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iPadOS should make the iPad a better tablet, but not a laptop

Apple had big news for iPad users at its WWDC keynote yesterday with the announcement of a software update major enough for the company to rebrand the entire operating system. What would otherwise have been iOS 13 will be known as iPadOS on Apple’s line of tablets, and the changes look to be legitimately significant.

With these upgrades, however, will come the inevitable questions over whether the iPad is ready to be used as your main computer. No-one doubts the capability of the current iPad Pro hardware, nor the areas where it excels over other computing solutions. But given Apple’s prior insistence that the iPad is a computer, is iPadOS really going to be robust enough to replace your laptop once and for all?

Personally, I think that question is a bit of a red herring. I have a MacBook Pro and an iPad Pro (and a Windows desktop, and a Chromebook, and…) and I choose which to use based on the situation. I’d no more use a laptop to take handwritten notes or work on a crowded subway than I’d use an iPad to run our news-gathering system or manage thousands of RAW photos. My last few stories on The Verge have been entirely written and edited on an iPad Pro from situations on the road where I just wouldn’t have brought a laptop in the first place.


But when that 12.9-inch iPad Pro starts at $999 before you even add a keyboard, it’s fair to wonder whether it can handle all of your computing needs. For some people the answer is already yes, and that will be true with iPadOS for more people than ever before. I don’t think it’s likely to change the current dynamic, however. The changes in iPadOS appear universally welcome, but you’re still really going to have to want to use an iPad to make the most out of it.

The current iPad Pro was clearly designed with this new software in mind, as it shipped after iOS 12’s release with some baffling gaps in functionality. Do most iPad users need to use USB sticks? Probably not, but it’s ridiculous that they couldn’t until now, as Apple itself alluded to on the WWDC stage. Many other changes in iPadOS fall under the same low-hanging-fruit category, like a redesigned Files app that emphasizes folder structure with a column view, and a new version of Safari with a downloads manager and better support for desktop websites. One specific claim is that even Google Docs will work great in Safari, which would mark a major improvement over the terrible native app.

These features will help bridge the gap with laptops, plugging holes in semi-edge-case scenarios where the iPad currently falls down. But the larger issue with the iPad for many is in its basic interface. If you’re raised on traditional computers, the iPad’s full-screen, hands-on take on multitasking can be hard to get used to. You can’t rely on basic concepts like an ever-present desktop or the ability to hide one active app behind another.


Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

iPadOS does make some major changes to multitasking that’ll make a big difference. The new version of Slide Over, where you can pop out a small iPhone-width view from the side of the screen, looks great — it takes inspiration from the iPhone X interface to let you swipe between multiple apps and see them all at once. I often find myself using my iPhone at the same time as my iPad because I find it a lot easier than manipulating the Split View interface, and this new approach should help with that — it’s basically like having an ultra-tall iPhone X on call at all times.

The ability for apps to display several instances of themselves across spaces that can be managed with an Exposé view is also going to be really useful. It’s bizarre that it hasn’t been possible, for example, to write a new note based on information from an old note with both on the screen at the same time, but that’s where we were until now.

Text editing, which is a huge personal pain point with the iPad for me at present, has also been completely overhauled. I’m not sure the new multitouch gestures are a great answer, and Apple’s shaky on-stage demonstration was less than convincing, but basic things like the ability to drag a cursor around the screen and select a bunch of text with a single motion look like steps forward. The real question here is how flexible the buried mouse support in iPadOS will turn out to be, because that might be the real game-changer. A keyboard accessory with a trackpad that supports scrolling and text selection could be a huge upgrade on current solutions.


Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

While Apple has evidently prioritized addressing some of the most obvious missing features in the iPad’s software, there’s still a lot of work to do. External monitor support appears to have gone untouched following its rudimentary introduction with the USB-C iPad Pro. The home screen update is underwhelming, simply combining existing Today view widgets with a slightly tighter-packed icon grid. And maybe most disappointingly, it looks as if there’s still no visual indication as to which Split View app is currently active, nor is there a quick keyboard shortcut to switch between the two. This is something that even Windows 8 managed to do better seven years ago, and remains one of the biggest frustrations I have with the iPad Pro in day-to-day use.

iPadOS is clearly a big update, and it’ll make life a lot easier for me and others who already get work done on their iPads. As to whether it’ll convince newcomers, though, I have my doubts. I think the iPad will continue to excel in the areas it already does, while the Mac — and yes, Windows — will be better options for most people that need to jam through conventional workflows. No-one would have blinked if “iPadOS” were simply called iOS 13.

And really, I’m fine with that. It’s unrealistic to expect the iPad to supplant the existence of laptops right now, and it’s already the best tool for the job in a bunch of scenarios. I use mine whenever I have to get various light loads done and would prefer to use a fast, ultra-portable device with cellular connectivity and eternal battery life, for example. I look forward to being more efficient in those situations with iPadOS, while fully expecting to fall back to my desk setup at other times.

But fewer times than before.

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