Apple’s iOS mobile operating system is no longer a shape-shifter. The company now has two distinct operating systems: iOS for phones and iPadOS for tablets. The move acknowledges the open secret that iPads have long had their own distinct needs and a distinct version of iOS. In iPadOS, you get gestures and multitasking features, improved Apple Pencil integration, and finally, robust support for a mouse or trackpad. In Apple’s eyes, iPads and iPadOS challenge laptops and desktops as a platform for doing work and making art. The new OS makes great strides in streamlining those workflows on Apple’s tablet.
Even though they’re now separate OSes, iPadOS and iOS sometimes receive new features in sync. For example, with the Version 14.5 update, both get support for new game controllers, AirTags, Apple Fitness+, AirPlay, a new Podcast app, along with Siri updates, Maps enhancements, and new emoji. Some updates are unique to the iPad, however, including a new landscape boot screen and Apple Pencil support for more languages.
What Is iPadOS, Anyway?
The versions of iOS on iPhones and iPads have differed since the beginning, and the two have grown further apart over the years, like estranged siblings. As for exactly how much iPadOS and iOS differ under the hood is not clear—after all, they use one and the same SDK (software development kit) for app developers. The outwardly visible differences, though, have multiplied lately.
The divergence between the way iOS works on the iPad versus how it does on the iPhone first became truly noteworthy with iOS 11. That update added a laundry list of new tricks and tools to make the iPad more like macOS than iOS. The update introduced 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, particularly when paired with the exquisitely accurate Apple Pencil. The move toward laptop functionality is ironic, since Apple has long taken the stance that touch screens don’t work on laptops, yet iPadOS delivers what is essentially a touch-screen laptop.
Apple wants us to see the iPad as about making things as much as consuming things. That’s particularly evident with iPad Pros getting Apple Silicon M1 processors—the same one used on the company’s desktop computers. In contrast, the iPhone remains very much about consumption. In addition to its communication functions, you can use it for watching movies, listening to music or podcasts, and playing games. Yes, you can take stunning pictures with iPhones, but Apple wants you to enhance that picture or even paint a portrait on an iPad. Adobe’s recent, impressive Fresco app makes a strong case for this, as does its iPad version of Photoshop, though the latter still lacks major features found in the desktop version.
That’s not to say that you can’t communicate with an iPad—far from it. Just as on an iPhone, you can use Facetime and Messenger, and, of course, email and social media. Apple updates Messenger in iPadOS just as on iOS, so you get all the same nine new Memoji stickers (including Party Face!). The update also spruces up the Mail app with always-visible message controls and simpler icons.
The formal split with iOS seems to have given Apple more leeway to experiment with iPadOS. For instance, iPadOS saw the first major design change to Apple’s mobile home screen since its inception, and a totally new set of gesture interactions. A horizontal lock screen (long overdue) arrives in the version 14.5 update. These changes make sense for the larger screen of the iPad, but not for the smaller iPhone.
How to Get iPadOS
First, you need to acquire an iPad. The price starts at $329 for a basic iPad, running all the way up to $2,399 for an iPad Pro with 2TB storage and 5G, but without the Magic Keyboard ($349) or Apple Pencil ($129). That adds up to more than most high-power ultraportable laptops cost. For comparison, you can get the latest Samsung Galaxy Tab for $239, an Amazon Fire HD 8 Plus for $109.99. Microsoft Surface tablets are full PCs though they work well as tablets, too; they start at $399 for the Surface Go, and rise to $1,999 for a Core i7 based unit with 16GB RAM and 1TB storage.
The OS runs on iPad Air 2 and later, iPad 5th generation and later, iPad Mini 4 and later, and iPad Pro. If you’re still running iOS on your iPad, switching to iPadOS is painless. You simply update the OS as you always have, from Settings > General > Software Update.
Made for iPad
Instead of showing the standard grid of app icons, iPadOS tightens things up. You can now fit more apps across the screen than before. Like Android and Windows in tablet mode, the home screen shows only the app icons or tiles you place there, while getting to the full list takes another tap or gesture. Another boon of iPadOS is that it lets you choose larger icons, which makes sense for the huge iPad Pro screen, or smaller ones to squeeze more icons onto a smaller screen.
The widget situation on iPadOS continues to improve. You can swipe them into view on your Home Screen and keep them in view in Today View. If you’ve wanted the weather forecast, news headlines, or similar always on the home screen, now you can have that. We had no trouble swiping it into and out of view, and pinning the apps was a breeze.
