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iPadOS upgrades Safari, and now I love my iPad

Commentary: Heavy-duty web apps can be way better than overgrown phone apps... as long as you have a keyboard.

The entry-level $329 iPad now can be used with an Apple keyboard.

The entry-level $329 iPad -- the seventh-generation tablet -- now can be used with an Apple keyboard.

James Martin/CNET

A single feature has dramatically improved my iPad: desktop Safari. By making the tablet's web browser behave mostly like the one you'd use on personal computers running MacOS or Windows, desktop Safari upgraded my iPad into a much more productive mini laptop.

How? In short, by leaving behind the constraints of stripped-down mobile apps in favor of fuller-featured web apps. Tablets shouldn't be held back by app interfaces designed for tiny phone screens. When pairing an iPad with an external keyboard, you can get almost as much done with desktop Safari as you can with a laptop.

Desktop Safari -- that's what Apple calls it -- arrives on Tuesday, Sept. 24, when Apple releases iPadOS, the first version of the software to significantly diverge from iOS, its iPhone progenitor. I've been testing the public beta since it arrived in June.

My setup is a 2018-era 11-inch iPad Pro ($950 for the 256GB model) with an Apple Smart Keyboard Folio (another $180). I was happy with my iPad for Netflix, crossword puzzles, games, Lightroom photo editing and lightweight typing duties, such as Slack and Twitter. But I couldn't do much more. Desktop Safari changes that, making it easier to justify the steep price for the tablet and keyboard.

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My first desktop Safari joy: Gmail

My first aha moment with desktop Safari was loading Gmail. To rip through my overstuffed inbox, I use keyboard shortcuts, such as  j and k to navigate up and down the list of messages; x to select a message; # to delete; and e to archive. I'll often select 10 or 20 messages at once and delete or archive them in one fell swoop.

Desktop Safari makes Gmail just about as fast on my iPad as in a browser on Windows or MacOS. I can't overstate how delightful this one change is.

By comparison, poking at messages in the Gmail mobile app is agonizingly slow for me. It's agony. I find it so tedious that, even though I scan email on my phone, I usually wait until I'm behind a PC to actually try to clean up the inbox.

Multiple Google Docs

My next revelation was with Google Docs, which I use for almost all my work and personal word processing. Google's apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices let you edit only one document at once, which really crimps my style. Switching between two or three documents is a hassle, especially if one document is personal and the next is for work and you have to tap through the extra steps of switching accounts as well as documents.

With desktop Safari, no problem. Just open all the documents in separate tabs as you would on a PC. You get the richer interface, too.

To open multiple documents, you might have to override iPadOS' default behavior of opening a document in the Google Docs app instead of a browser tab. If you use the keyboard-touchscreen combination of Cmd-tap when opening a Google Docs link in desktop Safari, you can open the doc in a tab instead.

There are other perks. Desktop Safari makes all kinds of websites look better, at least to my eyes. Desktop Safari is fast enough for my needs, too.

And when it's log-on time, my password manager, 1Password, is better integrated with iOS than with Windows, Chrome OS and MacOS.

Drawbacks of desktop Safari

Desktop Safari remains a work in progress, and I expect Apple will smooth out some of the issues as we get beyond the iPadOS beta-testing period. Here are some issues I have with the software:

  • Websites often reload when you return to them from other apps or tabs. Perhaps that's because iPads often have less memory than laptops or because Apple tries to rein in apps that hog memory. It's mostly an inconvenience, but it does slow me down.
  • Copying text and positioning my cursor is still a stubby-fingered pain on iPadOS, and I notice it more now that I can spend more time typing on my iPad instead of just scrolling. Some mouse support has arrived in iPadOS, but only for accessibility reasons that make it a replacement for a fat finger, not for the high-precision pointing devices I'm used to on PCs.
  • When logging on to Twitter, Safari couldn't handle my preferred first-time sign-on option, a hardware security key. Apple's Safari team is working to catch up to rival browsers here. A second problem: my Yubico key isn't yet supported on my USB-C-equipped iPad Pro.
  • I want an escape key. It's bad enough that Apple doesn't build in a forward-delete key, but at least its ordinary keyboard has an escape key for dismissing dialog boxes, canceling tweets and performing other tasks. And you can't remap iPad keys, like you can on MacBooks.

Hello, froaster

For years, Apple pooh-poohed the idea of MacBook-iPad convergence. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook warned that, like the "froaster" combination refrigerator-toaster, the device would be the worst of both worlds, not the best.

Thank goodness those days are gone, because I really like the iPad as a tool for productivity. The size, weight and battery life are great. Desktop Safari makes it even more appealing and helps it catch up to ordinary laptops costing significantly less.

Without a keyboard, desktop Safari is nicer, but not necessarily much more of a productivity tool. Happily, Apple has brought keyboards to lower-end iPads, including the $329 new entry-level iPad. And you can buy third-party keyboards from companies like Brydge, Logitech and Zagg. They're still expensive, but you don't need an iPad Pro.

Apple's two mobile operating systems remain very similar, but iPadOS brings new mechanisms to help make iPads a better alternative to personal computers running Windows or MacOS. Some of those are new or updated ways of showing multiple app windows -- split screen and slide over, for example -- but for my working style, desktop Safari is immensely more important.

Now, Apple, how about letting me use a mouse?

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Apple iPad 2018 (space gray, 32GB)
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