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iPad Productivity Gets a Boost with iOS 11

I have long used the iPad as a productivity device — that is, for getting work done, not just for reading ebooks and watching Netflix.

But the iPad and iOS have never matched the Mac and macOS in terms of flexibility and versatility. I’ve had to make my peace with the tablet’s limitations to enjoy its greater portability and unique features, such as its touchscreen.

With the release of iOS 11, though, it’s time to take another look at how the iPad fares as a getting-stuff-done machine. Many of the features in iOS 11 are iPad-specific and are meant to make it feel more Mac-like for those looking to be as productive as possible.

Mac-style enhancements to iOS 11 — most of these iPad-specific — include a more flexible Dock, a better way to find files, more powerful drag-and-drop capabilities, improved multitasking and multi-touch features, upgraded split-screen functionality, new ways to use the Apple Pencil, and more.

With iOS 11, in short, the iPad feels like a whole new machine. I’m having a blast writing this story on an iPad Pro while making use of all the new software features. The experience is not yet on par with a Mac, but it’s a lot closer than it used to be.

Here is a rundown of iOS 11 features, which I’m testing on a 10.5-inch iPad Pro, and how they have improved how I work on an Apple tablet.

The New Dock — The most prominent, important iPad shift in iOS 11 is a revamped Dock, which is far more versatile than before.

The fresh Dock can fit in more app icons, for starters. Originally, the iPad accommodated only four icons, mimicking the iPhone (which doesn’t get the new Dock). Later, that number rose to six. Now, with iOS 11, it can hold a whopping 13 icons, along with 3 optional slots on the dock’s far right for recently used apps and Continuity suggestions. The new Dock provides an efficiency boost, since your most-used apps are clustered in a single place and always at the ready, just like on a Mac.

The Dock can even accommodate iOS app folders, though docked folders can be hard to recognize since they lack labels or other identifiers.

Certain apps function as folders of a sort, too. Press on the new Files app in the Dock say, and a popover materializes with recent documents you can then tap to open. You’ll have to experiment to see which apps support this feature. For at least some apps, this feature also works when their icons are on the Home screen.

Best of all, the Dock is readily accessible at all times, even when you’re in an app. It is hidden by default but appears when you swipe upward from the bottom of the screen. The Dock then stays visible until you do something with it or dismiss it with a downward swipe.

This is game-changing. One of my big complaints with all earlier versions of iOS was needing to press the Home button to make the Dock — along with the Home screen — visible so I could tap another app icon. It’s not hard, but it’s a larger mental context switch, and doing it many thousands of times over the years has worn on me.

There’s still that mandatory swipe action, of course, which is similar to macOS’s Dock hiding option, which I find annoying — I keep my Mac dock visible at all times. An always-visible Dock on an iPad’s much smaller screen makes little sense, though, and having my most-used apps readily accessible outweighs that minor inconvenience.

Improved Multitasking — Hardcore productivity on a Mac hinges on having multiple windows visible at the same time so you can, say, write in one window while consulting reference material in another. It has long been possible to open and position multiple windows on the screen, and a few years ago, Apple added Split View to formalize this capability, although I don’t know how heavily it’s used. (Click and hold on the green zoom button in a window to invoke Split View; you then choose another window in Mission Control to occupy the other side of the screen.)

The iPad has had a similar Split View feature for a while, but it was limited. iOS 11 drastically improves it, offering far more flexibility.

Apple has completely changed how you create a Split View arrangement in the first place. Gone is the awkward vertical app picker; now you drag from the Dock. To begin, open the first of the two apps. Then with that app on the display, drag another app icon upward from the Dock and to the right or left edge of the screen. Drop the dragged app before you get to the edge of the screen and you get a Slide Over pane instead of Split View.

Now you have more options for resizing side-by-side apps while in a landscape mode — drag the divider to 25/75, 75/25 or 50/50 proportions. (Only the first two work in portrait mode.)

Plus, if you just need a quick look at another app, you can put it in a Slide Over pane, which floats over the current app. To avoid obscuring one side or the other, you can now reposition Slide Over panes to the left or the right of the screen with a finger swipe on the inner edge of the pane. You can also swipe a Slide Over pane from its left edge off screen to the right and bring it back with a swipe in from the right edge.

On an iPad Pro, it’s possible to get up to four apps onscreen at once. It’s fussy, but if you open a Slide Over pane and hide it, you can then open another app in Split View, and bring the Slide Over pane back in for three windows. If one of those apps was playing video, you then can switch out of it to put it into picture-in-picture video pane, for a total of four apps onscreen at the same time. Other iPads are more limited in how many apps can be visible at once, and this varies from model to model.

You can even swap the left and right positions of Split View panes by dragging down on the handle at the top of one to turn it into a Slide Over pane, dragging its edge to put it on the other side, and then dragging the top handle down again to convert it back to a Split View pane. This trick takes a bit of practice to get the finger motions right. Check out the video below to see this in action.

Do you use certain Split View app pairings over and over? Now they persist. Do an upward swipe with the Dock visible (or an extra-long upward swipe when it’s not) and you’ll see iOS 11’s redesigned app switcher. The app switcher shows both previously used apps and your recent Split View combos as tidily arranged thumbnails. Very handy, although there is a limitation: any app can be shown in only one pairing at a time. (The app switcher screen also displays Control Center on the right.)

None of these features on its own is a game changer, and it may take you some time to teach your fingers the necessary swipes. But taken together, they have made me more likely to reach for my iPad when I need to get work done.

Drag and Drop — On Mac, it’s a given that you can use drag-and-drop actions, such as moving several files at once from one place to another.

The iPad has been far more limited in this regard, but iOS 11 closes the gap dramatically — albeit with new finger-on-screen interactions that might seem daunting initially.

