September 29, 2023

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iOS 17 StandBy: Apple’s Drawn Screen is the best iPhone feature in years

iOS 17 StandBy: Apple’s Drawn Screen is the best iPhone feature in years

It only took a few minutes of using the iPhone’s new StandBy mode before I started using it all the time. After a few weeks of testing early betas of Apple’s iOS 17, I’ve really switched my daily phone routine around — and picked up a new office accessory in the process. I can’t remember the last time a new iOS feature clicked so well for me, and I can’t believe the iPhone didn’t always have it.

StandBy, in case you missed it during the WWDC flash announcements this year, is a new docking mode for the iPhone. If your phone’s screen is off and charged and rotated to landscape orientation, it becomes a widget machine. You can see a full screen clock, a clock next to your calendar, a full screen slideshow of your photos, controls for music, your day progress, weather, live activities, or a lot of other things. Essentially, StandBy turns your iPhone into a tiny little smart display. You can interact with Siri and see notifications, but for the most part, it gives you something to look at even when your phone is off.

You don’t need a special accessory to make StandBy work, just a charger and some way to prop the phone upright on its side. I couldn’t figure out the exact angle of straightening required to activate StandBy, but it’s somewhere in the 45-degree range. Flat on a table: no standby. Leaning over my coffee mug: StandBy. A window sill and Lightning cable make for a perfectly serviceable StandBy.

You don’t need a special accessory to make StandBy work – but you might want one

But I’m always playing for a reason to buy tools I don’t really need, so I choose High Rise 3 From Twelve South – It’s a wireless charger for iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods and holds the phone away from my desk at a nice angle. (If you’re curious, Apple doesn’t sell its own dock, but it appears to be an unofficial dock for its employees. Twelve South Forte, a $40 dock that you clip your MagSafe charging disk into. There are endless variations on this idea if Forte isn’t your style.)

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The first time you enter a convenient StandBy setting, a popup will appear asking you to turn the feature on and configure it. All of this really means choosing the tools you want to appear. I ended up with a digital clock on the left side—a stylized version of the watch’s utility face—and a clever stack of scroll widgets on the right. I can view the weather, my upcoming calendar events, my to-do list from TickTick, the battery status of all my Apple gear, and my activity results for the day. I can, of course, look up a lot of this information on the Apple Watch, too, and it comes in handy in exactly the same way: It’s just that Right therea tap or swipe away without being flooded with a home screen full of icons and other notifications.

StandBy turns your phone into a half-decent digital photo frame, in fact.

StandBy is brand new, and most apps don’t seem to support it yet. In theory, any app that supports the smallest widget size on your iPhone (that little square that takes up four icon slots) will work with StandBy as well, but the developers would have to do at least some updating for it to show up in the menu. I suspect most of them will because they are also working on making their UI elements interactive (another best feature of iOS 17). I’ve only been able to test out a few interactive widgets so far, but I like being able to check off a task without ever opening the app or adding credit to my habit tracker from my home screen. All interactivity works in StandBy too, so you’ll finally be able to do a lot of things without ever seeing your home screen.

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Apple’s approach to tools in general is great and important. The basic model for phones has been the same since the advent of the App Store: Your phone is a collection of apps, and you spend your life inside those apps. But over the past few years, Apple has tried to find ways to display some of the information behind those app icons so you can find and interact with them more easily.

application clips are part of this effort; The full history of the Apple Watch is also here. But interactive tools that appear and work across all your devices are the most powerful and useful version of this idea yet. Your Mac has tools now; The Apple Watch is basically all gadgets now. If the Vision Pro is going to work, it will have to embrace a world full of widgets rather than one full of apps.

In theory, almost any iOS gadget should work in StandBy — but there’s not much here yet.

I’m all in on the future of widgets for everything, but StandBy still needs a lot of work (and obviously, a lot of widgets). Its biggest problem is that it’s a landscape feature on a portrait device with a relatively small screen — most of the time, if you tap on a widget to open the corresponding app, that app will appear awkwardly. Night Mode is still too bright for my bedside table, too, and the Always On feature that’s supposed to turn StandBy off when not in use doesn’t seem to work at all. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to get to my home screen from StandBy without picking up my phone from the dock. The next version of StandBy should integrate better with the rest of the iPhone experience.

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Even at this early, still beta, StandBy is the most useful new iPhone feature in a long time. (I think the picture-in-picture mode, in iOS 14, is probably the last thing I liked so much — that or the dark mode in iOS 13.) It’s a huge improvement over the iPhone 14 Pro’s existing Always-On Display mode because it makes the iPhone useful when you’re not using it and when Don’t be near it. I no longer have to reach for and turn on my phone a thousand times a day just to check the time; It’s just on the sidewalk, showing me the time and my next appointment.

I hope developers see StandBy as a reason to make bigger, better, and cooler widgets since there’s plenty of new screen real estate for them. I hope Apple eventually brings StandBy to the iPad as well, which would actually be a more natural place for this feature — most iPad apps run in landscape mode, and you probably don’t pick up and park the iPad as often as a phone. Of course, the iPad doesn’t have any kind of docking ecosystem to speak of, nor does it have MagSafe built-in, but Apple can certainly work around those issues, too. Apple is said to be working on a standalone smart display, but the StandBy-equipped iPad might be even better.

Right now, I’m very happy with the little smart screen I have on my desk. If only Siri was better, I’d never touch my phone again.

Photo by David Pearce/The Verge