How to use a blank home screen on iPad, and why you’ll love it

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Look at this blank home screen. Just look at it.
Look at this blank home screen. Just look at it.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

What’s on your main iPad home screen? Is it organized so that you can find your most-used apps quickly? Or have you decided to arrange the icons by color? Or divided up the grid by adding a row of blank spaces? Those are pretty neat ideas, but today I’m going to suggest you do something even more radical. How about keeping your home screen entirely blank? No icons, no folders, nothing. Just the Dock, Spotlight search, and an easier-to-use iPad.

The blank home screen

You can opt for a blank home screen on any device, but it’s most useful on an iPad. Why waste all that handy screen space on any device, let alone one that — thanks to its ridiculously-large icon spacing — doesn’t really let you fit much on there to begin with? One reason might be aesthetic. With nothing but a row of icons in the Dock, you can see your home screen wallpaper full-screen and beautiful.

But that’s not really a good reason to ditch the icons. No, the blank home screen works because, since iOS 11, the home screen is the worst place to keep your apps.

The iOS Dock

In iOS 11, Apple completely revamped the iOS Dock. Gone was the limit on the number of items you could keep there; in came Handoff; and in came auto-added apps. The Dock also became accessible from inside apps, not just visible on the home screen.

iOS 11 also added drag-and-drop, with a proper split-screen mode. To use this, though, you need to be able to grab and drag an app’s icon, or you need to be able to find that app icon while you’re dragging a file. You might want to drag an image from an email into the Photos app, for example. Or you may want to drag the Notes app to share the screen with Safari.

If you’re a regular user of drag-and-drop, then you will know that the worst place for an icon to be is on the home screen. If an app is in the Dock, you can quickly swipe up to grab it, wherever you are. If it’s on the home screen, then you have to quit out of the current app to find it, then drag it, then open the original app again.

So, it makes sense to put as many icons as possible into the Dock. You can also add folders of apps to the Dock, making the number of items accessible from the Dock effectively infinite.

Spotlight search

The other recent game-changer in iOS was the improvement of Spotlight search, the search the you can perform by pulling down on the home screen. This has gotten even better in the iOS 12 betas. Spotlight search (also accessible in any app by tapping ⌘-Space on an external keyboard) allows you to quickly find apps, and to drag those apps out of a search result, and into a split-screen.

You can even drag a file, then activate search, find the app you want, launch the app, and drag the file onto it.

How to operate a blank home screen

Step one is to put all your most-used apps into the Dock. You’ve probably already done this. Don’t go too crazy, though, as the icons shrink to make space for new ones, and eventually it can be impossible to tap them — especially in portrait orientation.

The most important Dock items are a) the apps you launch over and over, perhaps Safari and your to-do app of choice; and b) apps you use often with drag and drop. Notes, Files, and so on.

Step two is to gather up all the icons on your first home screen and drop them into a folder. This is done by dragging one icon on top of another to create folder, and then dragging the remaining icons into that folder. Next, drag that folder to your Dock.

Step three is to choose an awesome new wallpaper, because you’re finally going to be able to see it.

Running your iPad with a blank home screen

Now, your entire first home screen is available in the Dock. So what, you say? After all, now you need two taps to get to anything that previously required one. Or do you? Here are the advantages:

  1. Your home screen (or the apps therefrom) is now available when inside any app. You can drag and drop to and from any of those apps, and also use them in split view.
  2. You can access your old “first home screen” from any other home screen. That’s right. You only need to make the first home screen blank. The rest of them can be as chaotic as before, and you can always access the original from its folder in the Dock.
  3. Any app can be your home screen now. You know how you always wished you could use that weather app you like as a home-screen background? Now you can. It’s functionally — more or less — equivalent.
  4. You can swipe anywhere on that huge, blank home screen in order to access Spotlight Search. The only thing you need is to remember is what all those apps are called so you can type their names.

Taken together, these advantages far outweigh the one big disadvantage of keeping those most-used apps in a Dock folder: You can no longer just hit the home button twice to return to the first home screen, and always know that, say, hating the top left icon will open the Settings app.

But even this problem will disappear soon. The next iPad is likely to come without a home button, meaning that you’ll have to swipe up to get to the home screen anyway. And if you have to swipe to get there, why not swipe to the Dock instead?

Give it a try. If you don’t like it, then you can just empty that folder back out onto the home scree and go back to where you were yesterday. I’m running with a blank home screen now and — so far at least — I love it.