iOS 9 is the biggest change to the iPad since the first Apple tablet was released in 2010. This new version brings side-by-side multitasking as well as a range of other improvements.
UPDATE: On Oct. 21, Apple released iOS 9.1. This contained only some tweaks like new emojis, and it prepared the way for the release of the iPad Pro.
We’ve tested all the new features for this in-depth review.
Until this release, one of the biggest limitations of the iPad was that it could only display one application at a time, so looking for an open time on the calendar while writing an email required switching back and forth between two apps. Or referring to an Excel spreadsheet while typing in Word meant endlessly swiping between them.
That changed with a new feature in iOS 9 called Slide Over: users can move their finger in from the right side of the display to bring second app into a window that takes up about a third of the screen. Sliding down on this window brings up the collection of apps to choose from, with the most recently used applications listed first.
All of Apple’s own software supports this feature, so one can Slide Over the Mail, Messages, Calendar, Contacts, FaceTime, Safari, Books, News, Podcasts, Maps, and other apps. However, third-party developers will need to add support to their own offerings. Still, that’s starting to happen, with Microsoft Office and Twitter helping to lead the charge.
The drawbacks are that the Side Over window covers part of the displayed application, and both apps can’t be worked with at the same time. Take the example from earlier, in which the Calendar app is brought up while writing an email; while a new calendar event can be added, editing the email requires moving the calendar off the display again. Also, Apple should add a simple way allow the Slide Over app expand to fill the whole screen.
These limitations are why this feature isn’t as useful as full side-by-side multitasking that completely divides the screen between two applications, but it’s nevertheless very handy for quick references to other apps.
And those who have an iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, or iPad mini 4 do have access to side-by-side multitasking thanks to a new iOS 9 feature called Split View. This allows two applications to run side-by-side, each taking up half the screen. Each of these is fully usable, as if it had the screen to itself.
The selection process is the same as it is for Slide Over, but once the second app has come in from the right the user can move the left edge of it to the middle of the screen.
One disadvantage of Split View for iPad Air 2 usuers is the size of this tablet’s display: because it has a 9.7-inch screen, the two apps are rather small. And the situation is even more severe on the 7.9-inch iPad mini 4. But that’s why Apple has brought out the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
And there’s one more multitasking option: Picture in Picture. A playing video can be placed in a small window when the user switches to any other application, and this window can be resized or moved around the screen. The feature currently works in Safari, the Videos application, and FaceTime, but third-party software developers will need to add support for it to function with YouTube or other video players. This process has begun, with apps like Hulu already building it in.
As mentioned, because of the processor power needed to run two applications at the same time, Split View is available on the iPad Pro, iPad Air 2, and the iPad mini 4. Slide Over and Picture in Picture, on the other hand, also work on the original iPad Air plus every version of the iPad mini except the first generation one.
New Keyboard Features
The iPad’s on-screen keyboard has been left alone for years, but it gained some important new features in iOS 9, the most notable of which is the ability to function as a trackpad. Tapping on the QuickType keyboard with two fingers enables the user to move the cursor around, with the keyboard area functioning like a trackpad. Double tapping allows the users to select text.
A formatting bar has been added across the top of the keyboard with buttons for cut, copy, paste, undo, and redo, as well as bold, italics, and underline. The new method for selecting text and then formatting it takes a bit of practice to get used to, but Apple’s original “tap and hold” method still works for those who don’t want to change.
Currently, this formatting bar is displayed when using an external Bluetooth keyboard, even though it’s useless in this configuration. Hopefully iOS 9.1 will take care of this issue.
Apple dropped its old Newsstand application and replaced it with News in iOS 9. Anyone who has used Flipboard will be familiar with how this functions: it’s an aggregator of content from news sites around the Web. Users specify what topics they are interested in from long list of possibilities, from celebrities to space travel, and News creates a corresponding collection of articles which are displayed in a magazine-like format.
Numerous User Interface Changes
Apple made a number of changes to the way users get around on their iOS tablet with this new version. None of these are dramatic but they do simplify day to day use.
The Notifications window that shows up when dragging the finger down from the top of the screen has been been simplified by combining everything onto a single window. Notifications now appear in chronological order, rather than being grouped by type.
A listing of recently used applications has been added to the global Search window that appears when a finger is dragged down in the middle of the iOS homescreen. In addition, dragging in from the left side of the display on the homescreen now brings up a brand new window with a global search, a list of recent apps and one of recent contacts, a way to search the Maps app for nearby places, and a selection of articles from the News app. We question the need for both of these; the new version should have replaced the original, more limited one.
When one switches to a new application from a Notification or one of the search screens, a small link to the previous app appears in the upper left of the screen. This is a subtle but useful UI element.
Apple tightened up the way software icons are displayed in folders, so that four are now in a row, rather than three, allowing more to be displayed on the same window. The same number of icons appear in each row on the homescreen, however.
The Notes app has been upgraded so that photos can be inserted into notes, and so can checkboxes. Even better, users can now sketch drawings into them, and the drawing tools are surprisingly robust, even including a straightedge. That said, their usefulness is limited by the fact that drawings can only be appended to the end of notes, not inserted between paragraphs.
It will clearly be a long time before this application can really rivals Evernote or OneNote, but progress is being made.
Miscellaneous Other Changes
Apple took a huge step toward finally including a central file system by including the iCloud Drive app in iOS 9. This allows iPad users a central place to view and access the files stored in a range of applications, as long as they support iCloud Drive.
The Safari web browser now supports advertisement blocking software, and a number of these are now on the App Store.
The iOS Settings app has grown to the point where finding items can be a challenge. For example, Slide Over and Picture in Picture can be disabled, but the controls are buried. Thankfully, users can now search within the Settings app.
The goal of iOS 9 was clearly to make the iPad more useful for those who employ this tablet as a productivity tool, and Apple succeeds in this goal. The side-by-side multitasking is a tremendous boon to those who their iOS device for work, and the other changes are icing on the cake.
Sales of new iPads have slowed recently, not because people have stopped using tablets, but because people have found that older devices are still very useful and see no need to upgrade. The fact that Apple’s full version of on-screen multitasking requires either this company’s iPad Air 2 or the iPad Pro is going to spur sales of these products.