Everything you need to know about Apple's pointer support for iPad

Apple has shared more details on how pointer and trackpad support will work with iPads.

Apple, iPad, iPad Pro, iOS, iPad OS, iPad OS 13.4, touchpad, mouse, Mac

Apple has shared many more details to explain how pointer and trackpad support will work with iPads, providing video, guidance notes and a senior level company presentation.

What is pointer and trackpad support on iPad?

Apple now supports trackpads in iPad OS 13.4.

That doesn’t mean you use the trackpad on an iPad in the same way you use a pointing device on a Mac or other system. Instead, the company has developed a refined experience that’s unique to the tablet itself.

In other words, rather than deliver a ‘me-too’ experience, the company has thought deeply about how these things work in order to develop a control system that feels natural, intuitive and unique.

It means that rather than turn an iPad into a Mac (as some short-sighted commentators seem to want to believe), the company has simply put a little Mac inside of an iPad. The iPad is becoming a Mac plus.

Note: Apple has published an Augmented Reality tour of its new iPad Pro, which lets you see how it will look on your desk. This is available here.

How does Apple describe it?

Apple explains how it works:

As you move your finger across the trackpad, the pointer transforms to highlight user interface elements. Multi-touch gestures on the trackpad let you navigate the entire system without raising your hand from the keyboard and trackpad.

You can tap buttons, launch apps, access Control Center, and do everything else using this system.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering said:

“We carefully considered the best way to integrate trackpad use into a touch-first environment while retaining everything our customers know and love about iPad. We’re thrilled to bring this new way of interacting with iPad to the millions of people using iPadOS today.”

What does it look like?

When you work with the trackpad/pointer, you don’t see an arrow cursor; instead you see a semi-transparent circle that intuitively highlights user interface elements as you work.

The circle only appears when you are using it – you can still use touch, and you can still focus on the content when you want to do so.

It’s also contextually intelligent.

This means you’ll see slightly different behaviors depending on what you do – app icons will behave differently to text boxes, and system control options will work differently again.

For example, when you run the cursor over a text box you’ll see that box appear, or run it over a date in Calendar to see it highlighted – tap at an item that’s highlighted in this way to access it.

The system also handles gesture controls, which let you switch between apps, quickly get to the App Switcher, and use the Dock, Control Center and apps in Slide Over.

Craig Federighi presents…

Apple has published a video in which Federighi demonstrates how trackpad cursor support works on the iPad.

“Our goal with iPad has always been to create a device so capable and so versatile it can become whatever you want it to be,” says Federighi during the presentation.

“That versatility is built on the power of touch. But of course we give you so many other ways to interact with your iPad, and sometimes you want to type. For typing, nothing beats the Magic Keyboard. It’s when typing that you most appreciate the precision and ergonomics of a trackpad.”

He said the company “deeply considered” how to bring a cursor to a “touch-first experience.”

The developer VP showed us a few points:

  • The cursor appears on screen to be round, “just like your fingers.”
  • As you move through the controls on your iPad, the cursor will change its appearance to reflect the tool you may want to select.
  • He points to its built-in drag-&-drop support and support for Slide Over.
  • He explains the three-finger gestures supported on the device – up to go home, swipe up and hold to enter multitasking.
  • The demonstration also includes a glance at how accurately you can work with spreadsheets using the device.

“New levels of control and precision when you need it while preserving iPad’s legendary versatility,” he promised.

What else do we know?

  • Access Notification Center: Move cursor to the top of the screen and drag up.
  • Access Control Center: Move cursor to the top-right corner of the screen and click on the Wi-Fi/battery status indicators.
  • Switch between recent apps: Use three fingers and swipe left and right to switch between recently opened apps. Or use three fingers to swipe up and close the current app.
  • Three finger pinch to close the current app and open multitasking.

Can I personalize the way this works?

Yes, you can personalize how this works on your iPad. Things you can change include:


Three tools: Increase contrast (on/off), Automatically Hide pointer (default 2 seconds) and Color (none as default; blue, white, red, green, yellow or orange highlights available).

Pointer size

A slider that takes pointer size from small to large.

Pointer animations

This allows the pointer to animate and adapt to elements on the screen.

Trackpad inertia

When this is enabled, the pointer will continue to move after you raise your finger.

Scrolling speed

These items are available in Settings > Accessibility > Pointer Control.

There is one more collection of settings you can adjust when using your iPad with a trackpad. This is available in Settings > General > Trackpad. Here you can change:

  • Tracking speed, using a little scroll bar.
  • Natural Scrolling – when enabled, content will track the movement of your fingers.
  • Enable/disable tap to click you’ll be able to select things with a lighter touch.
  • Enable/disable two finger secondary click tap with two fingers to right-click.

What about developers?

The company says most iPad OS apps will support the new user interface without requiring any additional code.

That’s true, but some more advanced features – such as unique hover gesture support – may take a little work. Apple has introduced new APIs developers can use if they want to add or improve this support in their apps.

How do you get trackpad and pointer support?

Trackpad and cursor support is made available in iPad OS 13.4, so you’ll need to install this on your iPad first.

Once you have updated your machine, you’ll be able to access the new features using a Bluetooth mouse or trackpad, Apple’s new Magic Keyboard with trackpad (ships in May), or another iPad peripheral that supports the feature, such as the Logitech Combo Touch.

All of these solutions will let you use the cursor/trackpad support now built into the iPad OS.

Up next:

This is a highly significant moment in the continued evolution of the iPad, and of computing. It means the iPad is moving inexorably toward becoming a more sophisticated and flexible solution for some uses than a Mac.

The move to a pointer-based interface also has potential (which I think we’ll see realized) for virtual and gesture-based interfaces.  Eye and head movement interfaces already exist; now Apple is making them primary interfaces.

While the times we are in are complex and difficult, Apple continues to make them interesting. Good luck, everyone.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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