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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020

iPadOS review: The iPad is dead, long live the iPad

When we reviewed the 2018 iPad Pro, we were impressed by the power and potential of the hardware, but iOS 12 wasn’t up to the task of making the iPad a true content creation machine or a daily workhorse. We said it was time for Apple to branch out from iOS 13 with an iPad-specific operating system.

Just one year later, that’s exactly what Apple has done with iPadOS, which launched for modern iPads a few days after iOS 13 hit the iPhone and iPod touch. While iPadOS does not actually signify that big of a change under the hood, its new nomenclature is a statement of intent by Apple. This release takes strides toward making the machine more useful for power users who want to do more than just browse the Web, play games, watch videos, and write an email or two.

So as we've tinkered with iPadOS recently and analyzed the changes Apple made, we revisited the question we answered with a negative last year: is the iPad ready to replace your laptop?

One quick editor's note beforehand: know this isn't a full or standalone review-rather, it’s an addendum to our previously published iOS 13 review. Many of the interesting features of iPadOS are also iOS 13 features. So in most cases, if we discussed something particular in iOS 13, we either omit it here or link back to that review. The focus here is on iPad-specific features that aren’t part of the iOS 13 package for iPhone.

And to experience those, it helps to have one of the iPads that is compatible with iPadOS, which launched at version 13.1.


Compatibility

As with iOS 13 on iPhones, Apple has ended support for all devices that have less than 2GB of RAM. After iOS 12 continued to support all devices that iOS 11 supported, iOS 13/iPadOS 13 represents a somewhat significant cut, which notably includes the popular first run of the iPad Air.

Supported iPad models in iPadOS 13 include:

12.9-inch iPad Pro
11-inch iPad Pro
10.5-inch iPad Pro
9.7-inch iPad Pro
iPad (5th generation)
iPad (6th generation)
iPad (7th generation)
iPad mini (5th generation)
iPad mini 4
iPad Air (3rd generation)
iPad Air 2

Whereas Apple has sometimes in the past continued to support older iPads while simply limiting certain advanced features only to newer iPads, in this case all software features of iPadOS 13 work on all supported hardware models.

This review was written based on two weeks using the iPadOS public 13.1 and 13.1.2 releases. We used iPadOS on two iPad models, both quite recent: the 2019 iPad Air and the 2019 iPad. We also published a separate article focused on performance testing on the iPad Air 2 from 2014-the oldest iPad supported by iPadOS.


Why Apple branched out from iOS

Before digging deep on individual changes and features, let’s first take a bird’s-eye view at iPadOS-why did Apple do this? Why isn’t this iOS 13? What does this change mean, and is it actually that different?

To be clear, not much has changed under the hood in the transition from iOS 13 to iPadOS. You could argue that this is “just a branding change.” Or, maybe more accurately, you could describe this as a branding change that reflects changes that started a while ago when the iPad began getting major multitasking features that were unique to the tablet. Apple is formalizing what we already knew: the iPad serves different use cases than the iPhone, therefore it needs a different design philosophy.

iPadOS works from an assumption that while iPhone users are often using the iPhone in brief spurts while doing other things in the real world, iPad users are more focused on the screen in front of them. iPad users are capable of and want to perform more complex tasks.

The new OS takes that assumption and also the greatly increased screen real estate of the tablet to introduce more sophisticated ways of running multiple applications at the same time. In iPadOS, Apple has given users the ability to organize those applications in customizable ways. A lot of this, perhaps unsurprisingly, draws design inspiration from macOS.

Apple is communicating its intentions with this branding-not just for this year’s update, but for upcoming years’ releases as well.

There’s still work to be done, though. iPadOS is not a radical remaking of the iPad user experience. It is in most cases simply another iterative step forward for Apple’s existing ideas about how to make the iPad more powerful as a workhorse.

While Android tablets have largely stalled, Apple faces a great deal of competition from Chromebooks and Microsoft’s Surface devices. Both represent two very different philosophies, and both have arguably been more powerful as multitasking workstations.

