Apple iPadOS - 22 minutes read

Apple iPadOS

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The great schism is upon us. Apple has torn iOS asunder, creating two distinct offerings: iOS 13 and iPadOS. It's unclear what this will mean in the future, but the move acknowledges the open secret that iPads have their own distinct needs, which Apple answers with unique tools. In iPadOS, that means new gestures and multitasking features, as well as improved Apple Pencil integration. In Apple's eyes, iPad and iPadOS challenge laptops and desktops as a platform for doing work and making art. iPadOS makes great strides in streamlining workflows on Apple's tablet, but if you're not already convinced that iOS is an acceptable platform for making things, then iPadOS won't change your mind. The software won't launch until the fall of 2019, so we're withholding a score. Meanwhile, this preview is based on Apple's public beta of the new tablet OS.

It's no secret that iOS has been different on iPhones and iPads since the beginning, and the two have grown apart like estranged siblings over these many years. As for how much iPadOS and iOS differ under the hood, that's not really clear. It's also not clear what final version number iPadOS will have. In the beta version I used, the software version is listed as iOS 13, which makes no sense. Will this be iPadOS 13, matching the latest release of iOS 13, iPadOS 1, or simply iPadOS? Or perhaps iPadOS is more of an idea than an actual product? Only Apple knows for sure.

The divergence between the way iOS works on each device first became truly noteworthy with iOS 11, which added a laundry list of new tricks and tools to make the iPad more like macOS than iOS. That update introduced new features to the iPad Dock to keep track of apps in use, Slide Over for better multitasking, and sensible drag-and-drop interactions. These new features are especially powerful on the iPad Pro, with its enormous screen and the delicately accurate Apple Pencil, and quietly make the argument that the iPad can be an everyday productivity workhorse to replace ultralight laptops like the MacBook Air.

Apple wants us to see the iPad as about making things as much as consuming things. The iPhone, meanwhile, is very much about consumption. You use it to play games, watch movies, and listen to music or podcasts. Yes, you can take stunning pictures with the iPhone's camera and enhanced Portrait mode, but Apple wants you to touch up that picture or even paint a portrait on an iPad.

The formal split with iOS seems to have given Apple more leighway to be experimental with iPadOS. For instance, iPadOS sees the first major design change to Apple's mobile Home Screen since its inception, and a totally new set of gesture interactions. That's great for the iPad, but less so for the humble iPhone. iOS 13 has plenty of new tricks, along with a new Dark Mode, but iPadOS seems far more radical and innovative. One of my biggest first impressions of iPadOS is that it makes iOS look boring.

As of this writing, you can only get iPadOS through Apple's public beta program. While it's a pretty stable release, you'll be using it at your own risk. We highly recommend backing up your iPad or iPhone before using any beta software.

Enrolling in the public beta is the same for iPadOS as it is for iOS and macOS. Head over to and sign in with your Apple ID, or create a new one. Next, click Get Started, and select iPadOS from the next page. In the instructions that follow, click "enroll your iOS device." You'll then be prompted to switch over to your iPad and navigate to the Profile page and install the special Beta program Profile. This will reconfigure your device to receive beta versions of iPadOS over the air, as you would previously with regular iOS updates. One reboot later, and your device starts downloading the beta.

If you don't mind waiting, iPadOS will be released to the public in the fall of 2019, along with iOS 13 and macOS Catalina.

To Apple's credit, the company makes one big change in iPadOS: pin-able widgets. Instead of relegating widgets to their own hidden panel, you can now swipe them into view on your Home Screen and keep them in view. If you've wanted the weather forecast, news headlines, or similar on the screen, now you can have that. I had no trouble swiping it into and out of view, and pinning the apps was a breeze. I did discover that swiping up hides the widgets, but holds their place on the screen, which made me think I broke it.

Android has offered a more flexible feature for years, but while Apple's approach is late, it's also more streamlined. These widgets are all very consistently designed, unlike Android's developer-driven hodgepodge that, frankly, have fallen out of fashion as of late. This is just one change for Apple, but anything that affects the app grid feels titanic. Hopefully, this small step will lead to a greater willingness to explore how people interact with their iDevices.

Despite my grumpiness about Apple's ossifying design, I cannot stress enough how good iPadOS feels. That shouldn't be too surprising since it's built on the foundation of iOS, which has been polished to a blinding shine. On my iPad, apps leap open, and Slide Over windows seamlessly snap to the edge, or melt into Split View. Everything feels solid and reliable, moving with smooth fluidity. Whatever complaints you might have about Apple and its products, the quality of the iPadOS and iOS experience is undeniable. Apple's mobile operating systems look and feel spectacular.

