Why iPad Pro can't have 3D Touch and a virtual Home button

iPad MiniPro 11 Magic Keyboard Hero
iPad MiniPro 11 Magic Keyboard Hero

The new iPad Pro comes with a new 10.5-inch display size, a new 120Hz adaptive refresh rate, better cameras, and a more powerful processor. About the only thing it doesn't come with is 3D Touch, Apple's pressure-sensitive technology for iPhone.

On the iPhone, pressing firmly lets you peak and pop through the interface and press your way to shortcuts in an increasing number of places. On iPad, unless you have an Apple Pencil, all pressing firmly gets you is a sore finger.

Why is that? On iPad, why can't you have your Apple Pencil and 3D Touch too?

Technical Truths

Apple calls most of the company's pressure-sensitive input technologies "Force Touch", though on the iPhone it's called 3D Touch. Even though the names are similar or the same, the actual implementations are significantly different.

With 3D Touch on the iPhone, an array of capacitive sensors integrated into the LED backlight system measure microscopic changes in the distance between the array and the cover glass—the kind of changes created by pressure from your finger.

That's combined with data from the accelerometer, which knows how your iPhone is moving through space, and with data from the capacitive multitouch sensor, which knows where your finger is on the horizontal and vertical planes. That way, Apple's algorithm can provide for the precise, linear, and continuous tracking of pressure events.

The result is the X- and Y-axis of traditional capacitive sensors now adds an Z axis as well. The effect really is multitouch made multi-dimension.

That's a different implementation from Apple Watch, which uses a series of electrodes lining the curvature of the screen to detect press events and determine the force, then combine it with multitouch data to determine the location.

It's also different from the Force Touch Trackpad, which uses sensors placed in each of the four corners to measure pressure, matched to location by the multitouch sensor.

The reason why these implementations are all different is because the devices they're part of are all different.

The Apple Watch version wouldn't work on a screen the size of an iPhone because the electrodes along the sides don't have the reach needed to cover the bigger glass.

Likewise, the iPhone version wouldn't work on a screen the size of iPad because the LED backlight system wouldn't measure the deformation of glass as reliably at that scale.

Apple would need to come up with yet another implementation of "Force Touch" technology to get it working on iPad — and they've kind of already done that with Apple Pencil (see below).

Of course, Apple is also rumored to be switching to OLED display technology for iPhone 8. One of OLED's advantages is that it doesn't require a blacklight. And that means Apple would already have to come up with yet another implementation of "Force Touch" technology for iPhone 8.

Rumor has it Apple will use a film sensor instead. It's reportedly more expensive but takes up less space, is even more precise, and could theoretically allow for multiple simultaneous points of pressure detection.

Whether or not that technology could effectively and economically scale to iPad size, we'll have to way and see.

Force Touch and 3D Touch were designed, in part, to overcome the limitations of smaller screens.

On Apple Watch, the screen is so small it makes the juxtaposition of data and controls almost jarring, and it can't show much of either one, much less both, and the same time. So, Force Touch allows important data and frequently used controls to exist on the primary layer, and infrequently used controls on the secondary layer.

Look at something, want to change it, Force Press, change it, go back to looking. You lose some initial discoverability but you gain a lot of efficiency.

On iPhone, the screen is still small enough that, in the most frequently used portrait orientation, you only get a single column view. That makes doing things like quickly scanning messages tedious. Tap the list item, change to detail view, tap back, tap the next item, change to detail view, tap back…

On iPad, with its big screen, constant two-column view, and popovers, it's much faster. Tap the list item, read the details, tap the next item, read the details, tap the next item…

With 3D Touch, though, horizontal multicolumn gets turned into vertical multi-stack layers. Press an item, read the details, press the next item, read the details, press the next item…

Like a wormhole, it folds navigation so you can jump through apps and even into other apps.

Little of that is needed on iPad. As mentioned above, you can already speed through an app because the screen is so big the list view can always stay in view, and popovers can display additional options in context over the existing screen.

What's missing is the extra trigger mechanism. On iPad, you can tap or long press, which gives you two sets of options — for example, on a Home screen icon, they let you launch an app or switch into jiggly mode to edit all the icons. On iPhone, you can tap, long press, or force press — for example, adding quick shortcuts to the Home screen icons in addition to launching or editing.

Of course, force press and long press could simply be combined into a single trigger — for example, editing Home screen icons could become an option under the shortcut menu...

