Some years, most of the improvements in the annual iOS upgrade are for iPhone, but 2017 is all about iPad. And the changes are some of the most sweeping ever made, furthering Apple’s goal of making its tablets into full-fledged personal computers that are as useful as any laptop.
The Dock has been made much more powerful, which brings enhancements to Split View as well as drag-and-drop support. The Application Switcher and Control Center have been merged yet mucked up, but the keyboard was improved. The Files application is a significant enhancement, and the Notes app is more robust. Beyond that, there have been tweaks to just about all the iOS software, to a greater or lesser extent.
We tested all of these on an iPad and will discuss how well they work. We also cover how stable iOS 11 is now, and make a recommendation as to whether it’s safe to install.
Although most of the features of this new version are for tablets, phone users aren’t left completely in the cold. Don’t miss our iOS 11 for iPhone Review.
iOS 11: Dock
Easily the most significant change in this new version is the redesigned Dock, a feature that’s transferring over from MacOS. Previously, the Dock appeared only on the iOS home screen, but now it can be brought up in any application with a short stroke of the finger up from the bottom of the screen, making it much easier to switch between apps.
To make working with multiple apps even simpler, the Dock now includes icons for the last three apps used, instead of just the ones that have been manually placed there. This even includes apps opened on linked iPhones.
The Dock can hold a whopping 13 app icons. Of course, as more are brought in, the icons get smaller. And if the number of icons manually added passes 10, then the number that appear because they were recently used decreases.
The new Dock makes your iPad function more like a Mac. It took a bit of time to break our old habit of going back to the home screen to change apps, but we soon came to welcome the change once we grew accustomed to the new arrangement. We recommend you put icons for all of you most used applications on the Dock and use it as your primary way of navigating around your iPad.
iOS 11: Split View
The iOS 11 Dock changes the way Split View works. To place a second application beside your current one, drag it up off the Dock with your fingertip, then drop it on the side of the screen where you want it to go, left or right. Next, you can resize it; the default for a second app is 33% of the screen, but it can be expanded to 50%, 66%, or take over the whole display. All of this takes some practice, but it’s more flexible than Spit View under iOS 10.
Split View setups are saved, so, for example, if you have Safari open next to Mail, then return to the home screen, reopening Safari will again place Mail next to it.
A third application can also be made to float over the top of the two lower ones. The floating window can be moved around as needed. The best use we found for this is quickly checking email or texts, then dismissing the floating app by flicking it off the screen to the right.
And videos from many sources can still be made to float over other applications, allowing up to four apps to be displayed at once. That said, this four-at-once thing is more of a party trick than anything else.
Some applications still don’t support Split View, but we found very few examples. Interestingly, one of these is Apple’s own Settings app.
iOS 11: Drag-and-Drop
Another way iOS 11 makes iPad function more like MacOS is the addition of drag-and-drop. This can be done within an application, or between two that are sharing the display.
All that’s necessary to move a sentence (or image or link) is to highlight it with your finger until an outline appears around the item, drag it to the point you want it to appear, and release. A cursor will appear during the dragging process to indicate exactly where the drop point is.
As part of our testing, we used drag-and-drop to move images, links, and phone numbers from a web page to an email to make dinner invitation. We found this very convenient.
iOS 11: Application Switcher
A double tap on the Home button or a long stroke up from the bottom of the display brings up the redesigned application switcher, which presents a collection of screenshots from all the apps running in the background. The new Control Center also appears here, but more on this later.
The Dock is a quicker and more flexible way to change apps than the Application Switcher, but it can sometimes be useful when working with apps that aren’t on the Dock because they don’t get used very often.
Those who use hardware keyboards will be happy to hear that these changes don’t affect the simple application switcher that’s accessed by CMD-TAB.
iOS 11: Control Center
As mentioned, the Control Center now appears along with the application switcher, and is accessed with a longer finger stroke up from the bottom of the screen or by double tapping the Home button.
Gone are the bad old days when the controls were split over two pages. With iOS 11, all the functions now appear grouped by categories. For example, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, and AirDrop are grouped. A long press on many of these enlarges them, revealing more details. The best use of this is the multimedia controls.
