By Dan Moren
July 9, 2020 10:32 AM PT
First Look: iPadOS 14 Public Beta
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
The latest update to Apple’s tablet operating system is a bit of a contradiction. Yes, it’s full of new features and enhancements, but at the same time, a few of the most prominent features of its sibling iOS are nowhere to be found here.
Apple is always balancing its priorities, and some years one device or another might get more attention. This year seems to be an off-one for the iPad, but even if it doesn’t get all the bells and whistles as the iPhone, but it’s still got more than a few significant changes. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest updates.
Putting you and I in UI
Perhaps the most visible changes in iPadOS 14 are to the system interface, which now puts a priority on efficient use of space. For example, there’s a more compact UI for Siri (which now appears as a little glowing icon in the bottom right corner of the screen, rather than taking over the entire display) or smaller notifications for incoming calls, whether they be via the phone, FaceTime, or third-party VoIP clients (you can switch back to the old full-screen option in Settings > FaceTime > Incoming Calls).
Likewise, the system search feature, which looks more than ever like its macOS counterpart, despite being (oddly) stripped of its Spotlight nomenclature. Like the other UI elements, it floats over the screen instead of taking it over (though you can’t drag the search box wherever you want, à la on the Mac). It’s also better designed now, with the ability to tap a button to start a search within an app such as Mail, Messages, or Files, and offering suggestions for web searches as you type. Apple’s also highlighting its prowess as a launcher for apps, though I’d suspect many users—especially those who use their iPad with a hardware keyboard—have been doing so for years. (If you’re not someone who regularly wants to search the web from the system search field, I recommend disabling Siri & Search > Suggestions in Search—then it surfaces way more results from your other apps, which I find more useful.)
There are other changes throughout the UI like revamped pull-down menus, a new calendar-based date-picker, and sidebars (yes, sidebars!) everywhere. On the whole, it feels a lot more like macOS than the iPad ever has in the past, and when you look over at the Mac’s revamped interface in Big Sur, it’s hard not to see plenty of elements there that have been borrowed from the iPad. These two cousins are closer than ever.
Scribbling up a storm
One aspect of the iPad that got a lot of attention in iPadOS this year—and one of the few that’s only in iPadOS right now—is Apple Pencil support. Apple’s been improving the technology for its stylus a little bit every year, adding things like the ability to search handwriting in Notes and better annotation features.
This year’s improvements are huge. For those still crying over their dearly departed Newton, the iPad is bringing systemwide support for Scribble, the handwriting feature Apple first introduced on the Apple Watch. Effectively that means that any place on the system that uses a standard text entry field—emails, text messages, Slack, Twitter, even forms in Safari—you can instead use the Apple Pencil to write instead of typing. Your handwriting will then be automatically converted into text. (Albeit with results about on par with that of autocorrect.)
Apple’s also added Pencil gestures that reduce how much you need to jump back to the keyboard for simple tasks like deleting words (you just squiggle out the word you want to replace), adding space (you touch and hold), selecting (you circle a word), and separate/joining characters (you draw a vertical line). There’s also a floating palette that appears to give you quick access to certain functions in an app, as well as a floating keyboard.
Currently Apple Pencil’s handwriting only seems to support English and Chinese character recognition, though more languages are sure to follow.
In addition to adding Scribble, Apple’s also improved taking notes with your Pencil in the Notes app. For example, you can toggle between having it automatically recognized as text or simply shown as handwriting on the screen, and even in the latter case you can still select text, including down to a letter level. iPadOS is also smart enough to avoid pictures that you’ve drawn. After the fact, you can copy that handwritten text and paste it elsewhere as typewritten text.
Apple’s clearly spent a lot of time devoting machine learning to this feature. Since it can read the text, it can use data detectors to recognize phone numbers, email addresses, and more. That is kind of mind-blowing, and I’m sure I’m going to be tapping handwriting on all sorts of non-iPad surfaces all the time now.
Take a Shortcut
One of the apps to get a more substantial redesign this time around is Shortcuts, especially on the iPad. The new sidebar provides quicker access to automations, as well as introducing groups of shortcuts, including smart collections like shortcuts that appear in the Share Sheet and shortcuts you can run on Apple Watch, plus folders that you create yourself, complete with icons of your choice.
Editing a shortcut has also been revamped, with the list of actions you can search from relocated to the right hand side of the screen. Blocks in shortcuts now have contextual actions available via long-pressing on them, though, after a lot of trial and error, I discovered that you have to make sure to tap on the name of the block. That menu lets you get info about actions as well as delete, copy and paste, favorite, or duplicate them.
Moving, copying, and pasting large blocks of actions is also much easier. If you’ve got a big set of actions inside an If or Repeat block, tapping and holding on the parent block will collapse it all into one box that you can easily drag around.
And the Shortcuts app now supports multiple windows, meaning you can have two shortcuts open at once, if you need to refer to one while working on another, or even copy and paste between them. (No dragging and dropping blocks between the two windows, however.) All of this promises to enable even easier and more powerful shortcut creation.
While the iPad benefits from most of the features that also appear in iOS 14, two of the most radical redesigns have not, alas, made their way to the iPad. If you were excited about the promise of the new App Library feature to let you better organize your apps on the iPad, sorry to say that’s a non-starter so far: you’ll have to keep all your apps in their folders and all your home screens visible.
The same goes for widgets, which made their homescreen debut in last year’s inaugural iPadOS release. But where iOS 14 allows you to mix them in with the app icons on your homescreen, iPadOS keeps them sequestered to that one optional column in landscape mode. They do at least get the new widget architecture underneath the hood, so you’ll be able to access the widget gallery, choose your widget sizes, and organize them into a Smart Stack that uses machine learning to theoretically show you the widgets you want when you want them.
iPad OS 14 leaves out a handful of other features introduced in iOS 14: for example, though Apple has implemented an emoji popover that appears when you’re using a hardware keyboard, it (and the normal emoji soft keyboard) have no search box, as on the iPhone. This is a disappointment to those who’ve long looked for an easier way to find a specific emoji.
Likewise, Apple still makes it clear that the iPad is not the primary device that most people are living on. There’s still no Health app, nor does the iPad benefit from the new Wind Down feature that’s been added to the iPhone.
Don’t beta the farm
With these initial Public Beta releases, Apple opens its pre-release software up to a wider pool of users than the developers who’ve tinkered with the first couple betas. That’s bound to not only expose more bugs, but also provide a far wider degree of use cases.
Every year’s beta process is a little different; some years, the company seems to make changes based on user demands, other years, it seems clear that Apple knows what it wants from the get-go, and little will change its mind. The next two months will demonstrate which kind of year this is going to be.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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