iPadOS review: 50 percent more computerOctober 27, 2019
It’s complicated, finally
Zeno’s most famous paradox involves a runner trying to go some distance. But to go that distance, they have to get halfway there, then half the remaining distance, then half again, and half again. The runner can get incredibly close but never cross the finish line. Instead, they’re stuck reaching an infinity of halfway points.
This little parable is my new default response when somebody asks me if the iPad can really be your main computer. Of course it can. But if you measure all of the different things you might need it to do, you will never get there. That’s the story of iPadOS: it gets us halfway closer to the iPad being able to replace your laptop.
If you already thought the iPad could be your main computer, iPadOS makes it 50 percent easier to do the things you want. If you thought there’s no way the iPad could do what you really need, iPadOS will get 50 percent of the way toward changing your mind.
If you have no interest in turning your iPad into something more than what it already is, I have good news: with iPadOS, it remains a great couch and travel device that serves as a companion to your phone and laptop. Beyond a preponderance of bugs that are getting squashed with a succession of rapidly released post-launch updates, there’s very little to complain about if you use your iPad for basic stuff.
iPadOS remains fast and easy to understand, with a huge set of apps that are optimized for touch and large screens. That all sounds like a pretty low bar, but it’s still one that competing operating systems have consistently failed to clear.
Here are some things I think everybody will enjoy:
A new home screen. You can set it to have a higher density of apps in the grid so you don’t have to page around as much. You can also pin your widget bar to the home screen, which seems like a petty thing, but it really does change my experience in a meaningful way. Having my calendar “just there” whenever I go home is a huge help.
The floating keyboard. You can pinch on the keyboard to turn it into something that’s the size of an iPhone keyboard. You can then move it anywhere you like on the screen and just use one thumb to swipe on it to type. (It’s still buggy for me in iPadOS 13.1.2, jumping around the screen for some reason.)
Sidecar. This allows you to use your iPad as a secondary display for macOS Catalina computers. It works wired or wirelessly. If you’re a Mac user, it’s extremely convenient to have a second monitor hanging around if you need it.
Safari. Apple changed Safari so that it would tell websites it is a Mac instead of an iPad. The result is that you are more likely to get the “full” desktop version of a lot of sites. This sometimes results in weirdness because Apple has to translate your taps and swipes into the mouse cursor actions some desktop websites expect. But overall, it’s a huge win.
Slideover. If you’ve only ever used one app at a time on your iPad, I encourage you to give Slideover a try. Drag an icon up from the dock until it looks like a tall floating window. You can have several of them in a stack that you can swipe through just like you do on an iPhone, and it’s easy to swipe them all away off to the side of your screen. It’s super convenient for lightweight apps that you only need to use briefly, like Music or Messages.
Dark mode. Here’s where Apple’s app ecosystem really shines: even though iPadOS and iOS 13 have only been officially out for a short time, a large number of popular apps have already updated to support Dark mode. I also like that you can set Dark mode to work on a schedule, turning it on or off with the sun or your own custom times.
But what if you want to use the iPad to its fullest as your only machine? Let’s get into it.
Last year, Apple introduced an iPad Pro that was significantly more powerful and impressive than any iPad we’d seen before. That made it all the more frustrating when we tried to make the software accomplish seemingly basic computing tasks because the hardware was clearly capable of so much more.
iPadOS is explicitly designed to ease that frustration. In some ways, its introduction felt like a point-by-point response to our review. I’ve been using it since the first beta and have found that I need to pull out a “real” laptop like a MacBook, Windows PC, or even a Chromebook less often.
It hasn’t gotten all the way there for me, though. It’s the iPadOS paradox: when you measure the individual needs each person has to make it their main computer, it always comes up just short. For me, it’s the new fancy “desktop-class” Safari. It just happens to work worse on one specific website that I need to use every day. (That would be Chorus, the software that runs our website.) For you, it will be something else.
But zoom out, and just watch people as they do something today that wasn’t possible six months ago. My colleague Chris Welch built a special shortcut macro for watermarking images. Once Adobe updates its Lightroom app to directly import images, it will mean my entire workflow can happen on the iPad with only a few hacky workarounds — whereas before, it didn’t work at all.
Shortcuts can fill in a lot of gaps, and I’ve been amazed by what some people are able to do with them. (Just look at this massive repository maintained by MacStories.) But I am glad Apple has realized that Shortcuts isn’t a substitute for simply making the OS more capable for people who don’t want to use Google to hunt down macros to get their work done.
That’s one reason why I’m so pleased that the filesystem on iPadOS no longer has one hand tied behind its back. Working with files is still a little “iPad-y” to me. There are weird corners where opening or saving a file is odd. But they’re few and far between, and a lot of it is just getting used to the iPad way of doing things. The Files app on iPadOS is more than I hoped for or expected from Apple on the iPad.
Increasingly, I’m finding that the only reason I can’t get something specific done on an iPad is because the app I want just hasn’t been brought up to par with its desktop equivalent. The reason used to be that Apple was philosophically against allowing it, so we’re making real progress.
