It’s been a good month for Mac desktop setup aficionados. Apple just released the Studio Display, its first vaguely affordable (not $6,000) new monitor in over a decade. But there’s another new option I tested that flips the whole 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 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, although I couldn’t test it ). Just move your cursor to the side of your Mac’s monitor, and it will jump to the iPad as if it were another monitor attached to your Mac. But it’s not a Mac monitor — it’s still an iPad. Only one that you can control with the keyboard and trackpad that you used a few seconds ago with your Mac.
You have been able to use iPads as wired or wireless external Mac monitors for many years through official or third-party means. With Universal Control, however, 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 between multiple operating systems and devices instead of multiple apps.
Why would you do that? Fair question. I haven’t used iPadOS as my primary work operating system as much since Apple decided to start making good laptops again, but there are still some things I prefer it to macOS for. In particular, it’s best for targeted use cases where you only need one or two things on screen at a time. Social media and entertainment apps are generally better on the iPad than the Mac, for example, if the Mac even has a native app in the first place. I spent the day working mostly on my Mac Mini with Slack and Twitter pinned to my iPad Pro screen from the side, occasionally switching to the YouTube app for research. Hey, anything to minimize browser tabs and Electron apps.
What’s really impressive about Universal Control is that it bridges the gap between the two operating systems, making it more than just a convenient way to bypass Bluetooth re-pairing. You can drag a file from your iPad directly to your Mac desktop and vice versa. Copy-paste works perfectly. This means that any work I do on one machine can be transferred instantly to the other. You don’t even have to configure anything – just place your iPad next to your Mac, try moving the cursor across the displays, and Universal Control will figure out what you’re trying to do. It also does not require Apple devices. I use it with my Magic Trackpad alongside a Happy Hacking Keyboard connected via Mini USB, of all things.
It must have been a huge technical and design challenge. Universal Control is actually coming later than expected; it was announced at Apple’s last Worldwide Developers Conference in June last year, but was not ready until now. The extra time seems to have been worth the wait, as it 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 slow and unreliable in my experience.
Even after its delayed public release, Apple still lists Universal Control in System Preferences as a beta feature. 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 this is something that will be resolved soon enough when Apple feels ready to drop the beta tag.
In beta, however, Universal Control is already an example of Apple at its best. It’s not an obvious feature or one that thousands of people will have been asking for. But it’s a feature made possible by the fact that there are so many iPads and Macs where Apple has full software control, and a feature that will make a relatively small number of people very happy with its sheer magic. Count me among those people.