iPadOS 15 review: Nice improvements, but where’s the ambition?

By

iPadOS 15 review
Improvements are nice, but just not enough.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Apple somehow created the world’s greatest and most disappointing tablet operating system. iPadOS is by far the best you’ll find for larger touchscreens, and yet, it leaves us wanting so much more.

This year’s iPadOS 15 release is an incremental upgrade over its predecessor. It improves upon the split-screen multitasking system, adds some new features like Focus mode, and finally allows us to put widgets anywhere.

But it’s still iPadOS as we know it, and it’s still holding back iPad Pro. We could be doing so much more with the hardware, especially now that the newest models pack even-speedier M1 chips. But Apple won’t let us.

Here’s our full iPadOS 15 review. It lays out what’s good about the new operating system — and explains why we think it’s time for a little more ambition.

This post contains affiliate links. Cult of Mac may earn a commission when you use our links to buy items.

iPadOS 15 review

I’m well-acquainted with iPadOS. I’ve been using it as my primary operating system — much more than I use macOS or anything else — for several years now. Almost everything I do for work (and outside of it) is on an iPad Pro.

That wouldn’t be the case if I didn’t love iPadOS and the ever-growing catalog of terrific apps that third-party developers build for it. Apple clearly found a balance that makes iPadOS simple but incredibly powerful.

It improves upon that slightly with iPadOS 15. Some of the best features are now even better. And some new ones will almost certainly be welcomed by most iPad users. But that’s all you get.

A much-improved multitasking experience

iPadOS 15 review
Multitasking hasn’t changed much, but it is better now.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Multitasking on a larger iPad is fantastic in iPadOS 15. I have two apps open in Split View a good 90% of the time when I’m working. Slide Over comes in handy when I want to keep up with a conversation in Slack, or jot down something in the Notes app without disrupting my flow. And just like before, you can quickly drag and drop content between the apps you have open.

The new multitasking menu in iPadOS 15, which you can access from any app by tapping the three dots at the top of the screen, doesn’t change the fundamentals. But it does make using the iPad’s multitasking modes a little simpler, addressing some of the complaints users expressed in the past.

The menu provides options to move your app to the left side of the screen in Split View or Slide Over, then lets you choose a second app to open on the right. If you’re already in one of these modes, there’s a button that will send your chosen app back to the fullscreen view.

Multitasking made easier

iPadOS 15 review
The multitasking menu makes everything easier.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Sadly, the multitasking menu doesn’t give you the option to put apps on the right of the screen, but there are other ways. You can initiate multitasking from inside your second app (the one you want to appear on the left), or swap your apps over once they’re in Split View. Or, if you’re using a Magic Keyboard, you can send an app to the right using the Control+Globe+Left Arrow shortcut.

If you’re a real fan of drag-and-drop gestures, you also can create Split View spaces in the App Switcher in iPadOS 15 by dragging one app over another. But I much prefer to use the multitasking menu or the new keyboard shortcuts, which make everything simpler and a lot less fiddly — especially when using a Magic Keyboard or Apple Pencil.

Those who struggled to master the iPad’s somewhat-confusing multitasking gestures in the past will be pleased to know the new system completely eliminates that problem. And it does so without taking away any of the multitasking functionality we’ve become accustomed to in iPadOS.

iPadOS 15 review
Three taps gets you into Split View.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

You can still have multiple multitasking spaces open at once. And moving between them is as easy as opening the App Switcher, like in iOS 14. If you have multiple instances of the same app open, the new shelf lets you move between them and close those you no longer need.

The shelf

iPadOS 15 review
Navigating app instances is easier with the shelf.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

You can access the shelf inside any app by swiping up to reveal the Dock, then tapping the app’s icon. Alternatively, if you have a Magic Keyboard attached, you can use the Globe+Down Arrow shortcut. The shelf shows you all the windows you have open for the app that’s active, with a preview so you can see what’s going on inside each of them. You can tap any of them to jump right to it, or swipe up on one to close it (as long as it’s not active at the time).

I still find myself using iPad’s original multitasking gestures from time to time — that habit will take a little while to kick. But I am consciously trying to use the new multitasking menu as much as I can in the hope that I’ll get used to using it exclusively in time. It’s a far less frustrating experience, and one of the improvements I’m pleased to see in iPadOS 15.

Room for more

I don’t think true windowed multitasking would work all that well on iPad itself (but more on that later), so what we have right now in iPadOS 15 may be the best we’re going to get. Now that Apple has simplified multitasking, however, I think it’s time to see some new multitasking modes in iPadOS 16.

I’d like the ability to have three apps open simultaneously in Split View, and I think there are a number of ways this could be implemented effectively. One is to give one app half of the screen, while another two occupy the rest of the space vertically — like having two apps open in Slide Over mode.

