It’s been a good month for fans of the Mac desktop setup. Apple just released the studio screenhis first vaguely affordable (as in not $6,000) new monitor in over a decade. But there is another new option that I have been testing that completely changes the idea of an external monitor. Universal Control is now available at iOS 15.4 and macOS Monterey 12.3and if you can get it to work in your setup, you really should give it a try.
If you haven’t heard of Universal Control, it basically lets you use your Mac’s keyboard and mouse or trackpad to control your iPad (or another Mac, though I haven’t been able to test that). Just move the cursor to the side of your Mac’s monitor and it will jump to the iPad as if it were another monitor connected to your Mac. But it’s not a Mac monitor, it’s still an iPad. Just one that you can control with the keyboard and trackpad you were using a few seconds ago with your Mac.
You have been able to use iPads as wired or wireless Mac external monitors for many years through official or third-party means. However, with Universal Control, you’re still using iPad OS on the iPad screen; you just don’t have to take your hands off your Mac’s input devices to get there. It’s multitasking across multiple operating systems and devices instead of just multiple apps.
Why would you want to do that? Good question. I haven’t been using iPadOS as much as a main working OS since Apple decided to start making good laptops again, but there are still things I prefer it to macOS for. In particular, it’s best for focused use cases where you only need one or two things on the screen at a time. Social media and entertainment apps are often better on the iPad than they are on the Mac, for example, if the Mac has a native app in the first place. I spent the day mostly working on my Mac Mini with Slack and Twitter pinned to my iPad Pro screen on the side, sometimes switching to the YouTube app to investigate. Hey, anything to shrink browser tabs and Electron apps.
The really impressive thing about Universal Control is that it bridges the gap between the two operating systems, making it more than just a neat way around Bluetooth repair. You can drag a file from your iPad directly to your Mac desktop and vice versa. Copy and paste works perfectly. It means that any work you do on one machine can be instantly transferred to the other. You don’t even need to configure anything: just place your iPad next to your Mac, try moving your cursor around the screens, and Universal Control will figure out what you’re trying to do. It also doesn’t require any Apple peripherals. I’ve been using it with my Magic Trackpad in conjunction with a Happy Hacking keyboard connected via Mini USB, of all things.
This must have been a huge technical and design challenge. Universal Control will arrive later than expected; it was announced at the last Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June last year, but it wasn’t ready until now. However, the extra time seems to have been worth the wait, because it worked almost perfectly for me. That hasn’t been the case with Sidecar, Apple’s feature that turns the iPad into a conventional external Mac monitor, which has always been slow and unreliable in my experience.
Even after its delayed public release, Apple still includes Universal Control in System Preferences as a feature that’s in beta. I haven’t had any major issues, but today I had to turn it on and off a few times to get it to connect at first. Hopefully, that’s something that gets fixed soon enough when Apple feels ready to drop the beta tag.
In beta, however, Universal Control is already an example of Apple’s best. This is not an obvious feature or one that thousands of people will have been clamoring for. But it’s a feature made possible by the fact that there are plenty of iPads and Macs for which Apple has full software control, and a feature that will make a relatively small number of people very happy through its sheer magic. Count me among those people.