PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN
(CNN) —  

The widgets are coming! The ability to customize and personalize your home screen is one of the biggest — and most welcome — features heading to your Apple devices, thanks to iOS 14 and iPadOS 14.

Apple will roll out the public beta versions of both iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 on Thursday. We’ve been using the developer’s betas of the two operating systems for the past three weeks, and we were beyond impressed by the changes — which also include an enhanced search, a deeper focus on privacy that shines through with transparency and a full redesign of Messages.

You can see a full how-to guide on signing up for the public beta here, but be aware that it’s not final software, so you could encounter bugs and slowdowns.

Full versions of iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 will ship this fall.

You might wonder why a beta gets released. The simple answer is to make sure iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 are ready for prime time and that developers can prepare companion apps during the beta period so they’re ready when iOS 14 and IPadOS 14 ship this fall. The public beta has historically been more stable and usable than the developer beta. It’s more polished as a whole.

This is not our full review of iOS 14 or iPadOS 14 — watch for that in the fall — but rather what we think of the features in the beta and what it means for iPhone and iPad users

So let’s preview iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 and what these mean for you.

Mixing up the home screen

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For the first time, well, ever, Apple will let you customize your iPhone’s home screen. In a similar vein to “there’s an app for that,” the likelihood of all iPhone screens being simple rows of icons will diminish.

Widgets are moving beyond the Today View tab on the leftmost screen. You can now place them in three sizes (a mini square, rectangle or large square) on the grid of your home screen.

Apple has made it incredibly simple to add them. Simply press an app or your home screen to enter “jiggle mode.” A plus sign will appear in the top left corner and your selected widget will open.

It’s not a free-for-all like we’ve seen on Android, so this still provides uniformity. It also keeps a sleek look across the iOS interface.

Developers will need to add support, but pretty much any app can make a widget component. Imagine being able to see the latest tweets from Twitter or manage your deadlines in Trello from the home screen. We’re fans of the Apple-made widgets we’ve used during the beta period.

It’s a simple and digestible way to get valuable, real-time information. We’ve opted for a small weather widget in the top right corner. We frequently open the weather app, and it’s an easy way to view the local forecast.

Arguably the most exciting widget is the Smart Stack, which uses the apps you interact with the most to present you with timely information throughout the day. Essentially, it’s a set of app widgets that iOS will auto-rotate through.

It’s gotten in the habit of waking me up by suggesting that I open mail and TikTok, then switching to the calendar and notes while I’m in meetings or on a call, and music at varying times. You can also swipe through the Smart Stack of widgets during the day.

You have freedom with the 6x4 icon grid to place widgets wherever you like. In fact, you can make a home screen filled with just widgets. People have called out the similarities between these and the Live Tiles from Windows Phone, and while it is similar, we think this refines that approach. It almost balances out the home screen, and to some degree, we open these apps less.

We’re eager to play around with third-party app widgets this fall, but placing widgets wherever you want only works on iOS14, not on the iPadOS14 interface. The current version of iPadOS has the Today View sidebar that can be locked on the left side of the main home screen, which stays the same in iPadOS 14. You can customize how widgets appear in that sidebar.

On the iPhone, you can place widgets on any home screen you’d like — but how many of your apps do you really use on a daily basis? We have a feeling you might decide to slim down the pages, thanks to the App Library, another new feature.

The end of the home screens on the iPhone is now the App Library, a grid of boxes organized by App Store categories. What’s in those boxes? All the apps installed on your phone.

To some degree, iOS does the hard work of organizing your apps, and the App Library is like a home for some of the less frequently used apps. It also means you can clean up your home screen and free up a couple dozen folders. Our streaming services and music apps landed in entertainment and camera, and our editing apps are in creativity and lifestyle.

You can also pull down an alphabetical list of all your apps or use the search bar at the top. This has been a big request from users for a while, so we’re happy to see it come to fruition.

The App Library will automatically feature all the apps on your iPhone. You can go through and remove them from your home screen, which will let them just live in this App Library. It doesn’t delete the app, but you still get the option to send it to the trash.

And when editing the home screen, you can tap the dots representing your pages to hide a full page. This is a simple way to clean up what you see on your iPhone.

Like widgets on different pages, App Library is only available on iOS 14 devices and is not in iPadOS 14. We hope that this will eventually arrive in the iPad system too as an update, since it can help make nice use of real estate on the iPad.

On a whole, widgets and App Library will make your iPhone feel entirely new.

Siri and incoming calls don’t take up the full screen

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

With iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, volume control no longer took over the middle of the screen. And now for 14, Siri and incoming calls are getting a similar treatment. Engaging the popular voice assistant with a button or your voice will bring up a redesigned circular Siri on the bottom of the screen.

It’s no longer a full flash page, but Siri is still just as smart and seems even faster. Most importantly, by letting you see your screen, you stay in context, which is especially helpful if your request to Siri has something to do with what you saw on the screen.

Similarly, incoming calls or third-party apps (like Messenger, Skype or WhatsApp) will appear as sticky notifications on the top of the screen, showing you a name and image with the green answer button or a red decline. It’s much easier to handle incoming rings, and it won’t break up your flow.

Messages is much more powerful

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

Coming to all iOS and iPadOS devices (and to macOS, when Big Sur arrives) is a redesigned — and powerful — Messages experience. It’s not a full redesign, like what Big Sur is expected to deliver, but the iOS and iPadOS texting experience feels distinctly different.