Whether “iPadOS” is just a name, this year’s operating system update brings iPads closer to parity with those two platforms that have their roots in the desktop.

Apple’s strategy for this hinges on changes to the home screen, long-press context menus both within and outside of apps, a much more robust file management system and Files app, showing desktop websites by default in Safari, and new keyboard shortcuts. But multitasking heralds the most significant changes.


Multitasking

While the iPhone does (and should) have multitasking functionality, the situations in which you’d need it are different.

On an iPhone, you just need to move between apps or share information between them, and it just needs to be quick and easy, because you might be walking down the street while talking to someone and trying to catch a train. The iPhone augments your moment-to-moment activities without expecting your full, continuous focus, and that has implications for the optimal user experience.

As stated before, Apple sees the iPad as a device that you focus your attention on for more prolonged periods of time—or at least, it’s more often going to be that. Multitasking on an iPad needs to be much more robust. You’re not just thinking about individual quick actions of multitasking; you’re thinking about users who are actively using three or four or more apps at a time and constantly working between them over a longer period of time.

In iOS 9, Apple started down this road with Split View, Picture in Picture, and Slide Over. The company has iterated on that initial push since, and iOS 13 marks a particularly aggressive reworking of how those and other aspects of multitasking work.

Apple has built upon previously existing concepts about spaces and app windows, and the biggest development is arguably the ability to open multiple windows from the same app, across multiple spaces, in various configurations.


A rethink of app windows

The crux of much of what Apple has done with multitasking in iPadOS is centered around the management of windows. These windows then live in spaces, either alone in fullscreen or next to other windows via the existing Slide Over or Split View.

It’s important to clarify that there is still no desktop as there is on a Mac, though. You can’t freely resize and stack as many windows as you want.

You can have up to three windows in view at once, however: two in Split View and one in either Slide Over or Picture-in-Picture. You could even have three windows from the same app in view at once by this method. There’s not enough screen real estate to make that practical in most cases, however, so you’ll often stick to two windows. But the two-window views work nicely, just as they did in the previous version of iOS. And the fact that you can hide and re-surface Slide Over windows makes a sort of half-measure to three windows possible.

That was possible before, though. What’s new in iPadOS is the ability to open multiple windows from the same app. There are also some big changes to the way the app switcher displays information about open windows, and a new feature called app Exposé.


Opening a new window

There are several ways to open additional instances of an app in a new window, which can either open full screen or share a space with another application-again, even with another window from the same application.

You can pull up the dock with a swipe gesture and drag an icon from the dock to create a new window, and this works whether it’s an already-open app or an unopened app. In many apps, dragging an item like a link in Safari, an email in Mail, a single note in Notes, or whatever else you might expect to one of the standardized create-a-new-window locations will create another window from that. And in some cases, you can drag notifications to turn them into windows, or you can open windows through context menus on certain UI elements and icons.

You can drag these icons or content items to the left or right edge of the screen to place the window, and iPadOS will create it in Split View with the currently open app. Alternatively, you can drag content to some areas in the middle of the screen to put it in Slide Over, or to the top edge of the screen to create a new space with that app window in fullscreen mode.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell whether what you’re dragging can turn into a window unless you do it. In practice, you might sometimes be surprised by exactly what you get when this feature does work.

I criticized this issue across iOS 13 as well: far too often with both iOS 13 and this release of iPadOS, you just have to take shots in the dark to learn what’s possible and what’s not. It’s a UX problem that Apple is going to have to address as soon as possible if it wants to keep claiming that the iPad is as easy to use (or easier to use) as a laptop running Windows or macOS.

Part of the potential confusion stems from the fact that there seem to be two kinds of windows: full-function windows that are complete instances of an app, and then more focused windows that are oriented around a specific task or view (like a draft of a single email).

In these focused windows, you can’t do anything but the task the app developer had in mind for you when you opened the window. This can cause some frustration, because you can’t really tell when a new window is going to do the task-specialized window or when it’s going to open a new instance of the full-fledged app until you try it.

