When Apple announced Universal Control as a feature in macOS Monterey and iPadOS 15, I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed like a feature that no one had asked for, but Apple realized that it could be incredibly useful. I was certainly impressed by his technical ambition. But would it be something that I would ever wear on a day-to-day basis? I was skeptical.
It’s been about eight months since Universal Control arrived; remember, it was announced in June 2021 but was in the making for nine months before being released in March of this year, and I’m finally ready to weigh in on Universal Control.
It’s great. It’s one of my favorite extra features of the operating system in recent memory. And most amazing of all, I’m using it in ways I never, ever anticipated. Here’s why I’m thankful Universal Control exists.
The desktop combo for iPad
I’ve never been a multi-monitor person, but this summer I started inviting my iPad to my desktop. It started when I was trying to watch live video (knowing me, probably a NASA TV space thing or a baseball game) and struggling with using Picture-in-Picture on my Mac. It kept covering parts of my apps and, every once in a while, I’d forget it was playing in Safari and close the tab. And it hit me: why not just put my iPad on my desk and play the video there?
Once I got it there, it only took one overzealous trackpad flick, and my pointer flew across the side of my Mac’s screen and onto my iPad. The iPad was so rarely on my desk that I hadn’t even considered that it could use Universal Control, but here it was. And it meant you didn’t need to lift your hands from the keyboard tray to operate apps on the iPad.
Now I realize that, for a few years, macOS has had Sidecar, a feature that lets you turn your iPad into a second screen for your Mac. But Universal Control is, at least for how I work, much better. Most of the uses I have for the iPad involve apps that run natively on the iPad. Why turn on Sidecar and drag a Safari window onto the screen when I can use Universal Control to open Safari and visit that web page right on my iPad?
I quickly realized that I could put my calendar, Twitter, Slack, or Discord on that iPad and use it as an auxiliary display, and it was helpful because the iPad still behaved like it did when I used it alone. It didn’t feel weird or contrived like using Sidecar did.
Universal Control is an impressive set of technologies. You’re sharing a keyboard and trackpad across devices, yes, but you’re also sharing clipboards and even dragging and dropping between devices. Behind the scenes, Apple is taking advantage of all the continuity features it has added to its operating systems over the years, including AirDrop and the Shared Clipboard. And of course, this feature would never work if Apple hadn’t added pointer support in early 2020.
But knowing all that didn’t prepare me for the moment of unexpected pleasure I recently experienced. For the past few months, I’ve been updating my book on Apple’s Photos app, which requires me to constantly compare Photos on the Mac with Photos on iOS and iPadOS. The whole process of comparing the two different versions of Photos has been simplified by the fact that I’m essentially using two computers on my desk: a Mac, an iPad, both powered by my same keyboard and trackpad.
Then came the magical moment. I took a screenshot on iPad and the floating screenshot rectangle appeared on the iPad screen. You can tap this floating rectangle to instantly open the screenshot editor, allowing you to make changes, delete it, save it, or copy it to the clipboard. Or you can swipe the floating rectangle and the image will be saved to your photo library.
I had a thought. Could? Had Apple also thought of this? I needed that image on my Mac so I could process it and insert it into the book. Well, there was nothing wrong with trying. I moved my finger across my trackpad, the pointer appeared over the iPad, and I clicked and dragged that floating rectangle back to my Mac and dropped it on the desktop.
And reader, it is just worked. Exactly as she had sensed it would be.
Macs can be friends
This summer, I also needed to get up to speed with macOS Ventura without breaking all my software that required macOS Monterey. It’s been a problem for me for decades since I started reviewing macOS twenty years ago.
This summer, I just sat a MacBook Air on my desk next to my Studio Display and let Universal Control bridge the gap. Universal Control made it feel much more like you were using a single computer with two different operating systems. Not having to lift my hands and awkwardly type on the MacBook Air when I wanted to use it seemed like a minor thing, but it ended up making a huge difference to my workflow.
An amazing use of the Universal Control
Finally, this week I discovered an amazing use for Universal Control that I never anticipated. I was complaining to a friend of mine about how I was struggling to properly test external display support in the current iPadOS beta because it was so painful to disconnect the display, keyboard, and trackpad from my Mac and reconnect them to my iPad. (I wanted to keep the same desktop setup, but change it so my iPad Pro controlled the screen instead of my Mac Studio.)
My friend suggested that maybe I could try Universal Control. After all, wasn’t Mac Studio still working? Why disconnect the keyboard and trackpad?
So I disconnected the cable from my Mac Studio to my Studio Display and plugged in the iPad Pro instead. So far so good. I then put my hand on my trackpad, still connected to my Mac, and imagined moving the pointer to the far right of the Mac screen and onto the iPad.
Sure enough, it worked. And for the next several hours, I used my iPad with an external display, all controlled by a keyboard and trackpad still attached to a Mac, connected via Universal Control.
I have no idea if Apple ever intended their feature to be used this way, but I have to give it to Universal Control. It does the job, and the more I use it, the more it suits the way I work. These days I have an iPad by my desk, and while it’s not on all the time, I use it a lot more than I expected, all thanks to Universal Control.