Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

13 Features of iOS 13: Files improvements

Funny how something as basic as inserting a thumbdrive can feel like a colossal victory.

The Finder places files and folders at the center of the Mac, but on iOS, apps are at the center. Still, managing documents is a fact of life in many cases, and over the past few years Apple has been evolving the Files app to become a more full-featured file browser utility. In iOS 13, Files takes a huge step forward in numerous areas… though there’s still more to be done.

Perhaps most important is the simple fact that Files can now see destinations that aren’t cloud services or other apps. You can add local SMB file servers to Files by tapping the ellipsis icon in the Browse pane and choosing Connect to Server, then entering the address of your SMB server. While you’re connected, that server will appear in the Shared segment of the Browse pane. (Strangely, Files doesn’t use Bonjour to detect nearby servers and display them, as Finder does.) I have a Mac mini on my home network that I use as a file server, and it’s been a delight to access files on it, directly, from within Files and apps that use Apple’s file interface.

Browsing a local SMB server in column view, as you do.

USB drives are also supported. It’s kind of hard to believe that I’m celebrating USB disk access in late 2019, but here we are. You can attach USB drives to any device running iOS 13, but this feature certainly feels best when you plug a USB-C cable or thumbdrive directly into an iPad Pro. As an iPad Pro user, that’s a moment that really makes the iPad Pro feel like it’s been welcomed into the community of personal computers. And if you’re someone who has ever been handed a thumbdrive by a colleague who expects you to access it on your iPad, well, now you can do that instead of sheepishly admitting that it’s completely useless to you. I’ve used this feature to attach my portable audio recorder directly to my iPad to import recordings, something I previously had to use a breakout box to accomplish.

You can even create new folders now. Yes. It’s true. And there’s a new Column View, which is an approach to file browsing that I’ve never liked on macOS, but actually makes more sense to me on iOS for some reason.

shortcuts-ios11-iphone
Tap and hold to view everything you can do to a given file.

iOS 13 also lets users perform many more actions on files than ever before by tapping and holding on an icon to reveal a contextual menu. Among the actions found here are options to compress files into an archive, decompress zip files, edit tags, preview a file in Quick Look, and display an Info pane with detailed information about a file’s attributes—basically, the stuff you’d expect from a file browser is mostly there. (It’s a bit strange that you can’t set items from Shortcuts to display directly in this contextual menu, as you can in the share sheets elsewhere on iOS 13. Instead, you have to tap and hold on a file, choose Share, and then pick a Shortcuts item.

Files separates iOS storage into two buckets, On My iPad/iPhone and iCloud Drive. On My iPad is basically what you’d consider “the hard drive” on a Mac—it’s local storage that is not synced over the cloud. If you want to save a huge file on your iPad and not have it swamp your current connection in an attempt to sync all that data to the cloud, put it in On My iPad/iPhone. If you want it available everywhere, put it in iCloud Drive.

Alas, not all is sunshine and roses in the land of iOS file access. Files is still a remarkably immature app. It sometimes fails to update file listings, frequently stalls out and provides me with a blank or incomplete listing, and, most frustratingly, the Save to Files extension for third-party apps fails to provide any feedback about the progress of a file transfer. That unreliability, combined with a slow file transfer to a remote server, leads to some pretty uncomfortable moments when you have no idea if your file is going to arrive or if the whole thing has failed silently.

Apple’s taken a few cues from the Mac in building up Files, so it’s time to take a few more. Progress indicators are vital. Allowing the user to get a detailed view about what’s transferring and how long it will take are must-have features, but when I try to save items within third-party apps, all I get is an endless spinner with no feedback. I realize this isn’t an issue with the Files app itself—it does show a little circular upload/download progress bar—but it is an issue with Apple’s greater approach to file transfers.

Still, Files has come a long way. It has gone from being an iCloud Drive client app to a neither-fish-nor-fowl representation of Apple’s ambivalence to file management on iOS to what it is today—a pretty capable file browser that’s still got plenty of room for improvement. Files in iOS 13 is a major upgrade—I just hope Apple doesn’t consider the job done.

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