But that frustration aside, you can do some crazy useful stuff with all this. You can make one piece of content-say, a PDF file view-persistent across all your spaces, all from the same app. You can have a different space for every one of your currently relevant emails. You can have one Note open in one half of your screen while you browse all your notes in another window right next to it in Split View. This option really opens up some possibilities.


Changes to the app switcher


The app switcher is invoked the same way it was before-by swiping partway up from the bottom edge of the screen, a little further up than you would swipe to just expose the dock. And the resulting view shows all currently open windows and spaces.

Content titles are displayed under app notes to distinguish windows from one another. So for example, the name of a note like “Wednesday lecture notes” will appear under “Notes” for one window in the app switcher view, while another Notes window could say “Vacation ideas” under “Notes.” If two apps are in one space side by side, both names will appear on that space in the view, as will both content subtitles.

In one powerful addition, Apple has added a “Slide Over Switcher” accessed by swiping partway up the screen from the bottom of a currently open Slide Over app window. This will blur the fullscreen or Split View apps in the background and display a card-like view of all the currently open Slide Over app windows. It works exactly like the swipe-up multitasking gesture on the iPhone.

You can also swipe along the bottom of Slide Over apps to move between them. In other words, Slide Over works like its own iPhone viewport within your larger iPad viewport, with all the same multitasking gestures that iPhone users use to switch between apps. In iPadOS these multitasking gestures switch between currently open Slide Over apps—and only apps in Slide Over, not apps that are open in Split View or fullscreen.

This lets you keep a bunch of quick-use windows open at once in order to summon something from any space when you need it, including multiple windows from the same app. So, in one example, if you’re working on a presentation in Keynote based on information from multiple client emails, you can have individual Slide Over windows open for each of the source emails, then swipe around to switch between them as needed to inform what you’re writing in the main view. Since these windows generally use the iPhone layouts of their apps, Slide Over is now basically like having a virtual iPhone that you can pull up at any time on your iPad.

As with all the new multitasking options in iPadOS, you’d have to read about this or watch a video on it to initially know you can do it. But once you know, it’s a powerful change. It makes using multiple apps on an iPad much more convenient.


Exposé comes to the iPad

On top of all that, there’s the app Exposé, which of course borrows its name from macOS. In iPadOS, it is like the app switcher view, but it lets you manage all the currently open windows from just one app—Mail, for instance—or open a new window for that app by tapping a plus sign in the top-right of the screen.

Sadly, the process for accessing and using Exposé is rather obscure. The most common way to do it would probably be to swipe up to reveal the dock, then tap on an app that currently has a window in the space you’re looking at now. Tapping a different app in the dock, of course, switches to a space with that app open, or it opens the app in a new space if it’s not already open.

You can also access Exposé through those long-press, haptic context menus on the app’s icon in the home screen or in the dock-there’s an option there called “Show All Windows” that brings it up.

I would say the tap-the-icon-on-the-dock method essentially acts as a way for iOS to ask you, “Which window?” But sadly, this functionality only appears when you tap an app you’re already looking at. To access Exposé for an app you’re not already looking at, you have to use the Haptic Touch context menu option on the dock or home screen.

Exposé is useful for managing individual apps, and its “+” button is one of the most efficient ways to open a new window for the app you’re looking at. It also has a button for reopening recently closed windows, which is very useful.

All these new multitasking features succeed at making the iPad a more efficient laptop replacement. But few of the concepts or gestures are intuitive or obvious. On one hand, this may help ensure that casual users don’t get overwhelmed with options (though I shudder to think what happens when they accidentally invoke these things without knowing about them). On the other hand, it makes using an iPad as a power user quite arcane-a far cry from the ease-of-use pitch by which it was originally sold.


Anyway, all this functionality is also available to third-party app developers, but they in most cases have to put in some work to implement it. Expect a gradual rollout to your apps for some of these things.


The home screen


I’m going on the record saying I dislike the home screen in iOS-well, I guess I’ve done that already, actually. So I’ll just reaffirm that here.

