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Dock vs Dock

I joked on Twitter the other day that I was going to have to write up an email to send to my less tech savvy family members explaining the differences between the macOS and iOS Docks this Fall.

I wasn’t really joking.

I predict a lot of us who end up responsible for family tech support are going to get questions about the Dock on iPad come September or October when Apple releases iOS 11 to the masses. Anyone who has been using macOS since the original OS X 10.0 release has seen some significant changes over the years to the Dock on the Mac. But on iOS, the Dock is a very different beast altogether.

If the two elements weren’t both called the Dock, and they didn’t look so similar and serve such similar broad functions, we could probably avoid this conversation. But there are just enough similarities between the two that I fear confusion is unavoidable.

Let it be said here that I am not criticizing the designers at Apple for the many differences between Docks on macOS and iOS. I can see good arguments for the majority of these differences as reasonable trade-offs, given the two operating systems are still rather different. I’m just trying to help out anyone who has to explain all this to a loved one in the near future.

Also, if it’s not apparent: I’m a huge fan of the Dock. It has been criticized over the years by many old-school Mac fans who never really warmed up to it. But I’ve loved the Dock since the Public Beta days, even with all of its flaws. I’m glad to see iOS get some of the benefits of having a real Dock around.

So, without further ado, here is a detailed list of similarities and differences between the macOS Dock and the iOS Dock. Feel free to crib from this when you talk to your relatives this Fall. I will update this post as the beta progresses, in case Apple makes changes along the way. If anyone wants to point out something I’m missing here, I’m happy to add it as well.

iPad vs iPhone

First and foremost, when referring to the iOS Dock in the following passages, note that we are talking specifically about iPad. The iPhone Dock is still yet another separate thing that will not be changing much from its current limited features in iOS 10. Which adds even more confusion in the short term. The iPhone Dock will likely end up acquiring many of these iPad features down the road. But for now it is mostly unchanged. So if you are not an iPad user, ignore everything in this article until future notice.

Okay. So that’s out of the way. Let’s start with the similarities, since that’s the easy part.

  • On both macOS and iOS, the Dock is a translucent rectangle with rounded edges that contains a customizable group of icons representing our most-used apps. It usually lives at the bottom of the screen (though on macOS it can be moved to one of the sides).
  • We can add, subtract, or rearrange the icons on the Dock with simple drag gestures.
  • When we click on (macOS) or tap (iOS) a Dock icon, the represented app will either launch, or it will become active if it’s already launched.

And that’s about where the similarities end. So let’s move on to the differences.

Shortcuts vs. the actual app

On macOS, when you drag an app icon onto the Dock, you aren’t really moving the app itself from its current folder location. You are simply making an alias (or shortcut) to the application for easy access. The app you dragged to the Dock remains in the Applications folder, or wherever it was before you dragged it.

On iOS, dragging an app to the Dock moves it from its current location on the home screen to the Dock. It will no longer appear in the home screen rows or in any folders. (Note: the recent apps section, which I’ll talk about in a minute, behaves differently. Those apps remain on your home screen / in a folder despite also appearing on your Dock.)

When and where apps appear after launching

On macOS, any time you launch an app, it will appear in the Dock. If the icon for that app isn’t already there, it will be added on the right side, to the left of the vertical separator. You can then drag it to another position, or permanently keep it in the Dock by selecting Keep in Dock from the contextual menu, if you like. If not, once you quit an app that isn’t permanently assigned to the Dock, it will disappear from the Dock.

On iOS, when you launch an app that isn’t in the Dock, it will not be added to the left of the vertical separator. Instead, it will likely get added as a “recent app” to the far right set of icons, to the right of the vertical separator. (At least it’s supposed to. I’ve found this behavior to be a bit inconsistent. Possibly because we’re still in the beta stages of the OS.) Once added to the recents section, it will stay there until another app launch bumps it off the Dock. There are three recent slots, so every time you launch another non-Dock app, the icon will get bumped over one to the right, until it reaches the end and then gets bumped out of the Dock entirely. You can make a recent app permanent, if you have available Dock slots, by dragging its icon from the recent section to the main (left) section of the Dock. Its icon will then be removed from the folder or home screen position where it currently resides and be moved to the left section of the Dock permanently.

