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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iOS gestures you may not have known

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

iOS can optionally read the contents of your screen with a two-finger swipe.

We don’t just communicate by speech. Body language and gestures are part of the equation, too. In the excellent SyFy TV series The Expanse (and the excellent book series that spawned it), the residents of the outer solar system communicate by gesture because they’re often in spacesuits, unable to hear one another.

Now that we spend so much of our lives with our fingers on multitouch tablets and smartphones, we’re all learning new ways of communicating. When I started using a Mac, becoming a power user meant learning keyboard shortcuts and keys to hold down when clicking the mouse. But for multitouch devices, gestures are where it’s at—special moves, usually hidden, that can dramatically improve your iPhone or iPad experience.

One of the revolutions the Mac brought to computers was the discoverability of any program’s commands—you could just click through the menus to see more or less everything an app did, and most keyboard shortcuts would be labeled right on the screen. But there would still be secret features, like holding down option and command when clicking in PageMaker to zoom to actual size. I heard about it from a friend, and passed it on to other people, but unless you read the manual cover to cover1 you’d never know.

Right now on the iPhone and especially the iPad, I see them same issue happening. There are some amazing multitouch gestures out there that are non-obvious, and the only way they spread is by word of mouth. I’ve mentioned a few on Upgrade lately and am not especially surprised when I hear from people that they were complete surprises. So I thought I’d share a few of the ones I’ve discovered with you here—and I asked people on Twitter to chime in, as well, which they did.

App switching. iPad users may not know that they’ve got access to some systemwide multitouch gestures. Put four or five fingers, widely spread, on the screen, and then bring them all together to exit the current app and bring up the Home screen. Swipe up with four or five fingers to bring up the App Switcher. And swipe four or five fingers left or right to move between apps. (I use the last one all the time.) You can toggle these features in the Settings app, under General: Multitasking. If you’re on an iPhone with 3D Touch, you can swipe from the left side of the screen with extra force to bring up the app switcher, and if you flip your finger quickly, you’ll immediately flip back to the previously used app.

Common gestures. There are a bunch of gestures that are implemented in most apps and in iOS itself, yet if you never think to try them, you might never know they exist. If you’re scrolled far down in a list or on a webpage in Safari, you can usually tap at the top of the screen to quickly scroll all the way to the top. And generally swiping in from the left edge of the screen will take you to the previous page of whatever app you’re in—including Safari.

More in Safari. Merlin Mann pointed out that a two-finger pinch, when in Safari, will zoom out of the page you’re in and show all of your currently open tabs, as well as all the tabs open on your other devices. If you’ve swiped from the left side of the screen to go back to a previous page, you can move forward again by swiping from the right side of the screen—but if you’ve got a Slide Over-capable iPad, you’ll need to swipe at the bottom portion of the screen, otherwise you’ll just activate Slide Over. And if you’ve ever closed a Safari tab by mistake, just tap and hold on the plus icon to bring up a list of recently closed tabs.

Twitter app tricks. Users of both Tweetbot and Twitterrific should try to swipe left and right on individual Tweets in the timeline—magic things happen. You can also swipe down with two fingers in Tweetbot, or across the screen with two fingers in Twitterrific, to toggle between light and dark modes. Swipe down with two fingers in Twitterrific to move between different accounts.

Control that scrubber. It can be really hard to move precisely through a song or video by using the standard iOS horizontal scrubbing bar. The trick is to start scrubbing and then move your finger vertically, which will change the sensitivity of scrubbing from “Hi-Speed Scrubbing” to “Half-Speed”, “Quarter-Speed”, and “Fine” speeds. (Thanks to readers Brandon and EJ for suggesting this one.)

Speak any text. Thanks to Philip and Mark for suggesting this feature, which you turn on by opening the Settings App and going to General: Accessibility: Speech: Speak Screen. With Speak Screen turned on, swiping down with two fingers from the top of the screen will read the content of the screen to you. You’ll also see a floating control palette, so you can increase or decrease the reading speed, pause, or skip around.

Map tricks. Reader Chad pointed out that in Google Maps, if you double tap and hold your finger down on the second tap, you can drag that finger up and down to zoom in and out. In Apple Maps (and many other apps), tapping with two fingers will zoom out.

Switch in Slack. I use the Slack app every day, and discovering these gestures by accident lead to a huge time savings. To switch between different slack groups, swipe to the left or right with three fingers. (This works on the iPhone as well as the iPad—it’s an awkward gesture, but it works!) Swiping to the right with two fingers acts as a back button, transporting you back to the Slack rooms you were previously in, one at a time.

Swipe on email messages. Generally, if you’re using an app—especially an email app—that displays a list of items such as email messages, swipe left and right on those items to see if those swipes are shortcuts for other actions, such as reply, flag, mark as unread, or reply. These days, swiping on items to act upon them is quite common. Give it a try.

Software keyboard shortcuts. Generally a quick swipe up on a symbol key in the software keyboard will give you an alternate symbol. On the iPad Pro keyboard, if I quickly swipe up on any symbol displaying a shifted and non-shifted option, swiping up will enter the shifted option—for example, if I swipe up on the semicolon key, I’ll get a colon. On the standard-sized iPad keyboard, the comma and period keys will generate an apostrophe and a quotation mark, respectively, if you swipe up on them.

The list goes on and on, probably endlessly. I hope some of these gestures are ones you haven’t tried—and might boost your productivity, especially on the large screens of the iPad family. When in doubt, make gestures. They’re not just for other humans—your touchscreen devices understand them, too.

  1. Who reads a manual? 

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