We also love the Smart Stack widget, which lets you vertically swipe through a set of widgets without the need for moving the rest of the widgets up. These Smart Stacks, also available on iOS, present what Apple logic considers the most relevant widgets based on your usage pattern. For example, if you enter your weight into the Garmin Connect app most mornings at 7 a.m., you’ll see that app’s widget in the Smart Stack at that time. Though app widgets are automatically chosen when you add a Smart Stack, you can edit which ones you want included.
The iPhone actually has some advantages in widgets compared with the iPad, however: You can’t put widgets anywhere on any home screen as you can in the phone OS, and you don’t get the wonderful App Library icon organizing tool that iOS has.
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, has fallen out of fashion. This is just one change for Apple, but anything that affects the home screen feels titanic. Hopefully, this step will lead to a greater willingness to explore how people interact with their iDevices.
Despite our grumpiness about Apple’s ossifying design, we 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 our iPad, apps leap open, and Slide Over windows seamlessly snap to the edge or melt into Split View. Everything moves 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.
Getting Work Done
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 (only for the iPad version, of course), already offered ways to work in two apps at once, and iPadOS expands on the idea. You can switch among running Slide Over apps and move quickly between them by swiping the bar at the bottom of the mini window.
The major problem with this multi-windowing system is that there are so many different things that can happen depending on how you swipe up from the bottom: You might simply close the running app if you swipe up too fast. Then when you’ve tapped an icon, you may just run it full-screen instead of in Slide Over mode. And you may end up with a Slide Over window when you really wanted a split screen. You may simply close the window you’ve successfully arranged in Slide Over or Split View. And if you do close such an arrangement, there’s no easy way to get back to it, as you could in a desktop OS. Some users may become proficient enough to happily use this system, but we expect most will continue to use iPad apps one at a time.
iPadOS jostles a core concept of iOS by allowing you to open more than one instance of an app—though we only found this possible with Apple apps. 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 works with both first- and third-party apps, but we did find at least one app that didn’t cooperate with Split View (the OpenTable app).
We also note that the dock icon doesn’t indicate multiple app instances if they’re running; perhaps the developers could add some mark to the icon (like message count numbers in the Mail icon) to remedy that. Having multiple windows, however, is useful for things like moving files around or writing an email response while looking at another email.
These interactions look great, but we wonder whether the average iPad owner will take advantage of them. We 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. We’re also not convinced that these offer a better experience than simply having multiple, individual windows on a screen as you would with a desktop operating system—something you get with Microsoft Surface Tablets. The Samsung Galaxy Tab multitasking could also be considered more intuitive.
iPadOS’s mulititasking feels more like a loose translation of a workflow in the language of iOS, rather than a true tablet innovation. Indeed, a combination of overlapping Side by Side and Slide Over panels can become counterproductive, as you can see below, where the weather sidebar makes the split window below quite useless. What’s more, even tapping on the underlying window doesn’t reveal it, as happens on any desktop OS.
Other usability tweaks abound in iPadOS, with particular emphasis on the use of three fingers simultaneously. 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 (and the latest iOS version) does away with the magnifier that appears when you highlight text or move the cursor, a feature we rather liked. Now, you tap and hold on the cursor, drag your finger down a little, and move it to where you want it. As you move your digit, the vertical-line cursor gets longer and hovers above your finger while you move through the text. You can also select text by tapping and holding on a word and then dragging to include all the text you want to select.
These text interactions make sense, and we had little trouble picking them up after a few minutes. We still have trouble putting down three fingers and often find that we miss the mark when trying to highlight text. We think it’s telling that the usually very scripted Apple presentation at WWDC 2019 had a hard time showing these off. Clearly, these will take some getting used to.
Other tweaks draw heavily on 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 includes quick actions—such as rotating an image—and a column view, just like in macOS. Files also now lets you share folders via iCloud; you can enforce permissions or allowing access to anyone with the link.
The revamped Files app in iPadOS also now supports flash drives. We got this to work with an Adata external SSD formatted with the exFAT file system. You can also connect a camera to your iPad to import photos directly from the source. We successfully did so in the Photos app from a Sony DSC-RX100 III shooting in JPG-plus-ARW file formats.
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.
iPadOS includes QuickPath, Apple’s take on Swype-style typing, in which you drag your finger from letter to letter (also now in iOS). Another iPad trick is pinching the on-screen 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 and also makes one-fingered text entry possible on the iPad.
After using the smaller keyboard for a few hours, we find it far more natural than a huge on-screen keyboard. We’re also fans of the split keyboard option, which you get by unpinching the standard keyboard; this is perfect when you’re holding the iPad with two hands by its side, for thumb typing. Unfortunately, Apple decided not to include this capability in newer iPad Pros, whose huge screens would seem to make it even more essential, unless the user only uses the device as a laptop.
