing to contact posters

There are are other features you’ll have to get used to or explain to a confused family member. There’s now an extra tap to find photos when texting, and if you actually know someone who uses Stickers, they’ll have a ton to work with. Check-in lets you share your progress if you’re commuting home from a night out or any other situation where you’d like someone to keep tabs on you. And it’s easier to search through old messages with filters. If you test it out, let us know what you’re loving or hating, and tell us how you really feel about voice mail. Email us at yourhelpdesk@washpost.com.

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