iOS 11 Finally Makes the iPad a Capable Computer

Can tablets be the future of computing? If iOS 11 is any indication, Apple believes so. And based on the huge number of features the company has pushed into the update, I agree that, for the right people, tablets can be that future.

While we've seen macOS borrow heavily from iOS (Siri, touch bar, etc.), the iPad is finally taking more cues from its more advanced sibling. The tablet's new dock is just like the one on the Mac: It hides when you don't need it, and you can pop it up from any screen with a swipe. Not only does this dock fit more icons than before, but it will also add suggestions of apps while you work, appearing on the right side of the dock.

"The trick has been providing enough features on its mobile OS without overwhelming users," Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at GlobalData, said of the new OS.

In addition, real desktop features like drag and drop and easy-split screen views make iOS a far more productive operating system. You can open a second app right from the dock and drag it to the left or right of the open app. For the first time, in other words, you can navigate an iPad like a computer. In fact, Apple has opened up a huge part of iOS that the company hasn't shown before: a file browser. The new Files app is a big deal for the iPad, making it far easier to create and share files as part of a workflow. The previous absence of this ability was arguably the biggest hurdle keeping the iPad from feeling like a real computer. And it's not just your local files; the app will integrate cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive and Box.

The new app switcher looks a bit like Mission Control on the Mac, but even more advanced, with the ability to pair commonly used apps together in split-screen view. The app switcher also features the new Control Center, which provides even more information in a glance.

Apple's integration with its stylus, the Apple Pencil, brings the iPad up to par with some Windows 2-in-1s, adding the ability to easily mark up and share screenshots and take instant notes from the lock screen. In fact, this addition highlights the ridiculous lack of touch on Macs these days. There's still a ways to go with the Pencil; for instance, Windows offers special inking support across all of Office, including the ability to edit in Word by striking out paragraphs — but Apple has outdone its own laptops here.

MORE: Apple's 10.5-inch iPad Pro vs. the Microsoft Surface Pro

Now, the iPad isn't a full computer just yet. It doesn't support a mouse, so you'll be reaching over your keyboard to touch the screen all the time. On the bright side, iOS is an interface that was designed to be touched.

"iOS apps have been written to allow precise control with a finger or Pencil," Greengart pointed out. "The new Pencil tools, especially background handwriting recognition for search, should appeal to people who take paper notes."

That you can get one of the best styli on the market, the Apple Pencil, as an add-on accessory doesn't hurt, though several Windows 2-in-1s pack those in these days. And if you do a lot of typing, there's no shortage of Bluetooth keyboard accessories (because Apple's Smart Keyboard can use some improvement). Apple's tablet sales have been shrinking for a long time, but it's not out of a lack of love. People are just holding onto their slates longer. It may take something sleeker, like the new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, to get people to upgrade.

If you're looking for serious graphics power, apps that aren't in a walled garden, customization options or a variety of ports, the iPad still won't be the computer for you. But for users who just need the basics or want the versatility of Apple's tools, the new iPad Pro may be enough.

Experts disagree on one segment, though: enterprise users. "Microsoft has proven with the Surface Pro that enterprise users like this form factor," Greengart said, "but what may hold the iPad back is that Windows runs many legacy and custom corporate apps, while iOS does not."

Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group had a different opinion, saying, "I think this will actually start to make Apple and iPads more relevant to the enterprise as hardware devices for a broader range of enterprise activities and employees as opposed to being email machines and jewelry for senior executives."

Tablets overall may be languishing, but the iPad Pro looks like it could be the best of them, hands down. And with iOS 11, Apple is taking care to make its tablet into an actual computer, at least for casual users or for artists and creatives who need something more portable than a laptop to integrate into their workflows.

Image credits: Apple

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