iPadOS home screen showing widgets

If you’ve used an iPad, you know that they’re missing a lot of critical features people use on computers. Support for mice and external storage devices, a proper desktop browser, and better multitasking—these are all arriving with Apple’s new iPadOS.

What Is iPadOS?

Apple announced the iPadOS operating system at WWDC 2019. Like tvOS, iPadOS is still based on iOS. iPadOS is based on the upcoming iOS 13 operating system. However, it has a new name and more iOS-only features that aren’t available on the iPhone.

Mouse Support for iPad

Apple didn’t announce this on stage at WWDC, but it looks like the iPad (and maybe iPhone) are getting mouse support! Connect a USB (or presumably Bluetooth) mouse to your iPad, and you get a sort of mouse cursor you can use to navigate the interface.

iPads already support external keyboards with keyboard shortcuts, so this should make the interface much more powerful and PC-like.

It’s unclear whether the new mouse support will offer right-click support for opening a context menu, however. We look forward to seeing exactly how it works when Apple releases the iPadOS 13 beta.

Prefer a trackpad, like on a MacBook? Apple’s Magic Trackpad will work.

Multitasking Improvements

iPadOS Slide Over app switcher

iPad multitasking has always been a sore spot. Now, it’s getting better.

Apple announced multiple apps in Slide Over. When an app is floating at the side of your iPad’s display, you can quickly swipe along the bottom to switch between them, swipe up to see all the open Slide Over apps, or drag a Slide Over app to the top of your screen to make it full screen,

When working with multiple apps on screen in Split View mode, you now have more powerful multitasking options. You can have multiple copies of the same app open side by side—perfect for composing an email while looking at an email in Mail or looking at two notes at once in Notes, for example.

Beyond that, you can have an app paired side by side with multiple different apps in spaces. You could have Safari paired with the Notes app in one space and Safari paired with Mail in another space.

It’s easy to open apps like this, too—you can drag a link from any app to its own space, and your iPad will automatically open Safari with that link. This also works with locations, which will open Maps, and email addresses, which will open Mail.

And, when you open the dock and tap an app’s icon, you’ll see all the spaces you have open with the app. It’s called App Exposé, just like on the Mac.

Home Screen Plus Widgets

iPadOS home screen in dark mode showing widgets

Apple’s iPad home screen has always been restricted to app icons. That’s always been a little silly—nowhere more so than on a sizable 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Now, Apple is letting you put all that screen space to better use. You can pin widgets from the Today View to your home screen. Whenever you press the home button, you’ll see those widgets to the left of your app icons without any additional swiping. Anything you can do with a widget can now appear on your home screen, from live-updating data to shortcuts to actions in specific apps.

Apple has also tweaked the layout of the home screen. More app icons will appear on the iPad’s home screen at once. So, even if you don’t want widgets on your home screen, you can get what you need with less swiping around.

USB Storage and Network File Shares

USB storage device plugged into an iPad

A change in iOS 13 means you can now plug external drives—USB thumb drives, disk drives, and even SD cards with an adapter—directly into your iPad. The files on the drive will appear in your iPad’s Files app.

This means photographers can quickly import photos from a digital camera into apps like Adobe Lightroom. But anyone can take advantage of this—if someone gives you files on a USB stick, you don’t have to use a “real PC” to view them. The latest iPad Pros use USB-C ports, so they will be natively compatible with new USB-C thumb drives and other adapters.

iPhone will gain access to USB storage with iOS 13, too. But this will be particularly useful on iPads.

Apple also announced support for SMB file shares—that’s the protocol Windows uses for local network file sharing. You can access network file shares right in your iPad’s Files app.

Beyond that, you can use “a host of new keyboard shortcuts” to navigate the FIles app with an external keyboard.

Safari Becomes a Real Desktop Browser

Google Docs in Safari on an iPad

Safari for iPad has always been a close cousin of Safari for iPhone. Many websites serve bad “mobile” pages to Safari on iPad, giving the iPad the same minimal sites shown on iPhone and stretching them to fit the large screen. These mobile websites often lack features and functionality found on the desktop versions of the website.

You can get around this. Safari has a “Request Desktop Site” action, but you have to select it manually. You can’t always ask Safari just to show the full desktop version of every site.

In iPadOS, you won’t have to. Safari will act as a desktop browser and show you the full desktop site you’d see on macOS. It’s likely that Apple is changing Safari for iPad’s user agent to claim it’s a desktop browser rather than a mobile one.

That makes the iPad more powerful—you now get the desktop web rather than an often-crippled mobile one.

Beyond that, Safari is even getting a download manager. You’ll find a Downloads button on Safari’s toolbar. Files you download will be shown in the Downloads folder in Files.

And, for desktop-style navigation, Apple boasts that the new Safari also supports over 30 new keyboard shortcuts when using an external keyboard.

Support for Console Game Controllers

Apple Arcade

Apple is adding support for the PlayStation 4’s Dualshock 4 controller and Microsoft’s Xbox One S controller, both of which use Bluetooth. Apple announced this feature for tvOS, but the iPad and iPhone are gaining support for these controllers as well.

If you use your iPad to play games—perhaps those upcoming Apple originals in Apple Arcade or even remote games using something like Google Stadia or Microsoft xCloud—this will offer a more PC-like experience.

Before this, Apple required MFi controllers. Support for excellent console controllers you may already own is a great feature.

…Or Turn Your iPad Into an External Display

iPad as an external display for a Mac via Sidecar

iPadOS has one more feature that will help when it’s time to get to work. If you have a Mac, you can now use your iPad as an external display for your Mac thanks for the new Sidecar feature. Just plug it in, and you can use your iPad as a second display or mirrored display. You don’t even have to plug it in, though—you can use it as a wireless second display as long as it’s within 10 meters.

This feature already existed through third-party apps like Duet Display and Luna Display, but now it’s built into iPadOS and macOS Catalina with no additional software needed.

Artists will find the iPad now acts as a Wacom tablet, too—with Sidecar, use the Apple Pencil to draw on your iPad’s display, and you can draw in apps like Photoshop.

Sure, it doesn’t make your iPad more of a computer—but, if you have a Mac and an iPad with you, that iPad can transform into a second display to give you a better desktop computing experience.’

Along with iOS 13, the stable version of iPadOS will be available sometime in the fall. It should make your iPad even more powerful. Of course, if you prefer using the iPad as a simple tablet, you don’t have to use any of this stuff.

For more details, check out Apple’s comprehensive overview of new iPadOS features.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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