Apple really wants you to look at an iPad as a replacement for a laptop, or even a dedicated art-making machine, and to that end iPadOS is packed with workflow improvements. Split View and Slide Over, introduced in iOS 11, already offered ways to work in two apps at once, and iPadOS expands on the idea. You can now pull a Slide Over app up to see all your running Slide Over apps and move quickly between them. It's a great experience, although I still accidentally split the screen when I mean to slide over.

iPadOS also jostles a core concept of iOS by allowing you to open more than one instance of an app. You can now have an app running, and then Slide Over the same app. You can even have multiple instances of the same app in Slide Over and two in Split View. Tap on the app's icon in the Dock and App Expose reveals all the windows for a given app. Apple says that this will work with both first- and third-party apps. This is really useful for moving files around or writing an email response while looking at another email.

All these interactions look great, but I wonder whether the average iPad owner will take advantage of them. I don't know, for instance, if people really understand the difference between Slide Over and Split View. For people who don't, these improvements may not matter much since they'll stay invisible. I'm also not convinced that these are a better experience than simply having multiple, individual windows on a screen, as you would with a desktop operating system. It feels more like a loose translation of a workflow in the language of iOS, rather than a true innovation.

Other usability tweaks abound in iPadOS. A three-finger swipe now undoes your last edit, doing away with the shake-to-undo that has persisted since the very beginning of iOS. Three-finger pinching a section of text copies it, and doing the action twice cuts it. Inverting the action—a three-finger spread—pastes the text. iPadOS helpfully displays a little notice at the top of the screen to let you know you've copied or cut the text successfully. iPadOS also does away with the magnifier that appears when you highlight text or move the cursor, a feature I rather liked. Now, you simply tap and hold on the cursor, and move it to where you want it. As you move your digit, the cursor gets much larger, hovers above your finger while ticking through the text. It's a natural, elegant evolution. You can also more easily select text by tapping and holding on a word and then dragging to include all the text you want to select.

These new text interactions make sense, and I had little trouble picking them up after a few minutes. I still have trouble putting down three fingers and often find that I miss the mark when trying to highlight text. I think it's telling that the usually very scripted Apple had a hard time showing these off on stage at WWDC 2019. Clearly, these will take some getting used to.

Other tweaks draw heavily from the desktop experience. When scrolling through a document, simply grab the scroll indicator and move it to exactly where you'd like it. The Files app now displays file metadata, and Apple says that the app will include quick actions—such as rotating an image—and a column view. I, however, wasn't able to find these last two options.

In case you had any illusions about Apple's desktop ambitions for the iPad, Safari in iPadOS prevents websites from serving you the mobile version of a site. Apple says that the browser will provide a specially resized version of the desktop site, which makes using web interfaces like blogging platforms much easier on the iPad.

iPadOS includes QuickPath, Apple's take on Swype-style typing, in which you drag your finger from letter to letter (also debuting on iOS 13). An additional iPad trick is pinching the keyboard, which shrinks it down and turns it into a floating window that can be repositioned around the screen. This looks significantly less stupid than the massive on-screen keyboard for iPad that dominates the screen, but it also makes one-fingered text entry possible on the iPad. After using the smaller keyboard for a few hours, I find it far more natural than the massive on-screen keyboards of yesteryear.

Apple has continued to tweak the Apple Pencil. The company says that it has reduced latency with the Apple Pencil from 20ms to 9ms, making it much more responsive. There's also a newly designed tool palette that can be moved and anchored around the screen. Apple has even included a gesture specific to the Apple Pencil: drag from the corner, and the view shifts to an editable screenshot. iPadOS also supports a full-page screenshot option, which captures the full length of a document or website, not just what's on the screen. I didn't test these features, because I didn't have an iPad Pro.

On the subject of things you can plug into your iPad, iPadOS will support flash drives via a revamped Files app. You can also connect a camera to your iPad to import photos directly from the source. I wasn't able to test these features, either.

Apple is looking to turn your iPad into a hardware peripheral in its own right. The so-called Sidecar feature lets you use an iPad as a second monitor for your macOS device. Alternatively, you can use your iPad as a dedicated drawing tablet, connected to your macOS desktop computer. That's sure to be a boon to artists already familiar with the iPad and Apple Pencil, who are tempted by all-in-one drawing tablets with displays like the Wacom Cintiq 16. Unfortunately, it appears that these features are limited in the beta release. Our 2013 iMac is new enough to run Catalina, but too old for these sidecar tricks.

Two Accessibility features are also worth highlighting: The first, Voice Control, lets you control your iPad with your voice, bringing a feature found in desktops to mobile devices. You can open apps just by speaking a command, and invoke a numbered grid or numbered tap-able options, to interact with on-screen elements. Apple showed a video at WWDC of a wheelchair user planning a trip through voice control, and I was happy to find that my experience matched the presentation. It's just so easy.

The second is Bluetooth Pointing Device support, which is kinda sorta like mouse support. Yes, you can connect a mouse to your iPad or iPhone, but it doesn't quite work like the mouse on your desktop. A circular cursor speeds across the screen in response to your movements, and the on-screen AssistiveTouch button takes the place of tapping the Home button. You click and interact with elements, but it's a little off. For instance, you can't click-and-drag to highlight text. Instead, you double-click to highlight an entire section and then grab the paddles on either end of your selection to fine-tune it. You can use your mouse with the QuickPath swipe keyboard, which is an unusual experience. This is an Accessibility feature, made for people with specific needs, and Apple has designed it as such. Even with a Bluetooth keyboard, this won't quite transform your iPad into a laptop.

