Exploring iPadOS 17 Beta: It’s Already Improving Things

Change is afoot for the iPad, a core Apple device that doesn’t get the chance to undergo significant makeovers each year. But it continues to slowly evolve. The latest version of iPadOS, which is expected to arrive in September, just saw the release of its second public beta, which is ready to download. I’ve been testing it out on an M1 iPad Air, and so far it’s been a pleasant experience, with a few clear benefits out of the gate.

Downloading public beta OS software is always a bit of a risk, though, and for sure you should back up your device and data before doing this if you’re curious, but beta software is also becoming a lot more of a standard way that all software works now. Regardless of the beta’s benefits, you should probably still wait until the final, more bug-free version is ready later this year.

iPad multitasking is finally… good?

Stage Manager, Apple’s multitasking system for the iPad that parallels what’s on the Mac, comes closer to feeling like the MacOS version. On iPadOS 16, I found Stage Manager to be weirdly restrictive of how you arrange your four app windows on the iPad. I only found it useful when connected to an external monitor. 

In iPadOS 17, you’re still limited to four apps onscreen at one time, and Apple continues to restrict the sizing and position of apps to some degree. But the options are a lot more fluid. I can drag and stagger apps more easily one by one, from narrow panes to flat panels to larger, nearly full-screen options. Apple also gets other interface junk out of the way, allowing the Stage Manager dock and Apple’s iOS app dock to minimize so you can fill the screen with just the apps you want. On an 11-inch iPad, that’s extremely useful.

The stability also seems better so far. I played Settlers of Catan while checking Slack and writing a story and browsing Twitter and Outlook, and everything worked fine. I might actually keep Stage Manager on all the time now.

Keep in mind, Stage Manager’s external monitor features — adding four more apps to browse — requires an M1- or M2-equipped iPad, and the on-iPad Stage Manager feature is limited to iPad Pro models and the M1 iPad Air.

iPad lock screen with cityscape photo, iPad in keyboard case on table

The improved lock screen displays look nice on iPad, but I don’t keep my iPad display on when I’m not using it.

Scott Stein/CNET

Better lock screens and better widgets? Sure, why not

Finally, the upgraded iPhone lock screens from last year have made it over to the iPad in 2023, although I don’t think it’s quite the killer app it is on the iPhone. New iPhones have always-on displays made for quick glances, while the iPad is a turn-on-when-you-need-it device, and its display is off by default. I unlock it faster than I see the lock screen on most days. 

Widgets on the Home screen are also more useful, adding more interactive controls for a number of apps on a larger canvas than the iPhones can offer. Some of the widget controls don’t always work smoothly on iPadOS 17 public beta, but over time these larger, more app-like widgets will help the iPad feel more fluid. I’d actually like to see the iPhone 14 Pro’s Dynamic Island move over in some form, too; having notifications that morph into useful readouts has turned out to be really useful on my iPhone.

Health app on iPad: Great idea, but no Watch support

It’s surprising Apple didn’t have its Health app on iPads before iPadOS 17; it’s become a key repository of medical and fitness information, medications and tons of other insights. The iPad version works the same way as the iPhone app does, just on a larger canvas.

Mood logging, a new iOS 17 feature, is here as well. If you feel up to it, you can mark down how you feel any moment, and tag what is connected to those feelings. Similar features have been on other health platforms like Fitbit, too.

Even though there’s a Health app, the iPad won’t pair with the Apple Watch. An iPhone paired with your watch can relay the data and the Health app should show relevant details like heart rate, blood oxygen, fertility tracking and sleep, but the Apple Watch’s activity ring information and achievements aren’t here.

Apple also has a Journal app that’s coming later in the year, promising therapeutic daily day-logging, mixing writing, photos and other daily activities, but it’s not part of the iOS or iPadOS 17 public betas. 

iPad screen showing Health app data, in front of a wooden table background

The Health app works just like you’d expect on iPad (OK, I need to walk more).

Scott Stein/CNET

Other hidden features: Improved PDF support, more Stickers and a way to replicate your voice

I use PDFs all the time, and dump a lot of my documents in Apple’s Files app via iCloud. Retrieving and viewing PDFs is easier now — the PDFs pop up in new windows while keeping the Files app open. The Notes app can also absorb PDFs, and the PDFs can be annotated pretty easily. None of this is surprising, or new to computers in general, but it’s easing the “Mac-like” flexibility of iPadOS further.

Apple’s also made filling out PDF forms less of a hassle, which hopefully will make signing documents and medical forms a little easier for me this year.

On a less essential note, Apple’s Stickers, a part of the Messages app before, are popping up across the OS. Photos can be easily turned into stickers and added to a GIF-like personal collection, including animated ones pulled from Live Photos. It’s cute, and maybe I’ll find myself using it more?

Apple’s most fascinating-slash-creepy feature is an assistive-focused way to replicate your own voice for situations when someone may not be able to speak. Called Personal Voice, it’s in the Accessibility settings. It requires setting up by recording your own voice samples into a profile that eventually can generate an AI synthesis of what you sound like for anything you type out. I had problems setting up my profile, but maybe I just have early beta bad luck. I’m looking forward to hearing what I sound like.

accesstoolsmom

Watch this: Apple Puts an AI Twist on Accessibility

A good gradual step

IPadOS 17 doesn’t feel revolutionary, or even all that remarkable, but so far I’m surprised how relatively stable and useful its new features seem. It’s an additive plus to what’s becoming an ever more capable iPadOS, even if it’s not exactly a Mac. By the time Apple finishes iterating iPadOS in years to come, the differences may start to become so small that you’ll forget what device you’re even working on. I’ve started forgetting I’m on an iPad… and maybe that’s the whole point.

As VisionOS starts to bleed the iPad experience into mixed reality, and blend with Macs even further, the iPad’s destiny may be a linking connection between an increasingly melted-together ecosystem of computers, phones, VR and AR. At this moment in 2023, however, the iPad’s just getting a bit better in all the right places.

ipadospic

Watch this: iPadOS 17 Revealed at WWDC 2023



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