There’s a lot of promise and potential in iPadOS 15. Even with some features like SharePlay missing from the initial release, others like Quick Note and a dramatically simpler approach to multitasking already improve the day-to-day experience of using Apple’s tablets.
But Apple sure did manage to bungle the homescreen.
As my colleague Chaim mentioned in his review of iPadOS 15, the homescreen layout is no longer consistent between vertical and horizontal orientations. I’ve been using the 12.9-inch iPad Pro since 2018, and as of iPadOS 14, the homescreen grid was always 6 x 5 no matter how the iPad was being held. This allowed me to set up dedicated rows for things like photo editing (I edit many of my review photos on the iPad), audio apps, video apps, and so on.
But with iPadOS 15, Apple threw a wrench into all that. When the iPad is in landscape mode, I still get the 6 x 5 layout. But now, as soon as I switch to vertical / portrait, the grid inexplicably changes to 5 x 6, with icons flowing down into the row below them. So much for my attempts at organization and keeping things tidy.
It’s a frustrating change, and it results in a very obvious amount of wasted space at the sides of the screen. The icon spacing in vertical orientation gets almost comical on this large, pixel-rich display if you do drop in some widgets, as you’ll see later.
The best explanation I’ve seen for this reduction in icon density is that it was necessary to support the more flexible widget placement and still keep everything looking somewhat uniform and aesthetically pleasing. It also has to do with how Apple maps out widgets on the homescreen. In his review of iOS and iPadOS 15 at MacStories, Federico Viticci surmised that Apple chose to “return to a non-dense grid that allows for both widgets and icons at the same time.” But I’m just not on board. Particularly on iPads, we’re at the point where at least having the option for a more tightly-packed grid would unlock new promise and creativity. Apple still doesn’t even permit empty gaps between icons or widgets. Instead, the company remains weirdly dedicated to its restrictive, always-from-the-top-left placement.
I’m sure there are many fantastic widgets out there at this point, and the new XL size — exclusive to the iPad — does open up more possibilities for calendar widgets and other productivity tools. But personally, I just don’t find myself using them often, and I was perfectly okay with the old style of keeping widgets anchored to the left of the main homescreen, where they could be pulled into view when needed and then easily dismissed.
But then we move on to iPadOS 15. And my first criticism comes right at the start. For some reason, Apple finds it appropriate to plop several widgets onto your iPad’s homescreen immediately after the update, which will throw whatever ordering you had before into disarray. It looks quite bad. Here’s mine on first boot following the iPadOS 15 upgrade, where in portrait we drop from five columns to four… on a 12.9-inch screen… all for the purpose of showcasing widgets:
Yikes. What a ham-fisted way of introducing a new feature to customers. Why not just demonstrate these more flexible, put-them-where-you-want widgets in a post-update video instead of wrecking actual homescreens? I’d be irked if some macOS update dumped a bunch of random junk onto my desktop, and I’m similarly annoyed by what Apple’s done here.
I can’t be the only iPad user to install iPadOS 15 and frown at seeing how its home screen widgets broke up a painstakingly-organized app icon grid.
— Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro) September 20, 2021
It also illustrates the significant tradeoff that comes with widgets: as soon as you add even one, no matter the size, you’re down to just four columns for that homescreen in portrait mode. On a display as expansive as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, that’s brutal. And again, it’s all because of Apple’s fixation with the grid. This is a problem of the company’s own making. At least you can cram a ton of apps into the dock, I guess?
With a little rearranging, I was able to get back to where things were before — but only in the landscape orientation. As I mentioned earlier, portrait is now limited to a 5 x 6 grid (even when no widgets are present), and there’s no setting to change this back to the old layout. All that wasted space. And for what? This is even noticeable on smaller iPads; in his review of the new iPad Mini, Marques Brownlee couldn’t help but notice the padding on both sides of the homescreen.
It’s fair to point out that in iPadOS 14, there was wasted screen real estate at the top and bottom of the icon grid when in vertical orientation. But I think it’s far better for familiarity and muscle memory to maintain the same app positioning and layout in both scenarios, so I found that acceptable. This? Not so much.
What frustrates me most about the new homescreen is that it’s impossible to make rows for specific purposes, since one icon will always reflow into the next row when you hold the iPad in portrait. Sure, folders exist, but that’s an extra tap.
Some have pointed out that iPadOS 15 now allows you to customize totally separate layouts for the homescreen when in portrait and landscape, and it will remember what goes where as you switch between them. So you can create a different look for each orientation. That’s neat! But the initial jumbled mess when changing orientations is jarring, and having separate layouts doesn’t fix the issue of icons jumping around. Currently, you can’t delete an icon or widget from one layout and keep it in the other.
As of the new update, Apple has also ditched the convenient landscape “today view” that displayed the date and time with widgets underneath — all while keeping your apps in easy reach. Your choices now are to put widgets directly on the homescreen or, if you prefer to keep them off, you can swipe right for this blurred slide-over version, which is fine, but less elegant:
Some will see this as a very minor inconvenience and carry on with updating to iPadOS 15 for all of the other benefits. Since the App Library is now there, you can even go in the complete opposite direction and load your homescreens up with widgets everywhere and only a few app icons. If that’s you, don’t let me stop you. On the whole, it’s a very good release.
But I’m really hoping in a future software update, Apple will add a setting to restore the old layout that kept everything more consistent. It’d be even better if the company made the grid more customizable on the whole. If we’re letting people choose between new and old Safari designs, why not offer a choice between having more things on-screen or a less dense grid that’s better optimized for widgets? There’s already a “Home Screen and Dock” section in settings, after all. Letting you adjust the grid to your liking is something that Android phones and tablets already get right. It’s not a huge ask.
For me, widgets aren’t worth the homescreen looking different based on how I’m holding my iPad. And I’m not alone, with other iPad owners on MacRumors, Reddit, and elsewhere venting about these changes. Some of them have downgraded back to iPadOS 14.8 until there’s a solution. I’ve now done so for the second time (I needed those screenshots) even if I’ll miss Quick Note, the much-improved multitasking, and other refinements of iPadOS 15.
I don’t know how long I’ll stay on the older software. Once iPadOS 15 is a little more polished or adds SharePlay back in, I might update. But a familiar homescreen that works the way I expect counts for a lot.