Pencil priorities

Apple Pencil with iPad drawing

Apple Pencil with iPad drawing (Image credit: iMore)

Although not 3D Touch or Force Touch, Apple did bring pressure sensitivity to the iPad a couple of years ago — with Apple Pencil.

Apple Pencil represents a completely different implementation as well. For one thing, half of it is external.

Namely, Apple Pencil contains sensors, including the tip, which measures pressure. The iPad Pro then combines data from the Pencil and its own display, which scans 240 times per second when the Pencil is active, and derives position, pressure, and even relative angle for tilt effects.

There's a lot of technology built into both the Pencil and the display to make all of that work, including the new ProMotion 120Hz adaptive refresh rate in the new iPad Pro.

How that would interact with or potentially collide with 3D Touch is tough to predict. 3D Touch is also "expensive" to include and potentially getting more expensive with iPhone 8. Apple Pencil technologies are likewise "expensive". How much including both would mess with the economics of the product is also tough to say.

Update: Home button dependencies

When Apple first introduced the virtual Home button with iPhone 7, there were complaints about it no longer being real. When Apple introduced the newly updated iPads Pro some 9-months later, there are now complaints about its Home button being real instead of virtual.

That might make it sound like people will complain no matter what, and there may be some truth to that, but the larger issue is once again — consistency. When you get used to how the virtual Home button feels, the older, real one feels different and wrong. And we just want all our Home buttons to feel the same.

The issue here is that the virtual Home button requires two technologies in order to function: 3D Touch and the Taptic engine. As established above, iPad Pro has neither. It also doesn't have the the space contraints of an iPhone. If Apple wants to add bigger cameras or screens that take up more of the surface, they can do what they did with the 10.5-inch iPad Pro. No virtual Home button (or 3.5mm headphone jack deletion) needed.

So, unless and until that changes and Apple added finger-tip pressure sensitivity and force feedback to iPad Pro, the company can't add the virtual Home button.

Having it all

Right now, today, iPad Pro doesn't have 3D Touch because neither the technology nor the use case is a good fit for that product.

That doesn't mean iPad Pro will never have 3D Touch, though. It's possible that, one day, Apple will ship iPads with 3D Touch and iPhones with Apple Pencil support. The future is hard to predict, even when things seem inevitable in advance and obvious in hindsight.

It's also possible Apple will continue to expand Pencil, like it just did with Instant Notes and Instant Markup, and add a version of the 3D Touch Home screen shortcuts that way. I know I'd love it if Apple did that.

What about you? What do you do with 3D Touch on iPhone that you'd love to be able to do on iPad as well?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

