Apple’s new iPad Pro is amazing, but iPadOS holds it back from its true potential
The term itself makes me cringe, but I fit the description of a “digital nomad” — someone who makes a living working online from various locations — to a tee. Well, I did anyway, until COVID-19 killed travel for most of the world. But before COVID-19 though, I was traveling out of my Hong Kong base at least once a month, and I’d work from random coffee shops around the world. And like any tech enthusiast, I’m always looking to upgrade my gear — in this case, I wanted my portable work machine to be smaller, lighter, even more portable.
This explains why I have such a fondness for great foldables. I dream of a future in which the phone in my pocket can fully double as my large screen work machine too. But foldables aren’t quite there yet, so for now, the only logical product that’d be considered more portable than a laptop is a tablet. That’s exactly the marketing angle Apple has used to sell iPads too — that the iPad, especially the Pro model, can replace the computer.
But the iPad Pro is also not quite there as a full time work machine for many people. The problem isn’t hardware — the new 2021 M1-powered iPad Pro has more processing power and a better screen than most laptops in the world right now. The thing holding the iPad Pro back is software.
Apple’s drawn-out, piecemeal transition plan for the iPad
Ever since the iPad’s existence, some people have tried to use it paired with a third-party keyboard for a portable work machine. But it wasn’t until Apple launched the iPad Pro in 2015, with a larger screen size and a first party keyboard case, that Apple itself pushed that idea with a series of ad campaigns. I, of course, was on board to try the setup, but I found it nearly impossible to do real work on the iPad Pro at the time because in 2015, the iPad still could only open one app at a time and didn’t have a proper file management system.
This changed with 2017’s iOS 11, when Apple gave the iPad version of iOS the ability to run two apps simultaneously in split-screen mode (with a third app hovering on top if needed), and a limited filing system that couldn’t even detect external hard drives or memory cards. It was around this time that I could somewhat use the iPad Pro as a work machine, though the experience was still more cumbersome than just using a laptop.
Apple further improved matters in 2019 by forking iOS into iPadOS, which offered a more information-dense home screen and support for external hard drive and mouse/trackpads. Paired with Apple’s expensive-but-excellent Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro feels and looks like a laptop.
So Apple has been making progress to transition the iPad from literally just a super-sized iPhone that can’t make calls into something resembling a productivity machine. It’s just taking its sweet time.
How iPadOS holds this beast of a machine back
By now, most people should be aware that the new iPad Pro 2021 runs on Apple’s critically acclaimed M1 chip that threw a monkey wrench into the computing industry. From my personal testing, the M1 iPad did indeed blow all my other devices (i9 Macs, older iPads, 2021 Android flagships) out of the water in benchmarks and video rendering tests. But these are niche testing scenarios — how many people out there render multi-track 4K videos regularly, if at all? For normal iPad usage, it feels mostly the same as the 2020 or even 2018 model of the iPad Pros. This is great in tablet mode, but when I try to do work, iPadOS is still too limiting.
The homescreen is not truly free
Let’s start with the homescreen. iPadOS’ homescreen really is just a larger, wider version of the iPhone homescreen. You still must place apps or widgets in a conformed grid that goes top-down, left-to-right. I can’t, say, for example, just put all my apps at the bottom row and leave the top two-thirds of the screen free.
Then there’s multi-tasking. Being able to really open just two apps at once is too limiting for my current work flow. I am in fact typing this article on the iPad Pro now, and needing to keep Slack open takes up at least a third of the screen already. I can of course exit out of the app and still get notifications, but it won’t show me as “online” to my colleagues. I wish there was a way to open apps in floating resizable window, like you know, on every laptop or even some Android phones, so I can keep Slack running but have it take up less screen space.
Overly complicated filing system
Apples’ file management system (officially named Files) can be useful if you’re immersed in the Apple eco-system, because the system seamlessly blends in files from iCloud. For example, I love that I can access files on my MacBook’s homescreen directly inside the iPad’s (or iPhone’s) Files app (provided I have enough iCloud storage). But some basic computer tasks we’ve been doing for the past 20-30 years are still unusually complicated on Apple’s filing system.
If I want to download an image from a website or an email attachment, the default download method downloads to iOS’ iCloud drive and not to the iPad itself. If you want to do the latter (for offline access, or if maybe your iCloud storage is full), you have to first save that image to the iPad’s photo gallery first, and then only from there can you save it to the iPad’s local storage. It’s an extra task that requires five to six taps.
Limited external monitor support
Another new hardware upgrade to this year’s iPad Pro is that the USB-C port is now a Thunderbolt port, which allows it to transfer files faster and support more accessories. But external monitor support remains very limited, bordering on useless. As it is now, all you can do is mirror your iPad Pro’s display to an external monitor — you can’t extend the screen to get more screen real estate. Even mirroring is weird because the iPad Pro’s 4:3 aspect ratio doesn’t play nice with most monitor’s widescreen aspect ratio, so there’s some major pillarboxing — black bars on the left and right side – going on.
The iPad Pro 2021 is too powerful to be just an iPad
These software shortcomings that chain the iPad as still more of a “tablet” than a “computer” have been around for years. But it’s particularly frustrating with this year’s iPad Pro because they run on the same chip that powers the M1 MacBook Air, whose performance has garnered universal critical acclaim.
What’s more, on the 1TB model I’m testing, the iPad Pro comes with 16GB of RAM. All this power for a machine that still behaves fundamentally the same as an iPhone or older iPad?
The good news is, improvements to iPadOS are coming. Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is taking place in a week, and Apple will surely have updates for iPadOS.
However, the updates need to be substantial — like the rumor that Apple is bringing MacOS apps such as Final Cut Pro over to iPadOS. I personally want to see improved multi-tasking like floating resizable app windows or at least the ability to split-screen three apps at once. A free homescreen layout wouldn’t hurt either.
If the updates are incremental like the last couple of years, then this 2021 iPad Pro is like having a six-figure sports car but driving it only in stop-and-go suburb traffic. It’s nice to show off, but you have no real use of all that horsepower.