With iPadOS 16 getting proper external monitor support and Stage Manager, I want a larger desktop iPad and it feels like we’ve taken a decisive step towards this fabled desktop machine.
For the last 6 months, I’ve looked at my iPad with longing. I’m longing for it because I want to use it, but I earn most of my income from writing code and while my iPad Pro could be wrangled to a reasonable coding workflow I was always pushing up against its boundaries of it. I’d regularly spend a bunch of time solving problems that didn’t exist at all on a macOS-powered machine.
Sure I could bill my clients hourly for this work to figure things out, but that doesn’t feel honest to me, so I was eating time/money in a quest to use my favourite computer. This was unsustainable and I abandoned the iPad as my primary machine.
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There are three main workflows that I struggled with, which we’re stepping closer to solving. First, iPadOS 16 is telling us a better story about external monitor workflows. Second, it seems to have a vastly improved window management workflow. Third, Driver Kit has the potential to expand the functions of the iPad in ways that iPad users have been dreaming of.
External Monitor Workflows
My iPadPro and Macbook Air share the exact same specs. They both have the M1 Processor with 1TB of storage and 16GB of RAM. I use my Air with those specs and am happy with the value it provides, but I find my iPad to be a large money sink so far.
I’ve spent over a year watching my Air handle multiple applications running on external windows without breaking a sweat. I’ll edit and render a video in Final Cut with my notes open in Obsidian and editing photos in Affinity Photo or Canva for my thumbnail.
While some of these workflows feel fine on macOS, some don’t. Specifically, I much prefer editing photos and thumbnails with the direct manipulation of items that the iPad provides. The mouse or trackpad is an abstraction that feels like it gets in the way of my creativity.
But I look at the pillar-boxed iPad interface and feel frustration at all the power being weakened by software that isn’t taking advantage of the hardware it’s running on. Sure touch is nice, but why can’t I be rendering a video on one screen while editing a photo on the other? Why do I have to have LumaFusion in a small narrow column at the same time as I try to manipulate a thumbnail in a reduced view so that LumaFusion doesn’t stop rendering part way through my video?
Now with iPadOS 16 we finally have a better workflow for using an external monitor with your iPad in Stage Manager. I should be able to render a video on one screen while still using my iPad directly as a canvas to edit photos and do other work.
Window Management Workflows
The window management story on macOS has been abysmal for a while. Sure you can do some split-screen stuff, but unlike the iPad features it mimics, the applications have far too much chrome and have always felt like they’re too small to view with macOS split screen functions. Even with a 27″ monitor, two macOS applications feel cramped.
I’ve always found this funny because I love split-screen apps on my iPad and rarely feel like they’re too small. Using DEVONthink and Obsidian side by side on macOS on my 27″ screen feels more limited than using the same applications on my 12.9″ iPadPro screen. I didn’t realize how much space window chrome took up until I caught myself gravitating to my iPad because it felt like I had more room to work.
Some people, myself included, have resorted to window management applications like Mosiac to deal with multiple windows in a cleaner manner. While these applications vastly improve macOS windowing, they’re still hampered by the default design of macOS applications. There is still far too much chrome around the application and in the operating system which leaves many of my day-to-day tasks feeling cramped.
A further issue with Mosiac is that it registers your key commands corresponding to the letter values of the keys you press. I use a keyboard that sends DVORAK keyboard signals to macOS set in standand QWERTY layout at my desk. If I take my laptop away from the screen I change it to software DVORAK mode, and none of the keyboard commands work for Mosiac anymore.
While I don’t think that Stage Manager will fix anything on macOS for “power” users, I am very optimistic about what it brings to iPadOS 16. Having a few applications open on my iPad, while having a couple of applications open on a second window feels like it’s going to be a breath of fresh air. I’m very much looking forward to installing the public beta so I can test out Stage Manager despite a number of questions about its current implementation.
The final big workflow improvement I can see on the iPadOS 16 horizon is support for third-party tools like Stream Deck. iPadOS 16 is going to bring us Driver Kit which allows a secure way to create drivers for USB and Thunderbolt external accessories for your iPad.
Think of a Stream Deck with custom commands running on your iPadPro with Stage Manager running applications on another monitor. Think of Shortcuts being run on your iPad from a Stream Deck. Since I like custom keyboards and use a DVORAK layout I end up switching my keyboard settings at least once a day. When I’m using my iPad next to macOS via Universal Control it’s hooked up to my Moonlander keyboard, which is programmed to be a DVORAK-only keyboard. When I’m at my iPad-only desk or grab my iPad to go around the house I need to change the iPad to a software-based DVORAK keyboard.