  • It is the first place where I can find a clear explanation about the differences between 3D Touch and Force Touch. I think that two technologies are both fantastic. Kudos to Apple! At the same time, I think the marketing could be improved. It is impossible that the regular user could perceive and understand why things do not work the same. The different uses and different names are confusing. From a marketing point of view, I mean, looking for the user first, Apple should not launch the technology till they could provide a consistent user experience on all devices. One name, one brand, one experience. What do you think about the marketing here Rene?
  • I think Apple is pragmatic in that it gets a technology working, tests it in one device, sees reaction, and then adjusts and rolls it out across devices. That lets teams work in parallel and, if anything goes wrong, only affects one product and not the entire line.
  • I agree that is good for the technology, test and improve. Probably it is the right thing to do in this case. At the same time, I think that is confusing for the user
  • Apple is on a bad path if they start doing rolling releases, all it does is create confusion for the user. Take for instance when Sierra and iOS 10 were released. On my iPhone I can send stickers, and iMessages effects, but not on Sierra, I can't even receive iMessage effects on Sierra. This really puzzled me as I thought I was missing something or didn't know how to activate it on the Mac. Apple should keep all their devices consistent, they used to, so I don't know why they would have to start rolling things out only on certain devices now. If they're "testing" a feature, it shouldn't be in a public release. If 3D touch isn't fully ready for all devices, it should be put on none at all
  • I agree. Good for technology, bad for marketing. It helps to test and improve the technology but it creates a bad experience for the user. That is what usually Google does..
  • Not even usually, Google does it all the time. As someone who resides in the UK, literally _every_ new Google service is US-only to begin with. I can literally think of any Google product and remember how it was US-only to begin with and how mad I was when I couldn't download/use it
  • Clearly that doesn't and shouldn't apply. If Apple was to take this suggestion to it's logical conclusion then a device like the 12.9 iPad would hobbled by the limitations of a screen approximately 1in square. It's like saying a bicycle, race car and jumbo jet all need the same control paradigm. Apple have great ergonomics. But they would benefit from slightly better user manuals.
  • The iPhone7 home button works and feels great - but IMO only if being held in your hand. If you use the home button when on a table or the carpet for example, it feels a little unnatural. Although I would like my iPad Pro 10.5 to have the same home button and Taptic Engine, I am often not holding the table the same way as a phone, so perhaps I am OK with it.
  • The real reason for the new home button is that because it's not really a button it makes it won't break nearly as easily. All iPhones/iPads have a shelf-life with their home button functionality except for the ones with the new home button, so I'd welcome the new button on any device
  • Yea, before there was 3d touch, there was the long press. Forget the technolgy surrounding 3d touch, the long press accomplishes the same thing. This is quite evident in iOS 11 for ipad where there will be 5 different presses.
  • You're not entirely wrong, as clearly Apple is using the long press in iOS 11 to accomplish "some" of the same things 3D Touch does on an iPhone. However, 3D Touch can, and does, do so much more: 1. A long press is not as instant or gratifying as 3D Touch, which responds immediately to my pressure rather than my having to wait a ½ second or more. This plays directly into how "snappy" and fluid the OS feels. Lots of long presses make for a slow feeling OS.
    2. A long press can't differentiate you're meaning the way levels of pressure can. So on the iPad there is no way to 3D Touch app icons for quick shortcuts as the long press in iOS on an icon puts them in arrange/delete mode.
    3. Similarly, without levels of pressure, long presses don't allow things like peek and pop, which I use all the time to skim emails.
    4. Finally, hands down my favorite use of 3D Touch is turning the iPhone keyboard into a trackpad. This makes for MUCH easier cursor placement when editing text vs. relying on the hair pulling magnifying glass for exact placement (forget about it if you're near the edge of the screen!!, but I digress). Long presses on iOS keyboard open the alternate symbols for that letter, and as such can't be used to bring this functionality to iPad. There are some really good reasons, beyond overcoming the lack of screen real estate, to have 3D Touch on an iPad, but I do get the technological challenges.
  • Keyboard cursor on the iPhone is much nicer than on the iPad. You can select text anytime, anywhere.
  • iPads are fast enough you can open and sync the mail app in a few second (depending on your internet speed). All though the peek and pop up feature would be nice to have on the iPad, I don't think it's really nesecarry since you can open mail so quickly, the pop up doesn't really save you time (unless you count having to return to the home screen when your done). Also you can use multitasking to pull mail from the side and skim your mail while your watching a video or something (good luck doing that with 3D Touch). More importantly, on the iPad, you can click and drag with two fingers on the keyboard to activate the trackpad. You can also click and drag with two fingers in the area where your typing, so you can still use it even if your using an external keyboard. If you don't like using both fingers, you can activate the trackpad with both fingers, then remove one of them and the track pad will stay activated.
    If you want to select text you can double tap with two fingers, but on the second tap don't lift your fingers. Keep then on iPad, then drag to select text. Again you can remove a finger once you've started. I will admit this selection tool needs some work, but it's good for selecting large amounts of text, which can be annoying when using the sliders at the start and end of the selection. Again this selection tool needs some work, if you want to do anything with text (copy, paste, etc.) you can't just click on the selection, you have to use the buttons on the keyboard.
  • This was a great write up Renee, one of your best. It's the only place I've seen "force touch" and "3D Touch" properly differentiated. Question? Is the home button really dependent on full 3D Touch? Couldn't a much smaller sensor array be adapted to that area for the iPad? Once you've gotten used to the virtual version, it's hard to adjust to the mushy feeling iPad home button on my Pro.
  • Having to put extra pressure on the screen in the iPad would be a problem in itself the way tablets are held. Its not like a phone where most likely you pressing with your thumb and the rest of your hand countering the force of your thumb.
  • This is really a non-issue, you can touch the iPhone the same way you touch the iPad, and 3D touch still works
  • All I know is that I try to use force touch on my iPad all the time (e.g. widgets). That's the one reason I want it on iPad.
  • This is why Apple needs to make sure that features are consistent across their products, iPad definitely needs it
  • Agreed. Why for instance can't I pinch the screen to get to the home screen on my iPhone 7 plus as I can on iPad?
  • I use my iPhone with my index finger at least as often as I do with my thumb. I'll agree it's a bit easier with the thumb, but it works well with the index finger too.