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The Future of the iPad

It’s been an eventful decade for the iPad. But what’s next?

This week’s iPad at 10 celebration has centered primarily on the past. We’ve explored the device’s influence in accessibility and education, heard developers’ stories, outlined some of the most impactful apps from the decade, considered one of the most overlooked iPad models, and more. But as the week closes out, we turn our attention from the past and present to what lies ahead.

For the longest time, the iPhone’s shadow loomed large over the iPad. The iPad Pro began to change that, iPadOS solidified that shift, and now the device is forging its own path as a modular computer.

There’s never been a more exciting time to use the iPad. Yet as far as the device has come, we remain optimistic that its best days are still ahead.

Before wrapping up this anniversary week, we have to consider the future of the iPad.

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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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Full of Potential: Developers on the iPad’s Past, Present, and Future

From the start, the iPad has always been rife with potential. This is partly because it launched as a new type of product category, with unexplored use cases prompting users towards a different computing experience. But it’s also because the device’s very nature – a slab of glass that becomes its software – evokes countless possibilities.

To celebrate 10 years of iPad, I spoke to the developers of many of the device’s best apps across areas of productivity and creative work. They’re the people who make that slab of glass into something new, realizing the iPad’s potential but also showing, by their constant work of iteration and reinvention, that there’s always more that can be done.

In sharing their stories from the last decade, the people I spoke with outlined some of the best and worst things about iPad development, memories of their reactions to the product’s introduction, and dreams for where its future might lead. All throughout, it’s clear how much excitement remains for the iPad’s potential even 10 years on.

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For iPad, Accessibility Gives ‘It’s Just a Big iPhone’ New Meaning

Perhaps the most common complaint hurled against the iPad over its first decade of life is that it‘s little more than a bigger iPhone. At a fundamental level, the criticism is certainly valid: by and large, the iPad runs the same software as the iPhone. The penchant for bemoaning this bigness emanates from discontentment over the fact that substantial improvements to the iPad’s software have come at a glacially slow pace. Until last year, meaningful upgrades tailored to the tablet were few and far between.1 As much as Apple has extolled the iPad for being “unlike any computer,” the truth is the product stagnated for quite a while in terms of software.2 For better or worse, the company has been preoccupied with savoring every last drop of mother’s milk from the cash cow that is the iPhone. The iPad was left to wither thirstily when it came to its own growth, and it suffered for some time as a result.

In actuality, the iPad being more or less a scaled-up iPhone isn’t necessarily an entirely bad thing. The reason is iOS; familiarity breeds comfort – Apple shrewdly created the iPad’s user interface (and to lesser extents, Apple Watch and Apple TV) to largely resemble the iPhone. Especially for less nerdy users, the consistency across devices makes for a seamless, less intimidating experience. From icons to text to features to the touchscreen, the iPad being so similar to the iPhone means acclimating to the device takes minimal time and effort. From an accessibility standpoint, easy acclimation sets the tone for an enjoyable user experience. The foremost reason this is important is that the easier it is to acclimate to a device, the easier it is to find and configure mission-critical accessibility features.

Thus, it’s not at all unreasonable to look at what was heretofore a pejorative assessment – the iPad is nothing but a big iPhone – and turn it into a positive. One of the unheralded aspects of the device’s success is how its approachable, intuitive nature has made it a hit in accessibility-centric contexts such as special education classrooms and as a communicative aid. Such advances get right at the heart of the oft-cited Steve Jobs quote on the so-called intersection of technology and the liberal arts, when he said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.” Assistive technology obviously caters to the humanities part of the liberal arts, and it’s not hard to see how the iPad’s roots as ostensibly a bigger iPhone can be an asset rather than a liability. You just have to be willing to keep an open mind.

