Hands-on with new iOS iOS 14.4 beta changes and features

The initial beta release of iOS 14.4 includes a new feature that was first demonstrated at Apple’s iPhone 12 event. The new feature relates specifically to the HomePod mini and its U1 Ultra Wideband chip that enables spatial awareness. An iPhone equipped with the U1 chip can interact in new ways with Apple’s small smart speaker on iOS 14.4. Check out our hands-on walkthrough as we explore the updated Handoff experience and other beta changes and features of iOS 14.4.

What’s New in iOS 14.4 Beta?

New transfer experience for HomePod mini

The biggest new change, of course, is the new Handoff experience coming to the HomePod mini. Unlike the full-size HomePod that has been available for a few years now, the new HomePod mini features new technology, such as Apple’s U1 Ultra Wideband chip. The U1 chip provides spatial awareness, so an iPhone with this chip can benefit from richer interactions nearby with other products equipped with the U1 chip, such as the HomePod mini.

Apple decided to improve on the Handoff experience, which previously relied on a precise placement of your iPhone near the HomePod. Compared to the more Boolean interaction of the old method, the HomePod mini and iPhone 11/12 with the latest iOS 14.4 betas can create intuitive spatial interactions with each other.

Video: iOS 14.4 Changes and Features

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With the previous Handoff interaction, users simply held their iPhones at the top of HomePod to transfer audio or phone calls to or from the device. A small banner notification will appear at the top of the iPhone screen to indicate that the transfer was successful. Handoff has no longer been relegated to a small banner notification at the top of the iPhone, but now users can enjoy a full map interface that comes into view as the iPhone gets closer to the HomePod mini.

How the new transfer experience works

If you place an iPhone that plays media closer to the HomePod mini, you will feel the device’s Taptic Engine go to work. Force feedback is subtle at first, but as you move your iPhone closer to the HomePod mini, the feedback increases. To go along with the force feedback, visual flair is also used. When it detects an iPhone nearby, the HomePod mini LED will light up. As you get closer, the light gets more intense.

A visual notification in the form of a banner appears on the end of the iPhone. The banner shows the HomePod mini’s name and location, along with a HomePod glyph, thumbnail album artwork, artist and track title.

Users have the option of simply tapping the banner to manually open the Handoff interface in full size, or move the iPhone closer to the HomePod mini, which will automatically open the Handoff interface. The new Handoff experience works with the Music app and other types of media sources, such as YouTube. Phone calls are also eligible to transfer with the new and improved experience.

The updated Handoff interface offers large album art, transport buttons, volume controls and an AirPlay button to redirect audio. Tapping the album artwork will open the source audio application on your iPhone.

Music can be transferred in two ways – from the HomePod mini to the iPhone, or from the iPhone to the HomePod mini. A Transfer to iPhone or Transfer from iPhone button appears at the top of Handoff interface, but functionality has hit the mark for me so far.

The updated U1-compatible Handoff experience is still very early, but it’s promising. More importantly, it is one of the first user-centric features to use the U1 chip found in current iPhones. While Apple said during the iPhone 12 keynote that the new Handoff experience would be shipped to customers by the end of the year, it is unlikely to deliver on that promise as this is just the first iOS 14.4 beta. Nonetheless, it will be nice to see this feature grow in the next 14.4 beta releases.

Shortcuts app Set background action updates

The return of the Set wallpaper Action in the Shortcuts app was one of my favorite new features in iOS 14.3, and Apple not only kept it in iOS 14.4, but it’s actively improving it. In the beta version of iOS 14.4, users can now switch Perspective zoom for wallpaper with a handy on / off switch. This option allows users to enable or disable the parallax effect displayed in the background set by shortcuts.

VoiceOver Direct Touch apps

Finally, VoiceOver has received a new Direct Touch Apps feature, which allows VoiceOver users to directly control an app without the need for more interaction. A similar direct keyboard input feature already exists in apps, but it looks like it goes a step further, giving VoiceOver users more flexibility within selected apps.

From my short hands-on time with Direct Touch apps, it doesn’t seem like the feature is baked in full, as selecting an app in Settings → Accessibility → VoiceOver → Rotor Actions → Direct Touch apps doesn’t hang. Once additional betas are released, we’ll follow more details.

9to5Mac’s Take

The new Handoff experience is the standout feature in the first iOS 14.4 beta. I hope more Apple devices will adopt the U1 Ultra Wideband chip as it enables interesting new features like this one. What do you think?

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