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AppStories, Episode 242 – The iPad mini: Small Wonder

This week on AppStories, we go beyond the specs to figure out what it is about the new iPad mini that makes it so special.


On AppStories+, Federico explains how he has begun experimenting with his email setup again and shares a new feature of Working Copy that he’s testing. Also, John reports on the latest happenings in Epic’s litigation against Apple and what it means.

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iOS and iPadOS 15: The MacStories Review

A quieter release for even stranger times.

In my career as an iOS reviewer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a response as universally positive and enthusiastic as the general public’s reception of iOS 14 last year. From the “Home Screen aesthetic” popularized by TikTokers to the incredible success of widgets and the resurgence of custom icons, few iOS updates managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist as globally and rapidly as iOS 14 did. The update broke out of the tech community and, perhaps for the first time in decades, made UI personalization a mainstream, easily attainable hobby. For once, we didn’t have to convince our friends and family to update to a major new version of the iPhone’s operating system. They just did it themselves.

The numbers don’t lie: five weeks after its release, iOS 14 was already set to surpass iOS 13’s adoption rate; in April 2021, seven months after launch, over 90% of compatible devices were running iOS 14. Which begs the obvious question: if you’re Apple, you’re planning to follow up on what made iOS 14 successful with even more of it, right?

Well, not quite.

With the world coming to a halt due to the pandemic in early 2020, Apple could have easily seized the opportunity to slow down its pace of software updates, regroup, and reassess the state of its platforms without any major changes in functionality. But, as we found out last year, that’s not how the company operates or draws its product roadmaps in advance. In the last year alone, Apple introduced a substantial macOS redesign, pointer support on iPad, and drastic changes to the iOS Home Screen despite the pandemic, executing on decisions that were likely made a year prior.

Surprisingly, iOS 15 doesn’t introduce any notable improvements to what made its predecessor wildly popular last year. In fact, as I’ll explore in this review, iOS 15 doesn’t have that single, all-encompassing feature that commands everyone’s attention such as widgets in iOS 14 or dark mode in iOS 13.

As we’ll see later in the story, new functionalities such as Focus and Live Text in the Camera are the additions that will likely push people to update their iPhones this year. And even then, I don’t think either of them sports the same intrinsic appeal as widgets, custom Home Screens, or the App Library in iOS 14.


It’s a slightly different story for iPadOS 15, which comes at a fascinating time for the platform.

As I wrote in my review of the M1 iPad Pro earlier this year, Apple needed to re-align the iPad’s hardware and software on two fronts. For pro users, the company had to prove that the new iPad Pro’s hardware could be useful for something beyond basic Split View multitasking, either in the form of more complex windowing, pro apps, or desktop-like background processes; at the same time, Apple also had to modernize iPadOS’ multitasking capabilities for all kinds of users, turning an inscrutable gesture-based multitasking environment into a more intuitive system that could also be operated from a keyboard. It’s a tall order; it’s why I’ve long believed that the iPad’s unique multiplicity of inputs makes iPadOS the toughest platform to design for.

Apple’s work in iPadOS 15 succeeds in laying a new foundation for multitasking but only partially satisfies the desires of power users. Apple managed to bring simplicity and consistency to multitasking via a new menu to manage the iPad’s windowing states that is easier to use than drag and drop. Perhaps more importantly, Apple revisited iPad multitasking so it can be equally operated using touch and keyboard. If you, the person reading these annual reviews, have ever found yourself having to explain to a family member how to create a Split View on iPad, tell them to update to iPadOS 15, and they’ll have a much easier time using their iPads to their full extent.

But after three months of running iPadOS 15 on my M1 iPad Pro, I can’t help but feel like power users will still be left wishing for more. Yes, iPadOS 15 brings extensive keyboard integration for multitasking with a plethora of new keyboard shortcuts and yes, the new multitasking menu and improvements to the app switcher benefit everyone, including power users, but iPadOS 15 is a foundational update that focuses on fixing the basics rather than letting the iPad soar to new heights.


