For the first few years of the iPad's life, Apple basically treated it like an overgrown iPhone. Yes, its bigger screen meant people would want to use it differently, and third-party developers did a fine job retooling their software to make full use of that extra screen space. It wasn't until iOS 9 when Apple really invested in tablet-specific features like Split View and Slide Over, and it was that subtle shift in priorities led us directly to the present -- and to iPadOS.
Don't be fooled by the name, though: iOS and iPadOS are still mostly the same thing. Nearly every feature I've discussed in our iOS 13.1 review is present here, along with a series of changes that are helping to slowly close the gap between iPads and more traditional computers. To get a sense of iPadOS's progress, I vowed to put as much of this review together on an iPad Pro, and honestly, I'm pretty pleased with the results.
I couldn't do everything, but the fact that I could write the copy, edit and watermark my photos, address fixes in Google Docs and lay out almost everything for the site speaks to how much more capable iPads can be after an update. We're still not at the point where iPadOS turns iPads into full-blown computer replacements for most people, but the update is a big step down that path.
- The web looks like the web in Safari
- You can finally save files onto your iPad
- Multitasking is more nuanced
- Pencil input feels more natural
- Split View multitasking involves trial and error
- Gesture navigation can be tricky for newcomers
- Limited Mac compatibility for Sidecar
A quick digression: I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about installing the final version of iPadOS considering how buggy iOS 13 was before its big update. After taking the plunge and updating, those fears subsided — iPadOS seemed more stable than iOS 13, even during the beta phase, and that holds now too.
In any case, the first thing you'll notice after firing up your newly updated iPad is its home screen: It's full of smaller app icons, allowing you to fit way more of them on a single home screen page. Not counting whatever you have stored in your dock, each page now accommodates 30, up from 20 in earlier versions of iOS.
This takes some getting used to, especially if your eyes are as bad as mine, but I generally appreciate the changes. iPadOS has also inherited the contextual app menus that have been part of iOS for years. 3D Touch may be long dead but Haptic Touch is here, so you can long-press app icons on your home screen to access shortcuts to actions inside those apps. (It's especially easy when you're using the Apple Pencil, which I'll get to in a second.)
If you need even more information at all times, you can now lock the Today view and all of its widgets directly onto your home screen. I always sort of forgot those widgets were available in the first place because they were always tucked out of sight; because of that, they never really became part of my workflow. I've found myself relying on those widgets more now that I can integrate them into my home screen, I'd like to see Apple take a page out of Android's playbook and let me just put those app widgets wherever I want, but who knows if that'll ever happen?
Speaking of iPad screens, I've always hated how — unless you had a physical keyboard connected to it — iOS's keyboard eats up a third of the screen. There's a fix of sorts for that now in the form of an iPhone-sized floating keyboard you can toggle from the main one. Typing while holding an iPad mini in both hands is one thing; trying to do the same with an Air or a Pro often felt ridiculous before this tiny new keyboard made it easier to peck one a letter at a time or swipe out a message with the new QuickPath keyboard.
Apple also made some changes to how you might edit and copy/paste your text. My days often involve lots of running around with an iPad, for taking down notes and whipping up the occasional script. It sounds pretty minor, but you can now just drag the iPadOS text cursor around the screen and drop it right where you need it. (It's not quite as satisfying as the 3D Touch equivalent, but it's handy all the same.)
Selecting text is pretty easy, too: Just double-tap a word, and drag across the screen to highlight the appropriate bits. I say "pretty easy" because it still requires a bit of trial and error to pick out exactly what you needed, but it still feels much more precise than it used to. Since you're probably highlighting text to do something with it, iPadOS uses some new gestures for copying (pinch three fingers together on the screen) and pasting (the reverse). If that sounds a little awkward, well, you're right — it feels more natural on these big screens than on iPhones, but I'd still much rather long-press on the right spot and just tap "Paste".
There are, as always, other methods of interacting with iPads beyond fingers on glass. Apple has been pushing its Pencil for years, and the company claims that software improvements have brought the latency on both versions of the stylus down to 9ms. If you're anything like me — that is, a poor doodler and infrequent note-taker — the difference won't feel drastic. Still, it's there, and it does make drawing feel slightly smoother and more natural. The palette of tools that pops up when you start using the Pencil has been also redesigned, and you can flick it around the screen so it doesn't obscure whatever you were doing in the first place.
I should point out that I haven't had a chance to thoroughly test Sidecar, the feature that lets you connect an iPad to a Mac for use as a secondary display or a drawing tablet with the Apple Pencil. As of the day we're publishing this review, macOS Catalina (and therefore Sidecar itself) is only available in beta form, so I'll revisit this part of the review once all the final software is available.
Oh, and if you really wanted to, you can finally use a mouse with iPadOS. I wouldn't recommend it, though. You have to dig into your tablet's accessibility settings to enable AssistiveTouch, plug in the mouse or connect it via Bluetooth, make sure your mouse sensitivity is set to a manageable level, define what (if anything) you want your mouse's other buttons to do, and then finally get down to business. The process is slightly cumbersome, and there's no question that iPadOS — improved as it is — isn't meant to be used with a mouse yet. The thing you have to keep in mind that this is an accessibility feature, not something meant to redefine how most people use their tablets. It works, but it's not going to magically turn your iPad into a Surface Pro.