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iPhone's new floating video tool: How it works in iOS 14, and two ways it tops Android

iPhones with iOS 14 will soon be able to play picture-in-picture video on the screen while doing something else. Here's how it works and why you'll want to use it.

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Picture in Picture keeps a thumbnail of a video playing while you do anything else on your phone.

Apple. Screenshot by CNET

Apple's iOS 14 update for iPhone ($699 at Apple) has taken flak for its introduction of 'new' features that Android already has. That's certainly the case with Picture in Picture, a video feature we first saw on Samsung phones before coming to Google's wider Android OS. And the feature isn't new for Apple, either -- it already exists on the iPad -- but its iPhone debut is still significant for the hundreds of millions of iPhone users worldwide.

Besides, Apple's take on the video feature has some extra tricks that Google might want to imitate. Picture in Picture and other iPhone features will come to iOS 14 public beta in July and to everyone else in the fall.

Here's what Picture in Picture is, how it works, how it could surpass PiP on Android phones -- and also its limitations. (And here's how to tell if iOS 14 will work with your iPhone.)

Read more: iPhone's radical new home screen changes aren't on by default. What you need to know

What is Picture in Picture video for iOS 14?

Picture in Picture lets you watch a thumbnail-size video play in the corner of your screen while you do other things on your phone. The video sticks around as you pop open a chat window, scroll through a news story on your browser or fine-tune your screen settings. So, you can watch a video on the iPhone from any screen.

Picture in Picture is the proper name Apple gave this feature, but it's generally known in mobile circles as picture-in-picture or PiP.

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iPhone apps that will support Picture in Picture in iOS 14

App developers who want to take advantage of PiP will need to use Apple's Picture in Picture APIs.

How Picture in Picture work on the iPhone

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You can keep a FaceTime conversation going in iOS 14 while looking at your schedule, or any other iPhone screen.

Apple. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Whichever phone you use it on, picture-in-picture is a great little convenience feature. You don't go out of your way to use it. It comes to you, and in a way that should be completely natural and helpful.

Here's what happens on the iPhone. You start watching a video on a compatible app. It occurs to you that you need to reply to a text, check your email or look up the weather. As you swipe up to go Home, your video shrinks down and continues to roll in a thumbnail view. This works with FaceTime calls, too.

The thumbnail is persistent, which means you can switch to any app you want for as long as you want without the video going away. To make the video window larger, pinch to zoom. To move it around, simply drag it with your fingertip. 

If the PiP window is getting in the way, you can swipe it off to the side where it docks and all but disappears, leaving you a tab to pull when you want it out again. Here's the best part: the audio continues to play even if you dock the video thumbnail.

While in Picture in Picture mode, you can pause, go back or go forward on apps that support those controls. And you can tap a control to go full screen or close the video entirely, say if you're done with a FaceTime call.

What Google and Samsung can learn from Apple

Apple's Picture in Picture feature could have a leg up on Android PiP in two ways. I felt my eyes light up when Apple demonstrated the docking feature in iOS 14. On Android phones, you can drag around a PiP window anywhere on the screen that you want. But if you move it to the margins, it'll bump around like a bowling ball at a child's birthday party.

I can't tell you how many times I've closed a PiP window exasperated that it was always in the way. But you don't always want to stop the video. The option to keep the audio playing after docking the video sounds extremely useful for FaceTime calls, so you can temporarily make full use of your screen while talking to the other person. 

For example, maybe you need to carefully follow walking directions, but you still want them to be able to see your face on video. 

Pinch to zoom is the other potential standout with Apple's Picture in Picture tool. It doesn't exist for Android. On phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 and OnePlus 8 Pro ($999 at OnePlus), I could zoom to make it a little larger, and a second zoom attempt opened it to full size. If Apple's method gives you true scaling (as it appears to do) and works as advertised, that could make other phone brands pay attention.

Of course, we'll need to try the method firsthand in the iOS 14 beta, and in the finished device to see how it truly compares.

What iPhone's Picture in Picture won't do

Apple's new feature is advertised to work with video only, compared with PiP on Android, which also works with Google Maps. As someone with a lamentable sense of direction, keeping one eye on walking directions while I'm doing whatever else I'm doing has been a lifesaver more times than I can count. Hopefully Apple will expand in the future to include Apple -- and Google -- maps within the Picture in Picture realm.

Here's what you need to know about iOS 14 and everything Apple announced at WWDC.