Upcoming iPad software is what we’ve been waiting for

This Wall Street Journal preview of the the upcoming iPadOS describes software that will finally make an iPad fully functional.

iPadOS Review: The Software Your iPad Has Been Waiting For

Apple has transformed the iPad from a bigger iPhone to a better MacBook, with a more powerful browser, support for external drives and better multitasking

For the first time since 2010, when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad, Apple AAPL 0.61% ’s tablet is no longer just a big iPhone.

A new version of iPad software, called iPadOS, gives the iPad new powers and makes it more useful for multitasking and all kinds of work. It might still not feel exactly like your laptop, but it can now do just about everything your PC can. And, great news: The iPad doesn’t have a butterfly keyboard.

Many of the best features of Apple’s upcoming iOS 13, including a systemwide dark mode, are also coming to iPadOS. At the same time, the iPad is getting a few unique features, like the ability to put widgets on your home screen. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

The new iPadOS launches officially this fall, but it is available now in a public beta. In my early tests, the software is a little buggy, and a lot of apps aren’t fully compatible, so please don’t install it on your primary device just yet. But iPadOS has already changed my opinion of iPads. Apple’s tablet still isn’t going to kill the Mac—but it might be all the computer you need. And did I mention you can now connect a mouse?

What’s a Computer?

As good as recent iPads have been, they couldn’t be your only computer. Getting things done involved too many apps, moving files around was too complicated, and there were some things, like reading a USB flash drive, that the iPad simply couldn’t do. You still needed a just-in-case laptop or desktop for when the iPad simply didn’t have an app for that.

Two new features of iPadOS help shrink the list of things you just can’t do on an iPad down to almost nothing.

•Safari, the iPad’s default web browser, now acts like a full-featured Mac browser. In fact, it tells websites that it’s a Mac, so you always get the full web experience. No longer do you land on hamstrung mobile sites or, worse, get kicked to an app—thanks for nothing, Google Docs. Since so much of our computing life takes place on the web, this is the single most important new iPadOS feature.

In addition to having multiple apps open side-by-side on your iPad, you can also open an app in a slim window over the top of whatever else you’re doing. With iPadOS, you can store multiple apps in this space: It’s the fastest way to get to email, text messages and more. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

•Now you can plug just about any external drive into an iPad and use it like a normal drive in the iPad’s Files app. (You might need a Lightning or USB-C adapter, though, so keep reading.) That is crucial for dealing with photos, trading files around the office or simply backing up all your stuff. You can zip and unzip files—just long-press and tap Compress—and move them between drives, too. As long as there’s an app on your iPad to open a file, it will open from any drive you have.

A powerful web browser and file manager bring the iPad much closer to parity with the Mac. And, of course, the iPad already had a lot going for it, from its huge App Store to the Apple Pencil. The rest of iPadOS is about making all that stuff easier to use.

It’s How You Use It

Much of the other new stuff in iPadOS is also coming to iOS 13, the software that powers the iPhone. I like the systemwide dark mode—obviously—as well as big improvements to apps like Photos and Reminders. I especially like that I can now say, “Hey Siri, play Billie Eilish on Spotify” instead of having to use Apple Music. But we’ll come back to iOS 13 another day.

Where iPadOS differs most from iOS 13 is in all the places Apple tried to give you more. More information on every screen, more ways to get around, more tools for getting stuff done.

For instance: You can now pin widgets to the left side of your home screen. I have my Google calendar and my TickTick to-do list there, and it’s hugely helpful.

Mouse support is still considered an accessibility feature on the iPad, meant for those who can’t use a touch screen; it’s also a slightly odd experience on an iPad. But if you want to use a mouse on your tablet, you can. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

And now, in addition to having two apps side by side with a third floating over top, you can open multiple windows of the same app. I use it all the time for looking at one email while composing another, or consulting an outline in Notes as I compose a story next to it. You can open up a bunch of those small popover windows at once, too, and swipe through them like you’re switching apps on an iPhone.

The new windowing system is definitely more powerful, but it takes practice to figure out. When you first update, you’ll see a pop-up offering to explain the gestures. Don’t just wave it away. Pay attention, take notes.

Apple made some improvements to text editing, adding new gestures for things like copy and paste, plus a handy three-finger swipe to undo anything you just did. But forget all that: I finally have a mouse connected to my iPad.

If you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, the iPad now shows you every window from every app you have open. Now that you can open multiple windows from a single app, this ‘Spaces’ window becomes the best way to navigate your tablet. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

It’s technically an accessibility feature, and a buried one: Go to Settings > Touch > AssistiveTouch > Pointing Devices. But even the big, blunt cursor makes scrolling websites and selecting text so much easier. I’ve long believed the combination of touch and mouse is better than relying on one or the other, and this implementation, however limited, proves it.

After spending a few weeks using iPadOS, the thing I miss most about my Mac is all the ways I can customize it. I use Chrome, not Safari, but iPadOS won’t let me change the default browser. I use Spotify, not Apple Music—same problem. My Mac has lots of browser extensions, a tool called Alfred I use for keyboard-shortcutting my way around my computer, and lots of other big and small tweaks to my computing experience. The iPad still makes you do things Apple’s way.

If you can live without the endless tweakability of a full-fledged laptop—and I suspect most users can—an iPad running iPadOS can be your primary computer. You’ll need some extra gear, though.


What would drive you to replace your desktop or laptop with an iPad? What would keeping you from making the switch? Join the conversation below.

Start with a keyboard: I recommend getting something from Brydge, which makes nifty keyboard attachments that look and feel better than anything Apple makes. For users of the latest iPad Pro models, I’d also recommend getting a USB-C adapter like the $60 Satechi Pro Hub, for plugging in all the hard drives and accessories that finally work on your iPad. If your iPad has a Lightning port instead, Apple’s $39 Lightning-to-USB adapter should do the trick.

Before you rush to install iPadOS, Apple still needs time to squash the software’s bugs, and app developers need time to adopt the new features. But you also should hold off on buying a laptop between now and then. For many users, come fall, Apple’s tablet will also be its best computer.

(Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a commercial agreement to supply news through Apple services.)

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