It’s been a good month for Mac desktop configuration enthusiasts. Apple just released the Studio Display, the first vaguely affordable (as in not $6,000) new monitor in over a decade. But there’s another new option I tested that turns 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 should really give it a try.
In fact, if you’ve never heard of Universal Control, you can use your Mac’s keyboard and mouse or trackpad to control your iPad (or any other Mac, though I haven’t been able to test that). 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 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 used with your Mac seconds ago.
You can use iPads as wired or wireless external Mac monitors through official or third-party means for years. With Universal Control, however, you’re still using iPad OS on the iPad’s screen — just don’t take your hands off your Mac’s input devices to get there. It’s multitasking between multiple operating systems and devices rather than just multiple apps.
Why would you want to do that? Fair question. I haven’t used iPadOS as a primary working OS since Apple decided to start making good laptops again, but there are still things I prefer over macOS. It’s especially best for targeted use cases where you only need one or two things on the screen at a time. Social media and entertainment apps are usually better on the iPad than on the Mac, for example if the Mac has a native app at all. I’ve mainly been working on my Mac Mini today 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.
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 and paste works perfectly. It means that all the work I do on one machine can be transferred to the other immediately. You don’t even need to set anything up – just put your iPad next to your Mac, try moving the cursor over the screens and Universal Control will figure out what you’re trying to do. It also doesn’t require any Apple peripherals. I’ve used it with my Magic Trackpad in addition to a Happy Hacking Keyboard, connected via Mini USB, of all things.
This must have been a huge technical and design challenge. Universal Control actually arrives later than expected; it was announced at Apple’s last Worldwide Developers Conference in June of last year, but was not ready until now. However, the extra time seems to have been worth the wait, as it worked almost seamlessly for me. That wasn’t the case with Sidecar, Apple’s feature that turns the iPad into a conventional external Mac monitor, which in my experience has always been laggy and unreliable.
Even after the delayed public release, Apple still lists Universal Control in System Preferences as a feature that is in beta. I haven’t run into any major issues, but today I had to toggle it on and off a few times to get it to connect first. Hopefully that will be ironed out soon enough when Apple feels ready to remove the beta label.
In beta, however, Universal Control is already an example of Apple at its best. This is not an obvious feature or one that thousands of people have cried about. But it’s a feature made possible by the fact that there are many iPads and Macs for which Apple has full control over the software, and a feature that will make a relatively small number of people very happy with its sheer wizardry. Count me among those people.