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

There’s spirited discussion about my First Impressions: Stage Manager on iPadOS article over on this /r/Apple Reddit thread. Some commenters are like me, developers or members of the media who have M1-powered iPads and access to the Developer Beta 1 of iPadOS 16. Others are providing their opinions based on just what they’ve seen or read. It won’t be long before a Public Beta of iPadOS 16 drops and more people get to use Stage Manager for themselves.

Regardless of which side of the Stage Manager argument you find yourself on, file feedback to Apple so they can ship the best possible version of the feature in the fall. Apple has made significant changes to a product announced at WWDC in the past—see Safari from iOS 15—so now is the time to make your constructive criticisms heard!

This post goes through a use case that I personally will employ Stage Manager for. I’ve created a discussion/chat Application Group comprised of the following apps:

  • Slack
  • Apollo
  • Discord
  • Messages

Readers of this post might substitute Twitter for Slack/Discord, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger for Messages, or Feedly for Apollo. Regardless of what apps you want to have, Stage Manager can display up to four apps at the same time.

Let’s look at some screenshots on how this works in Developer Beta 1. Unless otherwise noted, the More Space option in Display Zoom has been enabled to give the 12.9″ M1 iPad Pro an effective 15″ display (1590×1192).

4-Up with No Overlap: Visible Application Groups and Dock

Four windows with App Groups and Dock visible.

Here are four compact, non-overlapping app windows. Because the windows are non-overlapping, I don’t have to tap on a window to bring it into focus, meaning I can interact directly with each application. This is like having four tall iPhones on a single iPad screen.

4-Up with No Overlap: Hidden Application Groups and Dock

Four windows with no App Groups or Dock visible

Here, I’ve hidden the Application Groups (left-hand side of Stage Manager) and the Dock by long-pressing the Stage Manager icon in Control Center. The windows are still non-overlapping, so the usual comments about focus are still in play. The extra vertical space gives me a few more lines to read. Apollo has been widened horizontally ever so slightly. If I made it or another app any wider, the windows will start to overlap, which is shown in the next screenshot.

4-Up with Overlap: Hidden Application Groups and Dock

Four windows overlapping with no App Groups or Dock visible

The added width assigned to each app window helps them not feel so cramped as in the previous examples. But now Slack overlaps both Discord and Messages. Unless I micro-manage the size of the app windows, this is a scenario I will frequently find myself in. In order to interact with Apollo, Discord, or Messages—scrolling and swiping aside—I must to tap on one of the windows to bring it to the front. Only then can I tap on buttons, links, tabs, etc. in that app.

4-Up with Larger Windows: Visible Application Groups and Dock

Four larger overlapping windows with App Groups and Dock visible

This screenshot is typical when I drag applications from Spotlight, the Dock, or Application Groups into a current Stage Manager session. The dropped app windows are larger and will overlap. More information can be seen in each window, but everything is more cluttered and busy.

I consider myself a pretty advanced iPad user, but this is starting to add to my cognitive load, making it harder to focus on what I want to read. Before people were clamoring for multi-tasking to come to the iPad, the single app at a time approach was praised for allowing the user to focus. If having windowed apps was a feature in the original iPad from 2010, would people argue that it made the device too complex? Would they ask Apple to make the iPad more like the iPhone and less like the Mac?

Speaking of the Mac, I would re-arrange these windows on macOS so they are not overlapping:

How I would rearrange these windows on macOS

4-Up with Larger Windows: Hidden Dock

Four larger windows with the Dock hidden

Here I hide the Dock to provide more vertical space so the windows can be spread out a little better. With the Application Groups visible on the left-hand side of the screen, I can still switch between my other groups.

4-Up with Larger Windows: Hidden Application Groups and Dock

Hiding the Application Group and Dock to maximize space for four windows.

Both the Application Groups and Dock have been hidden to maximize the horizontal and vertical space for my windows. Each window is still in the size class that hides the sidebar for each application. This is looking better because each app can clearly be seen with less overlap.

To temporarily reveal either the Dock or the Application Groups, I can take the cursor and move it past the bottom to reveal the Dock or past the left to reveal the Application Groups. I couldn’t figure out how to do the latter with touch, but you can use the five finger spread to reveal the Application Switcher.

Now, let’s see what happens if I enlarge each app window.

4-Up Large Windows

Big windows all around

Each window is large enough to display the sidebar (if available). While this is great that I have four iPad-sized apps on screen at once, this is really sub-optimal for me because I can really only the contents of the frontmost app. Everything else is hidden behind overlapping windows.

