iPad for Writers: iPadOS 13 Review

I’ve never reviewed an operating system before. It’s daunting and there’s no way I’d be able to devote months of my life to discussing every little feature inside. Instead, this review was written with a very specific demographic in mind: writers. I’ve broken it down into sections based on my own use case and what I think would benefit any writers interested in switching from a PC or Mac to the iPad.

  1. Introduction
  2. Homescreen
  3. Multitasking
  4. Files and iCloud
  5. Shortcuts
  6. Safari
  7. Apple Pencil
  8. Text Editing and the Keyboard
  9. Fonts
  10. Dark Mode
  11. Conclusion

At this year’s WWDC, Apple unveiled the newest operating system to its already growing lineup. In addition to WatchOS, tvOS, MacOS, and iOS, we now have iPadOS, a dedicated platform disconnected from the iPhone’s own operating system.

As soon as the betas got relatively stable, I installed iPadOS on my iPad Pro to really see if it would be possible to migrate away from my MacBook Air and use the iPad as my primary computing machine.

I’m a writer. I used my MacBook Air for writing and research on Cabinet of Curiosities, and I wrote half a dozen novels and short stories in Scrivener on it. It was how I got work done for a long time, but the iPad lifestyle intrigued me. Writers like Federico Viticci and Matt Gemmell saw the possibilities of an iPad-only future early on, even before iPadOS offered such expanded functionality. They altered their workflows and made use of clever hacks to achieve their goals. I figured I’d give it a shot, too.

I love the iPad. It’s slim, light, and versatile. This review won’t go into detail on every feature and app enhancement iPadOS brings. For that, I suggest you take a deep dive into Federico’s review on MacStories. It’s enormous and thorough and incredibly thoughtful.

I’m tackling this review from the perspective of a writer, discussing the features and apps I use and determining whether other writers looking to make the switch can—and should.

So, let’s get to it, shall we?

Homescreen

The iPad homescreen in iPadOS 13 now allows for more icons to be displayed at a time and when you rotate your device, their positioning doesn’t change their arrangement. That was a major complaint from the beginning, so it’s nice to see Apple listened.

However, the biggest addition to the homescreen comes in the form of widgets, which exist in a sidebar to the left of your icons. It can be pinned so it’s always visible when the iPad is in landscape orientation, providing quick access to things like your appointments, the weather, and Shortcuts.

I use widgets so much more now, especially when compared to the iPhone, because they’re always right there when I exit to the homescreen. The information I need is available at a glance and I can even pin specific widgets to the top so I don’t have to scroll to find them every time.

Widgets!

Third party apps like Drafts can provide access to quick actions in their widgets, like creating and dictating new drafts. As you add more apps to your iPad, see what kinds of widgets they offer and whether they’d be a good fit among the others.

One thing I’d like to see is for the column to be pinned to the homescreen in a kind of frame on the left, while the icons move as I swipe from screen to screen. Right now, when I swipe to my second homescreen grid of icons, the widget column gets swiped away, too. I want it persistently on my homescreen no matter what.

Multitasking

Before the iPad gained Split View in iOS 9, we were relegated to using one app at a time. Gestures to switch and close apps weren’t enough. It was cumbersome. It was like having several books on the table for research, but every time you wanted to switch titles, you had to shut it and move it aside to make room for the next one.

Split View and Slide Over have grown in iPadOS 13 to allow more than two apps side-by-side plus a smaller “iPhone-sized” rendering in Slide Over. Now, you can drag an array of apps into slide over, giving you numerous tools at your disposal for things like research.

Slide Over windows

In addition, you can also drag multiple instances of an app into Slide Over and/or Split View. Bouncing from site-to-site as you research your next novel? Outlining in Notes as you reference a webpage or two? Or maybe you already have your outline completed in Notes and now you’re ready to get writing in Scrivener or Ulysses—you can have a text editor window open on one side, a web page open on the other, an Apple Note in a handy Slide Over window.

That’s an OLD version of my query letter for my latest novel. It’s much better now.

And it works for almost any app. Some apps still need to be updated to allow for Apple’s new Multiple Spaces functionality, but ever since iOS 13’s release, updates have been coming quickly.

