By Jason Snell
September 20, 2021 9:00 AM PT
iPadOS 15: A closer look
I’ve spent the last three months using pre-release versions of iPadOS 15 on an M1 iPad Pro. In addition to all the features of iOS 15 that Dan has detailed in his full iOS review, there are some iPad-specific aspects worth discussing separately.
Overall, this is a solid update. Never once did I regret updating my iPad Pro, which I use for many hours each day for both business and personal tasks, to a beta release. Still, some features are more notable than others.
Blast from the past: Widgets and App Library
iOS 14 introduced widgets that can live on the iPhone and iPad home screen. The problem was that while widgets could live anywhere on the iPhone, they were limited to a single column at the left side of the first page of the iPad’s home screen. Expanding that functionality seemed inevitable, and with iPadOS 15 iPad users can now place widgets pretty much anywhere, on any page of the home screen.
That’s great, but I wanted more after waiting a year. Apple’s clever solution to how widgets would fit into the iPad’s differently-sized app grid was to expand the app grid. Everything’s a little wider apart, so that one small widget fits in the same space as a single app icon (with an enormous amount of padding around the icon, of course). The net result is a home screen that feels even more hilariously sparse than the iPad home screen has always felt—at least until you start adding widgets to the screen to add extra density.
I’m also a bit frustrated about how placing widgets works. They slide around on the screen, pushing apps around as you move them. When you place one widget, it may slide a bunch of apps around, pushing other widgets around, forcing you to move every widget to get them all back together. Moving around apps is even more ungainly when some of them are the width of two apps (medium-sized widgets) or take up a 2×2 space (large widgets) or even two rows and four columns (the new x-large widget size). And of course, since apps wrap differently in portrait and landscape orientations, you’ll need to edit both orientations in order to get your widgets where you want them. (At least iOS 15 doesn’t force both orientations to keep widgets in the same place—they can be in different places in each.)
In shorts, while being able to add widgets to any iPad home screen is welcome, I’m disappointed Apple didn’t do more here. We waited a year for this?
Speaking of the minimum effort, Apple has also brought the App Library page to the iPad with iPadOS 15. App Library is a page that shows off all the apps on your device, with automatically generated categories and a search box. It doesn’t appear any different from the App Library introduced on the iPhone last year. And while I question App Library’s utility—is it really any better than just offering an alphabetical list of apps, and doesn’t the Spotlight search box work just as well for finding apps?—at least it finally lets iPad users remove app icons from the home screen without deleting them from their device.
Previously, those who wanted tidier home screens would need to hide away apps in junk folders. Being able to remove them altogether while keeping them accessible via a swipe and a couple of taps is a delight. (I’ve removed almost all of my iPad’s apps from my home screen and am now down to a single page with a couple of folders. It’s great.)
New multitasking, new possibilities
Apple has made substantial changes to how multitasking works in iPadOS 15. A lot of these changes are more visual than conceptual, but they lay the groundwork for potential expansion of multitasking features in the future.
At the center of it all is a new multitasking control, which appears at the top of every app window. It looks like three horizontal dots, and you can tap or click on it to send an app into full-screen mode, Split View, or Slide Over. It’s vastly more discoverable than the old (but still there) drag-and-drop gestures and allows you to select a second app for Split View directly from the home screen, including the App Library. There’s also a new window type in certain apps, a “floating window” that displays front and center above the rest of the apps, making it more like what you’d see on a Mac.
Apple has also attempted to refine iPadOS’s concept of an app that has multiple windows open. Now if you tap on the Dock icon of the app that’s currently open, you’ll see a “shelf” containing all the app’s windows, and you can tap to bring them forward or swipe up to close them. (You can also tap the plus icon to make a new window.) I’m not sure it’s the most intuitive approach to window management, but it’s at least navigable once you learn it.
With these features, it feels like Apple is positioning iPadOS to more properly support alternative methods of multitasking, including proper floating windows. (That floating center window, and the new Quick Note window, are strong suggestions that Apple is opening itself up to the idea.) You can also use the multitasking control as a draggable handle to rearrange apps onscreen, making it the equivalent of the title bar on the Mac—a key part of window management.
