iPadOS 16.2 and Stage Manager for external displays: Work in progress, but worth the wait

iPadOS 16.2 and Stage Manager for external displays: Work in progress, but worth the wait

Ever since I last wrote about iPadOS 16, I’ve continued to use Stage Manager on my iPad Pro. As I wrote in October, I like idea behind Stage Manager more than the implementation. Despite the flawed design of the multitasking concepts and flaws I still meet on a daily basis, it’s undeniable that Stage Manager allows me to get more done on my iPad by virtue of the simultaneous app windows.

With today’s release of iPadOS 16.2, the idea behind Stage Manager achieves the full vision first presented in June, while the design and technical implementation remain stuck in an unpolished, half-finished state. That is: conceptually, I love that Stage Manager in iPadOS 16.2 allows me to extend my iPad to an external display and put four additional windows on it; I’ve been waiting years for this feature and it’s finally here. Technically, however, the performance of this mode leaves a lot to be desired, with frequent crashes on the iPad Pro and an often confusing design that, I want to repeat, needs a reconsideration.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve learned to live with Stage Manager, accept its quirks, and use what’s good about it to my advantage. As I recently wrote for Club MacStories members, I’ve put my money where my mouth is: I’ve gone all-in with Stage Manager on the iPad Pro and completely rebuilt my work setup around the M2 iPad Pro and Apple Studio Display, using Universal Control for seamlessly control iPadOS from a nearby Mac mini. (You can read the full story here.) After all, no other device in Apple’s ecosystem can easily transform from a tablet to a laptop to a desktop workstation like the iPad Pro can.

I’ve been working toward this vision for iPad modularity and contextual computing for the past few years. So now that Stage Manager has unlocked the final piece of the remote display integration puzzle, how good is it in practice?

And more importantly: was it worth the wait?

Working with Stage Manager on external monitors

Unlike the “basic” version of Stage Manager, which was brought to older iPads after Apple announced at WWDC that it could not be done due to technical concerns, external display support in Stage Manager has remained exclusive to iPad models with an M1 SoC and above. Only the 2021 and 2022 iPad Pros, plus the M1 iPad Air can run Stage Manager on external displays with resolutions up to 6K. Any other iPad that is otherwise compatible with the “single-screen” version of Stage Manager (using four windows at once on the iPad screen) but does not have an M1 chip or later will still be limited to basic mirroring on external displays.

If your iPad has access to Stage Manager on external displays, but you don’t want to use it, you can always disable it in Settings ⇾ Displays by selecting the connected display and enabling ‘Mirror Display’ instead.

From an iPadOS standpoint, there’s an immediate design consideration worth pointing out: when an external display is connected to the iPad, Stage Manager doesn’t create a separate, larger home screen like, say, macOS creates a new desktop. Instead, on the external display, you’ll get an empty workspace with your dock where you can place windows and switch between app sets; it’s not a full home screen in that you can’t place app icons or widgets on it.

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To me this feels like a waste of space. In my new office setup, I have the iPad Pro propped up on a Smart Folio in front of the Studio Display, which I VESA-mounted on the wall. When I’m doing something on the iPad screen (perhaps because I’m using an app that works better with touch input) and there are no windows on the external display, that space is just…therewhich serves no purpose other than waiting for app windows to be admitted. In future updates to iPadOS, I hope that Apple will unlock the ability to permanently place widgets and icons on external displays even when they have no active windows.

The worst offender when it comes to wasting space on external displays, however, is the recent app strip. This UI element, as we know, is affected by dozens of design and technical issues that make it an inferior app launcher. In iPadOS 16.2, none of the complaints I had about the strip have been addressed by Apple (you still can’t right-click on window thumbnails to see a menu of multitasking options, and managing multiple windows is too confusing, for example). Even worse, on an external display you’ll be limited to five app set thumbnails despite the extra space. In the screenshot below, you can see how the strip, despite the empty space around it, doesn’t show me more than five thumbnails for my workspaces.

The fact that Apple has not addressed any of the core complaints I had regarding Stage Manager goes beyond the strip and is true for the entire function. This suggests that the company finds Stage Manager good enough as it is. There are still no shortcuts for moving, combining or resizing windows; even on a large external display, Stage Manager still stubbornly insists on repositioning windows on your behalf; you’ll still come across weird keyboard errors related to how app developers can’t tell if their windows are running in Stage Manager or not. And while over the past two months I’ve noticed that Stage Manager stopped crashing on my iPad Pro while in “single screen” mode, I’m afraid to report that Stage Manager crashes at least once a day when I is working with Studio Display connected to my iPad.

To summarize: everything I wrote in October about Stage Manager’s design and underlying flaws still applies today, but I need to keep using it if I want to be more productive with the iPad Pro. If I want to work with more than two windows on my iPad, I have no other option.

