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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

iPadOS 17 Review: A fitting stage, at last

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 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

Live Photos animate when you pick up your iPad.

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 running timers from the Clock app.

Perhaps you are thinking, as I was, that it’s a shame all this information is set 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.

Still, it might be a good idea if the iPad had an area where you could look at any time for a quick status update about stuff currently going on. It would need to be dynamic and set off from the rest of the interface in some sort of island…? Oh well, I’m sure the idea will occur to someone eventually.

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. It’s always frustrated me that my health data is not available 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 changes 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. I’ve found it valuable (and motivating!) to browse my health data on my iPad. There’s more room for all those charts and graphs, and a new sidebar makes it easy to dig into every subcategory.

Even better, Apple has brought HealthKit to iPadOS 17, 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 iPadOS 17, those devices should be able to connect and work with my iPad—but it will require some developers to update their apps. (The maker of my smart blood-pressure cuff, Omron, doesn’t yet support syncing with Health from the iPad. Alas.)

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 iPads 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. It was so frustrating—so close, and yet so far.

I have good news: in iPadOS 17, Stage Manager lets you put windows wherever you want. I can do all that stuff I was forbidden from doing before—a text editor dead center, a couple of reference windows hanging off the left side—and it just works. The obsessive, nitpicky computer adversary that refused to let me put windows wherever I want is gone.

Yes, there are areas where the system will pick up your window and move it slightly up or down or side to side. It mostly happens when the system is trying to line things up properly—for example, you can move a window up a few pixels, and it’ll stay there, but if it gets too close to the top or side of another window, it’ll try to align your window to match. So your window might slide up to be at the same height as the other window, or it might slide right so that the two windows are next to each other rather than being ever-so-slightly overlapping. I don’t mind this behavior, generally, but it does make me wonder if the next frontier for Stage Manager (and for the Mac, too) is a better set of built-in window tiling and resizing features.

It’s also easier to add items to a stage. You can now shift-click from the Dock, Spotlight, and the App Library to add that app to the current stage. Previously, that behavior only worked in the strip on the left side of the screen. Those additions make it a lot easier to store the muscle memory of “shift-click to add” without worrying about shift-clicking in the wrong context and messing things up.

In any event, these subtle changes to window placement have completely transformed how I feel when I’m using Stage Manager. Before, I felt like I was constantly fighting the system. Now, we work in harmony. Stage Manager is something I can actually use to get my job done.

I always suspected that one reason Apple tried to micromanage window placement in Stage Manager was that it’s just too easy to “lose” windows behind other windows in classic windowed interfaces like macOS. 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 you to put windows where you want.

Stage Manager won’t let you lose windows.

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. I suspect that Apple wants to offer this feature but that there are a bunch of features that need to be updated to work on the external display, and they haven’t all made it over yet.

One of those features did make it over, though: iPadOS 17 supports external webcams and microphones. Now, if you want to attach to an Apple Studio Display and a fancy USB microphone and have a FaceTime or Zoom session, you’ll be able to use the display’s camera and your own USB microphone 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, but combined with the window-management improvements of iPadOS 17, we’re closer than we have ever been.

I’ve got one final criticism of iPadOS’s external display support: It doesn’t seem to know what to do with the wallpaper or what we call the Desktop on the Mac. It sure feels like it might be a good place to put a widget or two, especially now that they’re interactive.

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