With iPadOS, Apple has brought ideas to the home screen that have been common on Android devices for years, and the company has driven the “this machine is for getting serious stuff done” point home by changing icon spacing to allow many more apps to be visible at a time.

But the worst thing about the home screen-the terrible “wiggle mode” interface for reordering apps and folders-is unchanged. Every year I hope for a new direction on that, and every year I am disappointed. See you in 2020 for the 14th season of “Rearranging My Home Screen Makes Me Want to Scream.”

But that frustration is old news. Let’s talk about the new stuff.


A new arrangement


There are now two modes for the home screen. One, the default, displays up to 30 apps on the screen in a grid. The other-the one we know from before-displays only 20. Notably, apps do not autoflow to new arrangements in the 30-app layout when moving between portrait and landscape.

You can change between these two layouts (dubbed “More” for the 30-app one and “Bigger” for the other) under Display & Brightness in the Settings app. It’s kind of an unintuitive and odd place to put that, but there you go.

In practice, this doesn’t make a huge difference for how the iPad is used, but it certainly gives the impression that this is a more serious machine if only by virtue of not wasting a lot of space with overly large or closely spaced icons.

Actual changes to function for the home screen fall into two buckets. First, there are new context menus brought up with the long-press Haptic Touch method, which, by the way, Apple has brought to past models that didn’t have it before.

We talked about these new menus in more depth in our iOS 13 review, but to briefly summarize: these new menus build on what was already there in iPhones running iOS 12 with new options, most of which need to be built by app developers using Apple’s frameworks. When apps use them well, they can be really useful, giving you access to various app functions that, in the past, you used to open the apps up and browsed through menus to reach.

The other bucket of changes to the home screen involves bringing live app widgets there at long last.


Widgets at last

Apple now allows app widgets to be displayed on the home screen. This is done by bringing the Today view-previously a separate screen that the user swiped to-into a space on the left side of the home screen. Apps still appear in a grid to its right.

The Today view only displays on the home screen in landscape mode when the “More” apps layout is enabled. In portrait mode, you can bring it out by swiping from the left side of the screen. When you do this, it appears as an overlay over the app grid.

These widgets behave exactly as widgets did before, with all the limitations that go with that. They’re divided into “favorites” and “pinned favorites,” which are displayed prominently at the top. You can edit which widgets fall into which categories, and which widgets are displayed, by scrolling to the bottom of this widget tray and tapping “Edit.”

This brings up a full-screen menu that displays a toggle for enabling or disabling the Today view widget tray on the home screen, followed by your pinned favorites, your favorites, and “more widgets,” which is just a list of all available widgets that you haven’t included in your Today view.

From here, you can move apps between these at will and re-order them within the “pinned favorites” and “favorites” sections.

This solution is similar in some ways to how Android handles widgets, but it’s also a bit more limited in that the widgets can only appear in one part of the home screen. They cannot be freely placed amongst icons wherever you wish.

I don’t tend to use Shortcuts a lot, but if you are a Shortcuts user, it might be a game changer for you that you can actually house a custom set of links to Shortcuts of your choosing in this Today view, allowing you to potentially launch some highly sophisticated behaviors with just a single tap on the home screen. You could do something like this before from the home screen by other means, of course, but this might be the most efficient way yet.

I find the inclusion of these Today widgets on the home page useful and welcome, but it’s not going to radically change the way you use your iPad since these were just a swipe away previously.

And Apple still hasn’t addressed the biggest problem with the home screen-that wiggle-mode reordering. It’s still a nightmare to arrange your home screen, though it is a welcome start to make the apps stay in place when switching between landscape and portrait in the 30-app layout.


Keyboards and Pencils


The Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil have been available for a few years now, and steep prices aside, they are key to Apple’s pitch of the iPad as a productivity device.

Not much has changed with the Smart Keyboard in this year's iPadOS release other than the addition of several new keyboard shortcuts in Apple's apps. But the on-screen keyboard offers new options, and Apple put a big emphasis on improving the Pencil experience in this update.


The floating keyboard


The flagship new keyboard feature is the floating keyboard. You can pinch on the system keyboard to shrink it to a smaller, floating version that closely resembles the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard. You can reverse-pinch it to return it to its normal size and position at the bottom of the screen.

Interestingly, you can position this floating keyboard anywhere you want on the screen, very much like a window in macOS-which makes me wonder why you can’t do that with the Slide Over app windows we discussed in the multitasking section. Those have a similar look but must be aligned to certain screen locations for now.

Anyway, I believe Apple’s intention with this feature was to make it possible to type without using a bunch of real estate, like if you’re watching a Twitch stream and want to chat but don’t want to shrink the action too much. Or, maybe you’re typing but need to view as much of your document as possible while doing so. I can’t say I frequently have this problem, but I guess it’s nice to have the option.

The most attractive thing about this keyboard is that it supports QuickType, Apple’s swipe-based keyboard introduced in iOS 13-and it supports third-party swipe keyboards too, if you’d prefer. It didn’t take much time for swipe typing to become indispensable for me on the iPhone, and I’m glad it can be done on an iPad now. But it’s important to mention that the normal-sized on-screen keyboard does not support QuickType, so the floating keyboard is the only way to use that feature on an iPad.

That’s unfortunate, because much of the value of QuickType lies in the fact that you can switch between that and regular tap-typing mid-sentence to maximize efficiency. But tap-typing on this tiny virtual iPhone keyboard is not particularly comfortable or efficient on a large tablet, so I don’t think I’ll be inclined to use it, well, really ever.

I’d have preferred Apple invest that effort into bringing QuickType to the normal system keyboard.


Editing text

I mentioned this briefly in the iOS 13 review, but given that I dedicated a whole subsection of my iPad Pro review last year to making the point that the iPad struggles as a productivity device in part because of its lackluster text editing, it’s worth expanding up here.

Apple has made some changes to how text selection and editing works in both iOS and iPadOS for 2019.

So let’s review how it all works, different-from-before or not: To move the text cursor, you tap and hold it, then drag it where you want it. To select text, you double-tap to select a single word, then swipe in the direction you want to select. As your finger moves, text will be selected until you let go. You can drag the brackets on either side of the selection to change your selection after the fact. Additionally, you can triple-tap to immediately select an entire paragraph. I really appreciate that last option!

To copy text, you select it and then pinch in with three fingers. To paste, you move the cursor where you want the text to go and then reverse-pinch to drop your clipboard item there. To cut instead of copy text, you rapidly pinch in with three fingers twice in a row. No one will ever know any of this without reading about it or being taught, of course, but it’s there.

Apple has also realized that users do not like the shake-to-undo feature in previous iOS devices, so you can now swipe left with three fingers to undo and swipe right with the same to redo. Of course, if yo u’re using a Smart Keyboard, the keyboard commands (Command + Z and Command + Shift + Z) still work and are much more efficient.

And in case all this swiping is not your style, there’s a new formatting bar that lets you one-tap to get all of these actions. But you have to tap and hold the screen with three fingers to bring it up.

Since touch gestures can be finicky, I find it most efficient to just use the formatting bar to copy, cut, paste, undo, and redo when I don’t have a Smart Keyboard connected.

Regardless of the method, those five actions are much more efficient than the old ways once you learn them. I have more mixed feelings about the text selection gestures. I think some people will really like the new changes, and others will feel that it’s still too much of a pain to do heavy text editing work on an iPad compared to a laptop.

Briefly, there is another thing related to text that I noted in the iOS 13 review, and I’ll mention it here: iPadOS allows you to install custom fonts from the App Store, and it provides a font manager for keeping track of them.


Apple Pencil


I'm not an artist, but I nonetheless recognize how powerful Apple's Pencil accessory can be for the artistically inclined. It was effective to begin with, but a few years of optimization have led to arguably the most elegant tablet drawing solution out there-especially for learners.

