Discussions about iPads replacing laptops have gone on for years, with the arrival of both the Apple Magic Keyboard and the inclusion of the powerful M1 chip inside the iPad Pro and iPad Air finally pushing us in that direction.
But the iPad-as-laptop-replacement wish has never turned into the real deal, despite Apple's best efforts. iPads still function like tablets. But this could all change thanks to iPadOS 16, which was just unveiled during Apple’s WWDC keynote this week.
A slew of new multitasking features — some of which are also coming to macOS Ventura when both updates arrive this fall — promise to make the iPad into a laptop replacement. And all the credit goes to a new feature called Stage Manager.
Stage Manager is a desktop-class experience for iPad
Stage Manager offers a new way to multitask that puts the app you're working on front and center. You can operate many windows at once with this tool, which gathers all windows together in a single pile. You can also switch between apps and windows, even grouping apps that you want to use together.
Stage Manager also has improved external display support that makes it easier to work on two screens at the same time.
With iPadOS 15, you were limited to one full-size app or two half-size ones with a narrow slide-over window that you can hide off-screen. Now, thanks to Stage Manager in iPadOS 16, you’ll be able to create groups of three or four windows on each display and have a total of eight apps running on your iPad and external display (four on iPad, four on that external screen).
External display support (with resolutions up to 6K) is only coming to iPads with the M1 chip, namely the latest iPad Pro models and the iPad Air. The M1 chip always felt underutilized in those tablets up until now, but it appears that we’ll see what they can truly do for Apple's high-end slates. And most importantly, we'll see if these M1 devices can leverage their impressive performance to effectively replace one’s laptop.
Apple promises desktop-class apps for the iPad and will bring features like consistent undo and redo and a better find-and-replace experience. You can also view folder sizes in Files. This is another step towards making your iPad more like a desktop experience — or at least a proper laptop.
Hurdles to overcome
Stage Manager and other macOS 13 features could make Apple’s M1-powered iPads into legitimate laptop replacements. However, there are still some hurdles to overcome before that dream becomes a reality.
As I wrote in a previous piece about the iPad Air potentially being a laptop replacement, the Magic Keyboard won’t suit everyone. Oh, Apple's accessory is pretty great, and it’s certainly good enough for short writing sessions. But that same keyboard can become a literal pain after long periods of usage. If you have big hands as I do, cramping is a very real possibility.
The Magic Keyboard’s gray circle cursor isn’t as functional as an arrow cursor since it can feel slow at times. Editing photos is also somewhat cumbersome due to the trackpad not being as precise as using a mouse. Given some of these issues, perhaps it’s time for Apple to revamp the Magic Keyboard, especially if it wants people to use iPads as laptops.
A promising future for iPads
Based on what we've seen, Stage Manager seems like the feature that could turn your iPad into a genuine laptop replacement. It brings some of the multitasking features users have long asked for, especially the ability to resize windows and have multiple windows on a single screen. Enhanced multitasking could also utilize the M1 chip in the iPad Pro and iPad Air, making use of the latent potential in these tablets.
That isn't to say all is rosy with Stage Manager. You won't be able to use the feature on iPads lacking the M1 chip. Considering how only two M1-powered iPads exist (the latest iPad Pro and iPad Air), this will leave the majority of iPad users out in the cold. And Stage Manager doesn't support touch controls. To use the feature, you'll need either a wireless mouse or the Apple Magic Keyboard.
We’d need to put Stage Manager and the other new multitasking features through their paces to see if we can finally ditch our laptops for iPads. But if the new features are everything Apple promises, we might be witness to a new era for iPads.