iPadOS 16 preview: jack of all trades, master of some

The iPad is Apple’s most versatile device. I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment, at least not entirely: there’s no other device in Apple’s lineup that can do more things in more ways, but Apple has spent the last couple of years adding so many features, input methods, and UI systems to its tablet that it’s starting to feel a bit… crufty.

I’ve been using the iPadOS 16 beta for a bit now ahead of the public beta that’s launching today. Even for an early beta, iPadOS 16 itself feels relatively polished and functional — though I’d never recommend installing beta software onto your main device — but the apps running on it don’t. As the iPad becomes a more flexible device, developers have a surprising amount of work to do for their apps to work seamlessly everywhere.

iPadOS 16 is a big step in the direction of user choice and flexibility, and it comes with lots of features I really like. But my overall feeling after a few weeks is that the iPad is a stupendously powerful device… and I increasingly have no idea how to use it. Should I use the touchscreen or the trackpad? Do I want to use Stage Manager to switch between apps or the funky two-apps-and-slide-over multitasking system or just do one app at a time? Which apps should I put on the external monitor, and which apps work better on the small screen? Apple’s answer would be that it doesn’t matter. It all works well, so you can use it however you like! That’s often true, but I can’t help but wish Apple had more opinions on the subject.

Power users only

If you’re the kind of person who uses an iPad as your main workhorse, iPadOS 16 is for you. Just the ability to plug in an external monitor and use it as a second screen is a game-changer for anyone who spends hours a day doing work on their iPad. The process is pretty seamless: you can buy a specific USB-C to HDMI cable, but my USB-C hub worked well, too, and as soon as I plugged it in, it popped up a second screen with its own dock ready to go.

The iPad assumes the second screen is above it by default, so you drag windows up from your iPad onto your second screen. (You can tweak this in Settings.) Most apps just treat the monitor as a really big iPad with no touchscreen, which works well enough, but a few get crazy with it: Netflix played everything turned 90 degrees to the right, for instance, and YouTube expanded into some deeply broken layout I’ve never seen before. These are all solvable problems, and are why betas exist, but this actually isn’t an easy fix for everyone. Should apps actually treat it like a big iPad and give you 30-plus inches of a 10-inch app? Some apps are already built to be responsive and resize nimbly as you move them around, but no iPad developer has had to reckon with screens this size — or this many different sizes, period — before.

A screenshot of iPadOS settings for adding a second monitor.

Managing monitors is easy in iPadOS 16, though not every app works well on the bigger screen.

Stage Manager is the other thing that’s going to cause developers headaches. It’s also likely to be the most controversial thing about iPadOS 16: a new tool for multitasking designed to make it easier to quickly switch between a lot of apps. Once you turn on Stage Manager — it’s actually off by default, so you have to actively decide to use it before it appears — it puts four “piles” of apps onto the left side of your screen, like a dock of your various screen configurations. (“Pile” is Apple software chief Craig Federighi’s term, not mine, and it’s not particularly flattering, but it’s pretty accurate.) I have my calendar, to-do list, and notes app in one pile, Slack and email in another, and Spotify and Pocket Casts in a third. It’s not a replacement for the other ways of multitasking — just a new way to use a lot of apps at a time.

We’ll reserve full judgment for our review this fall, but so far, I hate Stage Manager. The piles take up too much room on the screen, and it takes way too much work to place the app windows just so. (One funny beta moment: when you turn on Stage Manager, it instantly forces the Settings app to render at a size it doesn’t support, and it breaks. Lots of other apps do, too.) When you open a full-screen app, you’re out of Stage Manager, and it’s not obvious how to get back or put things into the piles.

A screenshot of three apps and Stage Manager on iPadOS 16.

Stage Manager makes more apps accessible at once, but it doesn’t make much sense.

It might be better, oddly enough, if Stage Manager completely took over the device when you turned it on. But you can still Command-Tab your way through apps, use Mission Control, and open two apps side by side with a third slid over. It’s just too many ways to mess with your apps. So far, I’ve seen nothing about it that’s more useful than the side-by-side multitasking Apple has offered for years, and I’m going to turn State Manager off as soon as I finish… this paragraph.

Collaboration is the other big power-user feature in iPadOS 16. Apple’s building real-time collaboration tools into Pages, Keynote, and Numbers, along with a way to share tab groups in Safari. The system for sharing and collaborating works really well. You just send a link to someone, and as long as they’re also using the latest software, they immediately have access to your documents. But “real-time collaboration” is a bit of a stretch here. When my colleague Dan Seifert and I were in a Pages doc together, it seemed to update every sentence or so, so we were constantly writing over top of each other. Tools like Google Docs and Figma do this kind of co-authoring much more seamlessly.

