iPadOS 16 Hands-On: Makes screen multitasking last, mostly useful

Twitter, Slack, Outlook and Safari are open at once and I browse and scan between them all. This is on my screen. It’s like any other day. Meanwhile, I play Catan on my iPad. Everything I do is powered by the iPad, with the screen connected via USB-C as a secondary screen. I almost feel like I’m on a Mac. But I’m not.

iPadOS 16 introduces a feature I’ve been wanting on iPads for years: true multi-window multitasking and true external monitor support for extended workspaces. A public beta preview of the software is available now (as I would not recommends installing on your daily personal device). How iPadOS makes both of these happen is the weird part. The navigation needs a lot of refinement, based on my early experiences so far.

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

Read more: iPad Air 2022 (M1) review

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

It feels like Apple is trying to develop a new computer interface, but through small steps and experiments. As iPadOS moves between iPhone and Mac, picking up multiple parts of each and mixing them, the parts do not always make sense. This is where I’m heading after trying the public beta version: striving to find my iPadOS sea legs.

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

Scott Stein / CNET

The good: Monitor magic

Connect a monitor now, and wow, it’s like a Mac. Apps can be opened on the screen or on the iPad, and the mouse or touchpad will just move back and forth as on a screen-connected Mac. I do not think Apple’s new Stage Manager changes much for people working directly on an iPad (see below), but wow, that opens up possibilities if you have a screen nearby.

Using an iPad Air with Magic keyboard attached, I put it right in front of my Dell monitor and felt like it finally became a dual monitor device. It’s particularly strange and fun to control apps with the keyboard and touchpad, while also doing things with the touch screen on the iPad with an app open there. For me, it was playing Catan while also responding to emails and Slacks. Stupid, and also amazing.

Now I play some John Williams soundtracks while typing and Slacker and playing some Catan and checking Twitter, and it basically feels like my typical screen-sunken day, but all iPad-enabled.

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

Connect a monitor and you will find that it connects as screens should, allowing separate apps to open independently of the iPad screen. In a new settings mode for screens, you can also choose to mirror your iPad, which iPadOS was only allowed before (who wants that?). The screen settings allow you to move around the other screen orientation: If you select the screen as “above” your iPad, the mouse / trackpad cursor moves from the iPad to the screen as you move up.

There’s also a new extra resolution mode on the iPad screen itself, which compresses text and apps for “more space”. On the 11-inch iPad Air, it apparently did not 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 portable.

Getting apps to open at the same time requires you to open them from the dock and pull them into place. App windows can be resized now, but not with full freedom. Windows can squeeze and stretch and go horizontally or vertically, but Apple limits sizes and shapes. It feels like fuzzy experimentation to get the layout you want. And if the windows get too big, Apple will overlap the windows. But only in very specific ways, so it’s not as free as a regular Mac’s windows-based (not Windows-based!) OS.

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The more windows will be less useful on the iPad screen, especially if you do not have the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro (right).

Scott Stein / CNET

The Bad: How does this work again?

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

It’s getting weirder. Stage Manager has instances of grouped open apps, but if one app is already open, you just want to switch to that instance instead of overlaying it with the others that are open, though you can also drag open apps to and from the side dock and into your work area. On the iPad itself, these other app windows remain open on the page, reducing your free app display space. Apps can be expanded again, but it quickly becomes confusing to jump back and forth to select apps. And then there‚Äôs that icon with three dots above windows that still handles app zooming, split screening and minimization just like iPadOS 15. Follow me? I expect you are not.

I lost weight, despite being a longtime iPadOS user. Nor can apps be easily dragged from one window to another. Just as I was starting to feel like I was slipping into a Mac flow, iPadOS was throwing me into an eerie valley again.

And there are also public beta bugs: Connecting to a screen turns off my iPad audio unless I use headphones. Sometimes I have had sudden crashes restart from too many apps open. And if I pull the plug out of the screen, I find that some app groups suddenly have empty black windows. Oh, and I tried to launch Catan on my screen, and it started sideways. Beta explorers, good luck.

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

The deeper I go, the stranger and buggier it feels. I’m trying to start Batman Returns on Apple TV to watch as I type this, and it’s playing automatically on the screen instead of my iPad screen. I can move the entire video all the way up to the screen, but not back to the iPad again. And when I try to switch Pages from the screen to the iPad screen (which is done via the very small icon with three dots at the top of each window, which now has a menu that vaguely says “move to screen”), the app will suddenly become blank and I have to force up.

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

iPadOS 16 has most of iOS 16’s biggest hits, minus the cool new, customizable lock screen feature. There’s also an Apple-made Weather App, now, finally (yay?). There are more integrated ways to share documents and group collaboration through Messages or FaceTime, extending what was started last year. Apple’s promising collaborative whiteboard app, called Freeform, is not yet in public beta, but is expected in the fall.

I still do not 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 the M1 iPads use an extra screen like a real second screen, I’m already excited. 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 a lot like a beta feature. Even the way Apple allows you to turn the feature on and off via the Control Center suggests that it may not be intended as an everyday feature yet, but instead a “pro” feature that you must consciously look for in order to use.

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

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