The one specific aspect of external display integration worth mentioning is how moving windows between displays and launching apps from different displays works in iPadOS 16.2.

To move a window from the iPad to an external display, you can either use the multitasking menu and the ‘Move to Display’ button, use drag and drop to grab it by the “title bar” (which is still too hard to get ) and move it there, or press the new hotkey for ‘Move to another screen’. Of all these methods, I prefer the dedicated keyboard shortcut, but any of them work well and will place the selected app in a standalone workspace with one app on the other screen.

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It’s a slightly more complicated story when it comes to launching apps and workspaces. Firstly – and I’m glad this has been fixed in time for the 16.2 release – if you press ⌘Space, Spotlight will appear on the screen where the pointer is placed. If you trigger Spotlight on the external display and launch an app, the window will open directly on the external display; if the window is part of an existing workspace from another screen, the entire workspace with all windows will be transferred. So if you have Safari and Notes in a workspace on your iPad, open Spotlight on the external display and search for “Notes”, the entire workspace will reopen on the external display.

The same goes for clicking icons in the dock: based on the example above, clicking the Notes icon in the dock displayed on the external display will move the entire workspace consisting of Safari and Notes from the iPad to the external display.

It takes some time to get used to this mechanism – which, unsurprisingly, is not explained in the iPadOS interface at all – but I think it’s the right call. In designing Stage Manager’s multi-screen experience, Apple has prioritized keeping the integrity of the workspace over opening individual apps. In practice, when working on my iPad and dealing with cross-monitor windows, I find this behavior useful as it allows me to maintain the state of my workspaces and quickly switch them between monitors. I still would have preferred a ‘Move workspace to another screen’ context menu in the strip of this mysterious user interface, but once you know how it works, it makes sense.

That’s really all that needs to be said about the unique aspects of external display integration with Stage Manager in iPadOS 16.2. What we have today is still the Stage Manager from two months ago, with a few subtleties, and much better performance for external displays compared to beta versions from earlier this year. Although I still experience occasional crashes with Studio Display, the feature is, in my opinion, stable enough for daily use now. If you tried Stage Manager on an external display this summer, found it too unreliable and decided never to use it, I encourage you to try it again with iPadOS 16.2.

I’ve been working on Stage Manager and its remote display integration full-time for the past month; although I could choose to run my iPad in classic Split View-Slide Over mode and just use the Stage Manager on the external display, I chose not to. I’ve embraced Stage Manager, and as I noted two months ago, I can’t deny that it feels good when everything is working as it should. Being able to have, say, Spring, Messages, and Ivory open on my iPad screen while I work with Obsidian, Notes, Safari, and Reminders on Studio Display in a total of eight simultaneous windows is terrific. The same goes for having a music workspace on the iPad while scrolling through my RSS feeds in ReadKit on the Studio Display, or watching a YouTube video on the external display while scrolling through the Mastodon timeline on the iPad.

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The larger surface area of ​​the Studio Display has allowed me to use app windows in their full-size layouts more often, which in turn has resulted in faster interactions with apps and less time spent clicking around toolbars or menus.

I don’t love the implementation of Stage Manager, but in terms of the raw potential it unlocks, the benefits are palpable in iPadOS 16.2. The ability to dock an iPad to a desk and watch it create a windowed environment on an external display further blurs the line between the concepts of “laptop” and “desktop” in iPadOS—an operating system now capable of supporting two profoundly different interaction paradigms that however, end up being complementary to each other. That’s something only the iPad can do in Apple’s ecosystem today, and probably for the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, at the end of 2022, this is where I stand with my iPad Pro and Stage Manager: this feature still needs a lot of work and improvements, but as I write this story in Obsidian, I realize that I have finally achieved the setup of my dreams, which seemed impossible just a few years ago. My iPad can now be a tablet, a laptop-like device with a magic keyboard, or turn an external display into a desktop environment. The same glass can provide three different computing experiences, all powered by the same OS.

Yes, Apple still has a lot of work to do: I should be able to use Stage Manager on an external display in clamshell mode instead of having to watch the iPad screen at all times; I shouldn’t be forced into preset sizes for my app windows; I should have the same flexibility as I have on macOS when it comes to running system-wide shortcuts with a keyboard shortcut. And that’s not to mention the plethora of visual quirks, technical quirks, and developer issues I covered two months ago. The road ahead for Stage Manager is still long and filled with many design and performance-related questions.

And yet, despite the flaws, I look at my desk now and I am happy: the dream of a modular computer I had many years ago is now a reality. It’s been a bumpy road to get to this point, and Apple’s work has only just begun, but I do know this:

It feels great to call iPadOS my home again.

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