And now, all of Apple's current iPad models support either the first or second generation Pencil. So it's no surprise that the company has put some emphasis on improving the Pencil experience in iPadOS-it is, after all, one of the distinguishing features of the product now.

If you just use the Pencil to take a few notes now and then (or, instead of fingers, to navigate your apps because you prefer that for some reason) these changes won't make a big difference for you. But artists will be pleased to hear that Apple has reduced the Pencil's latency even further, even though it was already quite low. Nine milliseconds is now the target, and to me, that means it's entirely unnoticeable. (Of course, I will reiterate that I am not an artist.)

Apple has also introduced the PencilKit framework. Like so many other "SomethingKit" frameworks like SiriKit or ARKit, it gives third-party app developers access to the fruits of much of Apple's labor-in this case, labor to build a powerful and intuitive drawing engine. Expect developers to make use of this in future note-taking and drawing apps.

The most visually noticeable Pencil-related changes are to the tools palette. It has a completely different look now, with tools appearing as more realistic illustrations rather than simple outlines as they appeared in iOS 12. The ruler tool lives in the main palette, there are two eraser modes (including one that intelligently erases entire objects), and you can drag the palette to whichever side of the screen you want. You can also minimize it.

Additionally, there's a gesture to take and edit a screenshot by swiping in from the bottom-left or bottom-right corners of the screen. This takes you to the exact same screenshot editing view that you get if you use the original (and still available) screenshot method.

Sidecar

After years of users turning to third-party apps, Apple has finally made it possible to easily use your iPad as a secondary display for your Mac-and the implementation even has robust Apple Pencil support.

This is arguably more a Mac feature than it is an iPad feature, so for a lot of detail and discussion about Sidecar, read that section of our macOS review. We won’t repeat everything here.


Foundational app changes

There are some Apple-made apps that form a foundation for the experience across the system, like Safari. Safari now defaults to desktop versions of websites and has a download manager, among other things. Files has been greatly expanded, and I'd argue it has been graduated to that foundation-level status.

There are of course numerous other changes to apps like Notes, Photos, and Reminders, as well as improvements to Maps, another foundational app. But since those also apply to the iPhone, I explored them more deeply in the iOS 13 review.


Files

On that note, I’ve generally avoided writing out individual sections in this review for features I already covered at length in the iOS 13 review. But the new Files is so substantial and fundamental to Apple’s attempts to reinvent the iPad as a workstation, I need to single it out.

First of all, read the section on Files in the iOS 13 review; everything there applies here. Notable changes include support for external drives and SD cards, expanded keyboard shortcuts, the ability to create new folders at the exposed root level, a new macOS-esque “Downloads” folder, direct camera import, and expanded Quick Actions and context menus on files, folders, and more.

In addition to all those things shared with iPhones, Files in iPadOS adds a new, tablet-specific view: column view. This is very similar to the column view in Finder under macOS, whereby you can see folders in cascading columns as they are nested.

Each column shows a level of the folder structure, and the far-right column can display metadata and other information similar to the Inspector in macOS’ Finder. This isn’t a game changer-although the Inspector-like view is really useful-but those context menus and the access to external drives might be for many users.


Safari

Safari now defaults to the desktop versions of websites on the iPad, and this is one of the most dramatic changes to the iPad user experience in iPadOS.

Websites see the iPadOS browser as the macOS version of Safari and deliver the content accordingly. And the "request desktop website" option in Safari for iPad has been replaced with "request mobile website," except in Slide Over app windows, which work just like Safari on the iPhone in this regard.

Apple’s browser team has made a strong effort to make mobile Safari play nice with these desktop websites, and generally the results are positive. In most cases, all functionality you’d get on a MacBook is available to you on the iPad now, and it’s usually just as easy to use. The company has done some wild stuff on this front. For example, Safari analyzes websites and offers its best effort to determine whether tapping on a UI element in a website will give you the hover event or the click event. It also adjusts website layouts to increase legibility. Safari on iPad now supports the necessary APIs to allow it to use some rich media websites like Netflix that didn't work before, too.

