Will iPadOS finally let you retire your laptop?

Credit: Apple

Although the idea of using a high-spec tablet like the iPad Pro to replace the laptop-shaped hole in your life has been a notion that Apple have continued to champion for years, the reality of what tablets are and aren’t good at has left something to be desired. 

With the arrival of iPadOS, Apple are claiming that’s going to change. And even if that’s what Apple always say about the iPad these days, you only have to take a brief look at the changes that iPadOS looks to be making to the fundamental tablet experience to flirt with the idea that it might just be true this time around. 

Now, a bit of background. I’ve switched camps between the iOS and Android ecosystem. Once upon a time, I wanted to shirk the masses and do what real punks do by buying into the Android ecosystem with a Samsung Galaxy Neo. However, the Android of 2008 was very different to the Android of 2019, and I was turned off enough by it that I spent a few more years in Tim Cook’s walled-garden. 

Since then, I’ve gone back to being an Android kind of guy - but enough of my friends are having a good time with Apple’s ecosystem that I’m always curious. What is life like back on the other side?

In an effort to find out, I spent a few weeks test-driving the latest iPad Pro to see if this idealistic concept lives up to the hype. Is iPadOS a revolution of the tablet experience or is it Apple’s equivalent of something like Samsung DeX?

What did they change?

The first and most immediate change that’s been made here is the redesigned home screen. 

Credit: Apple

The reworked app grid is a little tighter and it shares screen estate with the new Today widget, which is located towards the left side. Though this kind of interface setup is something you could have always put together yourself using widgets on an Android Tablet, the fact that it's the default here really says something about the kind of user that Apple are trying to court with its next generation of iPads. 

Specifically, it’s trying to articulate the idea that tablets running on iPadOS aren’t just for consuming content - and right from the get go. The kind of everyday user looking to watch movies on a plane is very different from the power users who stand to gain the most from this being the new default. 

This front-facing change comes hand in hand with a range of improvements when it comes to multitasking. Running two apps at once is a lot more fluid and intuitive. You can also use the new Expose feature to run apps on their iOS mode as a floating window. 

Web browsing is also made slightly more advanced in iPad OS, since pages will now load in desktop mode by default. Again, if you’re just using your tablet to consumer content, this might seem like a pretty arbitrary addition. However, if you’re the kind of professional user who requires a desktop page for their workflow, it’s a little bit of a big deal. 

Credit: Apple

The other big addition is support for both external storage and wireless mice. The former is going to be a big boon for those who rely on more advanced iPadOS apps like Adobe’s Lightroom and those who need the ability to easily move and modify files that aren’t locally stored on your iPad. Honestly, there’s a part of me that wishes that Apple would push this side of things further and include a keyboard or mouse in the box. 

It’s not difficult to imagine an iPad Pro with a built-in kickstand and a bundled-in wireless keyboard and mouse going after the Surface Go’s lunch money. I'm even more hopeful that some of the Android tablets out there will follow Apple's lead.

Credit: Apple

Last but not least, there’s new gesture controls. These work more or less as they do on iOS. You can pull up from the bottom of the screen quickly to close an app or slowly to go to a list of recent apps. You can also do a four-fingered swipe to the left or right to easily swap between apps. 

Read more: ​Clamcase for iPad Pro 9.7-inch

What problems remain unsolved?

Since the keyboard that Apple sell as the default for the new iPad Pro is pretty lackluster, it doesn’t do much to solve the eternal problem that keyboards represent to the iPad. 

Typing on a digital keyboard isn’t terrible but it is only ever really tolerable and it subtracts a lot of the screen space that the larger iPad Pro gets you in the first place. Adding a keyboard means adding bulk. Once you start adding bulk, the arithmetic around choosing a tablet like the iPad over a full blown laptop becomes a little trickier to justify. 

The other clear drawback here is that the iPad only has a single USB Type-C port. You don’t even get a headphone jack anymore. 

Yes, you can get creative with dongles to try and build the iPad experience that suits your workflow but that’s a distant second to the sheer convenience of the ports you’d find on a laptop. 

Will iPadOS let you retire your laptop?

Credit: Apple

Like any other iPad refresh, iPadOS feels more concerned with laying the groundwork for a future where tablets are more viable and useful in professional contexts than it is calling for a revolution in the way we use tablets. It’s a definite step forward but it doesn’t radically reconfigure the status quo. Just like the last few generations of iPad, there are some lucky professional users out there who are going to be able to get by using iPadOS but plenty more who aren’t. 

iPad OS isn’t so much an excuse to go out and buy a brand new iPad Pro right now but it is a good reason to feel more confident in the future of the iPad. 

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Fergus Halliday
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