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Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines on Pointers for iPadOS

Speaking of the design considerations that went into iPadOS’ cursor, I suggest reading Apple’s new HIG document on the dynamic/adaptive pointer:

iPadOS 13.4 introduces dynamic pointer effects and behaviors that enhance the experience of using a pointing device with iPad. As people use a pointing device, iPadOS automatically adapts the pointer to the current context, providing rich visual feedback and just the right level of precision needed to enhance productivity and simplify common tasks.

The iPadOS pointing system gives people an additional way to interact with apps and content — it doesn’t replace touch. Some people may continue to use touch only, while others may prefer to use the pointer or a combination of both. Let people choose how to interact with your app, and avoid condensing your interface or making changes that require them to use the pointer.

And this part on “pointer magnetism”:

In addition to bringing focus to elements through pointer transformations and content effects, iPadOS can also help people target an element by making the element appear to attract the pointer. People can experience this magnetic effect when they move the pointer close to an element and when they flick the pointer toward an element.

When people move the pointer close to an element, the system starts transforming the pointer’s shape as soon as it reaches an element’s hit region. Because the hit region typically extends beyond an element’s visible boundaries, the pointer begins to transform before it appears to touch the element, creating the illusion that the element is pulling the pointer toward it.

Thoughtful, detailed read (as usual per Apple’s HIG) with illustrations that help get a sense of what’s possible with pointer customization (it doesn’t look like the Keynote update with cursor support mentioned in the document is out yet). Reading this, it’s clear that Apple didn’t simply bring the Mac’s cursor to the iPad – they started from the basic idea and redesigned it around a different platform.

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In Praise of the iPadOS 13.4 Cursor

Jason Snell:

I want to take a moment to appreciate the delicate and whimsical animated appearance of the cursor in iPadOS 13.4, which was released today.

It’s delightful. It’s like a little cartoon character, the plucky dot who is up to any challenge, even if it means contorting itself into whatever form is required.

Consider the animation when it enters and exits an existing button. The circle oozes out into a curved rectangle, like it’s some sort of sticky blob. When it’s over the active area, the whole button tilts as if the blob is pulling it around. Move far enough, though, and the blob breaks back off of the button and returns to its traditional shape as a simple circle.

After playing around with the cursor for a few hours last week, I noted that it felt instantly natural – like it had been part of UIKit for years. Those first impressions still hold true. The iPad’s new cursor is whimsical and useful at the same time – a rare combination these days. And like all feature additions that feel “obvious” in hindsight, it’s clear that a lot of consideration went into rethinking the traditional cursor for a platform where touch control also exists.

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Logitech Introduces Combo Touch Keyboard Case, Bringing a Trackpad to the iPad, iPad Air, and 10.5-inch iPad Pro

Today following Apple’s debut of the new iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard, and cursor support coming to all iPad models that can run iPadOS 13.4, Logitech has announced a brand new accessory coming in May: the Combo Touch, which brings a keyboard case with trackpad to the iPad (7th generation), iPad Air, and 10.5-inch iPad Pro. From the product listing on Apple’s online store:

Logitech’s Combo Touch for iPad combines a precision trackpad with a full-size backlit keyboard…Enjoy comfortable typing on a full-size keyboard with backlit keys that are perfect for working in dark environments like on an airplane or late at night. And the flexible design supports four use modes for extra versatility.

Despite all modern iPads gaining full cursor support, Apple currently only offers a first-party keyboard with built-in trackpad for the iPad Pro, not any other iPad model. Filling that gap, Logitech’s Combo Touch will be available for $149.95 as a great solution for users of other modern iPads. The Combo Touch covers the front and back of the iPad, includes a full keyboard and trackpad, and even offers a dedicated holder for the Apple Pencil. Notably, the device’s trackpad will also support all the same multitouch gestures that Apple’s Magic Keyboard offers.

Between Apple’s Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro, and Logitech’s Combo Touch covering the iPad, iPad Air, and 10.5-inch iPad Pro, the only modern iPad where a keyboard case with trackpad isn’t being offered is the iPad mini.


