7 good and 3 bad things in iPadOS

Great for power users, but it’s a steep learning curve to get there

Apple is officially releasing iPadOS today, a little less than a week earlier than expected. Because of the haphazard way Apple’s software releases are happening this fall, we’re going to hold off on a full review for a little bit. All of the betas up to today have had bugs that range from the surreal to the show-stopping, and it’s not fair to judge a final release on prerelease issues.

Is it safe to install today? Based on the latest beta I’ve been using, I think it is — and I also think it’s well worth it. iPadOS is based on iOS 13, which Chaim reviewed here, but it feels like a much more substantial update than what we’ve gotten on the iPhone.

Anybody who has felt like the iPad was a little too limiting because of how it handled windows or webpages should be excited to install this update. And although it really does feel like a “power user”-focused set of features this year, people who use their iPads for the basics will find things to like, too.

Here are the things we like best and hate the most about iPadOS so far.

Good: Safari works like a desktop browser, mostly

One of the more frustrating parts of using an iPad before is that you had this big screen that often only showed blown-up iPhone versions of websites. Blame it on web developers if you want, but the cold truth of the web is that its more advanced features expect a desktop browser with a mouse.

Apple’s fix was to have the current Safari browser tell websites that is exactly what it is, the Mac version of Safari. That means websites are more likely to just show up as full desktop versions on the iPad.

So far so good, but you have probably noticed that the iPad doesn’t have a mouse pointer (excepting a new accessibility option). So Apple added a sort of translation layer between your taps and the website’s expectation of clicks. In some cases (like Google Docs), Apple has specifically checked to make sure its translation layer is working well.

And it all does work really well, you get access to more of the web than before. But it’s not perfect, you will find edge cases where you will still have to make your way back to a “real” desktop web browser on a laptop or PC to access certain sites. I’ve had issues with sites that have complicated forms, text-entry fields, or that have some sort of drag-and-drop interface.

Good: new ways to manage windows

Even using the word “windows” is weird on an iPad, it doesn’t really fit. What I’m talking about is putting apps into split screen, using Slide Over, and so on. With iPadOS, Apple has stopped being shy about offering power users power options, so you have more ways than ever to arrange and rearrange your windows. Er, “spaces,” in Apple parlance.

The biggest change is in Slide Over, the little windows that look like iPhone apps floating over on the right-hand side. Now you can have a whole stack of them and they have their own multitasking. I use it all the time now, accessing apps I want to quickly use and then dismiss. It’s perfect for Messages, Music, and Notes. It really is like having a little iPhone on your iPad.

But there are a lot of other changes. Apps can now spawn multiple windows, for example. And you can drag and drop lots of things into new windows. You can use the Expose view not only to see all your split-screen spaces, but also all the individual windows for a specific app.

It’s a lot, but it’s very close to what power users have been asking for. Luckily, if you just want to use your iPad one app at a time like you always have, you can.

Bad: the learning curve on managing windows

I just said it’s a lot, but really that undersells how complicated multitasking can get on an iPad. I worried earlier this summer that it wasn’t “intuitive” and the verdict is in: it is not.

How can you know if a link or a note or any random thing on the iPad can be turned into a window? Trial and error, mostly, though you can long-press to see if there’s an “Open in new window” option.

The iPad has different spatial metaphors than what we’re used to on a desktop and there are a half-dozen odd ways to switch between and rearrange app windows. All of that is actually great. The problem is that going from the basics to feeling like you really know how things work requires a steep learning curve, one where iPadOS doesn’t give you a lot of signals about what is happening to your stuff.

My advice: give up on the idea that your windows are anything like desktop windows at all, at least in terms of workspace permanence. You can’t set things up “just so” and expect everything to stay that way. They’re all impermanent and so are your workspaces. It ends up working out because opening stuff on the iPad is so fast, but prepare to feel a little lost for quite a while.