While iPadOS is now a distinct product in the eyes of Apple, the company confirmed at WWDC 2019 that all the features from iOS 13 would be coming to iPadOS. That means the new Dark Mode, which replaces most windows with a warm, dark slate color scheme, are now on your iPad. There are even dual-mode desktop backgrounds, similar to the night and day themes in macOS Catalina. iPad owners can also expect improved versions of several built-in apps, including News, Calendar, Notes, and especially Reminders. Photos, too, is getting a major overhaul, creating a more interesting experience when browsing through your images.

Taking photos with your iPad is a bit of a faux pas but if you do, you'll have access to Apple's improved controls for Portrait-mode photos. Apple has also tweaked its photo editor, making it simpler to adjust your photos to perfection, and added numerous video-editing tools, including filters.

A major part of iOS 13 are improvements to privacy across the operating system. Apple has introduced a new option that requires apps to request approval every time they require location information. iOS 13 also generates reports about how apps that were granted permission to access your location information in the background used that information. Apple is also introducing its own sign-in option for websites and apps, intended to be more privacy-conscious than similar features offered by Google or Facebook. Apple will even generate a bogus email for each account, giving you more control over who has your information.

When reviewing iOS, I've found it useful to compare it with that other mobile operating system from that other tech giant. In addition to fanning the flames of hatred for clicks, these comparisons illustrate how two smart, well-funded companies tackle the same problems. The comparison seems a bit odd for iPadOS, however. Android tablets have never really taken off in a dramatic way, and while Android can scale from phones to TVs to foldables, it's definitely still built as a mobile OS first, one that's supposed to live in your pocket and be used with one hand.

A better comparison might be ChromeOS, which is lightweight, like a mobile OS, but uses the visual language of a desktop OS. It also supports Android mobile apps, alongside desktop-style web apps.

Microsoft has also embraced the tablet form factor since 2012 with its line of Surface devices that have redefined Windows as an operating system that can scale easily from handheld to desktop devices. Like iPadOS, Windows on Surface devices use touch as the primary interface, and Microsoft also has its own hardware smart stylus: the Surface Pen. The diminutive (and affordable) Microsoft Surface Go ships with Windows 10 S, a lightweight version of the operating system that, like iPadOS, restricts you to apps from the officially sanctioned app store. Unlike iPadOS, Windows 10 S can be upgraded to Windows 10 Home—a full-fledged desktop version of Windows 10.

Even in that context, iPadOS still feels unique. ChromeOS and Windows 10 take established desktop computer workflows and try to translate them to a touch interface, while iPadOS moves in the opposite direction, trying to add desktop workflows to an existing touch experience. This difference in approach is most noticeable when trying to multitask on these devices. ChromeOS and Windows 10 both allow floating windows that you can easily move between. iPadOS makes up ground with an improved dock, Split View, Slide Over, and the new multi-window app experience, but it's unclear if iPadOS can shake the single window app paradigm established with iOS. These features have all of Apple's trademark polish, but they feel weirdly kludgy because I have very ingrained ideas about how this is supposed to work on a desktop.

PCMag has written extensively about using an iPad as a laptop replacement, which would be the highest measure of the platform's ability to be used for any kind of work. We've always felt that the iPad is an excellent platform but that even the high-end iPad Pro came up short as a challenger to desktops and laptops. It's this issue that iPadOS seems to address directly, but I am not sure it fully succeeds. If you're already using your iPad heavily for work and creative activities, iPadOS will probably make that experience easier and open new avenues to do more things. If, however, you're certain that a traditional desktop experience is what you need, then I don't think iPadOS is going to bridge that gap just yet.

With iPadOS, Apple explores a melding of mobile and desktop experiences. With mixed success, it translates the desktop experiences of multitasking and multi-windowed work with the glossy sheen of iOS. Improved support for the Apple Pencil alone is a tempting enough proposition, but this is a platform with creativity at the forefront. iPadOS lifts some of the restrictions of iOS in order to make work easier, letting you pin widgets and access files on flash drives or cameras. Sidecar features further the connection between macOS and iPadOS, turning your iPad into a drawing tablet or second monitor.

Despite all those changes, iPadOS is still very much grounded in the legacy and language of iOS. Some of Apple's new tricks feel overly complicated when compared with the established workflows found on desktop computers. If you've been frustrated with working on iOS, iPadOS is not going to change your mind, but if iOS has already been a fertile ground to grow your creativity, iPadOS is like a brisk rain and a full day's sun.

It's still several months before iPadOS will debut on your Apple tablet. We'll update this Preview as necessary, and render our final judgment when iPadOS is released this fall.


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