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iPadOS public beta preview: worthy of the new name

The best new features

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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The iPad’s operating system has a new name — iPadOS — and today, Apple is letting anybody install a beta version of it. When it is officially released this fall, I think it’s going to be a huge upgrade for most people, significantly changing their opinion of what it’s capable of.

I’m excited by all of the changes Apple has made in the OS to go along with the new name. The ability to get more apps on-screen in multiple “windows” has been significantly improved, Safari is a much more capable file browser, the file browser is significantly upgraded, and working with text is easier than ever.

Right now, though, I’d hold off on installing the public beta — unless you have a spare iPad or don’t mind serious bugs. That’s our default advice for any beta software, of course, but in particular, it’s worth waiting for the next version at least on this one. I’ve been using the second developer beta for about a week, which Apple says is largely identical to today’s public beta, and it’s definitely too crashy for everyday use.

Here are my favorite new features in iPadOS, focusing mainly on what’s specific to the iPad. For a good look at what’s coming to the iPhone in iOS 13, Chaim Gartenberg has you covered in a separate article and video. If you want to know what’s new in macOS Catalina, Chris Welch has a story on that, too.

Although I think iPadOS will unlock a lot of new uses for a lot of new people, I’m not weighing in on whether it can really replace your laptop here. I am admittedly obsessed with that question, but I also admit it’s an obsession that most people don’t share.

Instead, I think most people already know what they want to use an iPad for, and it’s not making it their only computer. That’s not to say that I think it’s just a media consumption device anymore — far from it — but the whole discourse around “the future of computers” is exhausting and a little beside the point. Besides, there are enough bugs here that I’m reticent to make any definitive judgments.

Instead, I’m just going to preview the big new features and talk a little bit about why each of them could be really useful for everybody, not just people who are trying to make it their only device.


Apple has made significant improvements to how you can create and organize windows on your screen. The word “window” isn’t quite right, of course, because the iPad doesn’t support them in the traditional sense, but there’s not a better word yet for these objects on the screen.

I think the biggest improvement is the ability to have multiple apps in the Slide Over view. That’s the window of an app that hovers over whatever you’re doing. You can create one by dragging an app up from the dock or by swiping over from the right.

The new feature here is that you can stack multiple apps in Slide Over, instead of having just one of them. Just as you do on an iPhone, you can swipe quickly between them by dragging a bar on the bottom of the window, or you can swipe up on that bar to fan out all of the apps in Side Over.

You can “fan” out apps in the Slide Over stack.
You can “fan” out apps in the Slide Over stack.

It ends up feeling like you have a spare little iPhone X over on the right of your screen that you can pull in and toss away whenever you want. There are a ton of apps that I want on hand, mostly for quick things, like Music, Calendar, and Messages. Having them available without taking over the whole screen and interrupting whatever I’m currently doing is a huge upgrade. I think it’s the number one thing that will improve everybody’s experience on the iPad, whatever their level of expertise.

For more advanced users, Apple is adding two related features: Apps in Multiple Spaces and App Exposé. If you understand what those technical terms mean, you’re probably pumped about it. If you don’t, you will either learn to use them or be confused when the iPad suddenly does something confusing. Don’t worry: I am in the former category, and I am still often a little baffled by how these things work. Let’s go through them one by one.

“Apps in multiple spaces” is iPad-ese for having multiple windows from the same app. You do this all the time on your laptop, but it hasn’t been an option for iPads apps before (excepting Safari tabs). Essentially, you can drag out elements from inside an app — like a note, an email, a compose window, or a tab — and as you drag, it will let you create a new window. You can then put it in a split view or one of those Slide Over windows.

It’s a big deal for people who want to compare two documents from the same app or create other contextually relevant work setups. But as I said, it’s also a little confusing: not every app supports the new feature, and it’s not always clear what elements can be turned into a new window, so you have to kind of just try dragging stuff to see what, if anything, happens.

It’s also confusing because the iPad organizes apps in “spaces,” the thing you see when you swipe up to see your open apps. Some of them are pinned together in split screen, and some are sitting in that Slide Over section.

App Exposé shows all instances of a single app’s windows.
App Exposé shows all instances of a single app’s windows.

That’s where App Exposé comes in. Instead of seeing all of your apps, this feature just shows the windows from a single app. You trigger it either by holding your finger down on the app icon on the dock or home screen or by tapping it when the app is open on your screen.