Good: the new home screen

You can set the home screen to have a more dense grid of icons and you can set your Today view widgets to be permanently pinned there. Long-pressing icons on the home screen feels a lot more responsive and the context menu that pops up is way more useful. Pro tip: just long-press and drag your finger up through the options when the menu pops up.

Good: the floating keyboard

You can pinch the on-screen keyboard to turn it into a little iPhone-sized keyboard that can be dragged around anywhere on the screen. I love it so much — it’s the rare case of Apple learning something from Chrome OS (yes, really!).

It’s great because you can put it over on the right and use the new QuickPath option to slide your thumb over letters to type. It makes typing on the iPad when you’re holding it much easier.

But the real reason it’s great is that it lets you type without having a third of the screen taken up by the keyboard. The regular software keyboard cuts off too much content way too often.

Bad: Advanced text selection

Apple tried really hard to get text interactions right on iPadOS, and I think the goal was to make it a little faster and intuitive. You are supposed to just be able to tap or drag your finger to have the cursor do what you want, placing or highlighting or whatever. Then there are special gestures using three fingers to do things like cut and paste.

In theory, just trusting the iPad to naturally do what I want with text is a great idea. In practice, it’s too unpredictable and hard to figure out. When does dragging move the cursor and when does dragging select text? After three months of using the iPadOS betas nearly every day, I still haven’t gotten it right.

Pro tip: just ignore the three-finger gestures and learn the three-finger tap, which brings up a pop-up menu that’s way easier to use.

Good: the new, more powerful Files app

When Apple switched the iPad Pro over to USB-C, everybody started thinking about that port as useful for something other than a charger. And with iOS 12, very few things actually worked.

With iPadOS, that port has been allowed to do more things, and the best set of features is in the Files app. It can read USB drives and cards directly now, and you can even unplug those devices without the operating system chiding you.

But Apple did much more than that. It added a column view, set it up to work better with external servers, and finally allows you to just set up and organize local folders more easily.

Related: Safari has a proper download manager now that can download nearly any file, not just the limited set that iOS allowed before.

Good: Dark mode

Apple put some care into getting this right, it’s far more than just an inversion of white and black. You’ll find a surprising number of apps support it — even if they are still in the minority, it’s more than I expected at this point.

I especially like that you can just set it on a schedule, just like with Night Shift. I still think that dark mode is more of a UI trend than a genuine improvement, but that’s not a knock against it. User interfaces have trends just like fashion, but I think dark mode is going to last if only because it makes the screen so much nicer to view at night.

Good: Photos app

It really is a step up, and though the photo editing options aren’t strictly new across the board, I find them much more intuitive and easier than before. What is new is the ability to apply all of that same stuff to video.

You might get a little lost in Apple’s attempts to algorithmically show you the best stuff in the new timeline views inside the app, but stick with it. You’re probably taking so many photos that it’s worth letting Apple’s AI take a crack at curating them a little bit for you.

Bad: Bugs

This has been a buggy year for the betas. Again, you should not judge what you are installing today based on this, but you might want to be prepared for some weirdness still. I can’t help but think that iPadOS is getting pushed out a little early because it needs to go out with iOS 13.1 — which itself needs to be rushed out because iOS 13.0 is super buggy.

Luckily, the most catastrophic bugs (like losing data in iCloud) seem to have been well and thoroughly quashed. But you might have some apps crash or freeze. Waiting a little longer to install — or at least avoiding installing on day one — is never a terrible idea. Barbara Krasnoff has written a good how-to guide for how to do it on the iPhone that applies equally well to the iPad.

Everything else: pretty good!

There are many, many more features to talk about. I’m particularly fond of Apple’s new privacy-protection features, which make it harder for both apps and webpages to identify you for tracking. I’m also glad Apple finally figured out that you might want to long-press the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi icons to access some Bluetooth and Wi-Fi options in Control Center — what a concept!

If you want a deep dive on absolutely everything, Frederico Viticci has gone well and truly overboard examining every nook and cranny over at MacStories. We’ll have our full review after we’ve kicked the tires on the final, shipping version of iPadOS a little more.