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iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Multitasking for all and widgets unleashed

We really like iPadOS 15 so far, here's why

iPadOS 15
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

iPadOS 15 is a major upgrade that will make multitasking easier for all on the iPad.

For

  • Multitasking button is a huge upgrade
  • Widgets on the home screen — finally
  • Notes is a lot more capable
  • Live Text is pretty cool
  • FaceTime SharePlay is what we've been waiting for

Against

  • Waiting to see Universal Control
  • Safari's tweaks take some getting used to

I've been testing out the iPadOS 15 betas for a few weeks now, and I'm pretty happy with it. The new multitasking button is going to be a game-changer for everyday users, and the arrival of widgets all over the home screen and the App Library are crucial. Yes, I love iPadOS 15 even if it didn't deliver my dream wish. 

No, I'm not the type to say macOS should be in the iPad. At least not yet. I just want sandboxing to change a bit, so apps could work together and not side-by-side. But in this hands-on iPadOS 15 review of the first public beta, I will explain why this year's update is great — even if it's OK to wait for the fall's final release to download it. 

iPadOS 15 review: Release date and beta info

The first public iPadOS 15 beta came out today, June 30, just slightly ahead of Apple's July 2020 estimation. Here's our guide on how to download the iPadOS 15 public beta now. iPadOS 15's final version is due this fall. 

iPadOS 15 betas will get updates throughout the summer, giving developer beta updates the first chance to test new features before the public beta users get them.

iPadOS 15 review: Compatibility and supported devices

iPadOS 15 supports all of the same iPads as iPadOS 14.

Here is the below list of supported iPads, as confirmed by Apple.

iPadOS 15 review: Stability and bugginess

iPadOS 15 is currently in beta, as I tested the second developer beta, which is the same build as the first public beta, Therefore, I did not (and nor should you) expect a perfect experience. 

So far, though, I've only hit one annoying bug: when I hold down on a message in the Mail app to reply in the pop-over window, the app crashes. Luckily for me, I don't actually use Mail in this way.

Overall, though, it's been good enough for me to forget it's a beta most of the time. That said, I'm not using it as my main work device (as you should never install beta software on the device you rely on) but this is on my primary iPad.

iPadOS 15 review: New features (and what's not there yet)

Not all of the big new features have been available for testing. Most notably Universal Control — the ability to control a Mac and iPad using the same keyboard and mouse — is still absent. 

Here are the big features of iPadOS 15, and what they feel like so far as of the first public beta.

iPadOS 15 review: Multitasking upgrades

As I said after I first saw what iPadOS 15 looks like, this is one of the most important iPad updates ever. Why's that? Well, it's easier than ever to learn how to use Split View and Slide Over views for using multiple apps. Plus, iPadOS 15 fixes a huge multitasking flaw that wasn't exactly obvious either.

It all starts with the Multitasking button, a three-dot icon at the top of every app window. Tapping that button shows you three options for how you could view the app currently open: full-screen, Split View and Slide Over. Before, users had to sort of discover these methods of shrinking and adjusting app windows, by dragging and dropping the black bar at the top of windows around, and seeing what happened.

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Multitasking

(Image credit: Apple)

In iPadOS 15, they've now got that familiar three-dot app icon, which has been used in apps, such as Chrome, for years. It signifies options, and it should be much more inviting to tap and use. And when you tap the split view button, you get a welcome sight: your entire home screen, including the doc and its App Library button. 

Now, you'll be able to split screen with any app you want, not just those in the dock. Previously, you needed a paired keyboard and know that you can find and use apps via Spotlight search to use any app that wasn't in your dock.

But not all of Apple's new multitasking changes have become immediate favorites. There's now a "Shelf" of recently opened pages and documents that you see upon opening some apps. I've yet to find this to help me get back to what I was doing, but I wonder if that will come with more apps updating for iPadOS 15, and doing more with it. 

iPadOS 15 review: App Library and Widgets

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Widhets

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple's philosophy is apparently "better to wait and get it right than to get it out the door as fast as possible." Or at least that would explain why iOS 14 let you put widgets anywhere on the home screen and use the App Library for hiding apps you don't need — and iPadOS 14 did not.

Fortunately, these features have finally arrived, a year later, in iPadOS 15. And I've quickly realized how valuable they are on the iPad, clearing my entire home screen of app icons to replace them with widgets. This way, I've got all the apps I need in my dock, while the Spotify, Apple Music, Apple News, Hello Weather, Clock, Flighty, Todoist, Fantastical and Photos widgets make my home screen look like one giant control center. Just see for yourself:

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): App Library

(Image credit: Apple)

You may also notice that iPadOS introduces an even larger widget size than was previously available, which is perfect for the Photos app. 

And then there's the App Library, a section that automatically organizes all of your apps by category with sections for recently added and recommended apps. This screen is made for people who don't want to have screens and screens of app icons — and I am one of those folks. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): hiding apps

(Image credit: Apple)

But even better, you don't need to manually hide apps to the App Library one by one. Hold down an app or widget to edit your home screen, then tap the screens oval at the bottom of the screen. This is where you'll see all of your different home screen pages, and you can easily send a screen of apps to the app library by clicking the minus (-) button. You can also un-check a screen to temporarily hide it. 