Apple takes its time and sometimes makes extremely conservative decisions, but it’s hard to believe that iPadOS isn’t headed toward Mac-like multiple window multitasking being an option, especially on larger (and external) displays. Whether the windows will be freeform or follow some strict rules involving tiling, snapping, or some other organizational principle remains to be seen.
Small start, global ambitions
Speaking of new features that augur a more Mac-like future, iPadOS 15 expends its support for app-specific keyboard shortcuts and adds a whole new lexicon of systemwide keyboard shortcuts.
In iPadOS 14, holding down the Command key would display a simple list of app-specific features and key equivalents. In iPadOS 15, Apple has expanded this feature to make it more like the iPad equivalent of the Mac menu bar. Not only does it list keyboard shortcuts, but it can list every command in the app (with suspiciously familiar labels like File and Edit). You can click or tap any of them to execute them. iPad apps that build out the Mac menu bar for their Catalyst version can pick this feature up for free. It’s another way that the Mac and iPad are increasingly complementing one another.
Then there’s the Globe key. Initially intended for supporting multiple languages, in iPadOS 15, the Globe key has become something much bigger: it’s a symbol for global keyboard shortcuts. (The Globe key appears on most modern Apple keyboards. If your keyboard doesn’t have a Globe key, don’t worry—you can use the Hardware Keyboard settings area to map a less-used modifier key such as Caps Lock to the Globe key.)
Hold down the Globe key in any app in iPadOS 15, and instead of seeing app-specific commands, you’ll see a list of functions that are available everywhere on the iPad. (They’re global shortcuts, you see.) These menus are full of shortcuts to open a Quick Note (Globe-Q), activate Control Center (Globe-C), and pretty much any other system-level area, including multitasking. (You can put apps into Split View and Slide Over, pop them back into full screen, and cycle between apps, all via Globe key shortcuts.)
Given that we already have Command, Control, and Option keys, do we really need a Globe key, too? To be sure, it’s an embarrassment of modifiers—but those other keys are used for all sorts of in-app shortcuts1. The Globe key is unencumbered by any previous use, so Apple can think globally without colliding with established shortcuts.
The potential on the iPad is enormous. It seems almost inevitable that Shortcuts will let users assign Globe-key shortcuts that will work in any app, giving users keyboard control over their automations. Another logical addition: support for functions Apple relegated to the function row, given that Apple’s own iPad keyboards lack that row. I’d love global iPad shortcut keys for brightness, volume, and media playback.
As with multitasking features, keyboard features in iPadOS 15 offer a little bit of nice functionality today and a lot of hope for the future. Yes, I wish that future were already here, but I am encouraged that it’s coming soon.
Floating a Quick Note
The new Quick Notes feature in iPadOS 15 is also a part of macOS Monterey, but it’s an iPad feature at heart. Swipe up from the bottom right corner of the screen (or type Globe-Q) in any app and a floating window from the Notes app will appear, allowing you to quickly jot down a thought (with keyboard or Apple Pencil) without leaving your current app.
Quick Notes are saved in their own folder in the Notes app, but they’re just regular notes. In apps that support sharing particular kinds of metadata with other apps, you can also choose to add that metadata to your note. For example, if you take a note on a specific webpage in Safari, you can embed a link to that page (and even selected text!) in your note. Certain Apple apps (namely Safari) can reciprocate, too—when you visit a noted page, you’ll get a hint that there’s a linked Quick Note you can open.
You can close the Quick Note window to make it disappear completely, or swipe it off to the side, where it behaves a bit like a Picture in Picture video window—there’s a semi-transparent tab decorated with an arrow on the side of the screen indicating that the Quick Note window is waiting to reappear when you tap on it.
I like this feature a lot. It’s a clever way of working around iPadOS’s historical focus on using a single app at a time. Sometimes you want to take notes on something you see in another app, whether it’s a webpage, a movie, or a book. Yes, you could open Notes in Split View or Slide Over, but a smaller resizable, movable and minimizable floating window is a much better option.