The most collaboration-friendly Apple app doesn’t exist yet: it’s called Freeform, and it’s Apple’s infinite whiteboard answer to the Figmas and Miros of the world. The app is scheduled for release later this year, so I wasn’t able to test it, but that will be the truest test of how well Apple can let people actually work together.

A screenshot of shared Safari tabs in iPadOS 16.

Sharing tabs and documents is easy, but real-time collaboration isn’t quite in real time yet.

For now, think of document collaboration more like shared photo albums; you’re making sure you’ll always have the most updated thing, and you can look at them together, but it’s not great for multiple people mucking around in the file.

Again, this is all beta software, so much of the success of iPadOS 16 will come down to how developers change their apps to match. For collaboration, Apple’s treating the tech as a sort of Collaboration as a Service tool, though, offering some of the front-end features — inviting someone to collaborate in Messages, bringing a FaceTime call into the app while you’re working together — to third-party developers. But the actual collaborative work will be handled by the app itself, so they could conceivably do it better than Apple.

Keep an eye also on how many apps you use ship updates that take advantage of Apple’s “size classes,” which is how Apple describes an app’s ability to shift to different sizes on the iPad’s screen. Size class support is how apps fit in slide over, side by side, and now, in the iPad’s other display modes, too. Gmail and many others have been resolutely full screen-only for years, and for iPadOS 16 to really work, those apps are going to need to be much more resizable.

Oh, and there’s one other developer unknown: Apple has been touting the idea that the iPad is getting “desktop-class apps,” but so far, there’s not much of that to see in the App Store. What that seems to mean is that Apple is bringing a more consistent menu bar to the iPad in hopes of making settings and tools easier to find across apps. It’s also bringing undo and redo to more apps and making search a more universally accessible tool as well. Apple’s even rethinking how printing works from the iPad, which tells you exactly who these features are for. The menu bar is a particularly good idea given how many apps tend to bury their settings behind inscrutable icons, but we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.

Still a big iPhone

Most of the rest of what’s coming to iPadOS 16 matches what’s coming to iOS 16 on the iPhone. You’ll get the new Messages features that let you mark a message as unread or edit a message after you send it; the new Passkeys that aim to replace your insecure passwords; and a bunch of handy new accessibility features that improve everything from making calls to on-device captions for videos and FaceTime calls.

Most of Apple’s built-in apps are getting some love in iPadOS 16, too. The Home app’s redesign looks nice and definitely puts more controls front and center on the page — but the real shift is going to be when Apple moves to a “new architecture” for HomeKit that seems like it’s not going to support the iPad as a Home hub anymore. We’ll have to report back on that one. The Notes app is getting some better organization tools that will automatically show you recent notes, notes with attachments, or notes you’ve shared with other people, which I’ve found pretty handy. And, as an inveterate to-do list addict, the addition of templates and pinned lists to Reminders makes me much happier than it should. Oh, and there’s a Weather app! It’s… a Weather app! On the iPad! What a concept!

Look! A weather app on the iPad!

Most of these features don’t include much in the way of iPad-specific features or design, though, instead just lifting from what’s also coming to the iPhone. One thing I wish were coming? More lock screen controls. The iPhone’s lock screen is getting a total overhaul, but the iPad’s still just a clock and a bunch of notifications. I think I understand the logic here, which is that the iPhone is a much more glanceable device, and you’re rarely going to turn on your iPad unless you plan to do something with it. But I don’t buy that logic. I’d rather be able to control and customize my lock screen. And I really, really want widgets on there.

The cynical way to read iPadOS 16 would be to think of the iPad as a device caught between two worlds, unsure of whether it’s a big iPhone or a touchscreen MacBook, and suffering as a result. The more optimistic view — which I think I still subscribe to — is that the iPad could actually be all things to all people, the best of all worlds, a power-user device that’s also incredibly approachable, and it’s just going to be a long journey to get there. In its best moments, iPadOS 16 feels like there’s no job it can’t handle. In its worst, it feels like it’s trying way, way too hard. So many times, I found myself flinching as I tapped the three-dot button at the top of a window to resize it because who knew what was about to happen?

More so than usual, the next few months will be crucial for iPadOS 16. As Apple makes its operating system more flexible, it needs developers to do the same with their apps or else it risks having users constantly caught between past and future systems. Apple’s better than anyone at cajoling developers into keeping up with the times, but nearly everything cool about the new software — from the collaboration and the multiscreen support to even maybe making Stage Manager useful — will require developers to think as broadly about the iPad’s possibilities as Apple does.

And eventually, Apple’s going to need to have fewer and better ideas about multitasking. Because whatever the future looks like, I don’t think it’s piles.

Photography by David Pierce / The Verge

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