It’s already been a crazy year for iOS 14 updates, and it doesn’t look like Apple is slowing down at all — no sooner did the company release iOS 14.3 et al than it pushed out the first developer beta of iOS 14.4.
While at this point it’s unlikely we’ll see a public release of iOS 14.4 before next year, this is still setting up to be a record for the fastest point release cycle in iOS history, breaking last year’s record set by iOS 13, which saw the arrival of iOS 13.3 on December 10th — technically a few days earlier than this year’s iOS 14.3 release — but didn’t start the iOS 13.4 beta cycle until February, with the release of iOS 13.4 showing up in late March.
On the other hand, it seems likely that iOS 14.4 will land in the public’s hands before the end of January, particularly since it seems to be poised to add the one feature that Apple promised for the HomePod mini that hasn’t arrived yet.
A Better Handoff Experience
Last year Apple added a new U1 Ultra Wideband chip to its iPhone 11 lineup, promising a whole array of new possibilities ranging from precisely locating Apple’s long-rumoured AirTags to indoor navigation features.
Unfortunately, this initial debut of the U1 chip was underwhelming, to say the least, limiting the technology to offering up slightly more efficient AirDrop transfers — a solution to a problem that nobody really had in the first place.
Of course, it’s become clear that Apple is playing the long game with this technology, and the AirDrop U1 feature was largely a proof of concept, but we also heard almost nothing more about it from Apple until this year’s unveiling of the new HomePod mini.
Apple’s diminutive new smart speaker is actually only the third class of device to include the U1 chip, which of course is still in Apple’s flagship iPhone 12 lineup, and also found its way into the Apple Watch Series 6 this year, but not the Apple Watch SE. It’s also conspicuously missing from the iPhone SE, and was nowhere to be found on the 2020 iPad Pro. Likewise, despite rumours that Apple’s AirPods Max would get the U1 chip, this didn’t actually happen either.
Still, while the coming Ultra Wideband revolution doesn’t appear to have started yet, Apple is still making small uses of the technology where it can, and in the case of the HomePod mini, it’s promised to leverage it to provide a better handoff experience between a user’s iPhone and the smart speaker.
Apple already added Handoff to the HomePod last year, allowing users to transfer whatever is currently playing from one device to the other by placing their iPhone near their smart speaker.
This Handoff feature works reasonably well most of the time, but because it relies on simple Bluetooth proximity technology, the interaction was limited to a simple notification that appeared after the transfer had occurred.
Now, however, thanks to the U1 chip that’s found in both the HomePod mini and the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12, users will be able to take advantage of a richer and more reliable handoff experience that actually tracks the position of the HomePod mini relative to the iPhone.
How U1 Handoff Will Work
Apple touched on the feature briefly when it announced the HomePod mini, showing a brief demonstration of it in action, but didn’t really go into a lot of descriptive detail beyond simply saying that it would use visual, audible, and haptic effects.
Fortunately, thanks to the iOS 14.4 beta and HomePod beta software being available to a few selected testers who have been willing to share details on Reddit, we now have a better idea of what the actual experience will be like.
According to one tester, the accuracy provided by the U1 chip now allows the iPhone to use haptic rhythms that automatically start when the iPhone gets within a certain range of the HomePod mini — around 12 inches at this point — and gradually increase in speed and strength as the iPhone is moved closer.
A notification banner also appears at the same time as the haptic feedback begins, and the user can either tap on it to trigger the handoff experience manually, or keep moving the iPhone even closer, at which point the banner will expand into a full handoff user interface.
On the other side, the top LED on the HomePod mini will also light up when it detects an iPhone nearby, with the level of intensity increasing as the user gets closer. Both music and phone calls can be handed off in either direction using this method, and it appears to work with multiple music playback apps, not just Apple’s own first-party app.
It also appears that unlike the current Handoff feature, the process may not occur automatically. Instead, a Handoff screen is presented that will allow the user to control what is playing back on the HomePod mini without necessarily having to pull it back over to the actual iPhone. Instead, a “Transfer to/from iPhone” button appears in the user interface.
Unfortunately, even when this new Handoff experience arrives in iOS 14.4, it’s going to be limited to U1 equipped devices, which means an iPhone 11 or iPhone 12 with a HomePod mini. To be clear, however, the original Handoff experience that was introduced in iOS 13 last year will continue to work for the full-sized HomePod and all other iPhone models — users simply won’t have the same level of control over the process.