While Apple is probably preparing bigger and bolder updates for next year, there are still plenty of features to discover and enjoy in iOS and iPadOS 15 – some that could still use some refinement, others that already feel like staples of the modern iPhone and iPad experience.

Let’s dive in.

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    Fast Capture with Quick Note for iPad and Mac: The MacStories Overview

    When I’m researching, speed is essential. Whether I’m planning a family trip or preparing to write a story like this one, the first step is research, which starts with collecting information. This stage is almost always a speed run for me, no matter the context. That’s because the goal is collecting. Reading, thinking, organizing, and planning come later.

    There is an endless number of apps and automations for collecting information, but I’ve always found that the best options are the lightest weight. You don’t need to fire up a word processor to collect links, images, and text, for example. By the same token, though, a plain text editor doesn’t always fit the bill either, reducing links to raw URLs and often not handling images at all. Moreover, the notes you take are completely divorced from their source, losing important context about why you saved something.

    This fall, when iPadOS 15 and macOS Monterey are released, Notes will gain a new feature called Quick Note that’s designed to handle this exact scenario. Quick Note can be summoned immediately in a wide variety of ways on both platforms, and your notes are stored where they can be easily found again. Best of all, notes can be linked to their source material in apps that support NSUserActivity, a virtual Swiss Army Knife API that enables a long list of functionality across Apple’s devices.

    Notes needs work to make it easier to get the information you gather with Quick Note out of the app, but already, there is a long list of apps that support the feature thanks to the wide use of NSUserActivity among developers. Some years, Apple introduces interesting new features that I hope will take off, but there’s a lag because they’re based on new technologies that developers don’t or can’t support right away due to compatibility issues with older OS versions. Quick Note isn’t like that. Even during the beta period, it works with apps I use that haven’t done anything to support it. As a result, I expect we’ll see many developers support Quick Note this fall.

    Although Quick Note already works well on the iPad and Mac, there’s still more Apple can do to make it more useful. Chief among the feature’s drawbacks is that its capture functionality is nowhere to be found on the iPhone, which is disappointing. There are also many built-in system apps that would benefit from the sort of tight integration with Quick Note that Safari has implemented but don’t yet.

    Let’s take a closer look.

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    Three Weeks with iOS and iPadOS 15: Foundational Updates

    iOS and iPadOS 15.

    iOS and iPadOS 15.

    For the past three weeks, I’ve been running the developer beta of iOS and iPadOS 15 on my iPhone 12 Pro Max and M1 iPad Pro, respectively. Common wisdom says you’re not supposed to install early developer builds of iOS and iPadOS on your primary devices; I have to ignore that since work on my annual iOS and iPadOS reviews starts as soon as the WWDC keynote wraps up, which means I have to get my hands on the latest version of the iPhone and iPad operating systems as quickly as possible. As I explained on AppStories, putting together these reviews is some of the most challenging work I do all year, but it’s rewarding, I have fun with it, and it gives me a chance to optimize my writing setup on an annual basis.

    The result of jumping on the beta bandwagon early is also that, at this point, having used iOS and iPadOS 15 daily for over three weeks, I have a pretty good sense of what’s going to be popular among regular users, which features power users are going to appreciate, and what aspects of the OSes still need some fine-tuning and tweaks from Apple. And with both iOS and iPadOS 15 graduating to public beta today1, I have some initial impressions and considerations to share. You could also see this story as advance work for this fall’s proper review, and you wouldn’t be mistaken: in this article, I’m going to focus on areas of iOS and iPadOS 15 that I’ll also cover more in depth later this year.

    Let me cut to the chase: I don’t think iOS and iPadOS 15 are massive updates like iOS and iPadOS 13 or 14 were. There are dozens of interesting new features in both updates, but none of them feels “obvious” to demonstrate to average users like, say, dark mode and iPad multiwindow in iOS and iPadOS 13 or Home Screen widgets in last year’s iOS 14. And, for the most part, I think that’s fine. The wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented every year, and the pandemic happened for everyone – Apple engineers included.

