Hands On with iPadOS: Closer to a Laptop than Ever Before

Apple has been pushing the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement for the last few years, yet its interface hasn’t allowed the levels of productivity afforded by traditional desktop operating systems like macOS and Windows. So when Apple announced its bold intent to fork the iOS platform by creating a separate version for the iPad, most enthusiasts, including myself, applauded the strategy. Let’s take a look at the most impressive features iPadOS has to offer.

Related: iPad Pro Apps for Creative Professionals: 8 Ways to Accomplish More & Have Fun

 The iPad has been held back by its iPhone progenitor since the tablet’s inception. While certain extensions to the iOS user interface have taken advantage of the iPad’s larger screen real estate since the beginning, major annoyances like mobile versions of websites delivering page formatting intended for the iPhone has been a constant source of irritation. The initial release of iPadOS is essentially iOS 13, plus a set of exclusive iPad extensions. However, by separating iPadOS, Apple has placed its tablet’s future software development on a direction toward functional parity with traditional desktop operating systems, while maintaining the high degree of privacy and security unmatched on those legacy platforms. 

The iPad Pro: More Room for Apps

The first striking difference you’ll notice between an iPad running iOS as opposed to the new iPadOS is the smaller Home screen app icons. The resized app icons don’t make selecting them any more difficult than their iPhone equivalents. In fact, the change recognizes that the iPad is not just a larger-screen iPhone anymore.

ipad running ipados

Use the Today View Widget

Another feature that demonstrates this new direction is the Today View, which you can now either slide over from the left side of the screen or pin to the Home screen in the Home Screen & Dock settings. Rather than taking you to a separate screen, the iPad’s Today View now compresses the space between the Home screen app icons to show both the Today View and app icons together. It’s a minor improvement but makes major gains in productivity since you no longer have to keep swiping back and forth to check the weather forecast or see what is on your agenda for the day.

ipad pro today view

Multitask with Multiple Versions of the Same App on the iPad Pro

Another iPadOS-only addition is the improved Slide Over feature. While not quite the equivalent of multi-window desktops, Slide Over does allow for two apps to run either side by side or one on top of the other. This is especially useful when surfing the web in Safari while writing notes in the upgraded collaborative Notes app. While Slide Over existed in earlier iOS releases, iPadOS has elevated it to full multi-tasking capability by allowing additional instances of a single app to run. For example, you can copy files between two instances or “windows” of the Files app by dragging the file from one app instance to the other. You can do the same thing with any app that is Slide Over aware (of which many modern productivity apps that have been kept up to date already are).

To use Slide Over, launch any app as usual. Next, swipe up from the bottom of the screen to reveal the Home screen dock. Finally, drag the app icon of whatever app you want to overlay on top of the current full-screen app you’re running. When you release the dragged icon, it will open that app in a right margin-aligned window overlay on top of the full-screen app. In order for this to work, the apps in question must be Slide Over compatible. If you prefer having the overlay along the left margin, simply swipe it to the left, and the overlay will slide to that side of the screen. When you return home or swipe into another app, you can recall the overlay at any time by swiping on the right side of the screen. Once you get the hang of the new gestures, it becomes second nature and greatly improves context switching speed. While most productivity apps support Slide Over, the feature doesn’t work with most games, so you will need to continue to resort to the bottom screen left or right swipe for those apps.

slide over with ipad operating system

Extend Your Workspace with Sidecar

Sidecar is another neat new feature exclusive to iPadOS. Sidecar is basically a screen extender for macOS that allows you to use your iPad as a second monitor. Some third-party apps have offered this capability in the past, but they lacked the slick polish and “it just works” simplicity that Apple apps are known for. Unfortunately, Sidecar only works with macOS Catalina at the moment, but I hope Apple considers releasing a Windows-based agent so it can also be used with Windows laptops and desktops. This could be bundled in a future update for the iCloud for Windows app so that non-Mac hardware owners could benefit from the additional screen space Sidecar affords.

Type Faster with Keyboard Improvements

Apple’s latest iPads (with the exception of the runt of the litter iPad Mini) all have a built-in magnetic connector that attaches to Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio external case. But for those who don’t want to spend an extra $160 on an external keyboard, iPadOS has improved the on-screen keyboard experience by allowing it to be shrunk into a floating window overlay roughly the size of the iPhone’s pop-up on-screen keyboard. While not practical for long-form typing, it comes in handy when entering short bursts of repeatable data such as numbers in a spreadsheet or quick replies to instant messages. You can place the floating keyboard anywhere on the screen, making it easy to find a sweet spot for typing that doesn’t cover up important data in the underlying app. To enable the floating keyboard, hold down the keyboard icon in the lower right corner of the keyboard, and select the floating menu option that pops up. The simpler approach is to simply pinch the on-screen keyboard. To return the keyboard to its normal size and docked location, simply un-pinch the floating keyboard.