And if you get overwhelmed or want to figure out where a particular app’s window has gone, bring up the dock and tap the app’s icon to access App Exposé, which will allow you to see all available windows for a specific app.

App Exposé

Overall, Split View, Slide Over, and App Exposé work well. I do have a few minor issues, however. First, switching text fields between two apps in Split View is frustrating. For example, if I’ve been working in Pages on the left and decide to type a new URL in Safari on the right, I can’t just tap in the address bar in Safari and start typing. I need to grab the top of the screen on the right-hand side, “jiggle” the window up and down to make it the active window, then tap the address bar and begin typing. I hope Apple fixes this in a future update. I should be able to just tap from one side to the next to switch active windows without added friction.

Secondly, grabbing an app from the dock and dragging it to  one side or into Slide Over takes too long and is too temperamental. It requires bringing up the dock (which, if done too quickly, can close the active window(s) instead), then tapping and holding for just long enough to make the icon draggable, then choosing where I’d like the app’s window to appear. Hold too long and the app’s contextual menu appears. Don’t hold long enough and the icon doesn’t go anywhere.

However, these minor quibbles don’t detract from the fact that the Split View/Slide Over/App Exposé trifecta is a large part of what makes the iPad so much more viable as a laptop replacement than before. I’m looking forward to seeing these features grown and change in future updates.

Files and iCloud

The Files app and iCloud have gotten big bumps with iPadOS 13. Files now allows users to plug in external hard drives either via USB-C (on the iPad Pro) or through the use of an adapter. Now writers can back up their work both to the cloud and to an external thumb/hard drive without having to transfer it to a desktop computer first.

In a future update coming later this Fall, iCloud will support shared folders, so writers collaborating on a project can have all their files and assets synced up to one folder right within iCloud.

And if navigating your various Dropbox, iCloud, or hard drive files by grids of icons gave you a headache before, Apple has included new views to make hunting for the files you need much easier, including a MacOS-style column view.

I love the column view. It’s how I had Finder set up on my Mac and the addition of tools like Markup, rotate, and Export to PDF make manipulating files a breeze because I don’t need to import them into apps first.

Files in column view

I do wish I could expand or shrink column sizes like I can do in Finder, especially when file names run long. However, there’s an additional “List” view that hides the preview column and allows the full file name to display in the window. It’s not perfect, but it is a solution.

The jury is still out on iCloud Sharing’s stability, so I wouldn’t cancel your Dropbox subscription just yet, but it’s worth looking at as a potential secondary backup/storage location for your files if you’re worried about one of the other ones failing.

Shortcuts

Shortcuts has become my new obsession. The iPad (and iOS in general) is a funny thing: its limitations have made using it feel both constricting and immensely freeing at the same time.

It’s sort of like the movie JAWS. Spielberg had planned on there being a lot more shark in the movie originally. However, when the animatronic Bruces started failing (salt water and electronics don’t mix), they had to improvise. The limitations of the shark meant we got things like the yellow barrels and the terrifying scene with the moving dock.

Shortcuts on the iPad work very much the same way. Due to the operating system’s limitations (both in how it was designed and in what Apple allows users to do), Shortcuts open up a world of possibility through automation.

Before we go any further, I’m fairly certain my target audience for this review, on the whole, is not going to be programmatically minded. I wasn’t either at first. I needed a lot of help getting started with Shortcuts and in my opinion, there is no better way to dive into automation on the iPad than with David Sparks’s Shortcuts Field Guide. I’ve been using the Field Guide to familiarize myself with the Shortcuts ecosystem and I’ve been able to do quite a lot, even with having only completed 15% of his tutorials.

For example, I managed to streamline the Shortcut I built to make querying my novel(s) easier. I also built a Shortcut that automates the bibliography I append to the end of every Cabinet of Curiosities story I write. First, I copy the domain, then from Safari I activate the Shortcut through the browser’s share sheet.

It passes the webpage’s URL to the Shortcut, pulls out the title, author, and link, and dumps the output to the end of the story in Ulysses.