Unfortunately, Apple had to muck this up: defying all logic, using the Control Center to turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth doesn’t actually turn them off. Apple is sure you don’t really want to disable these wireless features because then you can’t use AirDrop, Handoff, or communicate with an Apple Watch. So toggling off Wi-Fi in the Control Center just sets it so it won’t connect to any hotspots, and Bluetooth is set so it won’t connect to non-Apple accessories. It’s necessary to go to the Settings app to actually turn them off, killing half the usefulness of the Control Center.
iOS 11: Keyboard
It’s always been too hard to enter numbers and symbols with an iPad’s on-screen keyboard, but Apple came up with a clever work-around in iOS 11. Punctuation marks, symbols, and numbers now appear in light grey on the keys, and pressing and moving one’s finger down slightly on a key types the appropriate alternate character.
As before, pressing and holding some keys without moving it brings up the letter with a selection of accents.
iOS 11: Files
The lack of a file system accessible to users in previous versions of iOS hampered people who want to use an iPad as a full-fledged computer. Apple introduces a compromise solution with iOS 11, as it brings a full file system to iCloud Drive.
The new Files application allows users to organize the contents of iCloud Drive however they wish. For example, a folder called “Work” can contain Pages, Excel, JPEG, and PDF files all jumbled together.
On the down side, when moving files and folders around, Files frequently insists that items be copied rather than moved. Apple doesn’t seem to trust that we know what we’re doing, and is “helping” prevent us from losing our documents. Instead, this makes it easy to accidentally create multiple copies of the same document and then mistake which one you’re working on. The only way to prevent this is by deleting the duplicates created when moving files or folders around.
Those serious about storing files on iCloud should sign up for 50GB of capacity for $1 a month, as the 5GB of free storage Apple offers will get filled up quickly.
Apple Files can also access the contents of rival online storage systems, including Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive. This is limited to just displaying and opening the files on these alternate systems, not moving around or renaming files, however.
iOS 11: Notes
After starting off years ago as a very simple piece of software, Notes has gradually become a sophisticated application. iOS 11 includes a number of new features, not all of them improvements.
Embedding sketches in notes isn’t new, but Apple has also included Inline Drawing. We’re not sure why, as this just seems to be a simplified version of the sketch tool. And Apple promises that text handwritten into these is recognized and searchable, but our tests found this to be a complete bust: Spotlight and Notes’ own search engine couldn’t find words in our embedded sketches or drawings.
Notes also gained a document scanner with iOS 11. This can insert a scanned document into a note, or export it as a PDF. This document can also be marked up with a fingertip or Apple Pencil. Our tests showed that this scanner works well enough to replace third-party apps.
There are a couple of other tweaks: a table can now be inserted into a note, and users of an iPad Pro can tap the Lock Screen with an Apple Pencil to immediately open Notes.
iOS 11: App Store and Mail
Just about every application received some changes in iOS 11, but some were modified more than others.
The home screen for the App Store has undergone a complete redesign, becoming a sort of magazine about third-party software called “Today”. The highlight is articles that discuss different types of apps, whether these focus of fashion or cat ownership. These articles feel a bit like advertisements, though.
There are also new sections in the App Store for games, and well as one just labeled “Apps”, which presumably covers everything that’s not a game.
The major change in the iOS 11 Mail app is the ability to add an Inline Sketch, which can come in handy.
iOS 11: The Verdict
When announcing its operating system updates, Apple has the bad habit of overindulging in hyperbole, indicating each one is the greatest thing since pre-wrapped cheese slices. But the greatly improved Dock and the Files app really make iOS 11 the best change to happen to the iPad in our memory, and most of the remaining changes are welcome.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement. Apple should add support for mice and trackpads to iOS 12, as well as flash drives.
In the mean time, there are bugs to squash. Despite months of public beta testing, iOS 11 was surprisingly buggy when it was released. Since then, Apple has rushed out two small updates to make the operating system is significantly more stable. Even so, there’s still a ways to go. In our testing, we found the Notes app to be particularly crash prone, but other apps have occasional issues too.
That said, the remaining bugs are more irritating than crippling. Anyone who’s eager to use the new features in iOS 11 should go ahead. Those who can stand to wait should probably hold off for another minor update or two.