Adobe Unveils Photoshop Updates for the iPad and Mac on Its 30th Anniversary

Source: Adobe.

Source: Adobe.

Not many apps can say they’ve been around for 30 years, but that’s how long it’s been since Photoshop 1.0 launched. To coincide with the milestone, Adobe has released updates to Photoshop for the iPad and the Mac. We haven’t tried either update yet, but from the press demo I received, the updates to both versions of Photoshop appear substantial and promise to improve the experience of using the app significantly.

The Object Selection tool. Source: Adobe.

The Object Selection tool. Source: Adobe.

On the iPad, Photoshop already has a Subject Selection tool that lets users quickly select the primary subject of an image, but now, it also has a new Object Selection tool that works a little differently. Object Selection works best when there are multiple subjects in an image, and you want to select just one. After tapping the Object Selection tool, you trace an outline around the object you want to select. Then, Photoshop uses some software magic to figure out what you want and snaps the selection to the object. Finally, you can clean up the selection, adding and subtracting parts using Photoshop’s Touch Shortcut UI. It’s fantastic to see this tool, which just came to the Mac a few months ago at Adobe MAX, already part of the iPad app.

Photoshop for iPad's new type settings. Source: Adobe.

Photoshop for iPad’s new type settings. Source: Adobe.

The other headlining feature on the iPad is better typography settings. There are now type layer, character, and options properties that include tracking, leading, scaling, and other adjustments that can be made to text. It’s not quite the complete set of tools available on the desktop, but it appears to be a substantial improvement over the previous version of the iPad app.

The Mac version of Photoshop has also been updated too. Lens Blur has been moved from the CPU to the GPU for better performance. The app can also read the depth map from images taken with an iPhone and other smartphones, which can be edited in Photoshop to get the exact focal point and look that you want.

The old version of Lens Blur (left) and the new version (right). Source: Adobe.

The old version of Lens Blur (left) and the new version (right). Source: Adobe.

The Content-Aware Fill workspace has been improved too. Now, you can make multiple selections and apply multiple fills in the workspace, whereas before users had to leave the workspace and reenter it between selections.

Photoshop for iPad was released in early November 2019 with the promise of frequent updates to fill the gaps between it and its desktop sibling. So far, Adobe has lived up to that commitment with substantial updates last December and today. Another indication that Adobe is serious about mobile is evident from the Photoshop webpage, which prominently features the app.

Still, there is still plenty of work to be done before Photoshop for iPad rivals the desktop Photoshop experience. In addition to features that haven’t migrated from the desktop to the iPad yet, I’d like to see Adobe implement iPadOS system features like drag and drop, so I can drag images from Lightroom or other photo editors into Photoshop, context menus, which seem like a natural fit for an app with so many settings, options, and actions, and multiwindowing. My hope is that new functionality like keyboard event detection and whatever Apple has in store for iPadOS 14 will make it easier for Adobe to refine Photoshop further and continue to implement the most powerful desktop features on the iPad too.

Photoshop for iPad is a free update that is available on the App Store and requires a subscription. The Mac version of Photoshop is available directly from Adobe.


Jason Snell on Editing Podcasts with Ferrite on an iPad with the Apple Pencil

Jason Snell has edited a lot of podcasts. In fact, The Incomparable, the flagship show of his media and pop culture podcast network of the same name, just reached episode 500.

Since last summer, Snell has been using Ferrite by Wooji Juice to edit nearly every episode of The Incomparable on his iPad with the Apple Pencil. I’ve heard him describe his iPad and Apple Pencil workflow on podcasts before, but there’s nothing like seeing it in action, which you can now do on the Six Colors YouTube channel.

What struck me most about Snell’s video is how natural direct manipulation of multiple audio tracks looks. I’ve always done all of my podcast editing on a Mac with Logic Pro X, but after watching Snell edit an episode with multiple guests, I look forward to trying this myself.

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