The App Library is also found in the dock, as the icon on the far right that looks like a folder of apps. 

iPadOS 15 review: Safari's changes may ruffle feathers

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Safari Reload

(Image credit: Apple)

The biggest change for many in iPadOS 15 will be found in Safari. Now, the web browser moved its tabs to sit by the URL field, and the interface of Safari now color-matches to the website you're using. Oh, and back and forward web navigation buttons can sometimes disappear if there is no page in that tab's history to go back and/or forward to. 

That's a lot of change. Some of it will prove divisive. I'm not a fan of the color-matching feature, so I'm glad you can disable it — check out our guide for how to stop Safari from changing colors in iOS 15, iPadOS 15 and macOS 12. I'm guessing Apple doesn't spend a lot of time in TweetDeck, whose blue is a bit much, and more power to them for that (I wish I used it less).

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Safari Reload 2

(Image credit: Apple)

The Back and Forward buttons disappearing and reappearing isn't a huge deal for me, but some may find that odd. Apple's clearly tying to maximize the space it uses outside of the web page you're viewing. 

Oh, and then there's the Reload button. It's not exactly gone, just hidden — and this is going to be annoying for some people. You need to click the ... button in the URL field of the site you're in to find the Reload button. Or, you can pull down on the web page you're using to refresh that page. Of all the Safari changes, the Reload button is the only one I really disagree with.

iPadOS 15 review: Keyboard upgrades

The iPad isn't just for consuming content, and anyone who uses the iPad Magic Keyboard or an external Bluetooth keyboard can tell you that. So, Apple's upgraded the keyboard shortcuts menus and added more keyboard shortcuts.

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Keyboard shortcuts

(Image credit: Apple)

Check it all out for yourself by holding down Command when you've connected a keyboard. You'll also notice that the keyboard shortcuts are now organized by kind, in a very traditional way that may remind you of macOS. 

It groups them by titles such as File, Edit Format and View (for the Notes app), which made me feel like Apple's realizing that the Menu bar from macOS should have life on the iPad, even if it's not bringing the Menu bar with it. This is neat, but not something I found will change my iPad usage in a great way. 

iPadOS 15 review: Notes gets supercharged

For a while, I've always used the third-party notetaking app Bear for my long-form writing on the iPad, iPhone and other devices. That may change, as iPadOS 15 makes  Notes a very helpful tool that works alongside apps in a way we've never seen: as a floating window.

Now, if you flick up from the bottom right corner of your screen with the Apple Pencil or your finger, you'll have access to a Quick Note that you can write or draw in. And the Quick Notes themselves just exist in a square-shaped floating window that will pop back up if you open the same website or app again. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Quick Notes

(Image credit: Apple)

I didn't really "get" Quick Notes at first, but then I found my own reason to use them. After the World Health Organization announced new guidance for social distancing and face masks even for those who are vaccinated — based on the Delta variant of Covid-19 — I realized I needed to collect data on everything the experts were saying. So, I pulled up a Quick Note to add in links from articles pertaining to the Delta variant. Adding text to a Quick Note, with attribution, is easy. You just highlight the text on screen, and select Add to Quick Note from the pop-up, next to Share.

You can now sort by hashtags, so every note I have that has #cenaphiles in it can be found in the tags section of the navigation menu, so I can easily organize the show notes I have for my absurd podcast where we review John Cena's movies. This is one of my favorite features in the aforementioned Bear app, and one I'm happy to see here. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Notes

(Image credit: Apple)

Lastly, anyone who shares documents in the Notes app now has an Activity View mode. It's found by tapping the More button and then tapping Show Note Activity. Here, you can see who edited what part of your document when, which can be helpful when you're trying to figure out who asked for an item on the shopping list or any other question about why your note was edited.

iPadOS 15 review: FaceTime SharePlay is pretty cool

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Ted Lasso via SharePlay

(Image credit: Future)

SharePlay in iPadOS 15, iOS 15, tvOS 15 and macOS 12 is the feature I've needed for the entire last year. Instead of having to hand sync remote-viewings by group countdown and talk to each other in a separate app, you'll be able to share video and audio from select applications all within FaceTime.

When we tested it out with an episode of Ted Lasso, my colleagues watched on iPhones as I hosted the viewing on an iPad. You just start a FaceTime call, then open a supported app such as Apple TV or Disney Plus (which will be working on Day 1 this fall, but seemed to not have that feature yet), and then you'll just start watching together. People can pause the show or song, and everyone's stream will pause. It just works. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): SharePlay

(Image credit: Apple)

Unless, that is, you're trying to watch something on a service that only some people on your FaceTime call don't subscribe to (not everyone wants to pay for Apple TV). Or watch a movie that has to be purchased on its own (not everyone owns Goodfellas). Those limitations are to be expected, as a kind of copy protection or digital rights management.

FaceTime now also has Apple's Spatial Audio, provided you have supported audio equipment. So, on my AirPods Pro I heard Jordan and Phil talking from either side of the screen, which made sense as they were in grid view. 