    In many ways, iOS and iPadOS 15 remind me of iOS 10 and 12: they’re updates that build upon the foundation set by their predecessors, bringing welcome consumer additions that, while not earth-shattering, contribute to making iOS more mature, intelligent, and deeply integrated with Apple’s ecosystem.

    If you’re installing the iOS 15 public beta today and want to show it off to your friends, know this: Live Text in the Camera and custom Focus modes make for the best demos, followed by the new Weather app and rethought multitasking controls on iPad. SharePlay is neat but can feel already dated now that more countries are rolling out vaccinations and returning to a semi-regular social life; the new Safari needs more work; Mail is surprisingly unchanged despite the rise of remote work in the past year. That’s how I would describe iOS and iPadOS 15 in two sentences as of the first public beta released today.

    Of course, however, I want to share a bit more about iOS and iPadOS 15 while I’m busy working on my annual review. So for this preview story, I’ve picked three areas of iOS and iPadOS 15 I’ve spent the most time testing and tinkering with over the past few weeks. This year, I’m including a ‘What I’d Like to See Improved’ sub-section for each of the areas I’m covering in this story. I thought it’d be fun to summarize my current criticisms and suggestions for each feature, and it should be interesting to revisit these in the fall when iOS and iPadOS 15 are released.

    Let’s dive in.

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    iOS and iPadOS 14: The MacStories Review

    Even with (unsurprisingly) smaller releases, Apple is pushing forward with bold ideas across all platforms.

    How do you prepare a major new version of an operating system that now spans two separate platforms, which will be installed on millions of devices within a few hours of its release, amid a global pandemic? If you’re Apple, the answer is fairly straightforward: you mitigate the crisis by focusing on a narrower set of features, perhaps prioritizing bug fixes and stability improvements, but then you just have to do the work.

    In my time as an iOS (then iOS and iPadOS) reviewer, I never thought I’d have to evaluate an OS update with the social and political backdrop of iOS 14. Let’s face it: when the COVID-19 outbreak started fundamentally changing our lives earlier this year, at some point many of us – including yours truly – thought that, among more serious and severe repercussions, our tiny corner of the Internet would see no new phones, OS updates, videogame consoles, or other events over the course of 2020. Or that, at the very least, changes in hardware and software would be so minor, they’d barely register in the grand scheme of things as tech companies and their employees were – rightfully so – adjusting to a new, work-from-home, socially distant life. Yet here we are, over a year after the debut of iOS and iPadOS 13, with brand new versions of both operating systems that were announced, as per tradition, at WWDC a few months ago. Remove all surrounding context, and you wouldn’t guess anything has changed from 2019.

    Context is, however, key to understanding Apple’s background and goals with iOS and iPadOS 14, in a couple notable ways.

    First, I think it’s safe to assume slowing down to reassess the state of the platform and focus on quality-of-life enhancements and performance gains would have worked out in Apple’s favor regardless of the pandemic. In last year’s review, I noted how the first version of iOS 13.0 launching to the public wasn’t “as polished or stable as the first version of iOS 12”; in a somewhat unpredictable twist of events, managing the iOS 13 release narrative only got more challenging for Apple after launch.

    Late in the beta cycle last year, the company announced certain iOS 13 features – including automations in Shortcuts and ETA sharing in Maps – would be delayed until iOS 13.1, originally scheduled for September 30th. Following widespread criticism about bugs, various visual glitches, and stability issues in iOS 13.0, Apple moved up the release of iOS 13.1 and iPadOS (which never saw a proper 13.0 public release) by a week. Despite the release of a substantial .1 update, the company still had to ship two additional patches (13.1.1 and 13.1.2) before the end of September. Before the end of 2019, all while the general public was lamenting the poor state of iOS 13’s performance (just Google “iOS 13 buggy”, and you’ll get the idea), Apple went on to ship a total of eight software updates to iOS 13 (compared to iOS 12’s four updates before the end of 2018). The record pace, plus the mysterious removal of features that were originally announced at WWDC ‘19, suggested something had gone awry in the late stages of iOS 13’s development; it wasn’t long before a report covered Apple’s plans to overhaul its software testing methodology for iOS 14 and 2020. The pandemic may have forced Apple to scale back some functionalities and deeper design changes this year, but it’s likely that a decision had been made long before lockdowns and work-from-home orders.