For starters, you can now pin your most important conversations to the top. Each contact image will show up in a large circle, and you can have up to nine pinned across devices as they sync. The latest message for the contact will show up above the circle. It’s sleek.

Arguably, though, the bigger news is with group messages, which will save you from drowning in hundreds of messages. Not only do you get inline replies, but you can @Mention someone to receive a notification. This way, your text with a massive group of friends won’t require you to reread a conversation hours later to see if you were mentioned. Also, you can choose to not be notified when you’re tagged, if you’d like.

Messages is also introducing inline replies, and while it looks like a work conversation, this is handy for making plans and coordinating. It also doesn’t bog down the rest of the conversation or, worse, lose your conversation in an avalanche of other messages.

Using both inline replies and mentions has been helpful in a variety of personal and work-related messages. It really increases the Messages experience and gives more meaning to the blue bubble.

Empower your control

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

Apple always had a big focus on privacy, which is important. What you do on your iPhone or iPad should stay on your iPhone or iPad. For iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, Apple is increasing transparency and control around privacy. And it will be evident as soon as you update, when you regrant permissions and access.

For instance, with an application like Instagram that needs access to photos, you can choose to grant it access to all photos or just select ones. With the latter, you can select as many images as you want, and iOS or iPadOS will create an album containing those.

Similarly, with location, you can choose to share it just while using the app, or all the time. Plus, you will have the option to share an approximate location.

It’s been enlightening to see which apps require this. For instance, the Philips Sonicare app, for some reason, wanted our location at all times. This generation of software is making it much more transparent in a digestible way.

You’ll also be able to see which apps use your microphone or camera via green dots at the top of your screen. These will turn yellow when either of these was recently used. Apps in the App Store will feature a privacy report card that will tell you who the developer is, what tracking it might use, and what data it may require.

Transparency is also extending into Safari by offering a privacy report on websites. The built-in browser has already stopped trackers from working across websites, but now will let you see all the trackers active on a webpage. It’s neat. This is also arriving on the Mac with Big Sur.

The Passwords feature of iCloud Keychain is also seeing solid improvements.

For starters, it now lives in Settings, under Passwords, instead of Accounts & Passwords. It will let you easily change a password for whatever service or site by taking you directly to the page, but it will now also warn you when your username or password has appeared in breach or been found on the web. It will, of course, prompt you to quickly change it.

And if the developer supports “Sign in with Apple,” you’ll be able to migrate your account into “Sign in with Apple” when the full software is out. So iCloud Keychain is starting to feel like a paid password manager and brings a ton of value as a free service, especially if you’re in the Apple ecosystem.

Search shines on iPadOS

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In recent years, iPadOS has made the iPad Pro and even other iPad models feel like real computers. You can accomplish a lot on the iPad, and Search improvements in iPadOS 14 shine. You might think of this as a basic function, but it can power your workflow, especially on the iPad.

For starters, you can easily hit CMD + SPACE on the Magic Keyboard to open the Search function and ask for anything. It might be to open an app like Notability or Pages, and you can just hit Enter when it appears to instantly open the app. This is the updated quick launcher, and when searching within the confines of an app, the indexing goes a bit deeper. It let us quickly navigate through an external driver in Files or even iCloud Drive within the app. Same goes for Photos or Mail.

It’s also a fully universal search, which means it can find files and matching results not only on your device, but also on the internet. You can ask a how-to question and see search engine results inline, or ask for Bruce Springsteen’s age and get the answer right there.

It’s also a lot faster, with almost no indexing time needed on an iPad Pro thus far in our testing. It feels more like Spotlight Search on the Mac and will be a welcome addition for iPad power users.

These search improvements are arriving on iOS and macOS as well, as the new search experience was rebuilt from the ground up. On iOS 14, it will be more intelligent about showing results above the keyboard for easier access. It’s a smarter approach.

There’s still more to unpack

PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

We’ve covered the big hitters of iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, and there’s still a lot more. But we’ll leave you with just a few more of our favorite nuggets.

Night Mode on iOS 14 now includes a gyroscope to help you keep the iPhone steady while shooting video in this mode. It lets you take even better nighttime and low-light shots, something we raved about in our iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max reviews. You’ll also notice the iPhone is faster to capture photos and videos.

Voice Memos can now clean up recordings to put the focus more on your voice and less on a noisy cafe where you recorded it. Best of all, this works for previous recordings and not just new ones.

You’ll be able to pick a wallpaper in CarPlay, which is a nice way to personalize the experience in a vehicle.

The Home app on iOS and iPadOS has a status bar on the top that will let you easily control accessories. It’s a simple way to see what’s going on and make adjustments, without the need to dive into individual rooms of your house to control connected devices.

On the iPad, you can now handwrite in system text fields with the Apple Pencil and iPadOS will convert it into text. This way, you don’t have to interrupt your flow while using the Apple Pencil, if you need to quickly make a search or send a message or an email. There are also other new features with the Apple Pencil, like Shape Detection, which will help you draw a perfect circle.

We’ll update this guide as we get closer to the full launch in the fall. And you can bet we will cover these features here in more depth, as well as Maps, Translate and App Clips. For now, you can learn how to install the public beta of iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 here.

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