Hands on: iPadOS 15 fixes a multitude of multitasking sins

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iPadOS 15 multitasking
The tiny multitasking menu at the top of each application is a significant improvement in iPadOS 15.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

With iPadOS 15, Apple makes the iPad’s multitasking system much more intuitive. I’ve been testing it with the first beta of this OS update, and I’m quite pleased with the changes.

Here’s how the new iPad side-by-side multitasking system works in real life. And why I think it’ll bring this feature to more users.

Not everything changed

Apple tablets gained the ability to display multiple applications simultaneously way back in 2015. The system was workable but not intuitive, but many people — including myself — use it every day.

So let me reassure those who are already familiar with iPad multitasking that iPadOS 15 doesn’t break the old gesture system. There are new ways to configure your apps on screen, but you don’t have to use them for Split View or Slide Over.

Get started with iPad multitasking

The primary problem with iPad’s original multitasking scheme is that it’s completely unintuitive. You can’t look at the iPadOS 14 user interface and see anything that indicates working with side-by-side applications is even possible.

That changes with a new multitasking menu that appears at the top of apps in iPadOS 15. It’s three little dots and takes up hardly any room, but it’s a dramatic shift because it removes most of the learning curve. It makes figuring out how to use iPad multitasking far easier.

But there’s a benefit for long-term users as well. The original system could only bring applications into Split View or Side Over off the Dock or Spotlight. That limitation disappears in iPadOS 15.

Simply press the button

Start by opening an application. Then tap the multitasking menu at the top of the screen. This opens a tiny window with three buttons.

The iPadOS 15 multitasking menu is new and useful
In the iPadOS 15 multitasking menu, the full-screen button is on the left, the Split View button is in the middle and the Slide Over button is on the right.
Screenshot: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

One of the buttons starts Split View by moving the current application to the right, making room for you to open a second one. And it does so by displaying the Home screen. From there you can open any app. When you do so, it’ll appear on the left of the first one.

Tap and drag on the icon for the multitasking menu to switch the positions of the two applications. Or drag down to hide that app and open another one.

Another button in the multitasking menu makes the current application full screen. That lets you end side-by-side multitasking whenever you wish. If, for example, you want Safari to take up the whole screen, press the three little dots at the top of its window, choose the full screen option and the other Split View app will side away.

Put it on the shelf

The Shelf is a new feature in iPadOS 15.
The Shelf is one of the ways iPadOS 15 shows the various windows that apps have open.
Photo: Apple

Naturally, applications can still open multiple windows, and iPadOS 15 improves the way you work with these. When you open an app, a collection of thumbnails appears near the bottom of the screen, one for each window that app has open. This is called the shelf.

You can switch between them, add a new one, or close windows by flicking them up and off the screen.
The last button in the multitasking menu puts the application into Slide Over. This allows it to float over the top of other apps. You can work with it, but will need to hide it off the edge of the screen to use the app underneath.

Or if you prefer the previous system for working with app windows, it’s still available. The App Switcher is unchanged.

I’ve made a point of using this new system on iPadOS 15 to familiarize myself with it, and I’ve quickly gotten accustomed to it. My learning process went a lot quicker than with the original version of iPad multitasking.

Limitations in iPadOS 15 multitasking

A definite limitation of the new multitasking menu is that it’s not possible to bring in a second application to the right of your current one. You can rearrange the windows to your liking afterward, but the new app always comes in on the left. To be clear, if you’re already in Split View, you can swap out whatever app you want on either side.

More importantly, iPadOS 15 limits you to two open applications and one in Slide Over. I can see the appeal of having three open side by side by side. Maybe someday.

Some apps — even ones from Apple itself — still don’t support Split View, even in the latest OS version. To me, the most notable one is Settings. That said, in my regular use, it’s very rare to run into apps that won‘t let me multitask.

It’s an iPad not a Mac

There’s an aspect of iPadOS 15 I do not consider a limitation, though I know plenty of others do. They want iPad to offer the same free-floating window system as macOS. That’s not part of iPadOS 15, and might never be available on iPad.

That’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with the iPadOS system — it’s just different from the Mac one. iPad windows are designed to be controlled with a fingertip, and Mac windows are best used with a trackpad or mouse. iPad is a tablet and will alway favor fingertip control.

I’ve used an iPad as my primary computer for many years, and I don’t miss the macOS multitasking system. I set up applications in Split View and switch back and forth to other apps with ALT-TAB or flicks of my finger and I get my job done.

iPadOS 15 makes that a bit easier. And it’ll help more iPad users take advantage of one of the best features of their tablet.