Apple's Universal Control Is Way More Impressive Than Sidecar

Don’t knock it until you try it

  • Universal Control lets you share one mouse and keyboard between two Apple devices.
  • You can even drag and drop files between devices through the air.
  • Universal Control is still in beta.
Apple's Universal Control feature on Mac and iPad

Apple

On paper, Universal Control sounds like a gimmick, but as soon as you use it, you'll realize Apple has changed the game. Again. 

Universal Control lets you push the mouse cursor off the edge of your Mac's screen, only to have it appear on the screen of a nearby iPad or another Mac. From there, anything you do with the mouse and keyboard is directed at that second device. It's like using a computer with two monitors, only you're actually using two computers. And here's the killer feature: you can drag and drop pretty much anything between the two machines.

"Universal Control does not require any complicated setup and runs almost entirely on its own. There doesn't appear to be a limit to how many devices you can operate with just one keyboard and trackpad/mouse," tech media professional Aseem Kishore told Lifewire via email. 

Universally Awesome

To talk about this feature, I started a thread on the Audiobus Forum, a place frequented by iPad musicians, many of whom also use Macs. The replies come in two flavors: those who don’t see its point—it’s just mouse and keyboard sharing, right?—and those who have tried it. The latter group almost all think it’s awesome. Others mention Sidecar, which turns your iPad into an external display for your Mac, but that just turns the iPad into a dumb screen and is much more of an esoteric power-user feature. 

To use Universal Control, you have to have a recent iPad and Mac running iOS 15.4 and macOS Monterey 12.3, respectively. Once enabled, all you have to do to trigger it is push the mouse pointer over to one edge of your Mac’s display. Then, you have to push again, as if shoving the pointer through a membrane (there’s even a little animation that suggests the same). Then, it bursts onto the screen of the other device. 

Moving mouse cursor from Mac to iPad with animation/indicator on the side

Apple

"It helps me handle my iPad a lot better than before. Now, I can easily use the keyboard and mouse on my device, which makes things a lot easier for me," tech CEO and Mac/iPad user Steven Walker told Lifewire via email. 

The Mac auto-detects whether the iPad is off to the left or right, based on the fact that you just pushed the cursor in (presumably) the correct direction. But you can also fine-tune the relative positions of your screens in the Displays preferences on the Mac. And you can connect as many devices as you like. 

Then, you can mouse between the two devices, and the keyboard focus follows the mouse cursor. That makes it easy to keep Slack, Twitter, a notes app, or anything over on the iPad, and just mouse over as if it were a window on your Mac. 

It’s a Drag

And then, there’s drag and drop. I realized how powerful this is when I grabbed an audio clip out of the music workstation app Ableton Live, dragged it across to the iPad, and dropped it into an empty pad of the sampling app Koala. It was instant, as if I’d dragged it between two apps on the same Mac.

This feature is still in beta, though, so there are some oddities. One, noticed by MacStories’ Federico Viticci, is that you have to click the mouse once on the destination device before the keyboard will work on that device. Another is that Apple’s own trackpads don’t do drag-and-drop properly (although built-in MacBook trackpads seem fine).

Arranging your displays while using Universal Control for Mac and iPad

Apple

Apple has been putting the foundation in place for a while. Universal Clipboard lets you copy on one device and paste on another. And the iPad got full mouse and keyboard support around two years ago. Universal Control is just a layer on top of this, but it shows how transformative a UI change can be. 

It’s hard to convey how amazing this all is until you try it. Suddenly, you’ve gone from having two separate devices to having two computers that act as one. But its amazingness also highlights a few shortcomings on iPadOS. While you can drag anything across to the iPad, not all apps receive dropped items, for example. And not all iPad apps let you drag anything out of them, even though you might be able to drag items within the app itself. 

But perhaps Universal Control will prompt iPad developers to get on this. But even without that, Universal Control is what they call a game-changer.

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