Here are a few examples of situations in which you can use drag-and-drop:

  • Drag a Web URL from the Safari address bar to the text field of a Mail message when the two apps are beside each other in Split View. Similarly, drag a photo from the Photos app into an email message, or transfer snippets of text between notes and word-processing apps.

  • Move multiple items (wiggling app icons on the Home screen, files within the Files app, and so on) simultaneously. To do this, start dragging one item. Then tap nearby items. These get clumped together with the first item as you keep dragging. This is a great way to transfer files from one folder to another, quickly organize apps on the Home screen, and so on.

  • If you want to put two apps into Split View but neither is in the Dock, do the following. Use a finger to tap, hold, and begin to drag one of the apps. With another finger, tap to open the second app. While that is happening, keep dragging the first icon until it falls into place as a Split View (or Slide Over) pane. Again, this is a bit tricky. See the video below to get the idea.

Drag-and-drop has the potential to make your work sessions faster and less frustrating. I often want to drop multiple files into an email message, for instance. However, I’m finding situations where drag-and-drop doesn’t seem to work correctly. I got excited about being able to drop multiple photos into a blog post created in WordPress, for instance, but I could not get it to work at all.

The New Files App — Another longtime knock against the iPad has been its lack of a Mac-style Finder — that is, a way to get at your files via a familiar folders-within-folders arrangement.

A first imperfect attempt, iCloud Drive, released as part of iOS 8, contained folders with files associated with iCloud Drive-savvy apps. Later, Apple expanded it to show files in specific Apple-ecosystem locations, such as a Mac’s Documents and Desktop folders. Individual files could also live loose in iCloud Drive, outside any folder. iCloud Drive’s contents synchronized across all of a user’s iOS and macOS devices.

iCloud Drive has now been absorbed into a new app called Files that’s available on both the iPad and the iPhone. Files also provides access to any installed third-party cloud-storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s OneDrive, showing them in the sidebar, at the top, under Locations.

Tapping any of the icons provides ready access to those accounts, just as if they were accessed via the services’ apps, but all in one place.

You can designate folders — but not individual files — from just about any service as favorites. To do so, drag the folder to the sidebar and into the Favorites area, below Locations. For reasons I don’t understand, this doesn’t seem to work with OneDrive.

Files has a tagging system that is fairly robust, though sometimes confusing. Existing tags synced from iCloud are shown in the sidebar as colored dots in the Tags section, below Favorites.

You can tag both files and folders in a variety of ways. Options include dragging a file or a folder onto a tag; pressing an item’s icon and tapping Tags in the contextual menu; and opening a tag by tapping it to show all associated files and folders, and then dragging more files into that folder-like tag view.

Creating new tags is non-intuitive and took me a while to figure out. Tap and hold a file or folder to bring up the contextual menu. Then tap Tags, followed by Add New Tag. Give the new tag a name and color.

Files, unlike the revamped Dock, isn’t a sea change for me because I never favorite or tag files on a Mac. And although it’s nice to see the contents of all my Internet “cloud drives” all in one place, using the individual apps has never been an annoyance.

And yet, I now have only the Files app in my Dock, with the Dropbox and Google Drive apps tucked out of view in a folder.

Apple Pencil with Notes — The iPad Pro-specific Apple Pencil can come in handy for a couple of productivity tricks, although, as Josh Centers notes, you don’t need one to harness these features (see “11 Things You Should Know about iOS 11,” 20 September 2017).

  • Instant Notes: If you have an iPad Pro running iOS 11, you can tap the Lock screen with an Apple Pencil to create a new note in the Notes app. However, neither an iPad Pro nor an Apple Pencil is necessary. Just add a Notes button to Control Center, and then tap that button to create a new note. (Look in Settings > Notes > Access Notes from Lock Screen for options if you’d prefer to edit the last note instead of creating a new one.)

  • Instant Markup: Similarly, iOS 11’s new Instant Markup feature works well with the Apple Pencil but doesn’t require one. Markup functionality is sprinkled throughout iOS 11. For instance, you can doodle on just-created screenshots, mark up photos by way of the editing tools in Apple’s Photos, scribble on just-created PDFs in Safari by way of a markup button that appears on the upper right, and highlight bits in PDF in iBooks by tapping the marker icon.

Taking Stock — The iPad has been my go-to mobile-productivity device for some time now, with the iPad Pro cementing that role recently. As I’m heading out the door for work, it’s the device that I reflexively reach for. Why?

The iPad is thin, lightweight, and (with a keyboard cover and back cover sheathing it on all sides) rugged to the point that I don’t blink at tossing it into my bicycle’s pannier bag. Other draws include the built-in camera that’s handy in my journalistic line of work, that keyboard cover for a laptop-like arrangement, and the option of cellular Internet access. Finally, don’t dismiss the attraction of direct manipulation on the touchscreen — many iPad users have found themselves trying to tap their MacBook screens.

There are still downsides to using an iPad as a work device. No matter what iPad you get, screen real estate is limited compared to a 27-inch iMac, and it’s impossible to connect a second screen. Even with iOS 11’s improvements, there’s still a very real learning curve to the necessary swipes for using Slide Over, Split View, and drag-and-drop.

Worse, many iPad apps lag behind equivalent Mac apps in terms of functionality and sophistication. Few people would argue that an iPad is a cutting-edge video-editing device, for instance. And despite the millions of apps in the App Store, there are still gaps — TidBITS currently relies on the version control system Subversion for its content management system, but there’s no functional Subversion client for iOS. These holes in the app ecosystem make an iPad a nonstarter for many.

Regardless of these limitations, iOS 11 on the iPad has eliminated much of the friction that hampered productivity in previous versions of iOS. As a journalist who works mostly with text and photos, the combination of iOS 11 and an iPad Pro is terrific.

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