iPadOS 16 Hands-On: Making Monitor Multitasking Useful at Last, Mostly

iPadOS 16 Hands-On: Making Monitor Multitasking Useful at Last, Mostly

Twitter, Slack, Outlook and Safari are open all at once, and I’m browsing and scanning between all of them. This is on my monitor. It’s like any other day. Meanwhile, I’m playing Catan on my iPad. Everything I’m doing is powered by the iPad, with the monitor connected via USB-C as a secondary display. I feel almost like I’m on a Mac. But… I’m not.

iPad OS 16 you introduce a feature I’ve wanted on iPads for years: truer multiwindow multitasking, and real external monitor support for extended workspaces. A public beta preview of the software is available now (which I wouldn’t recommend installing on your everyday personal device). How iPadOS makes both of these happen is the weird part. The navigation needs a lot of finessing, based on my early experiences so far.

You also need an M1-equipped iPad to make these new multitasking features work, which means a current iPadPro or iPad Air model. No others will be compatible. These iPads are on the expensive side, making this a pro feature you may not even consider worth upgrading for yet.

Readmore: iPad Air 2022 (M1) Review

I could go into other iPadOS features, but I’ll do that later because, really, this is the feature this year. Stage Manager, which enables these extra multitasking perks, brings a whole new layout that’s also extremely alien-feeling. And that’s the problem with iPadOS now. It’s powerful, and it’s also strange and still not Mac-like enough.

It feels like Apple is trying to evolve a new computer interface, but through tiny steps and experiments. As iPadOS drifts between iPhone and Mac, picking up more parts of each and blending them, the pieces don’t always make sense. That’s where I’m at after trying the public beta out: striving to find my iPadOS sea legs.

Laying out iPad apps on a big monitor is finally useful in iPadOS 16.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Good: Monitor Magic

Plug in a monitor now, and wow, it’s just like a Mac. Apps can be opened on the monitor, or on the iPad, and the mouse or trackpad cursor will just move back and forth like on a monitor-connected Mac. I don ‘t think Apple’s new Stage Manager changes things a lot for people working directly on an iPad (see below), but wow, it opens up possibilities if you have a monitor nearby.

Using an iPad Air with Magic Keyboard attached, I just perched it in front of my Dell monitor and felt it become a two-screen device at last. It’s particularly weird and fun to control apps with the keyboard and trackpad, while also doing things with the touchscreen on the iPad with an app open there. For me it was playing Catan while also responding to emails and Slacks. Dumb, and also awesome.

Now I’m playing some John Williams soundtracks while writing and Slacking and playing some Catan and checking Twitter, and this basically feels like my typical screen-immersed day, but all iPad-enabled.

The whole experience reminds me, in a lot of ways, of using Samsung’s DeX, which allows desktop-type computer experiences on its tablets and phones when connected to a monitor. Years ago, I found that DeX ended up working surprisingly well, sometimes. Apple’s doing a similar type of move on the iPad M1 models, but super powered. Running multiple apps at once is far more useful than you might think, since you’re probably doing it unconsciously every day on your laptop.

Plug in a monitor, and you’ll find that it connects the way monitors should, allowing separate apps to open independently of the iPad display. In a new Settings feature for Displays, you can also choose to mirror your iPad the way iPadOS only allowed previously (who wants that?). The monitor settings allow the second display orientation to be moved around: if you pick the monitor as “above” your iPad, the mouse/trackpad cursor will move from iPad to monitor when you move up.

There’s also a new extra resolution mode on the iPad display itself, which compresses text and apps for “more space.” On the 11-inch iPad Air, it didn’t seem to do much for my work experience other than make text smaller. On the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro, it can make the screen feel more laptop-like.

Getting apps to open simultaneously requires opening them from the dock and dragging them into position. App windows can be size-adjusted now, but not with full freedom. Windows can squish and stretch and go horizontal or vertical, but Apple limits the sizes and shapes. It feels like fuzzy experimentation to get the layout you want. And if windows get too big, Apple overlaps the windows. But only in very specific ways, so it’s not as free as a regular Mac’s window-based (not Windows-based!) OS.

ipados-16-ipad-air-pro

The multiple windows get less useful on the iPad display, especially if you don’t have the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro (right).

Scott Stein/CNET

The Bad: How does this work, again?

Getting all the apps to be open, and work, and figure out how to navigate them, is another matter. Apple has introduced Stage Manager, a new multitasking manager, but the app/feature only launches from within Control Center, by swiping down and tapping a cryptic icon with a block and three dots. No one will normally ever figure this out.

It gets weirder. Stage Manager has instances of grouped open apps, but if an app is already open, you’ll just swap to that instance instead of overlaying it with the others that are open, although you can also drag open apps on and off that side dock and into your workspace. On the iPad itself, these other app windows stay open on the side, shrinking your free app display space. Apps can be re-expanded, but jumping back and forth to choose apps gets confusing fast. And then there’s that three-dot icon above windows, which still handles app zooming, split-screening and minimizing just like iPad OS 15. Following me? I expect you’re not.

I lost my way, despite being a longtime iPadOS user. And apps can’t be easily dragged from one window to another, either. Just when I started feeling like I was slipping into a Mac flow, iPadOS throws me into an uncanny valley again.

And there are public beta bugs, too: connecting to a monitor turns off my iPad audio unless I use headphones. Sometimes I’ve had sudden crash restarts from too many apps open. And, if I unplug from the monitor, I find some app groups suddenly having empty black windows. Oh, and I tried launching Catan on my monitor, and it started up sideways. Beta explorers, good luck.

Stage Manager gets so annoying on the iPad display that I instantly turn it off again unless I’m connected to a monitor. To me, it’s specifically a monitor multitasking Mode.

The deeper I go, the weirder and buggier it feels. I try launching Batman Returns on Apple TV to watch while I write this, and it automatically plays on the monitor instead of my iPad screen. I can shift the whole video up to the monitor completely, but not back down to the iPad again. And then when I try shifting Pages from the monitor to the iPad screen (which is done via that very small three-dot icon at the top of each window, which now has a menu that vaguely says “move to display”), the app suddenly goes blank and I have to force quit it.

Overall: A step forward (if you love monitors), but a weird one

iPadOS 16 has most of iOS 16’s greatest hits, minus that cool new customizable Lock Screen feature. There’s also an Apple-made Weather App, now, finally (yay?). There are more integrated ways to share docs and group-collaborate through Messages, or FaceTime, extending what was started last year. Apple’s promising collaborative white board app, called Freeform, isn’t in the public beta yet but is expected this to fail.

I still don’t recommend downloading a public OS beta from Apple on your main device, because too many strange and bad things can happen. The iPadOS 16 beta has crashed a number of times for me.

But just for that way it can make M1 iPads use an extra monitor as a true second screen, I’m already thrilled. I just wish the whole Stage Manager process made more sense and allowed for far more fluid or flexible window placement and screen-jumping, because right now it feels much like a beta feature. Even the way Apple allows you to turn the feature off and on via Control Center suggests that perhaps it’s not thought of as an everyday feature yet, but instead, a “pro” one you’ll need to consciously look for to use.

I’m enjoying writing and playing Catan at the same time, though. It’s made having my iPad Pro at my desk a far more fun and far more productive tool, even if it’s made me less productive. Sorry, it’s my turn now. I’m going to build a city.

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