The work Apple's team has done here is commendable; it's a big improvement for browsing the Web on an iPad. It's a first step forward, and there are more steps to make, but it's an impressively big step regardless. I’d argue the Web browsing experience on the iPad achieves parity with the desktop experience the majority of the time, and it's good enough for most people's needs, most of the time.

I want to acknowledge all of that before I get a bit critical here. There are occasionally little limitations you’ll run across. Take Google Maps for example. It used to be a real pain to use the Google Maps Web app on mobile, and for the most part, it’s not anymore. But there’s one thing I do all the time on desktop that I can’t here: the long-click to place a marker at any point on any road. It doesn’t work in Safari on the iPad, even with the desktop website.

Of course, you can do that in the native Google Apps map from the App Store, so you have options, but it’s one example that shows that desktop Web apps on iPad are not quite 100%.

In another example, I’ve always found WordPress-which I use to input and publish my Ars Technica articles-frustratingly unusable on mobile. And there’s no working WordPress app for the type of website that Ars is. The changes in iPadOS Safari finally make WordPress functional, but the entire Web app glitches visually every time I scroll through a long post in the edit view.

Given that this is the new direction for iPads, I expect this sort of thing to improve over time thanks to efforts by both Apple and front-end Web developers and designers. Right now, it’s usually good enough, but you will run into some wonkiness now and then in the meantime.

Other updates to Safari in iPadOS (some of which I discussed in our iOS 13 review) include a fully functional download manager, new options for opening or bookmarking multiple tabs simultaneously, a start page that shows Siri recommendations, expanded keyboard shortcuts (including support for Web app-specific keyboard shortcuts like those in Gmail, which override Safari's own wherever there's a conflict), changes to how Safari windows work related to the above-discussed multitasking updates, and more.

All told, Safari represents one of the biggest focus areas for Apple's updates this year, and it's all good news... even if desktop browsing still has some kinks to work out.


Accessibility: Mouse and voice control

You've probably seen it on tech sites before: the iPad is getting mouse support! But as sexy a headline as that makes for said websites, this is not really mouse support in the way that some people want.

It's an accessibility feature. The mouse cursor simply represents a virtual finger, and a click is the same as a tap. The reason this will disappoint those who want normal mouse support is that there are numerous differences between the way iPadOS's touch-based interface works compared to how a mouse works on a computer. You can't click-and-drag to select text, for example. You have to use the same approach you use with a tap: double-click to select, then drag.

In practice, those who can touch the screen will be able to be more effective doing just that. The only advantage to using a mouse over using your fingers is that you don't have to raise your hand to the screen-which is what the company's accessibility-for-people-with-disabilities effort is all about.

So slow your roll there, mouse enthusiasts. This is not the mouse support you're looking for. It is, however, very welcome for those users with certain disabilities, and I continue to believe that Apple deserves a great deal of praise for its aggressive accessibility efforts in both iOS and macOS.

It's a similar story with voice control; leaving this enabled to augment your tapping-and-swiping-and-pinching motions doesn't make a lot of sense. It really is intended for users who cannot tap, swipe, or pinch. If you have the ability to do those physical motions, then you're best off sticking to Siri and Shortcuts to improve your productivity and efficiency.

Accessibility features are meant to be just that-features that increase access to what the platform has to offer for people with disabilities. Apple had no intention here to make voice or mouse control standard ways to interact with the operating system for most users. But what the company has done here is commendable nonetheless for those who need it.

Other changes shared with iOS 13

There are numerous other changes in iPadOS from last year’s iOS 12 release that we haven’t covered here. These are almost all changes that also apply to iPhone and iPod touch devices in iOS 13.

For details on these changes, read our full review of iOS 13, to which this review is an addendum. Unless otherwise noted, everything we covered in that review also applies to iPadOS.


