Apple iPadOS 14 report card: There's room for improvement

We've seen a quick glimpse at the new features coming to iPadOS 14, but it's the lack of home screen improvements that leave us puzzled.

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WWDC, Apple's annual developer conference, kicked off Monday, with the headlining news that the company is moving away from Intel processors and will soon use its own Apple Silicon processors in the Mac line.

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The Mac may have been the star of the show, but that doesn't mean Apple didn't pay attention to the rest of its product lineup. The iPhone is getting iOS 14, with new home screen features and improvements. The Apple Watch has a new sleep app, while TVOS is getting better HomeKit integration.

As for the iPad, well, it's getting iPadOS 14. Right now, I think the update can best be described as a modest improvement.

Improvements include a new approach to the iPad's interface within apps, Apple Pencil improvements, and an improved Search feature, but the lack of the same home screen improvements that the iPhone is getting is frustrating.

Below are the features that Apple highlighted in the keynote, and a temporary letter grade from me. As I learn more about iPadOS 14 and get to spend time actually using it, I'll continue updating this report card.

new-ipad-apps-look.jpg

The new Sidebar design in iPad apps. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Interface changes: B

There is a new Sidebar interface approach in iPadOS that, once apps update, will move category tabs from the bottom of the screen to the side of the display. For example, in the Music app, there used to be tabs along the bottom of the screen that you'd use to move between your library, new music, listening suggestions, and the like.

With iPadOS, however, all those tabs are now moved to the side, similar to how the Mail app displays all of your mailboxes.

This arrangement makes a lot more sense and should be easier to navigate, especially if you're using a trackpad or mouse to get around the iPad's interface. More apps will have to adopt the new design, but at first glance, it looks like this seemingly subtle change will do a lot to make the iPad's interface look and function more like a normal computer. If nothing else, it will be familiar to users.

Another important change that's bugged me for years is the fact that incoming calls take over the iPad's entire screen, instead of showing up as a small alert, similar to new notifications. The iPad and iPhone are both getting smaller incoming call prompts when the device is unlocked and in use.

The same can be said for Siri -- the virtual assistant is now a small animation that shows up in the bottom-right corner of the screen when summoned. Results are also displayed as a small popup just above that, which is a huge improvement over Siri dominating the entire display, as has always been the case.

ios-14-widgets.png

Home screen improvements: D-

As Apple walked us through the home screen improvements to iOS 14, I couldn't help but feel excited about what this would look like on the iPad. The updates bring new-look widgets that can be placed anywhere on the screen, and a new App Library that serves more as an app drawer to declutter your display.

And then, as the video turned to the iPad, I didn't realize Apple failed to mention any home screen changes coming in iPadOS 14. I assumed at the end of the iPad session, when it was mentioned that there was a lot of overlap between iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, Apple's tablet would get the new app arrangement features.

I was wrong. Shortly after the keynote ended and the developer betas were made public, it became clear the iPad would not get the same treatment. App Library is nowhere to be found, and widgets are still limited to the Today View, a column that lives off the left side of your screen, or can be pinned to the home screen. But, that's it.

Hopefully, user feedback during the beta process inspires Apple to bring features to the iPad. It makes the most sense for this kind of feature to exist on a smaller display, like the iPhone, but I'm sure many will find it just as useful on the iPad.

apple-ipados14-universalsearch-sprngboard-062220.jpg

Apple, Inc.

Search: A+

Apple has improved the Spotlight-like Search feature on iPadOS 14. You still activate it by pressing Command+Space Bar within any app, or by swiping down on the main screen. But instead of taking over the entire screen, Search now acts more like MacOS Spotlight, with a small search bar showing up on top of the screen or app you're currently using, awaiting your search query.

Search acts as a quick launcher for opening apps, searching for information within apps such as a specific file in the Files app, and searching the web and quick facts.

If done right, a responsive and accurate Search tool is a far better method of multitasking, especially if you're trying to find files and messages while moving between apps. 

I've always used Search to launch apps as a calculator replacement on the iPad. The more streamlined look and feel of the Search bar wasn't something I'd ever hoped Apple would change, but after seeing it in action during the keynote, I'm excited to give it a try.

apple-ipados14-scribble-062220.jpg

Apple, Inc.

Apple Pencil improvements: A

The Apple Pencil is no longer limited to specific apps for specific tasks. Instead, you can now use the Pencil to edit text documents, scratching out a word, inserting or removing a space by drawing a small line between letters, circling a word to select it, or writing a word and having it transcribed into text in near real-time.

I have an Apple Pencil with the iPad Pro, but I honestly rarely use it. Actually, I never use it. I just can't figure out a way for it to fit in my daily workflow, but the first thing I thought of when I saw Scribble was that it could come in handy when editing longer articles and even my kids' schoolwork.

I don't ever see myself using Scribble to write in a text field instead of just typing, but I do see how those who use and love the Apple Pencil will find that a welcomed addition.

Other notable Apple Pencil changes include improvements to selecting text, recognizing written things like phone numbers or addresses, converting hand-drawn shapes into pieces of clipart, and the like.

All in all, the Pencil received a big update on iPad Pro, and developers will be able to take advantage of all the new features after updating to the latest API.

Surely, there's a lot more to be found and talked about in iPadOS 14, but we'll have to wait until the public beta launches before we can take a deeper dive.

In the meantime, what do you think about iPadOS 14? Let us know in the comments.