You can use Shortcuts to do a lot: extract excerpts from web pages and use them to create new notes in Apple Notes, send images from the web to different apps, save files in your email to specific folders automatically without having to drill down in the folder tree to find the location (great for archiving receipts and publisher documentation).

iPadOS 13.1 will also bring location/time-based triggers to Shortcuts when it’s released at the end of September. You can have Shortcuts fire based on time of day, day of the week, or even when you switch WiFi networks.

Perhaps you write at Starbucks every day and you want to make sure you’re focused while you’re there. You can have a Shortcut launch when you connect to the Starbucks WiFi that will put your iPad in Do Not Disturb mode and hide all notifications until you leave. You can also have it launch a pomodoro timer if you know you’re going to do some sprints once you have your latte in-hand.

Shortcuts is an advanced level feature and one that is definitely worth exploring as you begin your iPad-focused writing lifestyle. However, I suggest you start by:

  1. Digging into the Shortcuts gallery, installing a few, and seeing how they work to get a feel for their construction.
  2. Purchasing and settling in with David Sparks’s Shortcuts Field Guide ($29). Seriously, don’t just half-ass it. Watch the videos and follow along (you can even have the tutorial open in the browser on one side of Split View and Shortcuts open on the other side).
  3. Reading Federico Viticci’s iOS/iPadOS 13 review—specifically the Shortcuts section—to get a better overview of how Shortcuts fit into the iOS platform and what they can do to assist in automating your writing workflow. Viticci’s review is extensive. He has torn iOS 13 and iPadOS 13 down to the studs. If you’re looking for a more granular explanation of anything in iPadOS 13, you may want to pour yourself a cup of something tasty, find a comfy chair, and let Federico lead the way.

I’m still learning new things about Shortcuts with each one I build. It’s a feature that will grow as iOS grows, adding more functionality with each update and expanding the capabilities of our devices even further. Watch this space—this is where things are going to get very exciting.

Safari

Safari on the iPad is no longer just a bigger version of the iPhone Safari. On iPadOS 13, Safari is now almost as capable as the Mac version. I say almost because there are still some hiccups with how certain websites render, especially if they require a certain plug-in only available on desktop computers.

But the main websites a writer might need, such as Google Docs, QueryTracker, as well as the backend CMS systems within Wordpress and Squarespace render—and function—just as they do on a laptop.

Google Docs was a specific pain point for a lot of writers who wanted to switch to the iPad, or even to write on the go when they weren’t at their desk, but the only alternative was a severely limited app from the App Store. Not anymore.

YouTube also renders in-browser, so you no longer have to rely on the app to watch videos anymore. Having a desktop-class browser on the iPad makes so many more websites available to users than before, expanding the functionality of the device and preventing the need for a bunch of one-off apps cluttering up the homescreen.

The new Safari also comes with a download manager, so files that used to have to be downloaded on a Mac and transferred over can now be saved directly to the Files app on the iPad.

Right now, downloads are saved to your iCloud’s Downloads folder by default. The default folder can be changed under the Safari section of the Settings app, but I’d like to specify the location at the time I initiate the download like I can on my Mac.

To adjust font sizes, view a stripped-down “Reader” version of an article, or request the mobile version of a website for some reason, tap the “Aa” button in the address bar. This will open a small menu of options to help tailor the browsing experience to the user.

All in all, this is possibly the most significant update to Safari on the iPad since the original iPad was released. It’s a game changer and makes browsing the web so much easier—and more fun than it used to be.

Apple Pencil

I used to be a sporadic Apple Pencil user, mostly using it for minor interactions with the iPad, such as tapping small buttons or scrolling up and down a webpage. I’m not much of an artist and I don’t handwrite a lot on the screen.

However, using the Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro, especially in iPadOS 13, has helped me in two major ways.

  1. Screenshots
  2. Signing documents

When I drag from the lower left corner of the iPad with the tip of the pencil, I can take a screenshot and start marking it up immediately. The action is smooth and reliable and much easier than awkwardly pressing the volume button and the lock button at the same time, which sometimes resulted in either increasing the sound output on my iPad or turning off its display rather than taking a screenshot.

In apps like Safari, there are two types of screenshots available: a cropped version of what was displayed onscreen and a longer, “full page” view of an entire webpage.