Removing icons from the Dock

On macOS, removing an app from the left side of the Dock by dragging its icon off the Dock only removes the icon from the Dock, not the app from the entire machine. Given that Dock icons on the Mac aren’t the apps themselves, but only shortcuts to them, the apps themselves remain in the Applications folder, or wherever they live in your file system, even after being removed from the Dock. The shortcut icon simply disappears.

On iOS, if you drag an icon off the Dock, it will land onto the home screen or folder wherever you drop it. You need to find a place to “put it away” in other words, because you are dragging the app itself, not a shortcut to it. If you tap and hold a Dock icon in iOS, then tap the “x” icon that appears on the top left of the icon, you will remove the app itself from the device—not just the icon from the Dock. You will be warned about this first, at least.

By the way, this deleting behavior can also apply to apps in the recents section of the iOS Dock. If you attempt to delete an item from the recents section, you will get an alert dialog with the options to either delete the app from the machine, or just remove its icon from the recents list.

Indicating active status

On macOS, apps that have been launched may or may not have a small indicator dot underneath them that lets you know the app is currently running. These indicators can now be switched off in macOS, but some users still like to know which apps are active in memory.

The iOS Dock has no such option. Apps do not need to be quit on iOS (except in emergency situations) anyway, so this isn’t a big deal. Technically, they don’t need to be quit on macOS anymore, either, but many people still do out of habit.

The section to the right of the vertical separator

On the right side of the Dock on macOS, after the vertical separator line, there is a dedicated section for documents, folders, open windows that have been minimized, and the trash can. The iOS Dock uses this section to show your three most recently launched apps that aren’t already on the Dock. This difference makes sense, given that there is no real way to drag files around on iOS, windows do not get minimized, and there is no trash can. So Apple decided to repurpose the right section of the Dock for recents instead.

If you do not wish to see the recent apps on the right side of your iOS Dock, because the constant changing of icons drives you nuts, you can turn this feature off in Settings/General/Multitasking. The recent apps will simply disappear.

Folders in the Dock

You can put folders from your home screen in the iOS Dock. But they live to the left of the vertical separator, where the apps live, not to the right of the vertical separator, as they do on macOS. Since folders on iOS can only contain App icons and not documents, this makes sense. Apps can be launched into multitasking mode from a folder inside the Dock, but the process is a bit awkward and probably not worth doing, unless you often multitask with more apps than the Dock can hold without folders.

Maximum items

Speaking of maximums: the iOS Dock can have a maximum of 13 icons for smaller iPads (9.7-inch, 10.5-inch) and 15 for the larger 12.9-inch iPad. Plus the three recent app icons. If you turn recents off, as shown above, you do not get those three slots back. You still max out at 13 or 15, depending on screen size.

The macOS Dock has basically an infinite number of slots. Put as many apps and documents down there as you like. The Dock will simply shrink down to eventual microscopic size to accommodate.

My guess is that the iOS limit is based on a minimum tappable size for icons on the Dock. On macOS, with a mouse or trackpad, targets can be reliably clicked at very tiny sizes. Fingers are not nearly as precise.

As to why turning off recents doesn’t give you those three slots back: I can see users turning off recents, adding three more apps, then turning recents back on. Now what? Does the Dock dump the last three regular apps back onto the home screen? That would cause a ton of confusion.

Resizing the Dock manually

The macOS Dock can be shrunk irrespective of how many icons are in it, using a slider in System Preferences or by dragging on the vertical separator. The iOS Dock resizes automatically to fit on screen but can’t be resized further manually.

