There may not be a new iPad released this year, but there is a new version of iPadOS, with some subtle changes that are welcome additions. Now that iPadOS 17 is out of beta and available in a final version (with updates, of course, expected over time), it's worth downloading. I've been living with the new OS on an M1 iPad Air for months in public beta, and so far it's been a pleasant experience, with a few clear benefits out of the gate.
This isn't a wild rethinking of the iPad, and there aren't as many dramatic changes this year as there are on the iPhone. Even so, the improvements to Stage Manager are welcome... even if I still don't use it all that much unless I'm plugged in to an external monitor.
Here are my thoughts so far, largely based on my time with the beta version.
Stage Manager, Apple's multitasking system for the iPad that parallels what's on the Mac, comes closer to feeling like the MacOS version. On iPadOS 16, I found Stage Manager to be weirdly restrictive of how you arrange your four app windows on the iPad. I only found it useful when connected to an external monitor.
In iPadOS 17, you're still limited to four apps on screen at one time, and Apple continues to restrict the sizing and position of apps to some degree. But the options are a lot more fluid. I can drag and stagger apps more easily one by one, from narrow panes to flat panels to larger, nearly full-screen options. Apple also gets other interface junk out of the way, allowing the Stage Manager dock and Apple's iOS app dock to minimize so you can fill the screen with just the apps you want. On an 11-inch iPad, that's extremely useful.
The stability also seems better so far. I played Settlers of Catan while checking Slack and writing a story and browsing Twitter and Outlook, and everything worked fine. I might actually keep Stage Manager on all the time now.
Keep in mind, Stage Manager's external monitor features -- adding four more apps to browse -- requires an M1- or M2-equipped iPad, and the on-iPad Stage Manager feature is limited to iPad Pro models and the M1 iPad Air.
The improved lock screen displays look nice on iPad, but I don't keep my iPad display on when I'm not using it.
Finally, the upgraded iPhone lock screens from last year have made it over to the iPad in 2023, although I don't think it's quite the killer app it is on the iPhone. New iPhones have always-on displays made for quick glances, while the iPad is a turn-on-when-you-need-it device, and its display is off by default. I unlock it faster than I see the lock screen on most days.
Widgets on the Home screen are also more useful, adding more interactive controls for a number of apps on a larger canvas than the iPhones can offer. Some of the widget controls didn't always work smoothly for me, but over time these larger, more app-like widgets will probably help the iPad feel more fluid. I'd actually like to see the iPhone 14 Pro's Dynamic Island move over in some form, too; having notifications that morph into useful readouts has turned out to be really useful on my iPhone. Still, adding these extras is better than not having them.
It's surprising Apple didn't have its Health app on iPads before iPadOS 17; it's become a key repository of medical and fitness information, medications and tons of other insights. The iPad version works the same way as the iPhone app does, just on a larger canvas.
Mood logging, a new iOS 17 feature, is here as well. If you feel up to it, you can mark down how you feel any moment, and tag what is connected to those feelings. Similar features have been on other health platforms like Fitbit, too.
Even though there's a Health app, the iPad won't pair with the Apple Watch. An iPhone paired with your watch can relay the data and the Health app should show relevant details like heart rate, blood oxygen, fertility tracking and sleep, but the Apple Watch's activity ring information and achievements aren't here.
Apple also has a Journal app that's coming later in the year, promising therapeutic daily day-logging, mixing writing, photos and other daily activities, but it's not part of iOS 17 or iPadOS 17 yet.
The Health app works just like you'd expect on the iPad. (OK, I need to walk more.)
I use PDFs all the time, and dump a lot of my documents in Apple's Files app via iCloud. Retrieving and viewing PDFs is easier now -- the PDFs pop up in new windows while keeping the Files app open. The Notes app can also absorb PDFs, and the PDFs can be annotated pretty easily. None of this is surprising, or new to computers in general, but it's easing the "Mac-like" flexibility of iPadOS further.
Apple's also made filling out PDF forms less of a hassle, which hopefully will make signing documents and medical forms a little easier for me this year.
On a less essential note, Apple's Stickers, a part of the Messages app before, are popping up across the OS. Photos can be easily turned into stickers and added to a GIF-like personal collection, including animated ones pulled from Live Photos. It's cute, and maybe I'll find myself using it more?
Apple's most fascinating-slash-creepy feature is an assistive-focused way to replicate your own voice for situations when someone may not be able to speak. Called Personal Voice, it's in the Accessibility settings. It requires setting up by recording your own voice samples into a profile that eventually can generate an AI synthesis of what you sound like for anything you type out.
IPadOS 17 doesn't feel revolutionary, or even all that remarkable, but so far I'm surprised how relatively stable and useful its new features seem. It's an additive plus to what's becoming an ever more capable iPadOS, even if it's not exactly a Mac. By the time Apple finishes iterating iPadOS in years to come, the differences may start to become so small that you'll forget what device you're even working on. I've started forgetting I'm on an iPad… and maybe that's the whole point.
There is one iOS 17 feature that I wish was on the iPad, though: Apple's new StandBy mode, which makes for a viewable display when the iPhone is off, would be perfect on an iPad (when docked, preferably, maybe with a future Pixel Tablet-like accessory).
As VisionOS starts to bleed the iPad experience into mixed reality, and blend with Macs even further, the iPad's destiny may be a linking connection between an increasingly melted-together ecosystem of computers, phones, VR and AR. At this moment in 2023, however, the iPad's just getting a bit better in all the right places.