Mouse and Trackpad Support
With the 13.4 version update, Apple finally quelled one of the biggest complaints about using an iPad for real work—mouse and trackpad support. Note that this support is only in iPadOS—not iOS. It also differs from the limited mouse support previously provided for accessibility (see the Accessibility section below).
You can see the round cursor at the top, and the highlighted Cancel button in the screenshot below.
You can pair a mouse or trackpad in the same Bluetooth section of settings just as you would with a keyboard or wireless speaker. The cursor position shows as a translucent dot, and acts as your finger would on the touch screen, letting you press buttons and drag screen items up and down, left and right. You can also invoke iPad’s search panel and scroll through homepage icons and web pages.
For things like context menus and selection, you use a double tap on the mouse button. Selecting text works beautifully, just as it would on a desktop, with the exception of selecting multiple entries in the Files app, which you can only do after tapping the Select option. On desktop operating systems, the extra tap isn’t required. We could move most slider controls, but (oddly) not those in the Photos app to adjust brightness and the like.
A Settings page lets you set the tracking speed, scrolling direction, and secondary click options. With very few quibbles, mouse implementation for iPad is very satisfying. Not to be forgotten is new keyboard support, too, for Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which lets you control the iPad without ever touching the screen—just like a laptop.
Apple Pencil and iPadOS
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 the most responsive stylus on the market. Latency is a factor of the pen hardware, the software being used, the tablet hardware, and the operating system, so your mileage may vary. Suffice it to say that no vendor has claimed a latency lower than 9ms.
There’s also a tool palette for the Pencil that can be moved around and anchored on 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 supports a full-page screenshot option, which captures the full length of a document or website, not just what’s on the screen.
Here you can see Scribble writing accurately converted to text, even with suboptimal handwriting.
Up until recently, we missed two features of the Microsoft Surface Pen, however: One is the button, which adds contextual functions, and secondly the easy ability to enter text in a writing box in an on-screen keyboard digital-inking mode. Apple has caught up with Microsoft for both, thanks to the introduction of Scribble, which lets you write in any text entry field—that means the search box in the App Store and Maps, and even in web forms. It works well—even with sloppy handwriting! Apple Pencil 2nd generation lets you double-tap for switching tools (it only works with iPad Pros or 4th generation iPad Air).
Siri and Search
The search experience on iPad is one of the things diverging from its iPhone equivalent. In fact, it now looks more like Spotlight on macOS. It’s no longer positioned at the top and doesn’t cover the entire screen. It still shows you apps (as well as result from within apps), settings, web results, and Siri suggestions. The Top Hit result lets you tap into an app quickly.
Siri on the iPad (as of the version 14.5 update) now lets you choose another music app to play your requests from, and it will let you specify a preferred (though not exclusive) option. Siri also gets the slimmed down footprint we saw in iOS 14, so that it doesn’t take up the whole screen but instead presents as a glowing multicolor orb at the bottom right corner. Results are also compact rectangles in that corner.
A few more important new capabilities arrive with iPadOS 14.5: You can choose from four voice types for American English (two male and two female), but still only male or female options for other flavors of English (Australian, British, Indian, Irish, and South African). You can also ask Siri to initiate a group call with a Messages group, and perhaps most importantly, you can call 911 with the digital voice assistant.
Sidecar and iPad as a Second Screen
Apple is looking to turn your iPad into a hardware peripheral in its own right. The 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, such as the Wacom Cintiq 16.
Sidecar is not just for drawing: We set it up on our iPad with Final Cut Pro running on a powerful iMac, though the process involved several failed attempts, with Device Timed Out messages and Miscellaneous Error messages. Not only does Sidecar add a display for the timeline, preview, or source panel, but it also adds a Touch Bar along the top. Unfortunately, the meat of the display on the iPad is just that—a display, with no touch interaction possible.
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 (with the exception of Chromebooks) 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 we were happy to find that our experience matched the presentation. It’s just so easy.
The second, Bluetooth Pointing Device support, is mouse support for accessibility. This doesn’t quite work like the mouse on your desktop or like the new general Bluetooth mouse and trackpad support discussed above. As with that, 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 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. Speaking of keyboards, Apple missed an opportunity to add iPad-specific keys to the companion Smart Keyboards it sells for the iPad. Both Chromebooks and Microsoft Surface keyboards have OS-specific keys, but the iPad keyboard is nearly identical to the Mac keyboard. Even a key for the Home screen or the Today View would have been welcome.