Got all that? It’s not very easy to understand, and I’m tempted to say it’s also not very intuitive. But I also recognize that the traditional desktop UI is also deeply weird. We’re just more used to it. The good news is that whether you can figure this stuff out or not, the basics of opening and split-screening apps hasn’t changed at all.

By the way, all of this multiwindow stuff doesn’t feel very dialed-in yet. Dragging icons around to turn them into windows is still really buggy and hard to nail. Apple wants the rule to be something like “anything you can drag, you can make a window,” but we’re very far away from that in this beta. That’s one of the big reasons I don’t recommend this beta, even for the so-called “thrill-seekers.”

The most important change, though, is a policy change: soon, Apple with require that iPad apps support Split Screen and Slide Over. So the apps that take over your whole screen will eventually be made to work the way they’re supposed to.

New Home screen

No, Apple isn’t getting rid of the classic grid of icons and folders — though you can get six columns of them now, making better use of the iPad’s big screen. The big change is that you can pin the widgets that usually live on the “minus one” screen. I think widgets on the iPad and iPhone are great and not utilized nearly as much as they should be, so I’m happy to see the option to make them more prominent.


The Photos app on both the iPad and iPhone is getting a big upgrade. For me, one of the most impressive things is how fast it is.

That speed is important. I am sure there are people who know exactly when a photo was taken or what album they’ve saved it in. But I suspect most are like me: people who take tons of photos and just let them pile up. So being able to rapidly zoom in and out of different views means you can just look around for what you need without knowing the exact search term or obsessively organizing your photos.

Apple has also tweaked how photos are automatically organized. There’s a tab bar at the top with Years, Months, Days, and All Photos. The time-based ones automatically group all of your photos via local machine learning into events that Apple thinks you’ll want to see, complete with pre-chosen lead art.

I found these to be fairly useful, but sometimes, Photos picks a weird image or highlights something I don’t care that much about. The nice thing about these views is that they automatically filter out screenshots and receipts, but they’re still in the All Photos section.

I’m even more excited about the new photo editor. For editing photos, the features it offers are largely the same as before, but the interface is much better. It’s fully optimized for touch in a way that’s much smarter and easier to understand than before. In fact, I think a lot of people are going to learn the basics of photo editing from this interface. It makes terms and processes accessible where, before, they were opaque and confusing.

But I’m burying the most important part of the new photo editing interface: it works with video as well, and it does so really well. Tweaking the color, crop, and everything else on a video is super easy. I wish Apple put this level of care and accessibility into all of its video editing products.


Apple claims that Safari on iPadOS is “desktop class,” though what that means is up for debate. I don’t mean in the “what does desktop class mean?” sense (though you certainly could have that argument). I mean in the “does it really do everything we want it to do?” sense.

From a technical perspective, there are two main changes. First, Safari on the iPad now tells websites that it’s actually Safari on the Mac. That means that lots of websites that previously served hobbled mobile versions of their sites will now serve their full desktop versions. Second, those desktop versions typically expect there to be a mouse pointer on your computer, so Apple created a kind of translation layer that makes your touch input look like a mouse input to those sites.

What does all that mean from a practical perspective? Mainly, browsing the web on your iPad feels a little less limiting. More sites will serve you the full version of their pages. Web apps like Google Docs also work decently well, though you will sometimes still find yourself getting redirected to a mobile app even if you don’t want it. (Ironically, Apple said that it would work much better for blog content management systems, but The Verge’s Chorus CMS was already optimized for mobile Safari and so this faux desktop system is worse.)

Apple moved a few buttons in the toolbar, too. My favorite change is on the left of the URL where there’s a button to change the page zoom, request the mobile version of a site, or tweak settings specifically for that site that will persist the next time you visit it.

Safari also finally has a download manager, which means that you will be able to download any file from the web, not just images. Files get saved in the Files app, just like on your computer. There’s also a bunch of new keyboard shortcuts if you use an external keyboard.

My favorite feature is that you can long-press the bookmarks icon and save all of your open tabs in a folder automatically. You can then long-press that folder in your bookmarks to reopen them all again.

