May 29, 2017 at 2:30 p.m. PST
The iOS operating system for the iPhone doesn’t feature a fully customizable user interface. This article demonstrates how to customize the iPhone without jailbreaking.
Apple’s mobile computing efforts are focused. They’re dedicated to providing a fast, robust and efficient mobile operating system. Some critics apply a gross generalization and contend that all Apple products are not customizable. This isn’t true. macOS is a highly customizable operating system. It’s actually the most customizable consumer-oriented operating system. Linux is more customizable, and although there are user-friendly distributions, desktop Linux is not mainstream.
Why Isn’t iOS Customizable?
Although the iPhone runs a capable processor, a computer is generally more powerful. The iPhone is a very compact device. To make the device smaller and power efficient, Apple had to use components suitable for mobile devices. The A-series processors aren’t as powerful as Intel processors found in a Macintosh. The iPhone only has 2GB of RAM. Older iPhones only had 512MB of RAM. This would be bare bones specs for a Macintosh, however, it works well for the iPhone.
With scaled down hardware, an operating system must also be trimmed of excesses for optimal performance. There are other mobile operating systems featuring full customization, but this comes at a cost. These devices don’t offer the multimedia capabilities of the iPhone. In fact, zero latency audio is relatively new for these devices. Apple’s mobile devices have had zero latency audio from day one. This is a necessity if you want to create music or experience the best games on a mobile device. I personally prefer multimedia performance over customization. Indeed, if customization was truly valued by consumers, Linux would be the most popular desktop operating system.
Apple’s competitors actually debated whether or not to allow some of the customization options. They knew that technologies such as widgets and animated wallpaper would drain batteries and slow down devices. However, they wanted to give people the option, and moreover, differentiate their product from the iPhone. Contrary to what some believe, Apple knew about widgets for a long time. In fact, OS X had widgets a decade before smartphones even existed. Apple just felt that they weren’t appropriate for mobile devices. A lot of the nifty customization options found in other mobile operating systems were actually borrowed from the Mac. It’s sadly ironic that when Apple implements them on the iPhone, people cry foul that they’re copying others. No. They’re copying the Mac.
Priorities differ between the pillars of technology. Apple does a lot of market research. They discovered that most users don’t care about customization. In fact, HTC did a study and found that widgets aren’t widely used. Having had widgets on the Mac for such a long time, Apple (and their customers) knew that they weren’t a big deal.
Apple eventually added animated wallpaper and widgets to iOS. This was never about intellectual capabilities. It was always about priorities. They knew customers wanted mobile devices to be optimized for apps. I’d rather make music with GarageBand or play an amazing game than fiddle with widgets. We have widgets now, although they are rigidly implemented. Again, a lot of these constraints have to do with performance. A UI container that is fully customizable has to load quickly. The more customizable it is, the more it will detract from app performance. It’s a balancing act and I think Apple got it right. If you value customization over app performance, the standard iPhone isn’t a good option. You can jailbreak an iPhone or just get a different device.
Jailbreaking Has Its Risks
Jailbreaking is the process of escalating privileges in iOS. Contrary to popular belief, the term wasn’t coined as a criticism of Apple. Instead, it originated from the practice of escalating privileges on the FreeBSD Unix operating system. A jailbroken iPhone has the ability to run apps downloaded outside of the App Store. More importantly, it can extend the iOS operating system. This allows users to fully customize the iPhone, as they may do with other smartphones. Of course, some of these customization options will slow down your device, which could compromise the performance of processor-intensive apps.
The dark side of customization is that it allows users to download apps outside of the App Store. These apps haven’t been screened for security. There have been a few incidents of malware spread to jailbroken devices. The other issue is that jailbreaking your device voids the warranty. I don’t recommend jailbreaking at all, but of you do it, don’t do it on your brand new iPhone.
Given that jailbreaking comes with its risks, it’s worth investigating how to customize a stock iOS iPhone. Although the options are limited, you may be surprised with what you can do.
Customize iPhone with Accessibility Options
Apple has always garnered accolades from disability advocacy groups. Unlike other tech corporations, Apple takes accessibility very seriously. It costs money to make technology accessible, but it’s the right thing to do. These accessibility tweaks aren’t just for people with disabilities. I actually use some of these options to customize my device.
If you’re tired of the way apps launch, there’s an accessibility option to change it. Instead of having apps zoom when they launch, the Reduce Motion setting
fades them in. This option was added as the motion of apps launching actually made some people dizzy and nauseous. You can change this setting by tapping on Settings > General > Accessibility > Reduce Motion.
