Why it matters: When Apple unveiled iPadOS 16 at WWDC this week, it showcased a ton of features. However, since Apple's business is to sell its latest and greatest hardware, it somewhat brushed over its newest tablet operating system's full compatibility with older iPads.
According to Apple's fine print, iPadOS 16 is compatible with "iPad (5th generation and later), iPad mini (5th generation and later), iPad Air (3rd generation and later), and all iPad Pro models." That's a pretty decent range for the cutting-edge OS. However, it's also slightly misleading because a few of its most exciting new features are only compatible with tablets equipped with the M1 chip, which eliminates any iPad made before 2021.
It's not all that unusual for an OS to have features that don't work on older hardware. Quite a few capabilities are obviously going to be specifically designed for upgraded systems. Some of iPadOS 16's best features are meant to drive iPad Pro and the upcoming M1 iPad Air sales. If you've already been considering moving to a higher-end iPad, here are the features you can only get with the M1 models.
Stage Manager, which we covered previously, offers expanded multitasking features only on M1 iPads. Stage Manager is also tied closely with the plug-and-play external display support that Apple showcased. So if you were hoping for either of those capabilities, you'll have to upgrade. Of course, AirPlay is still a viable option for those wanting to use an external display.
Even more restricted is Reference Mode. This feature enables an iPad Pro to match color requirements for color grading and compositing, "where accurate colors and consistent image quality are critical." It can also be used in Sidecar, turning the tablet into a secondary reference display. However, Reference Mode will only work on the 2021 or later 12.9-inch iPad Pro.
A few accessibility features are restricted to specific models, including Detection Mode and Door Detection in Magnifier (2020 iPad Pro or later). Virtual Memory Swap can use up to 16GB of your iPad's storage as virtual RAM for high-demanding apps. However, only M1 iPad Pro and iPad 4 (256GB model) can do this.
It's unfortunate that some of these capabilities exclude a large section of users, even those with relatively new hardware. However, all models from the last 4-5 years support most other new features. Check out the iPadOS 16 section of WWDC posted above for more info.