Safari tabs are… different
In June, Apple introduced a fairly dramatic redesign of Safari, destined for iPadOS 15. After hearing a lot of criticism of the design, Apple made changes, and while Safari in iPadOS 15 has an updated interface, it’s much better than was originally proposed.
The two big interface changes are to tabs and to the background color of the browser itself. Tabs have been redesigned to look less like tabs and more like tappable lozenges. The change seems unnecessary, more of a residue of proposed and withdrawn design changes than a needed feature of its own. It breaks the metaphor of tabs as connected to the content below it. When the favorites bar is displayed, it’s below the tabs—even though the favorites bar is a permanent part of the Safari interface regardless of which tab is selected. It’s nonsensical.
By default, the Safari interface picks up an accent color based on the color of the currently active tab. This is a color selected by a Safari algorithm that’s trying to pick something harmonious with the rest of the page. So if your Safari toolbar turns purple all of a sudden, that’s why. When this works, it’s pretty effective, but it also unleashes a kaleidoscope of colors on your interface. The good news is that if you hate it, you can turn it off in the Safari section of the Settings app.
The other major new Safari feature in iPadOS 15 is Tab Groups, which lets you have multiple sets of open tabs that you can toggle between, meaning you don’t need to have dozens of tabs open in a single window or scattered across multiple windows. Instead, you can keep tab sets for various tasks in their own groups and toggle between them.
Even better: Tab Groups sync via iCloud, so any of your Apple devices running iOS 15, iPadOS 15, or macOS Monterey will show the very same pages in the same groups. And these aren’t bookmarks: If you’re in a Tab Group and open a new tab, it goes in that group and syncs to all other devices. If you navigate to a different page, the group gets updated.
I especially appreciate how easy it is to get to this feature quickly on the iPad. Tap and hold on the sidebar icon, and you’ll see a pop-up menu that lets you switch to a different Tab Group. It’s also easy to add a tab to a group by tapping and holding on that tab, then choosing where to send it.
Apple is trying to improve browsing by allowing you to get your tabs in order and have them available wherever you happen to be. It’s not a feature for everyone, but it’s smart, works pretty well, and will be a boon for many users.
Coming soon: Universal Control
In the battle of Mac versus iPad, for years, I’ve been “team both.” I use a Mac at my desk and an iPad when I’m around the house or in the backyard. And these days when I travel, I generally bring both because the iPad (still, even in iPadOS 15) doesn’t have the software skills to let me reliably record podcasts on its own.
So I was very excited in June by the announcement of the new Universal Control feature, which lets me connect a Mac and an iPad (and multiple Macs, and multiple iPads) and control them all with a single keyboard and pointing device. It’s got a lot of potential for those of us on “team both.”
Unfortunately, Universal Control is delayed until later on in this release cycle. I’m okay with Apple delaying features that aren’t quite ready, and Universal Control is so not ready that it never even made an appearance in this summer’s beta-testing program. It needs more time to bake, but it could be a great feature for iPadOS users when it arrives.
The bottom line
It doesn’t feel like the iPad got the short end of the stick in this update cycled. There’s a lot here like, and suggestions of even bigger changes to come. That said, it still feels like the iPad home screen needs a proper revamp—but after years of waiting, what iOS 15 provides is more like another patch job on an interface that desperately needs a wholesale rethink.
The best new feature of iPadOS 15 is probably Quick Note. I like it a lot, and yet on the Mac it’s practically a pointless feature. What makes Quick Note on the iPad notable is that it’s a window that floats over other app windows—it breaks the tiled-app paradigm that has been a part of iPadOS and iOS from day one. If having the ability to float a single Notes window above another window and move it around on screen is one of the more exciting features in iPadOS 15, imagine how exciting it would be if Apple actually extended that functionality to every app in the system.
Baby steps. I’ll take my Quick Notes window, my Globe-key shortcuts, and my multitasking indicator, and I’ll like them. But I want more, and iPadOS is just not ready to deliver it.
- I guess you could say… they act locally. 😎 ↩
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