Cropped default screenshot with annotations
Full page screenshot

I recently started a new job and before my first day, the HR manager emailed me a bunch of paperwork to fill out ahead of time. I had no interest in hooking up my printer, printing out 30 pages of paper, entering all my information and signing them, then finding a way to scan them back in to email back to her.

So, I turned to the iPad. I used the Readdle app PDF Expert to handle all the documents. I was able to type in text and drop my signature in where necessary in a matter of minutes. And my signature looked like it does when I sign  with pen and paper because of the Apple Pencil’s accuracy.

If you find yourself signing a lot of documentation and you don’t want to kill a bunch of trees in the process, or you want to provide ebook readers with a digital autograph, consider picking up the Apple Pencil.

It also comes in handy for drawing mind maps in apps like MindNode and scribbling down new ideas in Apple Notes as they come to you.

I’m hoping to get into digital drawing in Procreate soon and I’m looking forward to putting the Apple Pencil through its paces in a more substantial way.

Text Editing and the Keyboard

Text editing has changed quite a bit in iPadOS 13. There are  new gestures to get used to in order to manipulate text, including a new way to move the cursor around the screen.

To move the cursor, just tap it and drag it where you want it to go. Overall, this gesture works more reliably than the others and rarely gives me problems. I like being able to place the line where I want it to go, rather than having to tap the arrow keys several times, or trying to negotiate the loupe and hoping my finger doesn’t slip at the last second, placing the cursor in a completely different place than I’d intended.

In order to highlight text, you can either double tap a word and then drag the highlight slider to capture more text beneath the blue bar OR you can tap and hold on a word, then drag your finger to highlight the subsequent text you want.

The latter method is new in iPadOS 13 and when it works, it’s great. I’ve found problems when trying to highlight text right next to the cursor, which typically results in an accidental grabbing of the cursor. Instead, I have to start a few words behind it, then drag forward to highlight the text I actually want. Or I just move the cursor out of the way.

Then, if I want to copy the text I’ve highlighted, I pinch three fingers on the screen. To cut it, I pinch again with three fingers and the text vanishes. To paste it, I position the cursor where I want the text to go and spread three fingers on the screen.

Again, when it works, it’s like magic. When it works. Some apps don’t support the new gestures, such as Apple’s own Pages app. I don’t get that. An official Apple app not supporting official Apple gestures? As of this review’s publication, Pages still has not been updated to incorporate the new text manipulation gestures and that seems egregious.

Where the new gestures excel are in undo and redo. In iOS 12 and earlier, undoing something required you to pick up and shake your iPad like it owed you money. That’s been replaced with two new swipe gestures:

  1. Swipe left with three fingers to undo
  2. Swipe right with three fingers to redo.

These are simple to carry out and require very little in the way of precision.

The cut, copy, and paste gestures have a distinct “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” feeling to them, like the iPad is still finding its way in the world. After all, we’ve had over 30 years of desktop computing to perfect the way we interact with text. The iPad has introduced new paradigms, some of which will mature naturally while others will need to be shoved in front of our faces long enough for us to adopt them.

And that’s the biggest problem with all these new gestures: discoverability. You have to know they’re there or be shown them, and then you need to put them into practice, otherwise you forget them. As Apple increases iPad functionality, it also increases complexity, and unfortunately there are going to be many users to don’t know what their machine is capable of because so much of it is hidden beneath the surface.

I don’t know what perfect text manipulation on the iPad looks like, but for as much as these new gestures try to solve, they seem to open up all new problems.

Keyboard

The full onscreen keyboard has changed very little since iOS 12. What’s new is the smaller “Swipe” keyboard that appears when you pinch with two fingers on the larger one. It stays off to one side, but can be moved depending on how you’re holding the iPad, and you can swipe to construct your words just as you can on the iPhone.

When you’re reading over your manuscript in portrait mode and you want to add a note or change something in the draft, having that swipe keyboard right there makes revisions much simpler than having to prop up your iPad in a stand or use the Smart Keyboard Cover.

It’s so leetle.

