Those of us on the Developer Beta track have gotten close to two full weeks to kick the tires on Apple’s new iPadOS trackpad support at this point. The early reviews have been almost universally positive and I have to agree based on what I’ve seen. So what is it exactly that has made this new feature such a hit? Here are a few reasons that stand out to me.
I’ve been a big fan of using a keyboard case with my Apple tablets all the way back to the iPad 2. The experience has been hit and miss at times depending on what keyboard or case I was using, as well as the size of the iPad I had. However, I have to say that it’s been a mostly positive experience on my iPad Pros, especially thanks to the extra real estate that the 12.9″ version offers. Having a full-sized keyboard (at least in terms of what you expect from a laptop) makes a big difference.
However, despite the ability to use special function keys, arrow keys and expanded keyboard shortcuts, there has always been that disconnect of having to reach back and forth between the keys and the screen for certain tasks. For all the fun many of us make of Apple for their stubborn refusal to add touch support to macOS, they have at least one good point. There is a disruption in the user experience and a certain amount of irritation associated with HAVING to move between the keyboard and screen. I’ve always accepted and just dealt with it using an iPad because the device’s strengths far outweighed its weaknesses in my usage.
With trackpad support, that annoyance is now gone. Thanks to iPadOS 13.4, the trackpad puts keyboard users on equal footing with those who stick to touch alone on their iPads. Now there are no sacrifices or drawbacks to using a keyboard. There’s very little need to reach up to the screen on a regular basis if you are engaged in work using the keyboard. There are no more kludgy workarounds like last year’s version of AssistiveTouch. Now we have a fully-featured solution that works with most Bluetooth mice and trackpads.
As a Windows user on the desktop, I also see a distinction between what Apple is doing with the trackpad in iPadOS and the way that Microsoft has handled touch support on Windows over the last 8 years. Their approach has changed because of the failures of Windows 8, but it hasn’t really evolved since Windows 10 came along. While Microsoft’s original goal was to create a Windows experience that was more touch-friendly, they ended up rolling things back significantly in Windows 10. Today, touch is just an add-on to a UI designed for a mouse, with many touch targets that are too small to be easily selected and manipulated with a normal size finger. It just isn’t effective as a primary method of input in Windows.
While I wouldn’t say trackpad support in iPadOS is complete yet, what Apple has provided so far is an experience with fewer compromises than you have with touch in Windows. It isn’t just bolted on as a clearly secondary method of input. Touchpad support in iPadOS can handle most of what you need to do to interact with the objects and text around you, as well as navigate the overall OS. It is also designed to fit within a system that was originally built as a touch-first interface. There is more thought behind it than what I currently see in Windows, and as a frequent iPad Pro keyboard user, I really appreciate that.
On the flip side of the coin, not only has Apple given trackpad support equal footing within the OS, they have also avoided making any significant sacrifices to the core touch user experience of iPadOS. Basically, if you don’t want to use a trackpad, then nothing changes for you. No matter what iPadOS 13.4 compatible hardware you have, you can go about your business as usual and not face any negative consequences in the absence of a trackpad or mouse.
This is, yet again, in stark contrast to how Microsoft tried to handle the addition with touch to the original Surface RT and Surface Pro. The downfall of Windows 8 was that it DID compromise the original mouse-based desktop experience by forcing users to adapt to a new, tile-based Start Menu that was more cumbersome to use without touch. I think Apple is definitely making the right move in preserving the normal iPadOS user experience while adding trackpad support.
There if you need it
While a power user like myself will likely use a trackpad often with their iPad Pro often going forward, especially once the Magic Keyboard is available, many may only find an occasional need for one. Another strength of the trackpad support in iPadOS is that it is very easy for any computer user to pick up and master the basics easily.
Ease of use is key in getting less technical users to adopt new features. I think Apple struck a nice balance between adding gestures and customization for advanced users, while making basic operation of the round cursor and navigation of the OS very easy. Making a new feature like this as approachable as possible should help to get more people interested in doing more with their iPads.
It just works
Yeah, I know. This quote has a lot of history with Apple and not all of it is good. They haven’t always held of their end of the bargain in making some of their devices and services “just work,” especially on the first try. However, touchpad support for the iPad is one of those times when Apple has delivered exactly that kind of experience.
The cursor movement is fluid and natural. The physics feel right (but can be disabled, if you prefer). The cursor’s circular shape shape is unique and fits the iPadOS environment, which has always been based around touch, very nicely. Taps and clicks register with ease. Selecting, cutting or copying and pasting text is so much easier than tapping on the screen, especially for those of us who have larger fingers. Scrolling is fast and smooth. In some ways, the trackpad is even, dare I say, superior to touch. Only in a few instances such as selecting text, but it’s certainly worth noting.
In my opinion, the most unique new feature is the animation of the cursor. It’s ability to morph and adapt to items that you can interact with on the screen really works well on the iPad. iPadOS isn’t the same as a desktop OS and wasn’t created with mouse support in mind. Unlike Windows and macOS, it isn’t always obvious what objects you can manipulate with a mouse or trackpad. The animations help to guide the user, showing them what items on the screen they can work with and making it easier to manipulate said objects. This was a creative solution that alleviated potential confusion.
Tracking the changes
I think a lot of iPad fans were surprised that Apple went as far with trackpad support as they did. I know I was, as I figured it would be more of an evolution over time, spanning two or more versions of iPadOS. Apple often moves at that more deliberate pace. Also, I really didn’t think it would arrive as part of a point release to iPadOS. But here we are. Apple gave us the works months ahead of WWDC and looking back it seems like the perfect move.
I can’t help but get excited for what the rest of the year holds for iPadOS after this. That excitement has certainly been muted quite a bit due to the current state of the world thanks to COVID-19. However, it’s still there. If Apple can deliver a feature this good and well thought out just past the middle of the yearly OS release cycle, then I’m betting they have some really nice new features lined up for iPadOS 14. If they are executed as well as trackpad support, then the iPad is getting ready to take another solid step forward.