    Second, context is necessary because despite the pandemic and rocky rollout of iOS 13 and its many updates, Apple was still able to infuse iOS and iPadOS 14 with fresh, bold ideas that are tracing a path for both platforms to follow over the next few years.

    On the surface, iOS 14 will be widely regarded as the update that brought a redesigned Home Screen and a plethora of useful quality-of-life additions to the iPhone. For the first time since the iPhone’s inception, Apple is moving past the grid of icons and letting users freely place data-rich, customizable widgets on the Home Screen – a major course correction that has opened the floodgates for new categories of utilities on the App Store. In addition to the upgraded Home Screen, iOS 14 also offers welcome improvements to long-standing limitations: phone calls can now come in as unobtrusive banners; Messages borrows some of WhatsApp’s best features and now lets you reply to specific messages as well as mention users; Siri doesn’t take over the entire screen anymore. There are hundreds of smaller additions to the system and built-in apps in iOS 14, which suggests Apple spent a long time trying to understand what wasn’t working and what customers were requesting.

    iOS and iPadOS 14 aren’t just reactionary updates to criticisms and feature requests though: upon further examination, both OSes reveal underlying threads that will shape the evolution of Apple’s platforms. With compact UI, the company is revisiting a principle introduced in iOS 7 – clarity and content first – with fresh eyes: the UI is receding and becoming more glanceable, but the elements that are left are as inviting to the touch as ever – quite the departure from Jony Ive’s overly minimalistic, typography-based approach. We see this trend everywhere in iOS 14, from phone calls and Siri to widgets, new toolbar menus, and Picture in Picture. Intents, the existing technology behind SiriKit, Shortcuts, and intelligent Siri suggestions, is also at the center of widget personalization. Intents already was one of Apple’s most important frameworks given its ties to Siri and on-device intelligence; iOS 14 proves we haven’t seen all the possible permutations and applications of Intents yet.

    Then, of course, there’s iPad. In iPadOS 14, we see the logical continuation of pointer and trackpad support introduced earlier this year in iPadOS 13.4: now that users can control an iPad without ever touching the screen, Apple is advising third-party developers to move away from iPhone-inspired designs with apps that are truly made for iPad…and somewhat reminiscent of their macOS counterparts. We can see the results of this initiative in modernized system apps that take advantage of the iPad’s display with a sidebar, multiple columns, and deeper trackpad integration – new options that every iPad app developer could (and, according to Apple, should) consider going forward. Although some of the iPad’s oft-mentioned ongoing struggles remain unaddressed in iPadOS 14 (see: multitasking and window management), Apple is embracing the iPad’s nature as a modular computer this year, and they feel comfortable leaning into lessons learned with the Mac decades ago.

    The context of 2020 is what makes iOS and iPadOS 14 so fascinating and, to a certain extent, fun to review. On one hand, we have two major OS updates that may or may not have been impacted by the global pandemic in their focus on fewer groundbreaking additions and more consistent improvements across built-in apps; on the other, just like any other year, we have a suite of overarching themes and potential implications to dissect.

    But for all those users still pausing over that ‘Install’ button, pondering whether updating their most important communication and work-from-home devices is worth it, there’s only one consideration that matters:

    Will this go any better than last year?

