Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

End users aren't your enemy! Kolide gets users to fix their own device compliance problems–and unsecure devices can't log in. Click here to learn how.

By Jason Snell

First Look: iPadOS 17 Public Beta

The new Lock Screen lets you view Live Activities and Widgets

These days, many new iPadOS features have spent a year incubating on the iPhone. (Or, to put it less charitably, Apple builds for the iPhone first and makes iPads wait to get the good stuff.) This year is no different, as iPadOS 17—now available in a public beta version—integrates the customized Lock Screen introduced last year on the iPhone, but doesn’t get access to the customized contact cards introduced for iOS 17.

Still, iPad users will find several major improvements in this version, including the arrival of an app that has long been absent on the iPad. And perhaps the best news of all is that one of the banner features of iPadOS 16 has been dramatically improved this time around.

(And of course, many of this year’s OS features are available not just on the iPad but also on the iPhone and Mac, so we’ve broken out some of the common features in another piece.)

A new Lock Screen

The new iPad Lock Screen takes its cues from iOS 16, but offers some iPad twists. The fundamental interface is the same as on the iPhone—you can tap and hold on the Lock Screen to enter a customization interface that lets you switch between Lock Screens and create new screens. (You can also set different Lock Screens to appear when you’re in specific Focus modes.)

You can set the fonts and colors used on the clock display, and the background image can be something you pick from your photo library, live weather and astronomy images, kaleidoscopes, emoji, and more. Photo Shuffles let you dynamically shuffle through images of a specific type, like landscapes or even pictures of specific people. My favorite is the ability to pick a Live Photo as a Lock Screen image, with the Live Photo animated when you wake up your iPad. I chose a picture I took on a boat in Milford Sound in New Zealand, and every time I open my iPad, the water splashes up toward the camera. (I got very, very wet.)

iOS 16 let iPhones add a new class of widgets to the Lock Screen, but they were limited to a single row. iPadOS 17 uses the extra screen space of the iPad and lets you add a load of lock-screen widgets down the left side. I’ve already stuck a few in there and I’m looking forward to shopping for even more because there’s just so much space.

Another iOS 16 feature picked up in iPadOS 17 is support for Live Activities. These dynamically updated notification boxes can now live on the iPad Lock Screen as well, so you can keep track of a flight in Flighty or a baseball game via the MLB app or a running timer from the Clock app.

Perhaps you are thinking, as I did, that it’s a shame all this information is stuck out on the Lock Screen, when most of the time the Lock Screen only appears briefly as Face ID unlocks your iPad. That’s true, but the good news is that if you swipe down from the top of the screen, you’re not just bringing down Notification Center—you’re bringing down your entire Lock Screen. So that single swipe-down gesture gets you access to your notifications, widgets, Live Activities, and a pretty picture. Nice.

The Health app, at last

health app

I’ll admit it, I use my iPad far more than I use my iPhone. I sleep with the iPad next to my bed, not the iPhone. And it’s always frustrated me that my health data is not available for me to view on the device I prefer and in a big, expansive interface that can better display the graphs from the Health app.

That all changed in iPadOS 17, which allows your iPad to sync health data from your iPhone and display it in the new, iPad-expanded Health app. Now I can have quick access on my preferred device to my health trends, which I never think to look at when I’m on my iPhone. In just a few weeks, I am already browsing my health data—and using it to motivate me—far more than I did when it was on my iPhone.

Even better, Apple has brought HealthKit to iPadOS17, meaning that a bunch of health-oriented devices now can connect to an iPad. I bought a sleep tracker that I never really got the hang of, in part because I had to keep my iPhone nearby when I slept, which I just don’t do. Similarly, I’ve got a smart Blood Pressure monitor that I don’t use as often as I should because it requires me to go get my iPhone rather than using the iPad that’s right there. As of iPadOS17, those devices should be able to connect and work with my iPad. Great news.

Stage Manager actually manages

A window in the center, and one on the left! Typical Mac stuff, but impossible on Stage Manager before iPadOS 17.

The biggest iPad feature of last year, Stage Manager, gave users the optional ability to manage individual app windows like a Mac user would. You could resize them and drag them around, positioning them where you wanted them to be. Sort of.

That “sort of” was the problem, you see. Stage Manager was trying to bring a Mac-like windowing interface to iPadOS, but missed one of the most important reasons why windowing interfaces are useful: namely, that the user chooses where to put the windows. Stage Manager offered the illusion of choice, but if you tried to place a window somewhere it didn’t want you to, it would override your choice and slide the window somewhere else.

I frequently work with a single window in the center of my screen (where I’m writing) with a window positioned behind and to the left (with a document I’m consulting.) I’m doing it right now, in fact. But in iPadOS 16, Stage Manager would see two open windows and force them to be side by side. But that’s not what I wanted! I wanted my writing window dead center on the screen. It was so frustrating—so close, and yet so far.

So the good news: in iPadOS 17, Stage Manager really will let you put windows wherever you want. I can actually configure a setup where my writing is dead center and a single window hangs behind on the left side, and it all works. The obsessive nitpicky brain that refused to let me put windows wherever I want has been silenced. It’s a small thing, and yet at the same time, it’s a massive, transformational improvement.

Stage Manager works very hard to make sure you can always see windows that are “hidden” behind other windows.

I always suspected that Apple’s reluctance to let iPad users manage their own windows was the knowledge that the biggest failure of a layered windowing interface is that users can “lose” windows behind other windows. In iPadOS 17, Apple has solved this problem in a clever way. If you’ve got a window that will be obscured by another one, the window will move so that its edge is sticking out just behind the obscuring window. If you tap that window to bring it forward, it returns to its previous location. It’s an inspired accommodation that means it’s unlikely that you’ll ever lose a window in Stage Manager, while allowing users to put their windows where they want them. Very smart.

Unfortunately, one of my most hoped-for features for Stage Manager didn’t make it into iPadOS 17: you can’t run the iPad on an external display with its internal screen shut off, as you can when a MacBook runs in lid-closed mode. Not only can the second screen be distracting, but there’s stuff Apple insists on displaying on the iPad screen, and sometimes apps get thrown over to the iPad screen when you don’t want them there.

I suspect that Apple wants to offer this feature, but that there are a bunch of engineering steps required to make it so that iPadOS never has to fall back to its internal display. One of those steps is actually on display in iPadOS 17: support for external webcams, including the one in the Apple Studio Display. Now if you want to attach to a Studio Display and make a FaceTime call, you’ll be able to use the display’s camera rather than having to go back to your iPad. It’s a good start, but I really want to see iPadOS completely embrace the idea that when you’re docked at a big external display, you can close the iPad’s cover and forget that the small screen is even part of the process. We’re not there yet, unfortunately, but we’re closer than we were before.

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors