iOS files management

I love my 9.7 iPad Pro… so much that I’m considering upgrading to one of the larger sizes later this year. This would be instead of upgrading my 2014 MacBook Pro (which I also love). I cannot afford to buy two new machines.


The single biggest frustration with using my iPad as a day-to-day productivity machine is files access. Everything work-related is stored in Dropbox as my office machine for printing is Windows. I have Readdle Documents, which is a bit better than the native app. But I still cannot edit many of my formats natively but have to open copies in the app. Additionally finding stuff (e.g. a specific lecture or presentation when I’m standing in front of my students) is more “miss” than “hit”. Things that appear flawlessly on my Mac in Finder (or HoudaSpot) are nowhere to be found on my iPad.

I know some people are going to say, “just wait for the next iteration of iOS.” But is there any sense that this problem is going to be addressed? And are there solutions in the meantime?

You seem to be conflating two different problems:

  1. Ability to open files in place when they are stored in Dropbox. Much depends on the actual apps you are using. The Office apps, for example, can open files in place using a variety of Cloud services. Whether a file is opened in place or a copy is made may also depend on how you open the file. Are you starting in the app in question and using an “Open” command? Are you tapping on the file in Files? Are you tapping on the file in Dropbox? Are you using the share sheet? You should try a few different methods to see which require copying and which do not in your particular circumstances.

  2. Search. Again, this may depend on the particular app you are using to search. Have you tried using the native Dropbox app to search? Have you turned on Spotlight searching of Dropbox?


Agreed with ciaran. Some apps will open in place from Dropbox without importing a copy. For example, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, the Affinity apps, Designer and Photo, Textastic and iA Writer can also open in place. I’m sure there are other apps that support it but those are the ones I’m immediately aware of. But ultimately it comes down to the developers supporting it and users knowing how to use it as it can vary a bit. As ciaran pointed out, how it works depends on the app. For example, with Pages I can tap the document in Files and have the option to open it in Pages. For Affinity documents I need to open from within the Affinity app.

Searching, unfortunately, seems to be limited to searching file names only. I’m not sure if there are any apps that allow searching of content of files stored in the Files app…

Google Drive and OneDrive allow f/t search on iOS in the apps. Dropbox may at $200 level.

I’m sorry that I don’t have any solutions to offer, just a comment. This issue points out that file handling is still a mess on iOS. The fact that you have to figure out if and how a given app opens a file, some copy but some open in place, some don’t open at all, etc just points out why iOS is still not functional enough to replace a Mac. I really hope that Apple ha ]smbig plans to fix this issue.


I think it’s too easy to blame Apple for this. They offer features that developers can take advantage of. Some have, some have not (yet). It’s not that hard to figure out when using the Files app to discover if an app will open in place via the share sheet it will either say “Open in” or “Copy to”. If opening from within the app, well, that can vary.

iOS is changed every year with new features. Apple has to balance the process for users like my parents that are happy with their iPads as is and users that prefer to do more with their iPads. For my parents the simpler the better. Too many changes and they just think the iPad is broken. But for those of us that use the iPad as “power” users, the more advanced and flexible the better. There is no easy or right answer with this stuff. Apple will never please everyone 100%.

My approach, as a Mac user going back to 1993 is just to be amazed at what we actually have now. Macs, iPads, iPhones, AirPods, etc. I think it’s all fantastic and prefer to enjoy it. I’m not saying it’s perfect just that I see people often make complaints even without taking the time to learn what is possible. Not saying that is necessarily the case here, just that it happens often. I think it’s important to remember that while the iPad and iOS is designed to be easy to use it is still a computer and as apps get more complex (along with iOS) it can take a bit more effort to learn the ins and outs of new features.

This is just a result of the way the two platforms developed. From the start, the main interface of Mac OS was the Finder. In the first few versions of iOS there was no way to look at your files. Apple wanted people to manage everything via apps. If you wanted to open a Pages file, you first opened Pages. They eventually gave up on this and gave us a Files app, but you can still see from the main iOS screen that they expect you to start from the App first, not from Files.

So are you saying that “storing” files in DB is actually storing files in the [DB] app, rather than on the iPad? This is perhaps the source of my confusion: where exactly are my files [I don’t expect an answer;-)].

The answer is very straightforward, iOS is based on Unix under the hood, so everything is stored as a file in the file system. You just can’t see it like you can on your Mac with the Terminal.

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… and that’s the problem with doing work on an iPad - at least my kind of work that involves directly accessing and managing files and folders. Awkward to do on an iPad, easy and fast on a Mac.

Sort of makes me wonder - is the term “iOS Files Management” an oxymoron?

I think there’s a lot of confusion on this topic. I have hundred’s of folders with thousands of files on my iPad. I design and manage websites and graphic design projects for clients and I do it all with an iPad. Most of it is stored in iCloud in a variety if project folders. I have a Websites folder with client folders. I also have client folders in my documents for ather assets and projects that are not website files. I don’t find any of this awkward in the least. In fact, my organization of files is nearly identical to what I was doing on the Mac except it’s now on the iPad and stored in iCloud.

What kind of projects are you doing that you can’t store in folders on the iPad?

So are you saying that “storing” files in DB is actually storing files in the [DB] app , rather than on the iPad? This is perhaps the source of my confusion: where exactly are my files [I don’t expect an answer;-)].

I agree it’s confusing and could stand substantial improvement (maybe with iOS 13?).

You said you keep your files in Dropbox. There are lots of ways to access those files, the most obvious of which is to access them using the Dropbox app. On a Mac, Dropbox usually just keeps a local copy of all your Dropbox files and synces changes to those files to the Cloud. On iOS, Dropbox can keep local copies on your iPad, but more frequently downloads those files on demand. You can tell Dropbox to keep local copies by telling it to “make file available offline.”

Apps like Documents and PDF Expert did a good job of always having a local copy of cloud files (if you set them up that way). But Apple originally eschewed file access at all in iOS and our current version of Files leaves many things unclear.

Hope that helps at least a bit.

@Denny - Due respect, not much confusion here (I hope! :grin:). You are correct in that IOS can (in a limited way) deal with thousands of files, but fully using the files, as described below, can be slow and tedious. IOS tends to be app-centric. Files are (usually) created, stored, organized or managed through certain apps. MacOS is (or can be) file-centric. Through the Finder or Finder-substitute apps you can live, breathe, even swim directly in the files, if you want. You can, using two or more windows on a large-enough screen or multiple screens, see your entire file organization structure (top level folders) simultaneously with at least one folder/subfolder/sub-subfolder branch displayed. And with that display duplicated showing another folder/subfolder/sub-subfolder branch. You are then free to peruse and wade through the files database in an unrestricted way.

It’s quite easy in iOS to place files into the database - I do that all the time. Example: Scan (using Scanbot or similar app) a receipt, automatically saved into a Dropbox folder. Done. I do that all the time. The iPad is not even needed - the iPhone works fine.

Dealing with the files - retrieving, combining, searching, re-organizing, placing into files within other apps (Notes, Pages, Numbers, Excel) is much easier and faster with macOS. One example: I have 30+ years of investment and brokerage statements saved as PDF files. The paper documents, along with boxes and boxes of others, were scanned to PDF files and discarded long ago. After redeeming shares of a stock or mutual fund, I need to calculate the cost basis after years of reinvested dividends in a stock DRIP plan or reinvested distributions in a mutual fund. That requires at least two looks through the files. A quick look to discern the pattern of dividends or distributions (monthly, quarterly, just certain months, or yearly) for each security, then a detailed look through the appropriate documents to copy the figures over to a new spreadsheet. Almost forgot - a preliminary look-through is needed to account for mergers of investment firms/brokerages and transfers of securities from one firm or account to another.

