Eliseo Martelli

iPadOS, a year-long review

October 31, 2020 - 🕒 7 minutes read

What's an iPad? Is it a real computer? You might ask. Well, long story short: you can look at it as a computer only if your use-cases match what Apple envisioned for it. Let’s take a deep dive into it.

A confused iPad

iPadOS is a fun computing platform designed for a touch-first interaction model, and let me get this straight: it excels at it.
If you take a look at competing platforms like Windows, ChromeOS, or Android, you will see ecosystems that are far from perfect on tablets.
These platforms are designed with input paradigms tied to a mouse and a keyboard or a smartphone interface.
The iPad, on the other hand, is distinctive and what sets it apart is the App ecosystem.
However, this shouldn't be an invitation to Apple to stop fixing things or adding new features to the iPad.

There's an app for that

The iPad platform offers a clean slate that developers are happy to use and develop for. The App Store is full of pretty good iPad apps.
The quality of these apps is usually top-notch and the often powerful chips on these devices help to deliver a smooth experience.

Looking through an Android user's perspective, one of the most fascinating things is that the developer adoption of new frameworks or new hardware features is always fast. Developers are keen on updating their apps to take advantage of these new features. There's always something fresh on the iPad and each iPadOS update brings new features to the table.

Productivity & Creativity

One of the main reasons I bought an iPad is to run productivity apps. Apple took a great stance with the introduction of the Apple Pencil and the Smart Keyboard(s). The iPad has become a productivity-first device and not another content consumption machine.

Apps like GoodNotes, Pretext, or Concepts feel right at home on the iPad. Starting from iPadOS 13.4, the addition of first-class mouse support on the iPad brought exciting new possibilities to this platform.

Creativity-oriented apps on the iPad are powerful yet simple. You will comfortably adapt from a keyboard and mouse workflow to the iPad since creating something on it requires less cognitive load.
I'm a big fan of apps like Procreate (even though I can't draw). Keep in mind that developers are bringing more and more desktop apps to the iPad. On the App Store, you'll see names like Affinity Designer, Affinity Photo. There's even a slice of Adobe Creative Cloud apps on the iPad!

Input on the iPad

I feel like this is an area of the iPad experience that can take a little revision. Input feels fluid, some of the interactions are well presented and understandable but there are times I find them very confusing.

Just look at this video by Apple Support. It's just scratching the surface. Now add a trackpad, a keyboard, and the Apple Pencil. It's gesture-ville!
There's even a shake-to-undo gesture on by default and the best time to discover it is when you're trying to get something done inside a vehicle.

Undo typing popup
Oh, Hi! Hello there!

Apple Pencil, a must that comes at a price

The Apple Pencil is one of the accessories that separate the iPad experience from other tablets. It's not an extension of your fingers. It's a tool designed for content creation.
With iPadOS 14 and the introduction of Scribble and handwriting editing, you can use the Apple Pencil on a lot more apps.

The Apple Pencil

If you're using the iPad for anything more other than content consumption, the Pencil is a must.

The responsiveness of the Pencil is remarkable. It feels like you're writing on paper. There are only one problem and two annoyances:

  1. It costs 1/3 of the cheapest iPad;
  2. Placement and charging of the first generation is ridiculous (solved by the second generation);
  3. Not every part of the iPad interface supports it (more on this later).

Mouse and Keyboard

The default software keyboard is okay. It's the only keyboard I know that supports split typing on the iPad. It's responsive most of the time. The only problem I encountered with it is when using a combination of keyboard-based input and the new "Scribble" feature.

When you add a physical keyboard and a mouse to the iPad equation, it starts feeling like a real computer. Text interaction is instantly natural. If you're coming from a macOS machine, the majority of the shortcuts are the same.

The mouse/trackpad experience on the iPad is far from the desktop-like experience and not in a bad way. The cursor is optimized for touch-first interfaces and morphs into the UI element you're trying to point and click and sticks to it, like a magnet.

Multitasking

iPadOS is a focus-centric operating system. It has interesting multitasking abilities although, for me, they are meant to be used in a burst when a single app on screen can be limiting.

I find myself using the "Slideover" feature a lot when I need to check on something quickly and not strictly related to the main task. Instead, I use the split-screen feature to reference notes and transfer data between apps.

The discoverability factor of the various multitasking features is pretty low. How am I supposed to know, at a glance, that there are multiple drop targets for the apps?

A limitation that may seem small of the iPad multitasking is that it's only limited to apps you have in the dock or dragged from Spotlight. You will quickly realize that it's not a small limitation when you can't trigger Spotlight from other apps if you don't have a keyboard attached.

Something funny about the multitasking UI is that you can't use it with the Apple Pencil. Strange. I can drag files and apps just fine with the Pencil elsewhere in the system.

Settings

I feel like settings on iPadOS are flawed. The idea of centralizing everything under one roof looks good even though it's not something every developer adapted their apps for. You'll find a lot of inconsistencies and settings scattered between the app and the Settings app.

Procreate inside Settings App

Settings inside Procreate
Procreate settings example

What are the criteria used to move a setting from one screen to another? I will never know.

Home Screen

The iPad home screen remained simple even with the advent of iPadOS 14. I'd love to see widgets on the home screen like the iOS counterpart. The icon grid is well-spaced. Selecting the "more" option is something you should do immediately.

I wish Apple gave us the ability to use the App Library on the iPad since the home screen can get messy when you have a lot of apps.

File Management

File management on the iPad happens inside the "Files" app. You can also see connected external drives in the Files app.
The iPad doesn't expose its whole filesystem to apps. Inter-app communication can happen in two ways: FileProvider or the share sheet.

Pretext and iSH
Pretext and iSH working togheter via the FileProvider Framework.

Apps using the FileProvider Framework can see other apps files and work with them. It's a little feature that can enable powerful workflows on the iPad.
For example, you can connect your camera to your iPad and access pictures from Pixelmator Photo. Edit the images and then save them to Google Drive without switching any app.

Scriptable goodness

Another powerful app on the iPad is "Shortcuts". Shortcuts are like mini-applets that you can make to automate all sorts of things. You can use them to send commands to other machines via SSH or to consume a REST API.

If you're an automation geek you'll feel right at home with its interface.
I use Shortcuts to compress images, control my Torrent box, and shorten URLs.

An illustration of me with an iPad and a heart

Honorable Mentions

  • HomeKit is the fastest way to control my smart home since it controls devices locally and it's not cloud-dependent.
  • Spotlight search is really fast and apps integrate with it nicely.
  • The App Store "Today" view is well-curated and often brings up some hidden gems. App discoverability, in general, is stellar on the iPad.

Wish List

I wish Apple took the developer market more seriously with the iPad. A built-in UNIX shell would make me very happy.
Another wish would be better conferencing app support on the iPad since only FaceTime can use the popup view.

Overall, the iPad is proving a powerful device to learn, create, and consume on. It's making me curious about iOS in general. The iPad is a device that I'm more than happy using. I don't see it parting away from my digital life anytime soon.

© 2021, Eliseo Martelli