More like a laptop than ever
When I reviewed the third-generation iPad a year and change ago, I half-jokingly wrote this:
“I know there’s zero chance of Apple listening to me, but I have to try. Hey, guys, can you please figure out how to make a trackpad work on this thing? I work in text all day, and it would make my life so much easier.”
Well, about that. After introducing support for mice and trackpads as a somewhat limited accessibility feature last year, Apple embraced them more fully in the new iPadOS 13.4 update. Once that’s installed, every iPad that runs iPadOS — even non-Pro models — can benefit from this expanded flexibility.
That new, $300 Magic Keyboard with its integrated trackpad won’t be available for another month and a half at the least, and in the meantime, there’s nothing else quite like it to use instead. (For the record, Logitech recently showed off cases with keyboards and built-in trackpads, but those aren’t meant for the 11-inch or 12.9-inch iPad Pro.) This means that, to get the most out of this new software, you’ll have to use something like Apple’s Magic Trackpad, and I’m hardly thrilled at the idea of carrying one around for when I need to be productive. Then again, I guess I’m not going anywhere soon: Everyone in New York has compelled by the state government to stay at home to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. That means no meetings or briefings where I need to quickly jot down notes, no idle writing sessions at local coffee shops. But I digress.
After using this new version of iPadOS, it’s clear Apple has done something pretty remarkable here: It made trackpad support feel natural. Getting started is easy: Turn on the trackpad, connect to it from the iPad’s settings and, uh, that’s it. It’s not quite Apple Pencil-easy, but it’s close. Once that’s done, you can fiddle in the settings menu with the cursor speed, scroll direction and tap-to-click.
The best thing about the experience is that it works almost exactly the way you’d expect it to. You move your finger around, click things and they respond. That may sound basic, but the sheer efficiency over reaching up to touch the screen is tremendous. And as you whip that tiny, circular cursor around the screen, you’ll see it change shape: It’ll become a classic I-bar when you hover over text, making it much easier to select exactly what you need. And when you get close to one of iPadOS’s interface elements, like the back buttons or the Control Center shortcut, the cursor sort of latches onto it. It’s a simple, elegant solution, as are the gestures.
A three-finger swipe up takes you to the home screen. A three-finger swipe to the left and right cycles you through your open apps. A two-finger tap acts as a right-click. There: You have everything you need to get going. It helps that, despite performing somewhat different tasks, all of these gestures are supported in macOS too, so I didn’t have much trouble getting comfortable. There is one gesture that continues to throw me, though. When your iPad is propped up and you want to unlock it with the trackpad, you move the cursor to the bottom of the screen and continue pushing down. It feels much different than the “Swipe up to unlock” I’m used to, and it’ll take time before my muscle memory adjusts.
Pro tip: Using trackpads to their fullest extent requires you to have multi-touch gestures enabled in the iPad’s settings. If you’re restoring this new iPad from a backup of an older one, make sure you didn’t disable those at some point in the past like I did. Otherwise, you’ll waste time wondering why your iPad is busted. Hey Apple, in your next update, can you please enable those gestures default when a trackpad is connected? Thanks.
I’ve mostly been thrilled with how this feature turned out, and I’m starting to think I might have to carry a Magic Trackpad around full-time after all. That doesn’t mean everything is perfectly peachy here, though. While most apps I’ve tried work fine with a trackpad, I did run into some notable hiccups. When exporting the photos for this review, for instance, I noticed that one of Lightroom’s menu options wouldn’t respond to a tap on the trackpad at all; I had to reach up to the screen instead. Honestly, it wasn’t much of an inconvenience, but I’m sure there are other apps out there with similar issues. More problematic was that Google’s suite of productivity apps — which we lean on extensively for editing around here — didn’t play well with iPadOS’s trackpad text selection.
Unfortunately, mouse support is considerably more limited. I’ve been testing this iPad with a Bluetooth mouse and a Magic Trackpad, and while the basics work much the same way, you lose access to all of those handy multitasking and navigation gestures. (I don’t have one of Apple’s touch-sensitive Magic Mice, but a few tweets suggest they don’t work with those gestures either.) Even though this update makes the iPad more flexible, it’s still a touch-first device. The difference is, now you don’t have to touch it directly.
These changes are a huge deal, if for no other reason than proving that Apple is serious about giving its users more flexibility in how they use their devices. It won’t, however, give you everything you need to give up on your trusty laptop. For that to happen, Apple would have to dramatically reshape the iPadOS experience, from rethinking window management (you can still only run two apps at a time in Split View) to making its arcane multitasking gestures a bit more obvious. Had you asked me when the last big iPad refresh happened if Apple would pour its resources into an endeavor like that, I’d have been pretty pessimistic. Now, it seems all but inevitable — I’m especially curious to see what Apple has to say about iPadOS’s new path at WWDC. Unless it gets canceled like Google I/O, that is.