It’s been a good month for Mac desktop setup aficionados. Apple just released the Studio Display, its first vaguely affordable (as in not $6,000) new monitor in more than a decade. But there’s another new option that I’ve been testing that flips the entire idea of an external monitor on its head. Universal Control is now available in iOS 15.4 and macOS Monterey 12.3, and if you can make it work in your setup, you really ought to try it.
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 nudge your cursor to the side of your Mac’s monitor, and it’ll jump on over to the iPad like it was another monitor hooked up 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 seconds ago with your Mac.
You’ve been able to use iPads as wired or wireless external Mac monitors for many years through official or third-party means. With Universal Control, though, you’re still using iPad OS on the iPad’s screen — you just don’t have to take your hands off your Mac’s input devices to get there. It’s multitasking between multiple OSes and devices instead of just multiple apps.
Why would you want to do that? Fair question. I haven’t been using iPadOS as much as a primary work operating system since Apple decided to start making good laptops again, but there are still things that I prefer it for over macOS. In particular, it’s best for focused use cases where you only need one or two things on-screen at once. Social media and entertainment apps are usually better on the iPad than the Mac, for example, if the Mac even has a native app in the first place. I spent today 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 for research. Hey, anything to cut down on browser tabs and Electron apps.
Bridging the gap between operating systems
What’s really impressive about Universal Control is that it bridges the gap between the two operating systems, making it more than just a neat way to get around Bluetooth re-pairing. You can drag a file from your iPad right over to your Mac desktop and vice versa. Copy and paste works perfectly. It means that any work I do on one machine can instantly be brought over to the other. You don’t even need to set anything up — just put your iPad next to your Mac, try to move the cursor across the screens, and Universal Control will figure out what you’re trying to do. It doesn’t require Apple peripherals, either. I’ve been using it with my Magic Trackpad alongside a Happy Hacking Keyboard hooked up over Mini USB, of all things.
This must have been a huge technical and design challenge. Universal Control is actually arriving later than expected; it was announced at Apple’s last Worldwide Developers Conference in June last year but hasn’t been ready until now. The extra time seems to have been worth the wait, though, because it’s worked almost seamlessly 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 laggy and unreliable in my experience.
Even after its delayed public release, Apple does still list Universal Control in System Preferences as a feature that’s in beta. I haven’t run into any major problems, but today, I did need to turn it on and off a couple of times to get it to connect at first. Hopefully, that’s something that gets ironed out soon enough when Apple feels ready to remove the beta label.
In beta state, though, Universal Control is already an example of Apple at its best. This isn’t an obvious feature or one that thousands of people will have been crying out for. But it is a feature that’s made possible by the fact that there are a lot of iPads and Macs out there that Apple has full control of the software for and a feature that will make a relatively small number of people very happy through its sheer wizardry. Count me among those people.