Another option could be to have one app take up half of the screen, while another two occupy the other side, one above the other — like the multitasking mode that’s so handy on Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. I think this would work great in some instances, like when you want to browse the web in Safari, take notes in Pages, and keep an eye on a video in YouTube.

iPadOS 15 review: Z Fold3 multitasking: Samsung offers more multitasking options ... on a phone.
Samsung offers more multitasking options … on a phone.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Sure, we have Slide Over and Picture in Picture that allow us to use a third app or watch a video while we work. But without giving them dedicated screen space of their own, they often get in the way and need to be moved around when you want to access things beneath them.

The changing face of Safari

Safari received a bit of a face-lift for iPadOS 15 — one that’s changed several times since Apple rolled out its first beta back in June. Cupertino settled on a design that still looks pretty familiar but packs a number of new features to make browsing a little more powerful.

Tab groups allow you to separate and categorize the websites you have open so they’re easier to find and organize. I’ve been using this feature regularly to keep the tabs I have open for work separate from those I want to access in my spare time. I used to have to keep two Safari instances open to do this, and try to remember not to close the one I wasn’t using during the work day. That’s no longer necessary.

iPadOS 15 review
Tab groups let you separate websites for work and play.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

There’s also the new Shared with You section, which can be found alongside your tab groups in the side bar. There you will find all the links you’ve received inside the Messages app. It’s incredibly handy having them pulled together in one place, and it saves you from having to dig through conversations to find links later.

Safari also supports voice search now. But by far, its biggest upgrade is support for real extensions — just like in macOS. Extensions can be more than just content blockers; they provide much better integration for things like password managers and other third-party apps. However, extensions weren’t available from the App Store during the iPadOS 15 beta, so we haven’t had a chance to try them out extensively just yet.

Live Text is awesome

Live Text is one of the most impressive features you’ll find in iPadOS 15. It allows you to interact with the text in your images — and it works brilliantly. You can use it to copy and paste text from things like restaurant menus, posters, screenshots and more. It even recognizes things like addresses and phone numbers, which you can tap to make a call or get directions in Maps.

Translate text in photos in iOS 15
Tap the right arrow to find the Translate button.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

What’s more, Live Text offers translation with support for seven different languages: English, Chinese, French, Italian, German, Portuguese and Spanish. Simply tap foreign text to instantly display it in your native tongue.

I haven’t had the need to use Live Text as much as I would have liked on iPad just yet, but it has proven very handy a number of times — mostly for pulling text out of screenshots for an article. And during testing with other images, I have not yet run into a situation where Live Text hasn’t worked as intended.

Widgets go anywhere now

iPadOS 15 review
Put your widgets anywhere in iPadOS 15.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Apple also made some Home screen improvements to iPadOS 15, bringing across a couple of features we’ve been enjoying on iPhone since last year. One of those is the ability to place widgets anywhere, which is much nicer than having them pinned to the left side of your screen.

This means you can now have different widgets on different pages. If you like, you can create Home screens dedicated to various activities — work, play, etc. I have the essentials on my main Home screen: a clock that shows the time in San Francisco (Cult of Mac’s server time), my calendar and the weather. On page two, I put things like Apple Music, News and Photos.

Apple also added some new widgets in iPadOS 15. You’ll find options for the App Store, Contacts, Game Center, Find My and Mail in the widgets library, while some existing ones now come in larger sizes.

As much as I’m pleased we have Home screen widgets on iPhone and iPad now, I still haven’t found a really compelling use for them. They’re great for viewing useful information at a glance, and that’s why I use them. But without the ability to properly interact with them, widgets aren’t as powerful as they could be. It would be great if we could use widgets to set timers, control music and perform other functions in the future without having to jump into an app.

App Library goes big for iPad

iPadOS 15 review: App Library finally comes to iPad.
App Library finally comes to iPad.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

iPadOS 15 also includes the App Library that rolled out on iPhone with iOS 14. It looks and works the same, but it’s bigger now. I’m a huge fan of the App Library. It’s one of the features that I was upset iPadOS missed out on last fall. It’s a great way to keep your apps organized and avoid clutter on your Home screens. I do have a couple of small complaints, however.

It’s possible to view the App Library as a list by swiping down on your iPad’s screen while you’re inside it. But I’d like to be able to set this as the default view if I want to. It would also be nice to have a little more control over the App Library, like the ability to create our own folders and choose which apps go where. I don’t need a folder dedicated to Apple Arcade, for instance.

