With the latest iPad Pro and iOS 11, Apple is finally moving the needle on iPad-based productivity. Here’s what to expect, and how it compares to a more full-featured Windows PC or Mac productivity experience.
For this overview, I’m using the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, which has a few limitations compared to its bigger 12.9-inch cousin, but also some advantages over other iPads and iOS devices. I’m also using Apple’s Smart Keyboard.
While Apple should be dinged for not providing any mouse or touchpad support in iOS, it has long supported basic keyboard shortcuts. And in the past, I’ve tested various iPads with Apple’s Bluetooth keyboards, and they work about as well as you might expect.
But these days there are some neat discoverability features that can really help in this transition. If you press and hold the CMD (“Command”) key on the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard—this key is roughly analogous to ALT in Windows—an overlay will appear, displaying which keyboard shortcuts are available. (This works with other keyboards too, of course.)
This capability is smart, too, meaning it’s context-sensitive. So from the home screen, you will see keyboard shortcuts that are possible from there (CMD + TAB for app switching, CMD + SPACE for search, and a few others). But if you press and hold on CMD in apps, you’ll see options that are specific to them. In Safari, for example, we learn that CMD + T opens a new tab, which is obvious enough. But CMD + N opens a new window, which in iOS is called Split View. More on that in a moment.
While it’s not possible to easily navigate the iPad Pro using only the keyboard, you can get pretty close. You can press any key to wake up the device, press again to display the PIN log-in, and then use the number keys to enter your PIN; it’s not as easy as using Touch ID on the Home button, but it works. Once you’re in, you can type CMD + H at any time to return to the Home screen. And you can use the CMD + SPACE shortcut, as on the Mac, to launch any app via search.
Curiously, CMD + RIGHT ARROW (or LEFT ARROW) doesn’t navigate between your various Home screens, which is surprising, but then you wouldn’t be able to select individual icons with the keyboard anyway: There’s no sense of a selected icon either. Which, when you think about it, could make sense if Apple wanted to enable a “keyboard mode” for those who prefer to keep their hands rooted to the keyboard. I do this in Windows, but then I’m a writer and maybe this isn’t the type of thing many need.
Apps also support various keyboard shortcuts, naturally, and if you use productivity apps like Microsoft Word, you’ll find yourself in fairly familiar territory. Word for iOS supports a ton of CMD-based keyboards shortcuts for such things as Bold (CMD + B), Cut (CMD + X), and the like, and arrow key navigation works as expected. (CMD + RIGHT ARROW to go to the end of the current line, CMD + DOWN ARROW to go to the bottom of the document, and so on.)
Any modern iOS device supports basic multitasking features, including an app switcher you can access by double-pressing the Home button. With the iPad Pro and its more voluminous screen, however, Apple has turned things up a notch, with features like Split View, which lets you view two apps, or two views of the same app, at one time. And then things are getting even more sophisticated with iOS 11, which is what I’m focusing on here.
First up is the new Dock, which looks like the one in macOS, but is in fact a different thing entirely. On the iPad Pro, the new Dock lets you pin app icons as before, and lets you pin many more of them, but there is also an area for your most-recently used apps on the right.
So what does the Dock have to do with multitasking? With iOS 11, you can now access the Dock from within any app, too: Just swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This makes it easier to display a second app (or app view) alongside (or over) the current app.
You do this by dragging an app icon off the Dock. The first time you do so, it will appear in a windowed view, over the current app, in a mode Apple calls Slide Over. This floating app window will take up about 25 percent of the display, and can’t be resized. But it can be moved to the other side of the screen using a little handle at the top.
You can remove a Slide Over window by dragging it off the edge of the screen. But once you do so, it will remain available for later use, too: Just slide your finger back in from that screen edge to bring it back.
Some apps can be converted from Slide Over view into a more useful split screen view called Split View: Just drag down on that handle and it will indicate whether it can be positioned like that. But you can also drag an app off the Dock directly into Split View by dragging all the way to one edge of the screen.
Split View works a bit differently across the two iPad Pro models, but on the 10.5-inch version I’m using, you essentially have three possible views: One in which each app takes up half the screen, one in which one app takes up 75 percent of the space on the left and another takes up the remaining 25 percent of the screen on the right, and then a third view in which the smaller app is on the left and the larger is on the right. You can resize and reposition these apps with your finger, and you can drag the splitter between them to the edge of the screen to make one of the apps full-screen again.
This is useful, of course. But in my experience so far, I’m not sure it’s something I’d use all that often. On this iPad, Split View renders apps into an iPhone-like “Compact” mode (regardless of the 50/50 or 75/25 split) that makes it hard or difficult to access certain app features. And the 10.5-inch display isn’t exactly ideal for this kind of thing anyway: Looking at two apps side-by-side on the new Surface Pro, for example, is both easier on the eyes and more full-featured. (Plus, you can arbitrarily resize and float windows in Windows 10 as well, too.)
There is one other oddity to iOS multitasking that is worth considering: Some apps support a picture-in-picture (PIP) display mode for video. And this is something I would use: For example, I could take notes or tweet during a live video presentation.
Unfortunately, this feature isn’t supported by YouTube. But if you can find a web video in Safari or a compatible app, it works well enough.
To emulate this experience, I opened a new document in Word, switched back to the Home screen, and then launched Safari and found Apple’s WWDC 2017 presentation on its website. Using the PIP toggle, I displayed the video in a small floating window and then returned to Word. As expected, the video floats over Word, and I could type notes while playback continued. This window also supports repositioning on-screen and pinch-based resizing, and it has basic playback controls.
So… Is it productive?
Looking at these features, it’s pretty easy to dismiss the iPad Pro and iOS 11 as finally achieving the level of multitasking and productivity functionality that Microsoft achieved five years ago with Windows RT and Surface RT. (And that was considered a regression from “full” Windows, it’s also fair to note.)
But taking a less cynical tact, I guess it’s worth pointing out that these advances—the new Dock, the improved Slide Over and Split View modes, picture-in-picture for video, and so on—do really advance the productivity story on iPad Pro. And so will other iOS 11 features, like the new Files app, the improved Control Center (with its app switching functionality), and probably other things I’ve not yet touched on.
For those coming from full-featured environments like Windows 10 or macOS, the iPad Pro is, perhaps, a step back. But how you view this functionality will depend on your needs today. And it’s probable that Windows 10 and macOS are overkill for many today.
Looking at my own work, I am positive I couldn’t switch to an iPad Pro, even the larger version. But I wonder about the couple of small changes Apple could easily make that would put this over the top. Pointer support being the key one. It’s not hard to imagine.
But Apple also moves on a fairly glacial schedule. If such a thing were to happen, the earliest would likely be September 2018 when a presumed iOS 12 appears. So until then, Microsoft has some breathing space: It owns productivity today and will continue to do so for the next few years at least.