First Impressions: Stage Manager on iPadOS

First Impressions: Stage Manager on iPadOS

With Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) in the books, I am looking at what new iOS 16, iPadOS 16, and macOS Ventura features to incorporate into MixEffect. From the Keynote, I was most interested in Stage Manager, Apple’s new take on multi-tasking on iPadOS and macOS.


What is Stage Manager?

Stage Manager adds windows, grouped applications, and more robust multitasking to M1-powered iPads. After experiencing some initial crashes, I was able to get MixEffect running on an M1 iPad Pro. The feature image to this post depicts two instances of MixEffect running side-by-side next to Shortcuts and Notes. Running four applications at the same time was not previously possible on earlier iPads.

Activating Stage Manager

I initially did not know how to activate Stage Manager. The keynote demo had the feature already activated on the iPad. Turns out, there is a toggle in Control Center for activating and deactivating Stage Manager. You can long-press the Stage Manager icon to reveal additional options to show/hide the Dock and the grouped application list on the left-hand side of the screen.

This creates multiple ways to work with single or multiple apps on iPadOS:

  1. Single App View
  2. Split View
  3. Slide Over
  4. Stage Manager

If an app supports multiple scenes, it supports Split View. Slide Over is available across both Single App View and Split View. Stage Manager, on the other hand, is its own mode altogether. Slide Over is not available when in Stage Manager mode. This is unfortunate, because it was a convenient way to have access to frequently used applications such as 1Password or Shortcuts.

If I wanted one of these apps in Stage Manager, I would have to add it to the current stage if there are less than three apps open. Once I’m finished using the temporary app, I would have to manually close it (there is no keyboard shortcut for closing a window). If there are already four apps in a stage, I’d have to create a new stage, which makes copying and pasting content more cumbersome and inconvenient.

Your Ideal Workspace?

Apple says that Stage Manager allows you to “create your ideal workspace,” but this is where things actually start to break down. Consider the screenshot below. The same applications are open—MixEffect, Shortcuts, and Notes—but everything is much more jumbled and distracting because the windows are now overlapping. I find myself constantly having to manipulate the window size and position to get things just right… and even then it’s not looking the way that I want it.

Overlapping windows in Stage Manager

Stage Manager resizes windows according to specific size classes and arranges your windows along some sort of invisible grid. So you can’t really position and resize a window to a particular width and height. The video below shows how decades of experience with macOS has not prepared me for this level of imprecision in Stage Manager.

Lastly, when adding a new application to the current stage, the app window seems to adopt the window size used the last time the app was added to Stage Manager. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you want your stage to be organized.

Frontmost Focus

Currently, if there are overlapping windows, tapping on a window that is not frontmost brings that window to the front. Once the window is active, you can tap buttons, select text, or interact with the app’s UI. One thing that you can do with any window—overlapping or not—is use the swipe gestures to scroll and move between navigation views.

Now, if all Stage Manager windows are not overlapping, you can interact directly with both apps with taps, clicks, and gestures without first bringing the window into focus.

I’m fine with this approach because it generally prevents accidental presses of UI elements when switching between apps.

The video below shows the difference between focus and interaction modes with overlapping and non-overlapping windows in iPadOS 16 Developer Beta 1:

Display Zoom

The 12.9″ M1 iPad Pro’s display can also be configured to show more space. The screen can adjust the 2732×2048 resolution display from an effective 1366×1024 to 1590×1192, a 16.4% increase.

12.9 * 1.164 = 15.02

Does this mean a physical 15″ iPad Pro is coming to market or are we going to be stuck with a virtual 15″ when using the More Space Display Zoom setting on the 12.9″ iPad Pro?

When running apps in full-screen mode, the extra resolution is noticeable and welcome. MixEffect shows two and a half more rows of macros in the Switcher section.

Normal Zoom
More Space

Two Apps

With the More Space setting enabled, you can have two apps side-by-side and non-overlapping on the 12.9″ M1 iPad Pro wherein the larger window is in full size (meaning, it shows a Navigation View’s sidebar) and the other in compact mode. This assumes you hide the Stage Manager grouped applications on the left-hand side of the screen (via Control Center).

Two non-overlapping app windows in Stage Manager.

Three Apps

When you add a third, non-overlapping app window, the largest window drops the sidebar but can still show an iPad/tablet interface. The two other windows can be resized to compact windows. Again, this requires the grouped applications to be hidden from the left-hand side of the screen. It’s worth noting that achieving this three app side-by-side view requires some trial and error to get the windows to not overlap. Remember that once any window on a stage overlaps, Stage Manager switches to the mode where you have to tap on a window to bring it to focus before you can interact with it.

Three non-overlapping app windows in Stage Manager.

Single App

Apps that run as a single window within Stage Manager maintain the same size they have in fullscreen mode when running under the Standard Display Zoom setting. The window just appears 16.4% smaller, however, to make space for the Dock and the application group icons on the left.