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      Textastic: The Code Editor for Your iPad and iPhone [Sponsor]

      Textastic is the most complete and versatile code editor available for your iPad and iPhone. The app’s versatility starts with its extensive support of syntax highlighting for more than 80 programming and markup languages. Textastic handles highlighting for HTML, JavaScript, CSS, PHP, C, C++, Swift, Objective-C, Java, LaTeX, Python, Ruby, Perl, Lua, and dozens more.

      Textastic is also a full-featured Markdown text editor that includes a built-in web server and Safari support for previewing your work. The app is compatible with Sublime Text and TextMate syntax definitions too.

      Textastic goes well beyond the features of a classic text editor, though. You can manage remote file transfers with FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, Dropbox, and Google Drive and there’s a terrific, full-featured SSH terminal built right into the app. Because Textastic supports tabs, you can even have multiple files and SSH terminals open simultaneously.

      With robust search and replace that supports regular expressions, keyboard shortcuts that are customizable, and support for Git repositories using Working Copy, it’s the most powerful code editor you’ll find anywhere with a long list of features, including support for the Files app, drag and drop, printing, iCloud Drive, Split View, multiwindowing, context menus, and a whole lot more.

      The app is regularly updated and maintained too. With the release of version 9.3 in June, Textastic gained new keyboard shortcuts for code comments, a setting for automatically inserting a matching closing character for parentheses, square brackets, and curly brackets, code awareness that allows for automatic indentation based on syntax context, an adjustable line height setting, and a setting for displaying the selected line indicator in a document’s gutter. Dark mode has been improved too, allowing users to select a separate code editor theme and keyboard appearance and preview Markdown using a dark color scheme.

      To learn more about Textastic and what it can do for your code editing needs on the iPhone and iPad, visit textasticapp.com, to download a copy today. You’re going to love it.

      Our thanks to Textastic for sponsoring MacStories this week.


      Ulysses 19 Brings iPad Cursor Support, External Folders, Material Sheets, and More

      The latest version of Ulysses, the excellent Markdown editor, is available now. Ulysses 19 offers enhancements in several different areas, from fully optimizing for the new iPadOS cursor, to supporting external folders for the first time, introducing a new ‘material’ designation for sheets, and adding keyword improvements, exportable backups, and even a new font. It’s a strong update, and one that continues to prove Ulysses the best app for my writing needs.

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      Modular Computer: iPad Pro as a Tablet, Laptop, and Desktop Workstation

      My iPad Pro desktop setup.

      My iPad Pro desktop setup.

      When I started my iPad-only journey in 2012, I was stuck in a hospital bed and couldn’t use my Mac. It’s a story I’ve told many times before: I had to figure out a way to get work done without a Mac, and I realized the iPad – despite its limited ecosystem of apps and lackluster OS at the time – granted me the computing freedom I sought. At a time when I couldn’t use a desk or connect to a Wi-Fi network, a tablet I could hold in my hands and use to comunicate with remote colleagues over a cellular connection was all I needed. Over time, however, that state of necessity became a choice: for a few years now, I’ve preferred working on my iPad Pro and iPadOS (née iOS) in lieu of my Mac mini, even when I’m home and have access to my desk and macOS workstation.

      The more I think about it, the more I come to this conclusion: the iPad, unlike other computers running a “traditional” desktop OS, possesses the unique quality of being multiple things at once. Hold an iPad in your hands, and you can use it as a classic tablet; pair it with a keyboard cover, and it takes on a laptop form; place it on a desk and connect it to a variety of external accessories, and you’ve got a desktop workstation revolving around a single slab of glass. This multiplicity of states isn’t an afterthought, nor is it the byproduct of happenstance: it was a deliberate design decision on Apple’s part based on the principle of modularity.

      In looking back at the past decade of iPad and, more specifically, the past two years of the current iPad Pro line, I believe different factors contributed to making the iPad Pro Apple’s first modular computer – a device whose shape and function can optionally be determined by the extra hardware paired with it.