Unfortunately, the cool Back Tap accessibility feature you can use on iPhones doesn’t work on iPads.
The Best of iOS
While iPadOS is now a distinct product in the eyes of Apple, many of the features of iOS are also in iPadOS. That means Dark Mode, which replaces most windows with a warm, dark slate color scheme, is now on your iPad. There are even dual-mode desktop backgrounds, similar to the night and day themes in macOS Catalina. The News, Calendar, Notes, and especially Reminders apps also get the same updates. Photos, too, gets a major overhaul, resulting in 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 so, 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 video-editing gets numerous enhancements, including filters.
Privacy features see improvements across the operating system. A new option requires apps to request approval every time they request location information. The system pops up notifications about apps that have been using your location, asking whether you want them to continue doing so and optionally showing maps of where the requests occurred.
With version 14.5, Apple puts into place a new App Tracking Transparency, which requires apps to get your consent if they plan on sharing your activities across apps and sites for marketing purposes. I tried to see this in action by updating several apps and visiting websites for social networks and other categories likely to want to profit from advertising to you, but didn’t see a one. Presumably, the apps will have to be updated more, despite Apple having publicized the plan for months. One thing that gets lost in this war is that Apple is using this to grab more advertising control for itself; the fruity giant still uses a unique IDFA (IDentifier for Advertisers) in every device it sells, and now the company will have sole access to it and the profiles it enables.
Apple is introducing its own sign-in option for websites and apps, going by the imaginative name, Sign in with Apple. This is 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. The service is still nowhere near as ubiquitous as those from the two internet giants, but Apple is using its clout to force developers to present Sign in with Apple alongside the more familiar Facebook and Google options.
iPadOS vs. the World
When reviewing iOS, we find it useful to compare it with other operating systems from other tech giants. In addition to fanning the flames for clicks, these comparisons illustrate how smart, well-funded companies tackle the same problems. The comparisons seem a bit odd for iPadOS, however.
Despite some efforts towards split screens and multitasking improvements, Android tablets never took off the way iPads have. Android can scale from phones to TVs to foldables, but it’s still a mobile OS first, intended to live in your pocket and be used with one hand. Android tablets also suffer from the same fragmentation you find among the phones. At the time of this writing, we couldn’t find a single Android tablet that ships with the current version 11 of the OS, and it’s telling that Google no longer sells a tablet running its mobile OS. Apps work or don’t work based on the tablet’s OS version and hardware, both of which vary far more than with iPads. With any recent iPad, you can rest assured that its OS is up to date and all apps in the store will work on it. What’s more, a single App Store purchase can work across iOS, iPadOS, and macOS—if the developer chooses to offer that option.
Another alternative is Chrome OS. It’s lightweight, like a mobile OS, but uses the visual language of a desktop OS. It does support Android mobile apps to varying degrees, alongside desktop-style web browser-based apps. Despite some attempts at grooving ChromeOS into the touch tablet space, the results have been lackluster, and even Google itself is exiting the Chrome OS tablet business. That said, you can nab a Lenovo Chromebook Duet—which has a detachable keyboard for use as a true tablet—for just $249.
Microsoft has embraced the tablet form factor since 2012 with its line of Surface devices that have redefined Windows as an operating system that can accommodate both form factors well. 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 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. Chrome OS 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 you try to multitask. Chrome OS and Windows 10 both allow floating windows that you can easily move among. iPadOS makes up ground with an improved Dock, Split View, Slide Over, and the new multi-window app experience, but it’s unclear whether iPadOS can fully shake the single-window app paradigm established with iOS. These features display all of Apple’s trademark polish, but they feel weirdly kludgy, because users have ingrained ideas about how they’re 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 utility 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 it doesn’t fully succeed. If you’ve already been using your iPad for work and creative activities, iPadOS makes that experience easier. If, however, a traditional desktop experience is what you need, then we don’t think iPadOS is going to bridge that gap just yet.
A New Chapter for the iPad
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 the iOS mobile, touch experience. New mouse and trackpad support and improvements to Apple Pencil capability make iPad an even more tempting proposition. iPadOS lifts some of the restrictions of iOS in order to make work easier, letting you, for example, access files on flash drives or cameras. The Sidecar feature augments 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 mobile language of iOS. Some of Apple’s new tricks feel overly complicated compared with the established workflows found on desktop computers. If you’ve been frustrated with doing serious work on an iPad, iPadOS is not going to change your mind. If, however, you already found the iPad fertile ground for growing your creativity and productivity, iPadOS is like a brisk rain shower followed by a full day of sunlight.