The new version of iOS, the operating system for Apple's (AAPL) iPhone and iPad, offers a fresh new look -- and some great new features.

Released Wednesday, iOS 7 represents the most significant overhaul of the popular mobile software since the first iPhone. Gone are the rounded icons and buttons and virtual textures, such as the leather cover for the contacts app, that dominated previous versions of iOS. In their place are simple text commands like "Menu" and "Done" and icons that embrace their two-dimensionality.

The operating system retains enough familiar features that users should be able to adjust fairly easily. App icons are still arranged on a series of home pages and can still be placed in folders. And frequently used apps such as the phone dialer and the Safari browser are still in a task bar at the bottom of the screen.

The new look is a refreshing change and, in some ways, is easier to understand and navigate, once you get the knack for it. For example, iOS's Spotlight search, a previously easy-to-miss feature placed to the left of the main home page, can now be accessed from any home page by a simple swipe down from the middle of the screen.

But it's the new features that help to make iOS 7 a tremendous improvement.


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One of the best is Control Center, which offers users an easy way to adjust common settings. Available with a simple upward swipe from the bottom of the screen, the feature allows users to turn their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios on or off or adjust the volume and brightness of their device. In past versions of iOS, users would have had to launch the settings app and dig through multiple screens; Control Center makes the process much simpler.

But it does more. Apple has built into Control Center the ability to quickly launch the camera and clock apps and to turn on the flash on the iPhone so that it can be used as a flashlight. And Apple has also moved the music player widget into the Control Center.

Quick settings areas have long been standard on devices running Google's (GOOG) Android operating system, so it's great to see Apple finally fitting in such a feature.

Another great new feature is AirDrop, which allows users to wirelessly share photos, contacts, home videos, Web pages and more with other iOS users in the room. Users access the feature from within particular apps by tapping a "share" button. The feature displays icons of nearby iOS users with whom they can share files; they simply need to tap on an icon and have that person accept the file.

Unfortunately, AirDrop only works with iOS devices and then only with those that are turned on with the screen unlocked.

Another cool feature of iOS 7 is the way it handles multitasking and app switching. Previous versions limited the number of functions that could run in the background to a small handful, such as navigation and music playing.

iOS 7, by contrast, will support full multitasking of apps, allowing any app to update in the background.

Multitasking also looks better. In prior versions of iOS, when users double pressed the home button to view recently used apps, they saw only icons of those programs. In iOS 7, they also see "cards," or shrunken versions of the actual applications.

Not everything is great about iOS 7. I had trouble installing it on one of my devices and ended up having to go through a full restore process before I could get it to work.

Meanwhile, some older devices can't upgrade to iOS 7, and many won't get some of the coolest features. AirDrop, for example, is only available for the iPhone 5 and above and the latest versions of the iPad and iPod touch.

I also didn't like some elements of the new design. The new app folders are translucent squares that make it look like someone has taken an eraser and repeatedly smudged out bits of the home page's background.

Apple also failed to update how iOS displays notifications, so they are still obtrusive. It's annoying, and I wish Apple had fixed it.

But, overall, I really like iOS 7. It's a great new look for Apple handhelds.

Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285 or twolverton@mercurynews.com. Follow him at www.mercurynews.com/troy-wolverton or Twitter.com/troywolv.

Troy's
First take
What: Apple iOS 7 handheld operating system
Likes: Control Center makes it easy to adjust common settings; AirDrop makes it simple to share files with nearby iOS users; multitasking looks and works better.
Dislikes: Update isn't available for some recent iOS devices; many new features are limited to only the most recent devices; new folders look ugly; notifications are still intrusive.
Price: Free download
Web: www.apple.com