While I have a shortcut to get me to the setting, it may or may not be on the screen I’m currently looking at on my iPad. Having a dedicated hardware button that took me directly to the setting would be a quality of life improvement. Better yet, maybe with Driver Kit I’d be able to toggle that setting?
Another place I could see dedicated hardware buttons improving my life would be in managing split-screen applications. Custom keyboards don’t have the
globe key found on Apple keyboards and I’ve been unable to program one in. That’s left me reaching up to my screen or over to my trackpad to invoke split screen. A dedicated hardware device may be able to solve this workflow hiccup.
Whatever the real story is I’m sure there are developers out there right now inventing new things we haven’t even thought of to take advantage of Driver Kit. The iPad hardware has been ready for this for a while, and I’m excited that the software may be catching up.
While applications like LumaFusion, Affinity Photo, and Ferrite are powerful and in some cases far easier to use than their macOS-bound competitors, there are many standard features in applications that are missing when you look at the iPad options. Apple appears to see this glaring hole in their software with iPadOS 16 as it will start bringing us “desktop-class” iPad apps.
With its starting point in iPhoneOS/iOS many features of the software we use on iPadOS have been hamstrung by decisions made that were entirely sensible on the phone years ago. In a more power-constrained (both in battery and processing power) environment, there are things that don’t make sense. Apple seems to be evaluating those decisions in light of how powerful the iPad is now.
The additions to the Files App are the biggest ones in evidence right now. Files will now let us view and change file extensions along with the ability to customize the top menu of Files and a number of other features I’m looking forward to getting into when the public beta comes out.
It seems that the internal direction is that your iPad app versions should be as capable as their desktop equivalents, which is a welcome idea.
This doesn’t mean that we’re getting FinalCut Pro, but it gives me more hope that Apple is viewing the iPad as far more than a simple tablet for non-power users and that applications like FinalCut Pro could come to the iPad.
Another interesting addition to iPadOS 16 is Developer Mode. Currently, Developer Mode is intended for people developing applications that need to install an
.ipa file on their device. Once you turn Developer Mode on you’ll be greeted with some warnings about reduced device security so that you acknowledge this fact and then you can install and run applications from Xcode.
I don’t think I’ll need this currently, but could Apple add the ability to run web servers locally if you’re in developer mode? Would this enable me to write code locally for my clients? If my M1 Air is powerful enough to run local web servers while running a bunch of other applications my iPadPro is also capable.
To be clear, I have no knowledge that this would ever happen or that it’s in the plans but Developer Mode gives Apple an existing feature to leverage to enable more functionality on an iPad for those that need it without putting any regular users in any extra “danger” due to reduced security.
The Desktop iPad Dream
With iPadOS 16 looking so promising I’ve started wishing for a larger desktop iPad. One that embraces the power of M1 (or M2) has more RAM and higher storage options. An iPad that would stay at my desk as a touch-first computer hooked up to an external monitor.
The rumour is that this 14.1″ desktop iPad is in development. While I know some people will scoff at this idea, lots of people walk around with a 14″ or 16″ laptop in their bags. I was often the outlier at tech conferences with my 13″ MacBook Air. I’m not sure I’d want to carry around this theoretical larger iPad, but I have a Mac Studio coming as my main machine which I won’t carry around. Why can I have a more powerful desktop iPad alongside an iPad Air for portable situations?
The M1 iPad Pro is already as capable of running Final Cut Pro, Logic, or any other “pro” application as my M1 Air has been. A possible larger iPad with even more power would be begging for some applications that can truly make the hardware shine, and I think that Stage Manager with Driver Kit has taken us a step closer to that situation.
I recognize that I’m talking about the promise of an iPad and wish-casting about how useful a large iPad would be useful. At this point, there are still barriers to making an iPad my full-time working machine for code. Some of them can be worked around by running VSCode online and coding on a remote server. I’ve done similar things before and the blocker was always the multiple screen workflow.
iPadOS 16 is telling us a stronger story on that front. I want to make my iPad my daily driver for everything. It’s my favourite computer and the only portable device I choose to take off my desk. My MacBook Air sits on my desk for 99% of its life. I never want to reach for it, I just have to for some parts of my job.
I’m not a developer beta guy, so I’ll get to test these theories out when I install the public beta when it comes out in a few weeks.