      The original iPad Pro showed how Apple was willing to go beyond the old “just a tablet” connotation with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Three years later, the company followed up on the iPad Pro’s original vision with a switch to USB-C which, as a result, opened the iPad to a wider ecosystem of external accessories and potential configurations. At the same time, even without considerable software enhancements by Apple, the creativity of third-party developers allowed iPad apps to embrace external displays and new file management functionalities. And lastly, just a few weeks ago, Apple unveiled iPadOS’ native cursor mode, finally putting an end to the debate about whether the iPad would ever support the desktop PC’s classic input method.

      The intersection of these evolutionary paths is the modern iPad Pro, a device that fills many roles in my professional and personal life. Ever since I purchased the 2018 iPad Pro1, I’ve been regularly optimizing my setup at home and on the go to take advantage of the device’s versatility. I’ve tested dozens of different keyboards, purchased more USB-C hubs than I care to admit, and tried to minimize overhead by designing a system that lets me use the same external display and keyboard with two different computers – the Mac mini and iPad Pro.

      At the end of this fun, eye-opening process, I’ve ended up with a computer that is greater than the sum of its parts. By virtue of its modular nature, I find my custom iPad Pro setup superior to a traditional laptop, and more flexible than a regular desktop workstation.

      So how exactly did I transform the iPad Pro into this new kind of modular computer? Let’s dig in.

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      The Mighty mini: Adapting Apple’s Diminutive Tablet to Work and Play

      Make no mistake, whether it’s a Mac, iPhone, or an iPad, I prefer big screens. I think most people do. A big, bright screen makes reading easier, and a larger canvas for the apps you use is rarely a downside.

      Still, there’s a reason we carry mobile phones when a tablet, laptop, or desktop could accomplish the same tasks: portability. Smaller is often better, even as the compromises start to pile up when you shrink a device.

      Portability is why foldable phones have captured the imaginations of so many people. They promise the portability of a traditional smartphone with a screen that’s closer to a tablet’s.

      Just over one year ago, in March 2019, Apple released two new iPads: a 10.5-inch iPad Air and the first new iPad mini in over three years. The 5th-generation mini was a big surprise, largely because the mini hadn’t been updated in so long, leading many people to write it off as dead.

      Perhaps an even bigger surprise, however, was the mini’s hardware. The design didn’t change, but the 5th-generation mini upgraded the device to an A12 processor, the same chip in the then-current iPhone XR and XS. The update also added a Retina laminated screen with True Tone, P3 color support, and the highest pixel density of any iPad. The mini doesn’t support ProMotion, it only supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, and still relies on Touch ID for security. Still, in terms of raw horsepower, the mini is more similar to the 10.5-inch iPad Air than it is different, allowing it to hold its own in Apple’s iPad lineup despite its diminutive size.

      Table of Contents

      The previous fall, I had ordered a 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro and fell in love with it for writing and other tasks. As much as I enjoy the iPad Pro’s big display, though, it’s not suited for every task. For example, the size of the iPad Pro makes it awkward for reading in bed. Also, although I love to play games on my iPad Pro with a connected controller, that only works well if the iPad is sitting on a table.

      When the mini was introduced, I immediately wondered whether Apple’s smallest tablet could be the perfect complement to its largest iPad Pro: a powerful but tiny device that could work well where the Pro doesn’t. I also figured the mini could be a great ‘downtime’ device for activities like games, reading, chatting with friends, and watching TV, movies, and other video content. So, I sold some old gear I no longer used and bought a mini with 256GB of storage, so I’d have plenty of space for games and locally-downloaded video.

      The plan was for my new mini to serve almost exclusively as my downtime iPad. What’s happened in practice during the past year is very different than I anticipated originally. My use of the mini has expanded far beyond what I’d expected, despite the compromises that come along with its small size. The iPad Pro remains the device I rely on for most of my needs, but as we approached the iPad’s first decade, the time felt right to consider how far the mini has come and how this unassuming device fits so neatly into the spaces between the other devices I use.

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