After a few compatibility and speed tests, for the first time, I will be leaving my laptop behind when I go on a seven day trip out of the country later this month. It’s all thanks to iPad’s new iPadOS, which this year will provide support for external drives and a group of other pro features we’ve been starved for since the iPad first came out.
The latest operating system for Apple’s iPad was renamed iPadOS (from iOS) to separate itself further from that on the iPhone and to signify increasing changes to the features allowed on iPad’s larger, more powerful platform. While some of these features will also work on iPhone (including external drive support, although possibly only for less power-hungry drives) through the general iOS 13 iteration of Apple’s mobile software, the new tricks are generally more capable on the iPad.
iPadOS includes a more powerful Files app with support for connecting to external drives and even external servers (NAS users will love this). It also allows more options as far as side-by-side, picture-in-picture (PIP) and floating windows, much in the way you might use a proper computer. You can drag and drop application windows and files between them easier than ever. And new shortcuts for copy, paste, undo, and redo finally make tasks that are simple on a computer equally simple through an intuitive touch-only interface should you not have our keyboard handy or engaged.
In addition, you get full desktop-class Internet browsing with Safari on iPad. While this at first seemed inconsequential, especially since I usually value mobile-optimized pages given that they’re generally designed better for the platform, actually using the new Safari on iPad proves a night-and-day difference. This is the way it always should have been. Buggy user interfaces on mobile for websites such as when working with WordPress editors and ShipStation’s back end work like a charm. Even in the beta, I haven’t had any issues so far aside from a few application crashes here and there (to be expected for an early beta).
Meanwhile, smaller features like Sidecar let you natively extend your MacOS display using your iPad screen. Custom fonts across various apps (including Mail, finally), zipping and unzipping compressed files, new keyboard shortcuts, and newer, more robust video and photo editing round out features that finally make iPad something professionals should — and rightly will — want.
Speed and Functionality Tests
As a quick test, I wanted to see just how well external drive support would work. With the latest iPadOS Beta update, Apple included APFS drive support (APFS is Apple’s latest SSD-optimized file system). I loaded my Samsung T5 SSD up via its USB-C connection and dragged over a 30 GB folder of images. Nearly three and a half minutes later, the transfer was complete at an average rate of just under 160 MB/s. Because both the T5 and the USB-C connection can support faster transfer rates, this seems to be the limitation of the iPad’s internal storage transfer rates. If not, this could also potentially be improved in a future software update, but 160 MB/s isn’t too bad and is certainly healthy enough for basic file backups, card offloads, and just about anything else you’d want to do on the go. For the record, smaller drives and SSDs worked well, but my monster 4 TB portable hard drives did not mount. This may be due to power constraints, but could also simply be something corrected or improved in future software releases.
With that out of the way, I opened up Adobe Lightroom on the iPad and did find a few issues for an otherwise ideal workflow (these aren’t bugs, but rather missing features for Lightroom itself). A follow-up post to this will soon dive into a workflow for working with Lightroom between mobile and desktop systems that I’ve found works well. But there is a way to do it, and it’s all thought out fairly decently. I don’t anticipate any issues on the road with an iPad-only experience. Sure, I’ll miss the full Lightroom Classic and Photoshop CC a bit, but soon enough, that last one will land on the iPad as well.
What I Liked
- USB-C external drive support is probably the greatest flagship feature, here (even if it's late to the party)
- Files app and iPad local storage opened up more
- Additional keyboard shortcuts and gestures increase productivity
- Sidecar display extension feature has potential to make iPad a better tablet than what's likely on your desk currently
- Mouse support and better Apple Pencil latency
- Support for connections to networked servers
- Better support for multiple and side-by-side windows of different apps or even multiple instances of the same app
What I Didn't Like
- USB-C drive support still lacks ability to power larger hard drives (at least in its current form)
- Could have faster SSD and/or file transfer
- Mouse pointer/cursor is ridiculously large (Apple is obviously still pushing for iPad being a device that doesn't require a mouse by really making this about accessibility as much as possible)
- Lack of support for pressure sensitivity will likely keep Wacom around (at least for advanced tablet users)
Before this, I was squarely in the camp of thinking that the iPad was an awkward device. Everyone needs and has a smartphone. And most need and have a computer. Then, there are a select but sizable few that don't need a computer and could get away with "just" a phone and an iPad for an augmented web or video experience on the go. Aside from that, and outside of enterprise uses such as in small business, medical, aeronautics, various field-based reps, etc., iPads were for lay people that wanted a bigger screen on the plane without needing to bring a heavy laptop when traveling. Come this fall, that will have completely changed. Even features that seem subtle such as iPad's Sidecar feature will likely be a direct hit against competitors such as Wacom and its standard tablets and Cintiq touch-enabled displays alike.
At the end of the day, I likely won’t do too much editing on the go anyway. But to know I can do it well from an iPad and finally have all the proper backup tools I need is huge. Sure, you could transfer files from an SD card to an iPhone or iPad for years, now. But to have access to virtually unlimited storage, better cross-system integrations, professional-level web browsing and text editing, and more away from home and without a proper laptop will be a game-changer. Maybe Apple finally earned the right to ask what its lofty “What Is a Computer?” iPad ads asked a few months back. At the time, the spot felt a bit early with the iPad’s limitations. But now these features are finally around the corner, and it’s a fair question: What is a computer?
Apple currently offers iPads from the Mini to the iPad Pro, of which I would highly recommend the 11-inch iPad Pro, starting at $779. The need for higher tiers of storage is thankfully alleviated with these coming updates (available now if you're willing to try the public beta), but should you want more internally, you can go up to 1 TB. If a nearly 13-inch screen sounds better for you, go for the larger iPad Pro that starts at $959. You can save more by going for previous-generation models as well, but keep in mind only the latest iPad Pro features a USB-C connection, which will likely give you the greatest flexibility with external drive connections.
The new iPadOS will be released this fall to the public and is currently in its second developer beta and first public beta. It is not recommended to download any beta software on a work-critical device, as it is completely unsupported and still somewhat buggy across the board.