iPadOS 15 beta hands-on: Widgets and dock improvements, but multitasking still feels the same
iPadOS 15 adds widgets to the iPad, at last.
iPadOS 15 adds widgets to the iPad, at last.Scott Stein/CNET
My dreams for an iPad Pro that could practically meld into becoming a Mac haven't been realized yet. And that's despite an M1 processor dropping into the latest iPad Pros, giving them the same CPU as current Macs. Apple's iPadOS remains its own stubborn beast: Not quite Mac/PC, but also not quite iPhone.
It's growing into something unique, but that something is taking an awfully long time to get here. The iPadOS 15 beta, so far, feels less like a revolution and more like many little tweaks.
Apple releases its new version of its iPadOS every fall. The OS officially split off from iOS (in name) two years ago in 2019, introducing more iPad-specific features to the mix as compared to iOS for the iPhone, even though the two still feel very similar in a lot of ways.
A preview version (a beta) is available to install now, if you're curious. Don't, though -- there's no need unless you're desperate to try the new features out. Getting the beta means registering your device for a special software profile, and it can potentially cause problems with your apps or your files.
It's an experiment. Wait for the final version.
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Get the latest tech stories with CNET Daily News every weekday. That being said, I'm trying it on a fresh loaner iPad Pro because I write about tech.
And I'm curious how iPadOS 15's promised changes transform the iPad. There's a lot going on, and some of it's subtly good. But other things don't do nearly enough for me.
Also, iPadOS 15 does nothing truly unique or special for those new M1 iPad Pros -- no extra Mac mode or anything like that. In that sense, there's little incentive to upgrade to them. I'd say pick your desired price and get the iPad that works for you.
The Pros are lovely, but crazy expensive. The iPad Air feels like the best compromise (although a new one will likely arrive in the fall, so you may want to wait that out).
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What lets me down the most about iPadOS 15 is it's really just an expansion of what the iPad already did. It doesn't change the basic concept of iPad multitasking.
It doesn't turn your iPad into a whole new machine. There are a lot of subtle updates, and some are pretty helpful. And a lot of the features that also are coming to iOS15 on the iPhone, like Live Text recognition for photos, a better FaceTime layout with embedded sharing of content like Zoom, and a more granular/adjustable Focus Mode for notification management, are also great to have.
But for this moment, I'm a lot more aware of how iPadOS 15 really just riffs on ideas that were already in iPadOS in the first place.
The little multitasking icon/switcher in iPadOS 15 helps a bit, but it's still largely the same split-pane experience as before.Scott Stein/CNET
Revamped multitasking (sort of)
Apple didn't reinvent multitasking on the iPad, it just refined it. The iPad has been able to show two apps at once for years, but getting another app side-by-side wasn't easy to pull off. A new icon on the top of the screen is a tool to add apps and switch views more easily.
What it mostly means is you can swap out another app, or change from Split View (which is side-by-side app multitasking) and Slide Over (which floats an app pane on top of another app). For all Apple has been hyping its revamped multitasking, it's really just about more easily accessing new apps to swap in. That triple-dot area on top of multitasking-compatible apps is easier to tap and manage than the old system of dragging an app from the dock up to the open app... and also means you're not as reliant on (or trapped with) what the dock offers up.
I still get frustrated with the limited number of multitasking layouts you can choose from, and how only two apps (or two plus a floating third) can be on-screen at once. Also, apps need to explicitly allow multitasking; not all do. For instance, I can't pop another app up side-by-side when HBO Max is loaded (but I can float another app in Slide Over).
I like Quick Notes!
But I tend to use a keyboard with the iPad, not a Pencil.Scott Stein/CNET
Taking quick notes
A small but great update: Swiping up from the lower-right corner of the iPad screen with a Pencil launches a small-window mini version of Notes, for quickly jotting thoughts. I found it helpful as a scratchpad when working, and it's exactly the type of rethought multitasking that I wish the iPad did more of. Why can't I quickly pop up other apps to float up this same way?
Slide Over isn't the same thing. Also, this is a very Pencil-centric feature. It doesn't change the equation much when working with a connected keyboard case, which I do all the time.
Apple did add more keyboard shortcuts to iPadOS 15, but finding them is still an app-by-app adventure (holding down the CMD key brings up the shortcuts, by the way, in whatever app you're in).
App Library on the dock: A small addition with big impact.Scott Stein/CNET
The App Dock gets a lot more useful
I love the idea of the app dock in iPadOS because it allows quick access to go-to apps and reduces my reliance on the Grid of Apps that still covers most iPadOS home screens. Apple added a new App Library icon to the dock, which accesses every app loaded onto the iPad, though, which gives the dock a way to avoid using the App Grid entirely. The App Library came to iOS 14 on iPhones last year -- it's an extra page at the end of all the app pages on your phone, which offers a categorized library of installed apps. iPadOS 15 also has an App Library page at the end of your apps (keep swiping left), but it's also on the dock, and that's a better place for it to live in my opinion.
Also, much like last year's iOS 14, iPadOS 15 finally adds Widgets to the iPad home screen pages.
I love the concept of widgets, and the versatility of showing readouts of info at a glance (weather, or news headlines or email). Widgets are limited, though: their placement and size (and what widgets are available, and what they can do) is still dictated by whatever Apple allows, and feels a little restricted to my taste. It does mean I can cover home screens with more useful info, though, and iPadOS 15 allows app pages to be hidden from view, customizing the experience further.
FaceTime and sharing possibilities
While the revamped FaceTime looks interesting, and Zoom-like (more grid-like face layout for chats, sharing content with friends, sort-of blurring backgrounds with Portrait Mode), there's one problem: I have no one to try New FaceTime with.
Or, no one in my non-work world.
It won't be till the fall, and everyday use with friends and family, that I can really see how all this new FaceTime stuff pans out.
Sure, all the other stuff
There are plenty of other iOS 15 (or MacOS Monterey) goodies that carry over to iPadOS 15: Live Text which can recognize text in photos, allowing copy-and-paste; a revamped Maps app; a Focus refinement mode that can get a lot more specific on what apps can bother you with notifications, and when. (Safari, which revamped its tab design, is something I can't stand -- and hope Apple backtracks on.) But for my iPad life, my main interests have been multitasking.
And unfortunately, so far, things really haven't changed that much.