Fonts

With iPadOS 13, custom fonts can be installed on the iPad for use in various apps. Fonts will be available for purchase in the App Store in the near future, but as of publication, the feature isn’t active yet.

However, we do know that third party apps will be able to support custom fonts, so if you feel you need to write your book in something other than Times New Roman or Georgia, that feature will be coming to you hopefully soon.

Providers of custom fonts will include Adobe, DynaComware, Monotype, Morisawa, Founder, and presumably more.

Dark Mode

Dark Mode looks great on the iPad. If you’re someone who writes in low light or at night and you don’t want a blast of white in your face as you work, switching to Dark Mode can be a blessing.

The quickest activation I’ve found is via Control Center. Swipe down from the top right of the screen and tap the two-tone Pokéball to toggle Dark Mode on and off.

If you’d rather something a bit more gradual, you can put Dark Mode on a schedule to change with the sunrise and sunset, or at specific times of day.

I tend to prefer text editor apps roll their own Dark Mode themes, as the stark white text on a black background can be just as hard on the eyes as black text on a white background sometimes. I’d love to be able to customize dark mode to use, perhaps a charcoal background and light gray text instead.

Conclusion

The question that comes out of all of this is “Can I use the iPad as my main machine with iPadOS?” As a former podcaster, I can definitely say no. Not until Apple opens up the OS to allow for plugins like eCamm Call Recorder. I can’t speak for professional or even prosumer video editors, or vloggers, or any other type of user.

I’m a writer. My needs aren’t as simple as some. I do more than surf the Internet and binge Netflix. That said, I definitely don’t need to edit 4K video or render computer graphics. I put text in a word processor while occasionally scribbling notes or capturing screenshots as research. The extent of my heavy computing is relegated to the two dozen or so tabs I have open in Safari at any given time.

And for those purposes, yeah. I can safely say the iPad has become my main machine. In fact, even when I was a podcaster, I would record my interviews on my Mac, then edit the files in Ferrite on the iPad. Before iPadOS, my iPad was capable of some things, but severely limited in other ways.

An app could only have one window open at any time. My widgets were somewhere off the homescreen where I often forgot about them. The Apple Pencil was mostly a drawing implement and not an all-purpose screenshot capture and annotation tool. It’s wild to think that in nine years, the original intent of the iPad—as a halfway point between the iPhone and the Mac—has shifted so drastically.

Sure, some apps in the beginning tried to push the tablet beyond its limits, but Apple always kept things simple. Now, especially with the Pro and the upgraded Air as part of the lineup, Apple’s iPad can competently compete for desk space with the MacBook Air and even some of the smaller MacBooks Pro.

That’s not to say iPadOS 13 isn’t without its problems. It’s clear there are bugs to be squashed and I believe much of that comes with the sheer enormity of this update. They didn’t add a few features to make certain actions easier. Apple fundamentally changed the definition of the iPad.

I predicted several months ago that the MacBook lineup would shift with the introduction of iPadOS. It might take some time, but it wouldn’t be long before the iPad replaced the low-end MacBook as the default for students and customers with average computing needs. Well, the lineup shifted earlier than anticipated, but it looks like Apple is moving things in that direction.

Not only did they drop the low-end MacBook off the roster, but the iPad Pro and iPad Air are now part of the company’s back-to-school discount program. Students can opt for one of the higher-end iPads to take to class, rather than the MacBook Pro or even the MacBook Air they might’ve defaulted to in previous years. If that doesn’t signify a shift in the way Apple perceives the iPad, I don’t know what will.

And iPadOS is what will make that migration even easier. The advanced multitasking with slide over, the desktop-class Safari browser, the enhanced Shortcuts, and the new Pencil functionality propel the iPad to laptop-level performance in a lot of ways, and in others, beyond what the traditional Macs have offered.

It’s a new paradigm, one we’re still getting used to, but the possibilities are too great to ignore. Apple has the chance to turn computing on its head again, just as it did 30+ years ago. The only question is whether the world will accept such a new concept—a computer that isn’t a computer.

To quote my favorite—and in my not-so-humble opinion, the best — Pixar film, Ratatouille, “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

I’ll be iPadOS’s friend. I hope you will, too.

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