When Apple announced Universal Control as a feature of macOS Monterey and iPadOS 15, I wasn’t sure what to think. It seemed like a feature nobody had asked for, but one that Apple had realized might actually be incredibly useful. I was certainly impressed by its technical ambition. But would it be something that I would ever use day to day? I was skeptical.
It’s been about eight months since Universal Control arrived–remember, it was announced in June 2021 but gestated 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 is one of my favorite operating-system feature additions in recent memory. And most surprising of all, I’m using it in ways I had never, ever anticipated. Here’s why I’m thankful that Universal Control exists.
The iPad desk combo
I’ve never been a multiple-monitor person, but this summer, I started inviting my iPad onto my desk. It started when I was trying to watch some live video–knowing me, probably a NASA TV space thing or a baseball game–and wrestling with using Picture-in-Picture on my Mac. It kept covering parts of my apps, and occasionally I’d forget it was being played in Safari and close the tab. And I realized: Why not just put my iPad on my desk and have the video playing on there?
Once I had placed it there, it just took one overly enthusiastic trackpad movement, and my pointer had broken through the side of my Mac display and appeared over on my iPad. The iPad was so rarely on my desk that I hadn’t even considered that I could use Universal Control, but here it was. And it meant I didn’t need to pick my hands up from my keyboard tray to drive the 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 display for your Mac. But Universal Control is, at least for how I work, so 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 over onto the screen when I can just use Universal Control to bring up Safari and visit that webpage right on my iPad?
Very quickly, I realized I could place my calendar, Twitter, Slack, or Discord over on that iPad and use it as an auxiliary display–and it was useful because the iPad still behaved like it did when I was using it on its own. It didn’t feel weird or artificial the way using Sidecar did.
Universal Control is an impressive set of technologies. It’s sharing a keyboard and trackpad across multiple devices, yes, but it’s also sharing clipboards and even drag-and-drop across devices. Behind the scenes, Apple is taking advantage of all the continuity features it’s added to its operating systems over the years–AirDrop and Shared Clipboard chief among them. And, of course, this feature would never work if Apple hadn’t added pointer support in early 2020.
But knowing all of that didn’t prepare me for the moment of unexpected delight that I experienced recently. For the last few months, I’ve been updating my book about Apple’s Photos app, which requires me to constantly compare Photos on the Mac to Photos on iOS and iPadOS. The entire process of comparing the two different versions of Photos has been made easier by the fact that, essentially, I’m using two computers on my desk–one a Mac, one an iPad, both driven by my same keyboard and trackpad.
Then came the magic moment. I took a screenshot on the 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 away, and the image will just be saved to your Photo library.
I had a thought. Could I? Had Apple thought of this, too? I needed that image on my Mac, so I could process it and insert it into the book. Well, there was no harm in trying. I moved my finger across my trackpad, the pointer popped over to the iPad, and I clicked and dragged that floating rectangle back to my Mac and dropped it on the desktop.
And reader, it just worked. Exactly as I had intuited it would.
Macs can be friends
This summer, I also needed to get up to speed with macOS Ventura while not breaking all of my software that required macOS Monterey. It’s been an issue for me for decades since I started reviewing macOS twenty years ago.
This summer, I just plopped 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 I was using a single computer running two different operating systems. Not having to lift my hands and type awkwardly on the MacBook Air when I wanted to use it seemed like a little thing, but it ended up making a huge difference in my workflow.
A surprising use of Universal Control
Finally, this week I uncovered a surprising use of Universal Control that I had never anticipated. I was complaining to a friend of mine about how I was struggling to properly test external display support on the current iPadOS beta because it was such a pain to detach my display, keyboard, and trackpad from my Mac and reattach them to my iPad. (I wanted to keep my same desk configuration but switch it so that my iPad Pro was driving the display instead of my Mac Studio.)
My friend suggested that perhaps I could give Universal Control a try. After all, wasn’t the Mac Studio still running? Why disconnect the keyboard and trackpad at all?
So I unplugged the cable running from my Mac Studio to my Studio Display and instead plugged in the iPad Pro. So far, so good. Then I put my hand on my trackpad–still attached to my Mac–and imagined moving the pointer across to the far right edge of the Mac screen and popping it into the iPad.
Sure enough, it worked. And for the next few hours, I used my iPad with an external display–all driven by a keyboard and trackpad still attached to a Mac, connected via Universal Control.
I have no idea if Apple ever intended its feature to be used in this way, but I’ve got to give it to Universal Control. It does the job, and the more I use it, the more it fits with how I’m working. These days I keep an iPad next to my desk, and while it’s not on all the time, I’m using it far more than I expected–all thanks to Universal Control.