iOS 16 review: Customization unlocked

The (custom) lock screen in iOS 16.
Enlarge / The (custom) lock screen in iOS 16.

Samuel Axon

For the past several years, Apple’s annual iOS updates have focused on one feature for a makeover while making minor changes to everything else. Last year, Focus was the, well, Focus. The year before, it was the home screen.

This time it’s the lock screen. You can now change fonts, add widgets, customize the information displayed, and choose from a wider selection of wallpapers. Apple also integrated the lock screen more deeply into the focus modes that were fleshed out in iOS 15. And it laid the groundwork for more than just notifications, which third-party apps can show you before you unlock your phone.

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Given the increasingly iterative nature of iOS releases today — with many key features not available until months after the original ship date of a new, integer version — we’re moving to more streamlined initial iOS reviews, with updates to come in additional articles over time. So today we’re going to be looking at the top new features of iOS 16, but we’re also going to touch on a few other key features and changes.

The lock screen

While iOS 16 touches on most aspects of using the iPhone in various small ways, it’s very much “the lock screen update.” That makes sense: Apple makes a lot of noise about shipping features that integrate hardware and software, and the iPhone 14 Pro’s new always-on display pushes that emphasis to the lock screen.

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But there’s plenty here for users of other iPhone models who lack this always-on feature. After last year’s emphasis on Focus modes and last year’s home screen customization, this is the most significant step Apple has taken in the field of customization with the iPhone, well, pretty much everything.

I know what you’re going to say: Aren’t these all features that have been part of Android for ages?

Yes, you are right – most of the time. In typical Apple fashion, there are some flourishes here that Android doesn’t touch, but as far as functionality goes, this is mostly yesterday for Android diehards. But what was already a win for Android users is largely a win for iOS users as well.

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It’s easy to see the Apple Watch’s impact on this update – the new widgets behave like complications and the new lock screen behaves like a watch face. This phrase pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the new lock screen. Imagine the Apple Watch and all the customizations, features, and limitations that the watch faces offer. Make everything phone sized now. Here we go, this is the new iOS lock screen.

To play with these customizations, just long press your finger on the lock screen. This will take you to an interface with horizontally scrolling cards, each representing one of your custom screens.

Below are three important buttons. You can tap “Focus” to change the focus mode, which turns on when this lock screen is active. You can tap Customize to change your widgets, fonts, wallpapers, and more. And there is a “+” button to add a new custom lock screen to the map row.

It starts with wallpaper

Clicking the + button will open a window that gives you a variety of wallpaper choices. These options fall into a few buckets. There are gradient wallpapers where you choose a general color theme and define some attributes of a simple gradient. (It actually looks nicer than it sounds.)

There are collections that are a bit like Apple’s previous approach to iPhone wallpapers: pre-made patterns in a few different color options.

You can also create a wallpaper of emojis in a grid or in a pattern on the screen and even choose which emojis to display. You can select up to six emojis to include in the wallpaper using Apple’s standard emoji selector interface.

My personal favorite bin for wallpaper is in the Weather & Astronomy category. These offer little customization options, but are quite chic. The obvious here is changing the wallpapers to match the live weather conditions in your area – and these graphics look like the ones the weather app is already painting.

There are also dynamic wallpapers for the earth, the moon and the solar system. The Solar System shows the actual current relative positions of the planets as they orbit the Sun, while the Earth System shows your location on a globe with a green dot, amidst live updated cloud cover reflecting conditions around the globe.

Those of the moon and earth are animated at different angles when you switch from the always-on display to an active lock screen and then swipe to the home screen. It’s a fun effect and the moon wallpaper in particular looks amazing on OLED iPhone screens.

But as neat as these are, I think most people will go for the wallpapers using photos from your library in the Photos app. Tapping Photos gives you a choice of individual photos on your phone.

Using machine learning, the iPhone analyzes all the photos in your library so it can present you with “Recommended” suggestions, which I think are mostly about the money. There are even subcategories for these recommended suggestions, including People, Pets, Nature, and Cities. And of course, you can search your entire photo library and select any image you want.

There’s also “Photo Shuffle,” which “is a dynamic set of photos that shuffles as you use your iPhone throughout the day,” according to the tooltip. You can set the random frequency to change on tap, on lock, hourly or daily. Again, selected photos are shown to you and you can choose which categories to include. However, you can still manually select any photo from your library.

This is a good place to note that for Wall Murals, Apple uses some neat AI tricks to cut out important objects in the image, like faces or buildings, and allows them to overlay parts of the time display, creating a neat effect. It’s shocking how well this actually works. Unfortunately it doesn’t work if you add widgets below the time. That limitation aside, you can toggle this on and off as you see fit.

Once you have chosen your wallpaper, you will be taken to the lock screen full customization view.

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