I’ve also found that it can sometimes take a little while for new apps and games to appear in the App Library — a problem I’ve also encountered on iPhone. On some occasions, I can’t find something I downloaded because does not appear in the “Recently Added” folder or anywhere else. I instead must use Spotlight or the App Library search tool to find it.

Don’t miss a thing with Quick Note

iPadOS 15 review: Quick Note is a blessing for the forgetful
Quick Note is a blessing for the forgetful.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Quick Note in iPadOS 15 gives you near-instant access to a note that you can use to jot down information you don’t want to forget. You can access it from anywhere by swiping up diagonally from the bottom-right corner of your iPad’s screen, or by using the Globe+Q shortcut on a Magic Keyboard. There’s also a Quick Note button in Control Center, and you can start a note from selected text by using the “New Quick Note” button.

Quick Note is awesome and I’ve used it much more than I anticipated. It saves you from having to return to your iPad’s Home screen to find the Notes app when you need to write something down or you want to collect a bunch of web links. And, thanks to a dedicated Quick Notes folder, it’s super-simple to find everything later.

My only complaint about Quick Note is that you cannot change its save location. Everything ends up in the Quick Note folder inside the Notes app. Although you can move those notes later if you wish, you cannot save them to other folders by default.

Tags keep you organized

Notes in iPadOS 15: Tags make your notes easier to find
Tags make your notes easier to find.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Notes also gets tags support in this iPadOS upgrade, which makes organizing and finding notes much faster. To add a tag, you simply type the hashtag symbol followed by your keyword (no spaces) anywhere inside a note. The tag turns yellow so it can be easily distinguished from other text.

Once you’ve started using tags, you’ll see a new Tags section inside the Notes app, where you’ll find all the tags you’ve created. Tap or click any of them to instantly view all corresponding notes in a single list, regardless of where they’re saved.

Using tags can help you organize and pull together specific content incredibly quickly. For instance, you might have two folders that contain notes you created on two separate vacations, and they both include recipes. Using a tag like #recipes can help you quickly view those notes without having to trawl through the different folders individually.

Tags also prove useful for separating different aspects of a larger project. You can create a folder for the project itself, then use tags like #ideas, #tasks and #budget to quickly organize everything and find what you need later.

Take control of notifications with Focus mode

Focus mode iPadOS 15: Only hear from certain apps or contacts when you really want to
Only hear from certain apps or contacts when you really want to.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

With Focus mode, iPad (and iPhone) users gain far greater control over notifications. You can use it to create profiles for different settings — such as working, sleeping, reading or gaming — each with their own notification preferences. It’s basically a much more powerful form of Do Not Disturb, which is still available for those who prefer a more simplistic approach.

Apple provides some Focus mode presets in iPadOS 15, but you can create your own from scratch if you prefer. When you do so, you have complete control over which apps and contacts can display notifications on your device while your custom Focus mode is active. You can then activate any of your profiles by tapping the Focus button in Control Center and selecting one from the list.

For instance, you might create a Focus mode for work that allows notifications from a small group of apps and contacts you need during your work day. You might create one for gaming that silences everything except calls and messages from certain individuals.

Focus will likely prove incredibly useful for most iPad and iPhone — particularly those who use the same device both inside and outside of work — but I’m not yet one of them. Do Not Disturb is more than enough for me. I still haven’t found myself needing a more powerful Focus mode for anything. Should that change, it’s nice to have more options.

Notifications improvements

When you do have your notifications enabled, you’ll notice they have a revamped look in iPadOS 15. Each comes with a larger app icon or contact photo, which makes it easier to identify them — and how important they might be — at a glance. You also can get a notification summary, delivered daily based on a schedule you create, that includes a recap of the notifications you received, with the most relevant ones at the top.

Spotlight

Apple made similar improvements to Spotlight, with search results now displaying more information. You also get rich search results for things like artists, actors, TV shows and contacts that include larger images, social media links, discography and filmography listings, and related news stories.

What’s more, Spotlight can now search your photos. Plus, it works alongside Live Text to identify important information in your images.

iCloud+

iPadOS 15 review: Private Relay hides your Safari browsing habits
Private Relay hides your Safari browsing habits.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

Apple’s focus on protecting your privacy takes a big step forward with iCloud+ in iPadOS 15. It includes two key features — Private Relay and Hide My Email — as well as expanded HomeKit Secure Video support. iCloud+ requires a subscription, but if you’re already paying for iCloud storage, which starts at just 99 cents a month, you get the new privacy features included at no extra cost.

Private Relay steps up your safety while you browse the web using Safari. It encrypts your browsing traffic and routes it through two separate relays, a little like a virtual private network, so nobody can see your IP address, physical location or browsing activity. This prevents websites and advertisers from creating profiles about you to serve you personalized ads.