Accessibility options offer some customization of iOS color schemes. If you like a dark UI theme, simply go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations, then switch on Invert Colors. This actually looks pretty cool. You can also turn on Color Filters, which offer a wide array of customization options. I find the Color Tint option to offer the most use for those interested in customization. Make sure to adjust the Color Tint and Hue sliders for fine tuning iOS colors. Reduce White Point is another useful display accommodation option. This setting reduces the intensity of bright colors.
Magnification options can provide easily invoked tools that are helpful in everyday life. iOS includes an excellent Magnifier app that turns the camera into a virtual magnifying glass. This is great for anyone who needs to examine minute details of an object or read small print. You can enable the Magnifier by tapping on Settings > General > Accessibility, then turn Magnifier on. The Magnifier app can be turned on by clicking the Home button three times. It really comes in handy.
If you need to see fine details of anything on the iOS screen, the Zoom option is quite useful. When enabled, double-tapping three fingers on the screen displays an on-screen virtual magnifying glass. This is great for apps that don’t support zoom. It’s also useful for graphic designers who wish to inspect the details of an image. This feature can be configured by tapping on Settings > Accessibility > Zoom. The Zoom feature is highly configurable and offers many options.
iOS Accessibility provides options for adjusting text size. The Larger Text option only applies to apps that support Dynamic Type. In addition to making text larger, it can also reduce text size. This comes in handy for those who want to get the most out of a small screen.
The middle section of the main Accessibility screen provides a slew of visual customization options. Users can make text bold, turn on button shapes (which looks like older versions of iOS), increase contrast and reduce motion. The Increase Contrast option provides some useful customization settings. Users can reduce transparency, which makes iOS look more solid. It’s also possible to darken colors, thereby enhancing contrast. You can also toggle on/off labels for iOS settings.
By far, the most useful customization option I found was under Home Button settings. After upgrading to iOS 10, I was annoyed that unlocking my iPhone with Touch ID required an extra click. This was done to protect the lock screen, which now displays widgets when you swipe right. You can actually turn this off by tapping Home Button on the Accessibility screen. Next, turn on Rest Finger to Open.
As you can see, Accessibility settings aren’t just for disabled people. There are options that provide a modicum of customization options. While this pales in comparison to what Android offers, if you like iOS, this isn’t a huge issue. That said, no one is forcing you to have the same tired grid of icons on the Home screen. Virtually every iPhone user I know seems to scan the Home screen to launch an app. There are alternative ways of using the iPhone that don’t require jailbreaking your device.
Remove Icons from Home Screen, Use Spotlight as a Launcher
iPhone critics complain about the Home screen’s stale appearance. I have to admit, that grid of app icons is mundane. You don’t have to face this tired, old look every time you unlock your iPhone. Personally, I have removed all of the icons on my Home screen — even the ones on the Dock. For me, Spotlight is a much more intuitive way to launch apps. It also gives me an unobstructed view of my wallpaper. Launching Spotlight is much easier with a clear Home screen. There are no apps to accidentally launch when I swipe down on the screen.
The best way to get rid of your app icons is to virtually sweep them under the rug. Tap and hold on an app to invoke the Home screen’s edit mode. Next, drag an app onto another app to create a folder. Add all of your apps to the folder and then drag it onto a new Home screen. Click the Home button to exit Home screen edit mode. Swipe back to the first Home screen and enjoy the view.
To launch Spotlight, simply swipe down on the Home screen with one finger. You only need to type one or two letters of the app. Spotlight is also smart enough to present the apps you use most. For the most part, you won’t need to type anything. Theoretically, this may be more effort than simply launching an app. But when you have a screen full of apps, you need to visually scan the grid of icons to launch an app. I have found that keeping the Home screen clear and using Spotlight is efficient and aesthetically pleasing. You can also use Siri to launch apps, if you prefer.
Configuring Spotlight can make this Home screen technique even more efficient. Simply go to Settings > General > Spotlight Search to fine tune the options. By default, Spotlight displays apps at the top of the list. If you only want to see app icons, make sure to turn off searching within apps. This can only be done by turning the feature off for every app in the list. Make sure to leave Siri Suggestions on. This will intelligently pre-select the most appropriate apps when you launch Spotlight. These apps are presented based on usage. For example, if you launch a news app in the morning, Siri Suggestions will display this in Spotlight.
This Home screen arrangement method is not an all-or-nothing deal. Feel free to add a few icons to the Dock or Home screen. Just make sure to leave enough room to swipe down. I’ve found that it’s too easy to inadvertently launch an app when the Home screen is crowded with icons. I’m also tired of looking at icons for the better part of a decade.