Yes, I know it’s easier now that investment firms keep track of cost basis for you. But they didn’t in past years, and even now cost basis tracking may not survive transfers of securities to new accounts or to new investment firms or brokerages. And yes, I have cited a “special case”. But there are many “special cases” requiring meandering, unstructured looks through a database.

This task is straightforward using macOS Finder with multiple windows, maybe even multiple monitors. It’s even easier than going through dozens of boxes of paper documents. I shudder to think of doing this - or similarly involved tasks - in iOS.

You could, with perfect foresight or clairvoyance, organize your data in advance in such way that would make iOS adequate for later use. In 1981 when I started investing (or making home improvements for which similar cost basis records might be needed), I was not perfect and didn’t have such clairvoyance. Nor in 2010, when I began my big “paperless” project to de-clutter my home and my life. I just saved all of the data in a very big file/folder structure to be accessed later.

@Denny mentioned projects. “Projects” is irrelevant concept for me. I had no idea what my “project” for particular documents would be in 1981, 2010, or even now. What I do know is that some fraction of the documents I’m saving in digital form will be useful later, but perhaps in an unforeseeable way. No clairvoyance required :grinning: . That and perfection are in short supply in my universe.

Did I mention direct access to an attached disk drive? That’s a must. And backup. All of my macOS files are backed up in multiple ways, twice to locally-attached disk drives (one using the standard macOS Time Machine) and one off-site cloud backup (Backblaze). I suppose iOS files are synced to iCloud, but is this true backup?

Over the last few years iCloud has improved, but I still don’t trust it as much as Dropbox for sync. There was a time period a few years ago when iCloud sync mangled many users’ 1Password files. This was an acknowledged, system-wide problem at Apple. That’s when I started using Dropbox for my 1Password vault sync, which has been rock-sold since.

I love my iPad Pro - use it every day. But it won’t replace my iMac for my type of file handling without major structural change to IOS.

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Just thought of an addition to my overly-long (sorry!) post above …

iOS apps are excellent “feeder” apps to your database of files. iOS apps create files that can be moved or copied into your permanent or main database for back-end use in expansive ways.

Example - Lecture notes (or any notes) in created in Notability on the iPad Pro. The files are automatically “saved in” the Notability app as PDF files. These files, can then be sent to your “big” database as needed simply by linking them to Dropbox, where they are automatically synced and stored in the main Mac-based database - because the Dropbox folder is a part of that database.

This is another example of the ease of placing files into a database using iOS, but dealing with the files later in potentially more useful, expansive ways in macOS. To use the Notability-created files in the future, they can be associated with, or even combined with, other files, in other folders, or organized in other ways having nothing to do with Notability. I don’t have to remember that they were created in Notability; there are in my database, where I want them, in ways useful to me now or in the future.

An iOS device and a Mac make a good team; they complement each other. But back-end files management on an iOS device is nowhere close to that on a Mac. An iPad is both a content consumption device and a file creation device. A Mac is both of those, plus a file-management device.

This whole discussion has me wondering if the APIs Apple makes available are powerful enough for some third party to make a really good file management app on iOS.

No, they are not, and purposely so. It’s the whole sandbox thing that causes/enforces this.

Unfortunately, @jec0047 has a good point.

But wouldn’t that be awesome if it could be done “correctly” :grinning:

… Meaning use of a nonproprietary files/folders system.

My first use of a files management app was “Paperport” in Windows, packaged with a scanner I bought in the 1990s. Early versions of this app saved files in a proprietary .max format. Later versions supported standard .pdf files, but too late for me - I had stored a few years’ worth of files. After switching to Mac computers in 2010, much of my data was inaccessible, as Paperport was not available for OS X. There was no need for PaperPort, probably because OS X had native support for .pdf files.

Much later I found an excellent macOS app, Graphic Converter, that could convert .max files to .pdf.

Lesson learned - make sure your data will be accessible in nonproprietary formats.