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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

The iPad cursor is here, no wait required

Support for mice and trackpads on iPadOS is real. In a world that’s gotten awfully used to disappointment lately, it’s far better than I imagined. And we don’t even have to wait until the fall to use it, because it’s going to arrive on every iPad capable of running iPadOS 13 next week as a part of the forthcoming iPadOS 13.4 update.

On Wednesday morning, Apple announced new iPad Pro models that will ship next week, just like iPadOS 13.4. But it also announced a new iPad Pro accessory, the Magic Keyboard, which includes a trackpad. According to Apple, that device won’t even start shipping until May, and if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that every plan is a tiny prayer to father time.

That new Magic Keyboard looks amazing, but it’s for the future. iPadOS 13.4 is for today (if you’re using beta versions) or for next week (for everyone else). That means that you don’t need Apple’s fancy (and pricey!) Smart Keyboard to drive your iPad with a mouse or trackpad. The Magic Trackpad 2 will work—believe it or not, up to now the iPad didn’t support it—including all its multitouch gestures.

It’s important to note that if you don’t attach a mouse or trackpad or keyboard to your iPad, nothing will change. The iPad is, at its core, a touchscreen tablet. You should never, ever find yourself in a situation where you can’t do something on an iPad if you don’t have a mouse or trackpad handy.

Using the iPad with a mouse or trackpad feels surprisingly familiar. Activate a pointing device, and a circular cursor (one that’s much smaller than the cursor included in iOS 13’s Assistive Touch accessibility ferature) appears on your screen. If you don’t move the cursor, it’ll vanish after a couple of seconds. Slide it over interface elements and it’ll vanish, but the interface element below it will highlight in a delightful, animated way, indicating that if you click, you’ll be activating that element. Keep moving the cursor and the circle will return as you exit that element.

In a huge boost for anyone who writes and edits text on the iPad, if you move that cursor over a text area, it transforms into a text-editing I-beam cursor, making it much easier to move the cursor and select text.

Apple says that most apps will work with this feature right out of the box, though there will probably be some quirks—there always are. But app developers will be gaining extra tools to let their apps specifically support the cursor if they want. (It seems that if apps implement nonstandard text fields, for example, they’ll need to make modifications to support the text-editing cursor.) I’m looking forward to remote-desktop apps like Edovia’s Screens supporting the cursor (if they can), and it seems like the iOS 13 feature of “desktop-class browsing” is going to gain support for cursor hovering, a concept that was previously incompatible with the iPad’s touch interface.

Cursor support is good, but if iPadOS 13 Assistive Touch taught me anything, it’s that it’s no fun driving a simulated finger with a mouse—every natural finger swipe gets transformed into an ugly click-and-drag. That’s more or less resolved by iPadOS 13.4’s gesture support. Want to delete or archive a message in Mail? Move the cursor over it and swipe left or right, just as you’d do on the Mac.

These gestures really shine when it comes to multitouch shortcuts. A two-finger click instantly brings up a context menu. Swipe up with three fingers slowly and you’ll get the multitasking view—and if you do it quickly, you’ll get the Home screen. Swipe left or right to move between apps.

Apple has also solved the issue of how to handle gestures that were designed around swiping from the edges of the screen, like activating Slide Over or viewing Control Center or Notification Center. It works like this: You move your cursor to the boundary, and then make a second gesture in the same direction—as if you’re pushing to go a little further in that direction. That will activate the interface that’s located on that edge. The contents of the status bar at the top of the screen will also highlight when you move your cursor over them, and you can click to activate Notification Center (left) or Control Center (right).

Rolling out these features in iPadOS 13.4 makes sense, given the arrival of that new Magic Keyboard. But it also makes me excited about what iPadOS 14 might have in store, given this head start. The ability to extend the interface to an external monitor (not just mirroring or offering an app-specific output like Keynote) rockets up my wish list, since the iPad can now be controlled entirely without a touchscreen. And I’m going to reheat all of my “laptop that runs iPadOS” dreams again.

The bottom line: Months before that Magic Keyboard arrives, iPadOS 13.4 will make the iPad vastly more usable if you use an external keyboard, because you can now pair it with a pointing device. While you might assume that the makers of third-party accessories might be disappointed by Apple’s entry, I think there’s plenty of room for cheaper accessories than the Magic Keyboard. And of course, even iPads that aren’t the iPad Pro can take advantage of these features, via accessories like the newly announced Logitech Combo Touch Keyboard Case with Trackpad for iPad.

Or just bring your own keyboard, mouse, and iPad stand. The door is wide open. I’m looking forward to see where the iPad goes from here.

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