iPad is catching up with Mac, but it will never be as easy to use [Opinion]

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It’s not rocket science... oh wait, it is: Opening two files on an iPad.
Opening two files in the same app on an iPad requires rocket science.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Thanks to the recently launched iPadOS, I can finally do simple things on my iPad that I’ve always been able to do on my Mac. Like opening multiple documents in the same app, or installing fonts.

Trouble is, while these things are easy to do on a Mac, they’re fiendishly difficult with an iPad.

In the early days, everyone celebrated the iPad for being easier and more intuitive to use than a Mac. But as Apple crams in more features, that is no longer true. iPad is still easier to use for simple things, but it is much harder and more cumbersome for performing advanced tasks.

Why the Mac user interface is better than iPad (and always will be)

One of the brilliant things about the Mac user interface is that it provides multiple ways of performing the same task. Some are easy for beginners to discover, while others are quicker for advanced users. These ways of doing things are so standard on a Mac that they work the same way everywhere. So even if you’re using a new app, you already know how it works.

For example, if you want to duplicate something on a Mac, in most apps you have the following options:

  • Use the Duplicate command in the File menu.
  • Right click on the item and select “Duplicate” from the context menu.
  • Use the Command-D key combination.
  • Hold down the Option key and drag the item.

Compare this with iPadOS, where there is usually only one way to duplicate something — but how you do it varies from one app to another. Even Apple’s built-in apps are not consistent:

  • Photos: You tap Select, then tap the photo, and then bizarrely tap the “Share” icon and scroll down to find the Duplicate option.
  • Files: You long-tap the file icon and wait for the context menu to appear. Or you tap Select, then tap on the file, then tap Duplicate.
  • Pages:. The only way to duplicate an object is by copying and pasting it.

The consistency and flexibility of the Mac user interface makes it ideal for everyone from beginners to advanced users. Whereas the iPad is ideal for absolute beginners and for pros who know all kinds of arcane gestures. But it leaves a big gap in the middle of regular users who don’t read manuals for fun.

Any guesses what ‘working with the same app across multiple spaces’ means?

If you use an iPad regularly, you’ve almost certainly resorted to visiting the support section of Apple.com at some point. (Or better still, our How-Tos section). iPads are just not that intuitive for anything beyond the most basic tasks.

Take opening multiple documents within a single app, for example. This is not something you’d even consider to be a “feature” on a Mac, because it’s so basic.

In the new iPadOS, however, you perform this task by using a new feature Apple bafflingly describes as “working with the same app across multiple spaces.” If you know what this means, then congratulations — you’re a pro user. But I doubt the average user has a clue what “multiple spaces” are.

Why does it have to be so hard?

On my iPad, I constantly switch between two documents when I write novels (the chapter summaries and the manuscript). Having them both side-by-side would be a huge time-saver.

So the first thing I did when I upgraded to iPadOS 13 was try out the new feature. But I was embarrassed to discover I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Even though I’d watched demos during the WWDC 2019 keynote, and read about it on the Apple website.

After reading a how-to by our resident iPad guru, Charlie Sorrel, I finally managed to get it to work. But even then, the second document was only a Slide Over. Not the side-by-side view I wanted.

How to open multiple documents in nine simple steps. Yes, nine.
How to open multiple documents in nine simple steps. Yes, nine.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

I’m supposed to be an Apple expert and even I struggled to figure it out

I get paid to write about Apple stuff. So why was this so difficult for me? In my defense, let’s look at the all the steps involved:

  1. Open the first file in Pages.
  2. Swipe up from the bottom of the screen to reveal the Dock. (Just don’t swipe up too far, or you’ll enter app switching mode.)
  3. Tap on the Pages icon. (This normally just launches Pages, but when you’re already in Pages, it does something different.)
  4. Tap on the tiny plus icon that appears on the opposite side of the screen.
  5. You’ll now find yourself in a second instance of Pages that looks just the same as the first but isn’t (you just have to know that).
  6. Open the second file.
  7. Swipe up from the bottom again to reveal the Dock (again, not too far).
  8. Tap and hold the Pages icon and drag it on top of the Pages window. (Don’t hold the Pages icon too long, or it will trigger something else.)
  9. Let go of the Pages icon somewhere in the middle to create a Slide Over, or on the far right or left of the screen to create a side-by-side view.

Even just typing this out, I had to double-check to remind myself. It blows my mind just how complicated this really is. On a Mac this same task involves just two easy steps:

  1. Open the first file in Pages.
  2. Open the second file in Pages.

That’s it!

iPad user interface doesn’t pass the parent test

My dad has a love-hate relationship with technology. He wants to enjoy all the benefits that it provides, but he refuses to make any effort to learn how it works or keep up with all the latest advancements.

In other words, my dad is a typical parent.

He uses a MacBook, for which I provide him technical support. Even though we both use macOS, he uses it in such a different way that it’s like a completely different operating system. He relies on the menu bar for doing most tasks, and has no interest in learning the shortcuts.

But despite his limited Mac knowledge, he’s very resourceful. He hunts in the menus to discover what an app can do, and he goes straight to the File menu to undo, redo or copy and paste.

This approach simply doesn’t work on an iPad. You can’t hunt around to find out what it can do because most of the advanced features are hidden.

They could teach productivity gestures at Hogwarts
They should teach productivity gestures at Hogwarts.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

Why iPad will never be as easy to use as Mac — stubby fingers

Unlike macOS, iPad relies on a touch-based user interface. To make a great touch UI, you need to keep screen layouts clutter-free, because fingers are big and stubby. It’s easy to tap on the wrong thing with them if buttons and menus are too small or too close together.

In contrast, the pointer system in macOS allows for precise selection — right down to the individual pixel. That’s why the Mac can support those handy menu bars that my dad loves. They pack an incredible amount of functionality into a tiny amount of screen real estate. This kind of dense functionality is impossible to achieve on a touch user interface.

iPad UI makes easy things easier, and difficult things harder

The uncluttered user interface of the iPad — with it’s big, finger-size tap areas — comes at a cost. There is no simple way to cram in advanced features. So instead, they end up hidden, and impossible for people like my dad to discover.

Take the new productivity gestures, for example. They are so difficult to master that Apple actually interrupts the user’s workflow to provide how-to diagrams. Learning the arcane gestures required for copy and paste on iPad is like attending magic wand class at Hogwarts.

In this post, I talked about “advanced” features. But the reality is that providing consistent ways for apps to open multiple documents, copy and paste, and duplicate is actually pretty basic. The tasks only seem advanced because for so long we haven’t been able to do them in iOS.

That’s why, even though I still love my iPad for things it’s great at — like reading books, surfing the web, watching movies and drawing with Apple Pencil — there will always be a space for a Mac on my desk.