Keyboard and text editing

There are a bunch of new ways to manipulate the text cursor and do cut and paste in iPadOS, but my favorite new text feature is the new keyboard. You can make a pinching motion on the on-screen keyboard, and it will shrink down to a floating, iPhone-sized keyboard.

The floating keyboard lets you see more of the screen.
The floating keyboard lets you see more of the screen.
A three-finger tap brings up a convenient text action bar.
A three-finger tap brings up a convenient text action bar.

A floating keyboard is a feature Windows and Chrome OS tablets have had for a long time, and I’m glad Apple finally realized how useful it is. I want to be able to enter short bits of text without having half the screen lost to a keyboard all the time. Now, I finally can. It’s easy to reposition the keyboard and easy to just tap out what I need with one thumb. I have years of muscle memory doing just that on phones, after all.

Even better: you can swipe to type on that little keyboard. It’s a genuine “finally” moment for both iPads and iPhones. And as a first effort at making a swiping keyboard, it is better than I expected.

As for moving the cursor around, I think Apple needs to do a little more work. The idea was to make it simpler: you can move the cursor by dragging it or highlight text by doing the same thing. It’s the “same thing” part that’s the problem; I never really know what’s going to happen when I put my finger on the cursor and drag it.

Apple also added a new set of three-finger gestures for cut, copy, paste, undo, and redo. They’re awkward and don’t work very well in addition to being completely undiscoverable. I do like that you can just tap with three fingers and get simple buttons for all of those actions in a pop-up toolbar.


Apple may have caught more criticism over the limitations of the Files app than anything else from people who wanted to make the iPad their primary computer. With iPadOS, most of those criticisms are getting put to rest.

You can finally get direct access to USB drives, and in a nice touch, there’s no silly “eject” button to worry about. It’s a little slow to recognize drives in my testing on the beta, but it works and will be a huge help. Third-party apps can also directly access USB devices, which should make photo editors happy once their apps get updated. If you use SMB file sharing, that works now as well.

The Files app also has a new column view, which is a super convenient way to get around your file system. I do find that I have had to do some multitouch finger gymnastics, though. Just hovering a file over a window doesn’t pop it open like it does on a Mac.

Other stuff

There are a ton of features I’m not covering here. The most important among them is that Apple has made the entirety of iPadOS navigable by voice, which is a big deal for accessibility. Even if an app isn’t coded to allow for direct voice navigation, users will be able to break down the screen into a numbered grid to zoom in on a specific area.

The share sheet has been reorganized with suggestions at top.
The share sheet has been reorganized with suggestions at top.

Mouse support is also technically an accessibility option, though people have already begun to think about ways to use the iPad as the centerpiece for a full desktop setup because of it. Speaking of desktop setup: there’s a new feature called Sidecar that makes your iPad a second monitor — or input tablet — for your Mac.

Latency on the Apple Pencil has been also reduced even further. Apple is using some predictive machine learning there as well. There’s a new markup palette that’s a lot cleaner than before, and some apps will allow you to take a full-page screenshot that turns into a PDF.

Beyond the new universal dark mode, there are other little interface tweaks. The share sheet tries to predict to whom you might want to send stuff. The volume indicator is smaller (though, hilariously, it moves in the opposite direction of the volume buttons when the iPad is in landscape). There’s support for third-party fonts, a more natural-sounding voice for Siri, and updates across many of Apple’s first-party apps. Chaim has covered many of those things — as well as changes to privacy policies — in his iOS 13 preview.

Last but not least: Apple is claiming more performance improvements, but as this is a beta, I can’t really speak to that yet.

That’s iPadOS. At WWDC, one of the big questions was why it got a new name, separate from iOS. A lot of it is marketing and semantics, especially since iPadOS shares the same foundation as iOS. But the truth is that semantics do have an impact. Calling this iPadOS signals that the iPad is meant to be something distinct from the iPhone.

Calling this iPadOS means that apps designed for it are iPad apps, not just iOS apps. iPad apps may be more powerful than their iPhone counterparts. At the very least, they’ll be resizable for split screen and support multiple windows. Those features should mean that the Mac versions of those apps (coming via Catalyst) will similarly be more powerful.

Even if you just put together the new windowing options and the more useful version of Safari, you end up with something that feels significantly different than the iPhone. iPadOS may just be a name, but names matter. After a week of using it, I believe iPadOS deserves the name.

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