iPadOS 16 preview: Apple’s software is catching up with its hardware

When Apple put its M1 processor in the 2021 iPad Pro and iPad Air, I couldn’t help but wonder what all that power was for. The A-series chips that Apple had used in earlier models ran iPadOS extremely well, so seeing the same processor found in computers like the MacBook Air and Mac Mini was a surprise.

With iPadOS 16, which I’ve been testing in beta for the last few weeks, it’s now obvious why Apple put the M1 in its latest iPads. It enables some significant new features around multitasking that make the iPad a lot more flexible, and it enables some entirely new workflows: things that iPad power users have been requesting for years. Apple calls this new multitasking scheme Stage Manager.

And even though Stage Manager will only work on the three M1-powered iPad models, it’s easily the most significant change to iPadOS in years, as well as the most notable feature that’s currently available in the iPadOS 16 beta. As usual, a host of features that Apple announced at WWDC last month aren’t yet fully enabled in the beta software.

Resizable, overlapping app windows is the most immediately obvious benefit that Stage Manager offers, but Vivek Bhardwaj from Worldwide Product Marketing at Apple told Engadget in an interview that the company looks at Stage Manager as far more than, in his words, “a little iteration on multitasking.” The broader goal was to figure out how to make apps more capable on the iPad. “When we took a step back, we realized that there’s an opportunity for us to have apps running not just on iPad but on an external display, to be able to multitask with multiple apps, and have arrangements and flexibility like users have never had before,” Bhardwaj said.

Despite the bugs that I’ve encountered running iPadOS 16 on a 2021 iPad Pro (more on that later), Bhardwaj’s assessment feels accurate. Stage Manager makes the iPad feel much closer to a Mac than it ever has before while still retaining the simplicity that the iPad is known for. That shows up in some limitations — you can have at most four apps “on stage” at once, so you can’t stack as many windows and apps as you want. But it’s a reasonable limitation: Even on a 12.9-inch iPad…