Another on-screen keyboard improvement Apple has added to both iOS 13 and iPadOS is swipe support for the floating keyboard. After years of seeing this built into Android phones and tablets by default, it’s good to see that Apple officially supports swiping with its QuickPath keyboard since the third-party keyboard swiping apps weren’t as seamless and posed privacy concerns.

For those who still prefer a physical keyboard, iPadOS now includes a number of keyboard accelerators. To see a list of supported shortcuts, simply press and hold the Apple Command key. One feature I hoped Apple would consider baking into its keyboard was built-in support for text expansion, which allows you to paste in commonly used wording by typing an abbreviation. Smile’s TextExpander has ruled this space for years, but as we have seen with keyboard swiping, it’s better when features that are built into the core iPadOS.

font diner app on ipad pro

Use Custom iPad Fonts

Custom fonts have finally made their way to the iPad. While not nearly as sophisticated as desktop font management apps like Adobe Type Manager or Extensis Suitcase, the fact that Apple has even opened up the iPad to the possibility of using custom fonts is a big deal for creative designers. However, installing new fonts on your iPad does take several additional steps. First, download a font manager from the App Store. I’ll use Font Diner as an example. Once downloaded, launch the app, select a font you like, and select Install from the pop-up dialog. Verify that the font is installed by launching a font-aware app such as Mail. Next, bring up the on-screen keyboard and select the arrow symbol on the word selector row above the keyboard. Doing so will slide out a toolbar showing several icons, with the first one being font selection. Selecting that icon will display several more tool buttons including font selection, which is almost always set to Default Font. Selecting the Default Font label will display a font picker list of all the system fonts currently installed, including the one you just downloaded from Font Diner. And Adobe recently released its Creative Cloud app that allows subscribers access to over 17,000 fonts from a variety of font foundries. If you’re not a Creative Cloud subscriber, you can still access around 1,300 fonts within the Creative Cloud mobile app as long as you have or sign up for a free Adobe ID at account.adobe.com.

markup with apple pencil on ipad pro

Use Markup with Apple Pencil

For those who disregard Steve Jobs’ famous disdain of styluses, iPadOS now allows you to mark up screenshots with the Apple Pencil via a redesigned drawing and markup tools pop-up palette.

ipad os file app

Transfer Files More Easily

The Files app also received several major improvements to assist iPad users with connecting to file storage devices and servers. Files now supports SMB file sharing connectivity, allowing you to connect to macOS, Windows, and Linux file servers just like desktop and laptop counterparts. And if you have a USB-C thumb drive or external hard drive, plugging it into the iPad Pro’s USB-C port will mount the drive just like a regular desktop operating system does. While these features were available via third-party apps like Goodreader, it was a multi-step process to transfer files from that application’s own file store to the Files app. Now that it’s built-in, third-party solutions for these functions are no longer necessary.

Use Desktop-Class Safari

The days of dumbing down websites on the iPad’s Safari browser are over. iPadOS now informs websites it is just as capable of showing the same page formatting as its desktop sibling. This major milestone makes the new iPad hardware worthy of serious laptop replacement consideration, since a majority of people’s web-connected time is spent browsing. Safari also now includes weak password warning protection and a built-in file download manager, just like its macOS Catalina desktop equivalent.

Pros

  • New features bring the iPad closer to laptop replacement territory
  • Substantial upgrades for base apps (Files, Notes, Reminders, etc.)
  • Safari web browser renders web pages identically to desktop equivalent

Cons

  • Discoverability for some features not immediately obvious
  • Sidecar currently only works with macOS Catalina
  • Minor bugs in the initial release
  • Older iPads don’t qualify for the upgrade

Final Verdict

Due to the broader feature of iPadOS, only iPad models released in the last three years are eligible for the software update. That said, iPadOS shines best on Apple’s third-generation iPad Pro line, since the user interface enhancements have virtually no impact on performance or the smooth as butter user experience those A12X Bionic processor- based tablets deliver. For those with older iPads unqualified to run iPadOS, it may be time to consider purchasing a new iPad. Apple is moving forward with iPadOS, and the next major release of this operating system will continue to rapidly distance it from iPads running the older iOS versions.

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Mike Riley's picture

Mike Riley is a frequent contributor to several technical publications and specializes in emerging technologies and new development trends. Mike was previously employed by RR Donnelley as the company’s Chief Scientist, responsible for determining innovative technical approaches to improve the company’s internal and external content services. Mike also co-hosted Computer Connection, a technology enthusiast show broadcast on Tribune Media's CLTV.