Apple’s biggest miss in iPadOS is that it still doesn’t allow for multiuser support on the iPad, more than 13 versions into the OS. Apple’s television OS supports multiple users, yet the iPad does not. It’s flat-out embarrassing that this isn’t an option yet. It’s punitive to families that don’t want to have to buy a whole other device for their kids.
The way text manipulation works on iPadOS is a series of overthought and overwrought changes that aim for the stars and reach the ditch. The three-finger gestures for cut / copy / paste are frankly bad. They’ve improved over the course of the beta, but even on the official release, I find them difficult to use. Fortunately, the three-finger tap to bring up a text editing menu is better.
Cursor placement is similarly too clever by half. I never know if I’m moving the cursor or selecting text or what when I interact with text on the screen. As of this writing, some apps like Google Docs don’t even support Apple’s new cursor placement code, and I’m weirdly grateful because I think it’s bad.
We’re deep in nitpick land, but nitpick land is where people live when they’re trying to decide if they can truly trust a computer to be the only thing they toss into their bag. It’s less about capabilities and more about trust — and trust is built with consistency.
That brings me, of course, to the new multitasking features on iPadOS.
If you’re not familiar, Apple has added a lot of new capabilities to iPadOS. There are lots of different modalities for app windows now, and it can be a little overwhelming. So here are the main things to know about multitasking on iPadOS:
- The aforementioned Slideover windows, which you can stack
- A single app can spawn multiple windows
- You can switch between a usual Exposé view that shows all of your app spaces and also an app-specific Exposé view that shows only the windows from a specific app
- You can drag certain things on the screen to turn them into new windows, like links or individual notes
- There are little bars at the tops of apps in split screen or Slideover, and you can grab them to move windows around
As I’ve written before, making sense of all these options is not easy. It is easy to feel unmoored, unsure of where your stuff is. When you tap on an icon, why does something different than what you expected pop up? Is it because there are multiple windows? Is it because you left an app in Slideover, and they launch full screen if you open them from the home screen? Even after months of using iPadOS daily, I still have seemingly random things happen when I try to launch an app.
At first, I assumed the problem was me, that I was stuck in the old desktop way of thinking. But more and more, I think the problem isn’t me. It’s how multitasking works on iPadOS. Even more than that, I think maybe it’s not really a problem at all.
Most operating systems piggyback off of a way you already understand the physical world to help you figure out the digital world. Sometimes these metaphors go way too far. For example, Microsoft Bob famously worked by forcing you to click around a representation of an office.
Usually, it’s simpler. At its root, a desktop OS works by letting you place things in space. You move windows around, and they stay where you put them. You can make them bigger or smaller or stack them on top of each other like they’re pieces of paper.
None of that makes sense for a small screen, like the one on your phone. So instead, your phone uses a time metaphor. When you multitask, it presents you with a stack of your most recently used apps, arranged in reverse-chronological order.
What makes iPadOS confusing is that it mixes time and space metaphors. Sometimes, your apps are located in space, like the ones you’ve split screened or scurried away in Slideover mode. But then your apps are also presented in reverse-chronological order when you go to the multitasking view.
Of course, it’s possible to wrap our minds around something that blends time and space — just ask Einstein — but it’s not easy. I just wish the whole thing was more comprehensible. And even though I know it was me who lost my windows and not technically the OS, the effect is the same. Since you can’t consistently know what will happen when you try to find or open a window, it leads you to subconsciously distrust the whole thing.
But after using the iPad for a while, here is why I think this problem is not a problem at all: iPadOS is fast. Apps launch very quickly on the whole, and they also do a fairly good job of saving their state when they’re closed. The result is that even though your windows might not be in the state you expect them to be, it’s super easy to set up a new workspace.
In the video for this review, I joked that you should think of your iPadOS windows like they’re part of a Buddhist sand mandala: beautiful and meaningful but ephemeral. Don’t worry about being lost; instead, accept the transient and temporary nature of digital things.
It’s a joke, but it’s not. Just don’t overthink how the windowing system works on iPadOS. Over time, you’ll get a feel for it even though you probably won’t ever really know exactly where (or when) your windows are at any given time.
This is the first time Apple gave the iPad’s OS its own name, separate from iOS on the iPhone. I’m not particularly interested in the semantics of iPadOS or the branding discussion. What I really care about is whether Apple can find a way to open it up to allow users to take full advantage of the iPad’s powerful hardware without overcomplicating it for everybody.
I think iPadOS has a different learning curve than what we’re used to. It’s not a straight line, but it seesaws between shallow and steep. It is easier than nearly any other computer in history to start using. But when you start trying to get the same sorts of capabilities out of the iPad that you’d expect from a high-end laptop, that curve hockeysticks.
I’m weirdly proud of Apple for having the courage to present power users with that difficulty curve spike. Apple used to be so worried that people would get lost that it kept the iPad working like a big iPhone for a really long time. Now, it’s not afraid to just make things complicated and assume people who need it will figure it out.
That sure sounds like a computer to me.
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