Hide My Email generates unique, random email addresses you can use when signing up for things like online forums and newsletters so you don’t need to provide your real address. It then forwards any messages to your primary email inbox so you don’t miss them.

What’s great about iCloud+ is that it’s completely integrated into iPadOS 15, so you never have to worry about it. Private Relay just works once it’s activated — you don’t have to remember to turn it on when browsing the web. And Hide My Email pops up automatically when you might need it.

That damned mouse pointer

One thing that frustrates me more than it should in iPadOS 15 is the mouse pointer. It remains the same as when Apple added mouse support in iPadOS 13. Which is to say it’s a big gray blob that’s supposed to represent a finger. The only thing you can do to change it is add a colored border.

Apple is against giving us a traditional mouse pointer on iPad because the tablet was originally designed to be used without a mouse or stylus. “We set out to design the cursor in a way that retains the touch-first experience without fundamentally changing the UI,” said Apple software chief Craig Federighi.

The iPad mouse pointer is still horrible in iPadOS 15
The mouse pointer is still horrible in iPadOS 15.
Image: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

But iPad has moved on, and the way in which many of us use the tablet has changed, particularly since the release of the Magic Keyboard. Mouse support is no longer a hidden accessibility feature that feels like it was tacked on at the last minute. For many of us, it has become the primary way in which we interact with our device. And I hate that I still have that gray blob staring back at me.

It really is an awful mouse pointer, especially for things that require precision, like graphic design. And it upsets me that I have to deal with it on a device that costs (with a Magic Keyboard) well over $1,400. That’s more than a MacBook Pro. I want the ability to change the iPad’s mouse pointer. And I don’t see why Apple won’t give me that option.

iPadOS just isn’t enough anymore

iPadOS is far more advanced than any other operating system you’ll find on a tablet. Android still feels like a half-baked school project when used on anything other than a smartphone. And iPadOS is much cleaner than Windows, which isn’t properly optimized for tablets at all.

In recent years, however, the balance between software and hardware has become a little skewed. iPad Pro keeps getting more and more powerful — and more and more spectacular — while iPadOS remains a slightly more capable version of iOS on iPhone.

iPadOS 15 doesn’t change that. It takes some of iPad’s best software features and adds a little more polish, while integrating some new ones that, despite being nice additions, don’t greatly improve the user experience in any way. And they do nothing to appease power users who are begging for more.

After using iPadOS 15 every day for the past few months, I’ve found myself wondering why iPad Pro needs an eight-core M1 chip and 12GB of RAM when it cannot do anything that’s not possible on an entry-level iPad priced at $329. Sure, the hardware is a lot nicer, and a lot faster, but the fundamentals are exactly the same.

How iPadOS should catch up with iPad Pro

When Apple added Thunderbolt connectivity to iPad Pro this year, it hinted that iPadOS 15 might bring better external monitor support. But when you hook up a display, you’re still greeted by the same iPad interface that’s flanked by big black pillars. Monitor support overall is mostly pointless.

This is one of the things I think Apple really needs to address for iPad Pro users. I get that iPad is a mobile device and that it excels at being that. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t offer a more powerful desktop experience for those who want it — and cough up for the best hardware that’s more than capable of delivering it.

iPadOS 15 review: iPadOS really needs a Samsung DeX-like desktop mode
iPadOS really needs a Samsung DeX-like desktop mode.
Photo: Samsung

I’d like to see iPadOS get a true desktop interface, complete with windowed multitasking, that’s activated when connected to an external display. Samsung already does this with DeX on its Galaxy devices. It works surprisingly well. Simply connect a monitor, keyboard and mouse, and Android transforms into a real desktop operating system.

You can use apps inside windows that can be resized and moved around. You can enjoy true desktop multitasking. And you can play games in fullscreen. It’s smooth and it’s seamless. And it’s powered by chips that don’t even come close to matching the performance of Apple’s A- and M-series processors.

iPadOS 15 review: The verdict

I’ll continue to use iPadOS as my primary operating system and I’ll continue to love it. iPadOS 15 stands as a great incremental upgrade over iPadOS 14. I’m more than pleased with most of the changes and improvements, and I think most iPad users will be, too.

But I think it’s time for a little more excitement and a little more ambition from Apple. I want to see iPadOS take full advantage of the powerful hardware packed into the newest iPad models. I want it to give power users a reason to splash out on a pricey iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard.

iPadOS remains the best operating system you’ll find on any tablet, but it could do so much more.

I hope iPadOS 16 brings the kind of powerful new features that pro users need. iPads destroy the competition on the hardware front. It’s a shame Cupertino won’t deliver the software necessary to tap the tablets’ true potential.