The iPad is dead; long live the iPad

Like iOS 13, iPadOS feels like an update made to address as large a laundry list of reviewer and user complaints about the platform as possible. Generally, that's a good thing. Apple hasn't always listened to users when it needed to, and that has sometimes led to long-term frustrations that have gone unsolved.

In changing the branding for the iPad's operating system and expanding multitasking features, among other things, Apple has attempted to respond to that feedback. The improvements are clear for those who want their iPads to be a little more like desktop or laptop computers.

The updates to Files and Safari are game-changers. For skilled users who can handle its complexities, this update to multitasking will make productivity and content creation tasks much more efficient. And as is the case with iOS 13 generally, a focus on privacy and giving powerful tools to third-party app developers goes a long way to distinguish this from other platforms in a positive way. It doesn't hurt that Apple's iPad hardware is almost universally outstanding, either.

I do have concerns, though. Take the ubiquitous long-press, haptic touch interactions for example. Apple just loves those long-presses in iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, and I do not. Feedback to the user on how long they need to press is either absent or inconsistent, and it’s hard to know when you need to regular-press or long-press. Even more importantly, any UI interaction that requires me to pause, thereby losing time, to get basic things done drives me crazy. I do not think I’m alone here.

I understand why Apple has gone this route, but as is often the case with changes in iPadOS, the over-reliance on long presses makes me wonder if Apple is trying to make lemonade out of an orange. Maybe the iPad's basic interface principles just don't lend themselves as well to this kind of complexity as one might hope.

And then there's multitasking. Apple has built upon concepts it introduced in prior releases, and the introduction of multiple windows from the same app into the mix dramatically expands the options-and efficiency-for iPad power users. However, those users have to do outside research to understand how to use these features, and there's a lot to keep track of once you have so many layers of multitasking concepts. It's frankly not as intuitive as the desktop-and-windows philosophy we all use on our laptops.

With iPadOS, I believe Apple seeks to further explore the middle ground between the quick-task-oriented iPhone and the heavy-focus, power-user-oriented Mac. But there's a tension here, because the original pitch that made the iPad so popular was the notion that it's easier to use, more intuitive, and less overwhelming than using a laptop. There was a place in users' hearts, minds, and wallets for a simpler kind of computing. Apple has definitely compromised that minimalist goal here.

That ease of use and simplicity is still here in some cases, though. Many changes, like the home screen updates, add more powerful functionality while trying to avoid compromising the minimalism that was core to the platform’s initial concept. In some cases, this feels like a negative compromise. In others, it works quite nicely.

If you're looking to replace your laptop with an iPad, congratulations; Apple has listened to your feedback and made it viable for the first time. That's no small feat. But as a famous fictional mathematician once said, Apple was so preoccupied with whether it could that it didn't stop to think if it should.

For the types of users who read Ars Technica-who seek out knowledge to maximize control and mastery of their personal technology-most of these changes are quite welcome. I'm just a little worried about what it all means for everybody else. Year by year, the iPad is being reimagined for a new mission. But to do that, Apple has to abandon-or at least compromise-the original mission. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on exactly who you are.

In any case, Cupertino's efforts to respond to long-time user feedback herald a very interesting new chapter for the Apple ecosystem. And doing serious work on a true tablet has never been easier.


The good

Safari now shows desktop versions of websites by default, and it does a better job of making them work well on the iPad

Multitasking is greatly expanded with window support and powerful new Slide Over functionality

The Files app is much more powerful and useful now, and external drives are finally supported

Sidecar allows you to use your iPad as a monitor for your Mac without additional software

Huge new accessibility features bring the power of Apple's platform to new people

All the things that are great about iOS 13 also apply to iPadOS


The bad

The home screen improvements don't go far enough to reinvent a very dated and often frustrating implementation

Most power user features are difficult to discover and learn

Multitasking puts a lot of pressure on the user to keep track of a lot of interlocking and obtuse components

The ugly

The iPad's original pitch as a simple, minimalistic alternative to heavy duty desktop computing has been diluted such that the platform's value proposition compared to either the iPhone or the Mac is unclear

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