If you hide the Stage Manager application group icons on the left, you can reveal them again by moving the cursor past the left edge of the screen.

External Display Support

It’s great that we finally have external display support with iPadOS. Combined with the four applications you can have running on the iPad’s built-in display, you can have an additional four apps running on the external display. That’s 8 apps running at the same time on an iPad!

The same complaints about window resizing and repositioning, however, are present when the iPad is connected to an external display. I found it difficult to tell what you have to click on to be able to drag a window around the screen. There’s no title bar target like on macOS (and even on macOS, the traditional title bar is disappearing). Expect Apple to make some refinements to make this better by the time iPadOS 16 ships.


Improving Stage Manager

How might I improve Stage Manager? Here are some suggestions.

No Overlap

What if the app windows could be arranged without any overlap? The frontmost window would remain the same size, but the other windows would shrink to fill in the negative space around the active window. See this animated GIF of this approach:

Highlight and shrink

If you were to drag content from the frontmost window and drop it onto another window, the second window could expand to full size and become active for drop requests. Moving the content away from the second window would cause that window to minimize itself again to fit within the grid.

Focus Glow

In the second example, the frontmost window gets an outer glow set to the system’s accent color. Windows remain the same size, but it’s clearer which window is currently active.

Highlight only

Neither solution is perfect, but something needs to be done to make overlapping windows in Stage Manager less confusing and more organized.

Keyboard Shortcuts

I’m sure they’ll be adding this as iPadOS 16 nears release, but there really needs to be keyboard shortcuts for manipulating Stage Manager. I’d like to see some created for performing the following operations:

  • Closing a window
  • Maximizing a window
  • Adding an application to a stage
  • Moving a window to an external display (and vice versa)
  • Revealing the application group icons on the left (as opposed to showing the App Switcher)
  • Tiling all app windows in a stage in a non-overlapping manner
  • Resizing windows to regular and compact size classes

M1 Requirement

There’s plenty of articles, polls, tweets, and opinions regarding the M1 chip requirement to take advantage of Stage Manager and External Display Support in iPadOS. I myself was bummed when I saw this, seeing that I have been happily using a 2018 12.9″ iPad Pro. When the 2020 iPad Pro and the 2021 M1 iPad Pro came out, I saw no need to upgrade.

After the keynote, I reluctantly purchased an M1 iPad Pro in order to test this feature. I say reluctantly, because the M1 iPad Pro has been out for over a year, and it is due for an upgrade. 18 months is the typical time between updates to the iPad Pro line, so an M2-powered iPad Pro should be coming by the end of this year or the beginning of 2023.

Between now and the release of iPadOS 16, could Apple backport Stage Manager to the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pros? Certainly. Apple SVP, Craig Federighi, stated that they were testing the feature on the older models but found its performance to be lacking. Could Apple release a stripped down, limited version of Stage Manager for these iPad Pros, or even the iPad mini 6th-generation? Of course they can. The real question is, will Apple do this?

iPad mini 6th-generation

The screen is just too small on the iPad mini 6th-generation for Stage Manager to work properly. Can you imagine raising the software keyboard in landscape orientation with multiple windows visible on the screen? Believe me, you’re not going to enjoy trying to find where your cursor is!

iPad Pro 2018 and 2020

Assume we get a stripped down version of Stage Manager that lacks external display support and the More Space setting for Display Zoom on the 2018 and 2020 iPad Pros. Would it still be useful? I don’t know think so. I find Split Screen cleaner at displaying two apps side-by-side, with a third available via Slide Over. If the interface is already cramped on the 12.9″ display, what’s it going to look like on the 11″ iPad Pro or 10.8″ iPad Air display?


Final Thoughts

Assuming Apple keeps Stage Manager an M1-only feature for iPadOS, is the feature so good that it makes getting an M1-powered iPad Pro or iPad Air a must-have?

No.

With no data to back me up, I can only guess that most people who own iPads are not frequent users of Split View or Slide Over. As a result, they wouldn’t even know to activate Stage Manager from Control Center. And, if they did, I would bet they would be mighty confused with the interface. Second, most iPad users never, and I mean never, connect their iPads to an external monitor.

So, we’re left with the power users. The ones who were promised the Pro in iPad Pro starting back in 2015 with the original 12.9″ iPad Pro. Stage Manager is nice when coupled with a higher-resolution screen. It makes sense to use it with the More Space setting enabled in Display Zoom. It will make even more sense when a true 15″ iPad Pro ships. Apple needs to work on making Stage Manager less finicky, more deterministic, and able to be controlled via keyboard shortcuts. Fortunately, there’s time for the company to do just that with iPadOS 16 just having been previewed.


Further Reading

All my articles on Stage Manager, in chronological order below:

  • First Impressions: Stage Manager on iPadOS

  • Managing Three to Four Apps in Stage Manager in Developer Beta 1

  • External Displays with Stage Manager on iPadOS