evan's thoughts

The iPad Pro and the Studio Display

Last year I decided to splurge on a bunch of technology that I figured would improve my work life. As someone who predominantly works from my home office, I am of the belief that an expensive purchase that greatly impacts my enjoyment of the way I spend many of my waking hours was worth it. I purchased two Studio Displays from Apple, and while I have my issues with them, they do exactly what I wanted them to do and I adore the sheer fidelity / color accuracy of the screens. I use them with my 16 inch MacBook Pro, with one plugged into each Thunderbolt 4 port and the actual laptop in a closed position.

Another device I purchased last year is a new 11 inch iPad Pro with a M2 SOC. Originally I was let down by the announcement of the M2 model, as my dominant use case of the iPad (outside of being an expensive chromebook / travel computer) is watching videos, so I was holding out for it to get the MicroLED display of its larger counterpart. However my old iPad Pro was the original “all screen” 11 inch from 2018, and it was starting to show its age in battery life. Additionally I was waiting for years to get a version with cellular compatibility, so I purchased it regardless. The one thing I wanted to try with this though, was Stage Manager.

Stage Manager is on the iPad Pro 2018 as well, but I never liked it much there. It felt laggy, slow, and on the small 11 inch screen its often more of a pain to deal with to get what you want out of it versus the traditional split view multitasking. The new iPad Pro added a few additional features though, such as the Thunderbolt port and multi monitor support, which I felt would be perfect for the device. I figured that an iPad Pro, combined with my existing mac setup, would be a fantastic combination, especially when I am visiting my parents. So i’ve been attempting to use the iPad with my Studio Display for casual use, and there’s a few problems. Figured i’d post them here so they can be emailed around Apple HQ and have a few tickets opened. I know this is the most first world of first world rants, but this is the stuff I love to talk / think about so please excuse me but here goes

1. The iPad does not support external cameras, at all

If you plug an iPad into a Studio Display, you are stuck using the iPad Pro’s integrated camera for all purposes. This includes FaceTime, Zoom, Teams, and any other video conferencing app you can think of. There is no way to use any other camera besides what exists on the physical hardware of the device. This is wild because when you plug the iPad in to the Studio Display, it automatically switches to its speakers and microphone! This is a somewhat baffling decision, a huge oversight, and something I hope is fixed in the next version of iPadOS or a future software update of the studio display. Oh right, the display gets updates, we’ll talk about that in a bit.

2. The iPad is always the primary monitor

In modern computer operating systems there is the concept of the “primary” monitor, which is where your taskbar lives and is usually your main point of focus when interacting with your computer. On iPadOS, the primary monitor is always the display of the iPad. It is where your apps live, your widgets, etc. The monitor is required to be on, and if you have the (fantastic, product changing) magic keyboard for the device you are unable to operate it in any fashion when it is closed and plugged into an external display. This is silly, as with a laptop open and plugged into a larger monitor I almost never default to the laptop as the “primary” display, and looking back from a 27 inch screen to a 11 inch one to open an app is just unintuitive for long periods. It gets even sillier when you try to either open control center or view your notifications on an external display. With the former, if you click the control center on the display it opens it on the ipad screen instead.

The later doesn’t even work on the display. It won’t let you do it. You need to move your mouse over to the iPad screen to do it, and then move the mouse to the top, and then keep moving it upward as if there’s more display above it. Right, speaking of, you cant unlock the device from the studio display either. The password, lock screen, etc, is all permanently on the iPad display. I can keep going on but i’ll be honest, I haven’t discovered all the problems yet.

3. Stage Manager is still limited

This is a shorter one than many might expect because I don’t actually dislike stage manager. I think its a pretty solid compromise, and I applaud apple for building a window manager with a touch interface as a primary input mechanism that doesn’t feel terrible to use at all times. I had no idea if it could be done. My issue with it comes less from its functionality and more its interface. So here’s a list of nitpicks inside a list of nitpicks. When you open a new app, by default it closes the old one. You need to drag an app / window on top of an old window stack in order to get two windows and there’s no way to change that default. 4 windows are the maximum you’re allowed to have in a single Stage Manager “stack” or whatever its called, which makes total sense for an 11 inch screen but is hilariously sparse for a 27 inch one. When you drag a new window onto a stack, it automatically jettisons the first one you put there in a FIFO format, which means you have to continuously cycle to get the stack you want, or have the foresight to move one of your other windows to the iPad or just close it.

This would be the least busy desktop UX ive ever seen. but this is the most Stage Manager lets you do.

The thing about stage manager is there’s a ton of potential there. I see it. Its so obvious. They just fix a few problems with it and they’ve built an excellent way for power users to handle multitasking.

4. You can’t update the display

The Studio Display is a weird gizmo because it has a CPU inside. Seriously! The thing comes bundled with a SOC, specifically an A13, which I assume is used for handling features such as the webcam’s Center Stage feature, and probably some form of audio processing for the speakers / microphone. Updates happen sparingly, but in the past 8 months of ownership I received 3 updates. The problem is that those updates happen through macOS. iPadOS, as far as I can tell, has no mechanism to deliver updates to the display. This is a shame, as although the Studio Display is an expensive device its also one that will last decades, and I was hoping I could grab one for my mother (who doesnt need a full computer) so she’d have a big display / keyboard to do light work on, as well as a place for me to dock my macbook when I need to visit for the week and get some work done.

I wrote this entire article using the two products together, and its obvious that the potential for this to be a fantastic experience is there, but since Apple moved the Mac line to Apple Silicon its something I care about a lot less. My iPad has since moved from an essential part of my computing lineup to a second fiddle to my Mac, with only a few features I wish my laptop had (such as an integrated cellular modem). My ReMarkable 2 has replaced it as far as reading articles / writing goes, and my Mac has caught up to it in battery life and portability. This is a shame, because I adore the iPad Pro line and want it to fit somewhere in my life, as well as for it to become the only computer my parents utilize due to its simplicity and security. Hopefully they can fix the above issues because otherwise this is a really cool experience that I would recommend towards those looking for a light / secure computing surface.

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