SharePlay will also work on tvOS 15, where you will start the call on your iPhone, iPad or Mac, then add the music or video service you use. Then, go to your Apple TV, open that same app and watch it sync on your TV before you remove the streaming app from your phone screen, so your phone can just do the FaceTime part of your call and you get to watch everything on your TV.

iPadOS 15 review: Figuring out Focuses 

So far, I've not really found a need for Focuses, the new notification-adjusting statuses introduced in iPadOS 15 and all of Apple's other OS updates this year.

I'm just used to using the "silence them all" Do Not Disturb setting, the all-or-nothing ban hammer that mutes everything. And that's partially because of how Focuses requires you to opt-in and not opt-out of notifications from people and apps. For example, when I set up my Work Focus for when I'm trying to be the most productive me I can be, I selected my parents for who could breach the wall of notifications and my calendar and email apps for what could send me notifications. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Focuses

(Image credit: Apple)

You, yourself, can even bypass someone else's Focus, but you'll know you're doing it. When I texted my friend Caitlin, the Messages app showed her status "Caitlin has notifications silenced with Focus," and then showed me my text was "Delivered Quietly" — while giving me an option to Notify Anyway. I did, and she told me it worked later on in the day.

Personally, I'd rather the Focus settings let you hide specific people and applications, as I don't need Twitch alerts during the work day, but I do want to make sure people can reach me, even if they don't always have an important reason to call. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Focuses Notify Anyway

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple includes an option for time sensitive notifications to come through, so you don't miss anything super-critical. iPadOS explains this option as something to "allow apps to deliver important notifications immediately, even when you have a Focus turned on," and it's likely using its own AI smarts to deduce what merits interruption and what does not. I haven't found this to make a mistake yet.

iPadOS 15 review: Privacy

One thing that's always nice to have in the Apple ecosystem is an apparently stronger set of privacy controls than you get elsewhere. In iPadOS 15 (as well as the other platforms) you get a few new tricks to stop snoopers.

The biggest feature here is Mail Privacy Protection, which has already sent shivers up the world of newsletter makers — for its attempts to stop senders from learning if you opened messages or not. It also seeks to stop them from finding out your IP address, in case you're worried that could be used to find your location.

Then, for those with iCloud subscriptions, you get iCloud+. No, it's not another subscription service. It's a set of privacy and online tools that you may or may not find great. The headlining feature is iCloud Private Relay, Apple's online privacy tool that may sound like a VPN — but is not a VPN. This tech "relays" your data in Safari through two separate internet relays, to obscure your online activity from your ISP. It's not a VPN because it doesn't work with all of the data in your iPad (just Safari), and you can't specify the region you want to appear to be connecting from — a top feature for those who want a VPN to access geo-restricted streaming services. 

iPadOS 15 review: shared 2021 Apple features

As it always does, Apple's giving iPadOS 15 a lot of features you'll also find in macOS Monterey and iOS 15. That includes a much more detailed Apple Maps, including globe-views and the ability to pin nearby transit lines as a favorite. 

The Photos app, under For You, has a section called Shared With You, that pulls in photos you've been sent by people in other apps over the years. It proved to be a welcome stroll down memory lane for friends' weddings and birthdays and my regrettable facial hair. Also, Live Text, that ability to select text seen in photos and copy and paste it out into other apps, is really cool. 

iPadOS 15 review (hands on): Live Text

(Image credit: Apple)

As seen above, you can easily grab all the ingredients out of a product and then use them however you need to. Google's offered a similar text recognition feature in the past, in Google Lens.

Home screen notifications are also getting improved, showing the photos of people texting you and giving you the option for digests of the recently received messages — so you're not always interrupted.

The Reminders app is getting tagging, to help you better organize your to do lists, Apple's also adding new Memoji options, including clothing, headwear and glasses. 

iPadOS 15 review: Outlook

I am pretty happy overall with iPadOS 15, and recommend that those ready to take a little risk download it today. That said, the true power of the new multitasking features will be great in the fall when everyday users get them and learn how to better split their screen. Power users probably know how to split the screen already, though they will likely enjoy some of the other new features. Plus, more apps will support SharePlay by then, which is great.

Also, between the new Keyboard Shortcuts window and the floating Quick Note window, iPadOS 15 gives hope to those who want iPadOS to grow to be more like macOS. Yes, the new iPad Pro has the M1 chip so Apple could do more on it, but the folks at Cupertino seem to be happier with gradual improvements year over year, rather than shaking everything up too fast. And I don't hate it. 

Heck, I've got my own wish for the iPad that didn't come true this year. I just want some apps like voice memos to work with other apps like Skype, for podcasting on the go. Maybe, someday, that could happen. Heck, folks who want to use more than three apps at once (picture-in-picture makes four) have reason to be optimistic, as Quick Notes could open a whole new dynamic for windowed iPad apps. For now, though, I'll say it again: iPadOS 15 looks like one of the most important iPad updates ever.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is an editor writer at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and Apple. Prior to joining Tom's Guide — where he's the self-described Rare Oreo Expert — he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. You can find him at your local pro wrestling events, and looking for the headphone adapter that he unplugged from his iPhone.