Furthermore, the use of Dark Mode on each app makes it difficult to distinguish between apps. Messages and Slack use the same background color for their windows, so they look like one app on the right-hand side of the screen.

3-Up with Larger Windows

Three windows gives more breathing room for each window

In this example, I have closed Slack, leaving Apollo, Discord, and Messages visible in Stage Manager. More of the background is visible, which makes the windows stand out from each other. This feels more usable to me than having four apps open.

I can still make things cluttered were I to enlarge each window—as you will see in the 3-Up in the Standard Zoom example below.

3-Up with Standard Display Zoom

3-Up with Standard Display Zoom and no Application Groups or Dock

Switching to the Standard Display Zoom setting allows me to have three non-overlapping apps on-screen at the same time. Adding a fourth would cause at least one of the windows to be overlap. Everything is bigger, however, which makes things easier to read with my aging eyes.

3-Up with Larger Windows with Standard Display Zoom

3-Up with Standard Display Zoom and Larger Windows

Now, if I expand one or two windows, I reach a state similar to 4-Up Large Windows example. Yes, I have three apps running on my iPad, but I’m constantly tapping to focus or using my finger or trackpad/mouse to rearrange the window positions.

I’m asking myself in this case, is this really better than Split View with Slide Over if I wanted to use three apps at the same time? Let’s take a look!

Split View with Two Apps

Split View with Apollo and Discord

Here, Apollo and Discord are displayed in Split View in a non-overlapping fashion. If I wanted to see a larger view of one app, I can tap and drag the app divider to set one app to the regular size class and the other to a compact size class.

There is no wasted space by displaying the iPad’s wallpaper, Application Groups, or the Dock. Each app is given the full height of the device and either 1/3 or 2/3 of the screen width.

Different sizes in Split View

Fullscreen mode and Split View on macOS still feel weird for me because the OS was designed for multiple windows. iOS and iPadOS shipped allowing only one app to be visible at a time. However awkward and undiscoverable it might be to activate Split View and Slide Over, the features at least maintain the spirit of the original implementation. On this side you have this app, and on this side you have that app.

Split View and Slide Over

Split View (Apollo and Discord) and Slide Over (Slack)

To bring a third application to the Split View, I have to use Slide Over. The Slide Over application is always in the compact size class and can only be on the left or right hand side of the display.

Multiple applications can be available via Slide Over, and they are revealed by swiping up from the bottom of the Slide Over window.

Revealing additional Slide Over apps

Slide Over is a convenient, if somewhat strange, way to have frequently used apps available at all times. Having Shortcuts or 1Password available in Slide Over meant I have easy access to my accounts and 2FA codes or my automations and scripts. As I mentioned in the previous article, it would be nice to have Slide Over while in Stage Manager, but I can understand why Apple is distinguishing the two multitasking modes with a toggle.

What’s Your Use Case?

Does my use case of Stage Manager align with how you plan to use the new multitasking feature? What application groups do you plan to create? Is it something more like the screenshot below where I am working on a spreadsheet in Numbers, researching information on the web, via Safari, and chatting in Messages?

Numbers, Safari, and Messages in Stage Manager

I feel like Apple’s sweet spot for Stage Manager is having three applications open. One or two of the apps can be large in size, and the third application works best when in the compact size class. Once a fourth app is added, or if three apps are large, I find myself having to micro-manage the windows a lot more. If you can get all your apps to be non-overlapping, iOS shaped windows, four might work. But, there’s no easy way to organize your windows without tons of clicking, tapping, and dragging.

Stage Manager does allow me to do things that would ordinarily have been difficult in prior versions iPadOS. Having four apps open at once, with others available via the Application Groups sidebar is nice. But if it takes me a minute to get my windows just right, is it worth it when I could just Command-Tab, chose an app from the Dock, or used Slide Over?

No Third-Party Opportunity?

Because iPadOS is locked down, it’s highly unlikely we will see third-party applications that assist with window management like we do on macOS. Our best hope is that Apple first improves the base Stage Manager experience. Second, I’d like for them to add keyboard shortcuts, additional gestures, and Shortcuts actions to help with window management. In Shortcuts, there is the Split Screen Apps action for creating Split View of two apps. Let’s see some Stage Manager actions to add/remove apps, organize windows, create Application Groups, and resize windows.

Coming Up: External Displays

My next post will cover how Stage Manager works with external displays. The feature is a little buggy at the moment, so I may wait until the next Developer Beta before I put my thoughts down in a post.

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

  • Using Stage Manager and External Display Support to Create the MixEffect Labs Announce Video

  • Stage Manager Changes in iPadOS 16.1 Beta 3