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Here’s how the iPad’s new trackpad actually works

Here’s how the iPad’s new trackpad actually works


It’s unlike any mouse cursor you’ve used before

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Apple made it official: trackpad and mouse support is coming to the iPad. You can get it on an iPad Pro by spending $299 or $349 on Apple’s new Magic Keyboard, get it on a regular iPad with Logitech’s $150 keyboard case, use your existing Bluetooth mouse or trackpad, or presumably use any number of forthcoming accessories.

So the mouse support is there, but how will it work? The iPad and iPadOS are touch-based operating systems meant to be used with your big fat fingers, not tiny little pointers. Even when the Apple Pencil was introduced, they have stayed that way. Plus, more recently, iPadOS has increased the level of complexity for multitasking to 11 with support for multiple windows, split screens, slide-over windows, custom gestures for text editing, and more. Adding another input method to that mix could result in chaos.

We can answer some of your questions about how trackpad support will work today and we’ll get a chance to actually use it ourselves in the public beta. In the meantime, here’s what we definitely know about how it will work based on videos Apple has released publicly and on a video presentation given to reporters this morning.

  • The pointer will only appear when you need it. The mouse pointer won’t be persistent on the screen at all times, instead only appearing when you’re touching the trackpad.
  • The pointer is a little circular dot. Apple says that shape makes the most sense for the iPad, which again is fundamentally designed around touching with your fingers.
  • ...but it can change shape based on what it’s pointing at. You know how your desktop mouse pointer turns into a hand, text cursor, or a little resize arrow depending on what it’s pointing at? The iPad’s pointer does a similar thing. But since so many of the UI elements on the iPad are big, touchable buttons, the way the iPad cursor changes is a little different. It changes shape to be the size of the touch-target area for the button. (If the animations bug you, apparently you will be able to turn them off.)

Here, it makes sense when you look at it in this slowed-down gif of Apple’s hype video:

  • You can do mouse stuff you’d expect, like selecting cells in a spreadsheet or pinching and zooming.
  • It’s probably going to be way better for manipulating text. Selecting, copying, pasting, and dragging blocks of text around is going to be way easier than the finger gymnastics the iPad currently requires.
  • It supports some navigation gestures. Although it won’t work exactly like the Mac, there will be some gestures you can use. They include:
  1. Move your cursor to the bottom of the screen to bring up the dock.
  2. Click on the status icons in the upper right corner to bring up Control Center.
  3. Move your cursor to the right side of the screen to bring out Slide Over apps.
  4. Go home by swiping up with three fingers.
  5. Open multitasking by swiping up and holding with three fingers.
  6. Swipe between open apps by swiping left and right with three fingers.
  7. Swipe between Slide Over apps by swiping using three fingers when the cursor is inside a Slide Over app.

Plus, now that the developer beta is out, we’re seeing support works for other things you might need, like hovering on elements in webpages:

That’s a lot of gestures to remember, but no more than exist on the Mac. It seems overwhelming, but if you made a similar list for your MacBook or Windows machine, it would be just as intimidating. The iPad’s gestures are just different. Here, let Apple’s software boss Craig Federighi walk you through it all in this video.

How will all of this actually feel in practice? We’ll know soon enough. The iPad’s UI is powerful, but in many ways it’s difficult to learn, in part because so many of us still have desktop UI paradigms in our heads.

One interesting thing you can’t do is just have a bunch of traditional windows like you’re used to having on a desktop or even a Windows tablet. Apple is sticking to its guns on its attempt to rethink how we move and rearrange windows on the iPad screen, with stuff like split screen and Slide Over. For better or worse (and I think for the better), the new trackpad features don’t turn the iPad into a Mac.

Whether any of that radically changes this year with iPadOS 14 is anybody’s guess. Federighi himself recently said, “If you like what you’ve seen us do with iPadOS, stay tuned, we’re going to keep working on it.”