Download Fresh Wallpaper
Fresh wallpaper is the cure for the iOS “blahs”. There are myriad sites offering wallpaper for the iPhone and iPad. Simple search for “iPhone wallpaper” on Google to find one. Once you find suitable wallpaper, press and hold your finger down and choose “Save Image” from the pop-up menu. Next, go to Settings > Wallpaper > Choose New Wallpaper and then tap on Camera Roll. Pick your new wallpaper from the Camera Roll and scale and move it as desired. Next, set it as the Lock Screen, Home Screen or Both.
Unfortunately, only Apple can create animated wallpapers. They do this so that third-party developers won’t create something inefficient. Hopefully, Apple will create an API so that third-party developers can create animated wallpapers. Obviously, this is not a high priority, but the animated wallpapers are getting stale. It would have been nice to at least see new options debut with major versions of iOS. Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck with the same old animated wallpapers for a few years now. At best, your custom static wallpaper will benefit from the parallax effect.
Customize Your Keyboard
Apple was a little late in providing access to third-party keyboards. There’s a good reason for this. They needed to make sure that third-party extensions to iOS are stable and secure. With iOS 8, Apple provided a mechanism for third-party developers to offer custom keyboards for iOS. The only drawback is that some of these keyboards store your private information. If you are concerned about privacy, just stick with the stock iOS keyboard.
The App Store offers a variety of third-party keyboards, many of which are free. Keep in mind, they may profit from turning your private information into a product. If that doesn’t bother you, launch the App Store and search for keyboards. Swype is one of the more popular keyboards, enabling rapid text entry by gliding one’s finger across the screen. At 99 cents it may be a good option. Google’s Gboard is free, and I have fewer concerns over what they will do with my personal information. It also offers “glide” typing, similar to Swype.
Once your custom keyboard is installed, tap on Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard and then tap on your preferred third-party keyboard. You can change the order of the keyboards. Tap the Edit button and then change the order of your keyboards. The top one is supposed to be the default keyboard. Tap Done to exit edit mode. If your third-party keyboard doesn’t show up by default, simply tap the switch keyboard button on the default keyboard and select your desired keyboard.
Depending on the keyboard you choose, you may or may not want to enable full access. Full access provides the developer with every keystroke you make. I enabled this with Gboard, however, I’m weary of enabling this with other third-party keyboards. I’m not worried about what the developer will do with my personal information. My concern is that their data stores could be hacked.
You can enable full access by tapping Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards, then tap on the custom keyboard. Next, turn on Allow Full Access and confirm.
Add Widgets to iOS
Widgets are a feature that have taken on a life of their own. Because Apple didn’t feel they were a top priority, fanboys of competing operating systems lorded it over Apple users. Little did they know that I’ve had access to widgets on my Mac before smartphones even existed. Of course, people who refuse to use a Mac aren’t aware that OS X had widgets long before any other consumer-oriented operating system.
I really don’t think widgets are a big deal. They make more sense for devices that launch apps slowly. Launching an app on iOS is fast and easy. I would much rather launch an app than see a scaled down representation of an app.
Adding widgets to your Home screen is easy. Widgets accompany apps when you download them from the App Store. There’s no way to download just a widget and not the accompanying app. So you don’t need to launch the App Store to install a widget. Simply swipe right on the first Home screen, and you will see your widgets. Scroll down to the bottom and tap the Edit button. From the Edit screen, you can rearrange or delete existing widgets and add new ones. It’s really no big deal.
Fanboys of competing mobile operating systems will argue that these aren’t real widgets, because they are restricted to a rounded rectangle. This comes off as a bit desperate to “win the Internet”. I never cared for widgets on my Mac. I don’t care for them on my iPhone. I’m satisfied that Apple had their priorities straight and focused on multimedia performance and stability over UI glitter. They knew, from their Mac experience, that users don’t really care about widgets.
Widgets are low hanging fruit. Apple did the hard work of creating an operating system and APIs that allow for apps that aren’t even available on other mobile operating systems, particularly professional music creation apps. Games are much smoother on iOS than any other mobile operating system. Most reasonable people accept Apple’s development priorities.
Apple Will Gradually Improve Customization
History has shown that Apple is slowly introducing new options for customization. It’s clear that this is not a top priority. I feel that Apple has their priorities straight. After all, would you rather have slow, unresponsive multimedia apps or UI glitter?
I have to admit, the iOS user experience has become a bit stale. Every few years, it undergoes a major overhaul. iOS 7 was the last major change to the look and feel of iOS. Like every major Apple change, it was met with hostility on social media and the Internet. Apple will most likely avoid major UI overhauls. Instead, they will make small, incremental changes. Expect to see mote customization options in future versions of iOS.