Hiding behavior

The macOS Dock can be hidden with a special keystroke (command+option+d), and brought back up by moving the cursor to the edge of the screen or typing that keystroke again. It can also be visible while working within apps.

The iOS Dock will always be visible when you are at your home screen or in the spaces view, but will always be hidden when you are working within an app. You can bring it up temporarily by swiping from the bottom of the screen, in order to launch a secondary app into multitasking mode or to drag and drop, but otherwise, it will always auto hide.

Handoff position

Apps available for Handoff (opening a document already open on an iOS device on your Mac, and vice versa) will show up as icons on the left side of your Dock in macOS, but on the right side for iOS. This makes sense, if you think about the differences between the right sides of the Dock on both macOS and iOS, but it will confuse, to be sure.

If you are showing recent apps on your iOS Dock, the Handoff app will take away the far right, or least recent, slot. If you are not showing recents, it will create a recents section just to show that one Handoff icon.

On macOS, the Handoff app will appear to the left of the leftmost icon, but not replace any icons.

Multitasking/Split Screen

On iOS, if you are in an app already, then swipe up from the bottom of the screen to reveal the Dock, you can then drag the icon of another app from the Dock to launch it in multitasking mode. Drag it to the far right or left to pin it, or let it float above the current window.

If you drag an icon out of the macOS Dock, it will simply be removed from the Dock. macOS is permanently in multitasking mode and doesn’t have these window pinning behaviors for regular windows—only for full-screen apps. (I would actually like to see the iOS Dock dragging behavior when using full-screen apps on macOS. It would be nice to be able to pin an app from the Dock this way, rather than dragging the window into Spaces to do a screen split from a full-screen app.

Contextual Menu

The macOS Dock includes contextual menus on most icons, with special commands such as opening a specific window, showing where the app lives in Finder, controlling which space the app’s windows should inhabit, and so on. A right click or long-click on an icon will reveal this menu.

The iOS Dock also has a limited contextual menu for certain apps (so far, Files is the only one I’ve found) which reveals recent documents that can be dragged and dropped. A tap and hold on the Files icon will bring up this menu if there is a recent file in there that can be applied to the current active app. If not, nothing happens. I suspect this contextual menu will get more powerful over time, but for now, it’s rather limited in scope.

Animations and other holdovers from the old days

There is no Genie effect and no magnification settings for the iOS Dock. Apps will use a variation of the Scale effect when launching and returning to the home screen. And no, there isn’t a cool hold-shift-to-get-the-Steve-Jobs-signature-slow-motion-effect for iOS. (Unless there’s a hidden option out there that someone knows about.)

Positioning

The iOS Dock will always live on the bottom of the screen, regardless of orientation of the device. The one exception to this is the Plus-sized iPhones, where the Dock (again, different altogether on phones from the iPad Dock) will be pinned to the left or right of the screen in landscape orientation. There is no user setting to move the Dock to another part of the screen.

On macOS, the Dock can be pinned to the left or right, as well as the bottom as a user preference. There are also utilities available that will let you anchor it to a corner rather than at the center of its screen side.

Conclusion

The iOS Dock is definitely different from its macOS counterpart. It doesn’t take long to wrap your head around the differences, but you do need to spend a little time thinking and playing with it before it all starts making more sense.

One way I like to think about iPad is that it’s a little bit like a Mac running apps in full screen mode all the time. There are still fundamental differences in Dock behavior, but some things, such as auto-hiding, are more similar when comparing iPad to a full-screen Mac experience.

I’m sure in future iOS updates, the Dock in iOS will get more powerful and more customizable. This current Dock is more like the Dock from OS X 10.0 than macOS 10.13, in other words. I look forward to seeing it grow over time.

It’s also fascinating to me that the basic concept of the Dock, which dates back to the NeXT days, still proves to be a useful User Interface element in 2017. It’s hard to beat a convenient, customizable favorite apps launcher.

Am I missing any other differences between the macOS Dock and the iOS Dock in this article? Let me know, and I’ll be happy to add them.