Universal Control on Mac and iPad is Pure magic!

Universal Control has landed on macOS allowing you to control multiple Mac/iPads from a single Mac. Here’s how it works.

Apple recently released the final versions of macOS 12.3 and iPadOS 15.4. This release delivered one of the most anticipated features on the Mac — Universal Control.

When Apple demoed Universal Control at the WWDC, mine wasn’t the only jaw that dropped. It looked absolutely incredible. Productivity was going to go through the roof once this feature landed on Macs around the world! So, like all Apple fans, I’ve been patiently waiting to give my productivity a boost with Universal Control.

People have been testing the Universal Control feature with the beta versions of macOS and iPadOS for some time now. But I tend to wait for the final/public release. That’s when the majority of users get what Apple believes is a polished version of a new feature.

I updated my iPads and MacBook Pros to the latest version today. And my first impression after trying this out is…wow!

What’s Universal Control and how does it work?

Here’s how Apple describes it:

Universal Control is a macOS feature that lets you use a single keyboard, mouse, or trackpad with your Mac and iPad. Connect a Mac and iPad, two Mac computers, or up to three devices and seamlessly move you mouse/keyboard between them.

And here’s what Apple showed it at WWDC:

How is Universal Control useful?

If you have two Mac computers, like a MacBook and an iMac or Mac mini — you have to have two separate sets of keyboard/mouse/trackpad. MacBooks have a built-in keyboard and trackpad, and you’d need separate ones for the iMac/Mac mini.

With Universal Control, you can use the same keyboard/trackpad from your MacBook Pro on your iMac or Mac mini. Similarly, you can use the keyboard/mouse connected to the iMac/Mac mini with your MacBook Pro without needing to reach for the MacBook’s built-in keyboard or trackpad.

As if that wasn’t enough, you can even drag and drop files from one device to another. AirDrop already makes transferring files between Apple devices super convenient and fast. Universal Control goes one step further to make it even faster and easier.

What if you don’t have two computers? Chances are, you have an iPad and a Mac.

Picture this: You’ve got an iPad and a Mac side by side. You may have a keyboard for the iPad, you may not.

Before Universal Control, you had to type on the iPad using a separate keyboard. The one you use on your Mac didn’t work simultaneously on the iPad. (You could use Sidecar, but it’s different. More on that below.)

With Universal Control, you can use your Mac’s trackpad and keyboard (or any keyboard/mouse connected to the Mac) to control everything on the iPad. If you have a keyboard with the iPad, you can use that to control everything on your Mac as well.

So if you’re taking notes on the iPad’s Notes app, you don’t have to reach for the iPad’s keyboard. Your iPad sort of becomes a second display.

Now, you may be asking, did you just say a ‘second display?’ That’s what Sidecar does, right?

You’re right. But Sidecar and Universal Control are pretty different.

Sidecar vs Universal Control

With the Sidecar feature, your iPad becomes an extended display for your Mac. The keyword here is ‘extended.’ You get the same features you’d get with a second display connected to your Mac. Your Mac keyboard/trackpad will work on the iPad, but you don’t get any of the iPad’s features. Only a secondary desktop that pops up on the iPad.

For example, you can’t open the iPad’s Notes app or pull up the camera app on the iPad interface using Sidecar. Because when Sidecar is active, you see an extended display of your Mac desktop on the iPad. You technically can’t navigate around iPadOS with your Mac’s keyboard/trackpad/mouse.

With Universal Control, the iPad doesn’t become an extended display. The iPad remains exactly as is. But you get the ability to move your cursor from your Mac to the iPad and use the iPad as if your mouse (and keyboard/trackpad) were connected to the iPad.

The concept may be a bit hard to grasp, but you’ll understand the difference if you try Sidecar and Universal Control one after another. If you’ve got a supported Mac/iPad with macOS 12.3 and iPadOS 15.4, you can try Universal Control right away to see how it’s different from Sidecar.

How to turn on Universal Control on Mac

Interestingly, Universal Control wasn’t turned on by default after I upgraded to macOS 12.3. The settings for this feature are sort of buried into the Displays settings where I had to enable it.

So if you’ve been trying to push the cursor outside of your Mac display and it’s not jumping to the iPad (or another Mac), chances are, the feature is turned off.

Go to System Preferences, click Displays, and click the button Universal Controls…

Universal Control settings on the Mac's System Preferences.

You’ll find three settings on the screen that shows up:

  1. Allow your cursor and keyboard to move between any nearby Mac or iPad. This essentially turns on or off Universal Control. This was unchecked for me, so you’d have to enable it to turn on Universal Control.
  2. Push through the edge of a display to connect a nearby Mac or iPad. This needs to be turned on. I’m not sure what turning it off does since the only way your cursor jumps between two devices is by pushing it through the edge of the display.
  3. Automatically reconnect to any nearby Mac or iPad. I’d keep this turned on if you frequently want to use Universal Control.

With those three options enabled, if you put your Mac next to another Mac or iPad, and push the cursor through the edge of the display towards the other Mac or iPad, you’ll see the cursor jump into the other Mac or iPad allowing you to control everything.

How to transfer files with Universal Control

Once you get the hang of how Universal Control works, you can try transferring files from your Mac to iPad or other Macs. All you need to do is move the cursor to the second Mac/iPad, click and drag the files you want to transfer, move the cursor to the destination Mac/iPad, and let go.

It works the other way as well, so you can open the Files app on iPad, drag and drop files from the iPad onto your Mac. Your cursor will come back to your Mac carrying the files along with it.

It’s a simple drag and drop, but it works across different computers. It reminds me a little about Logitech Flow, an option on select Logitech mice that lets you move the cursor between two Windows and Mac computers. But Apple’s implementation is definitely a lot better since it works no matter what mouse/keyboard/trackpad you’re using.

Apple indicates the feature is still in beta. So expect to encounter some bugs. So far, I haven’t found any, but I’m super excited to find new ways to work with my iPad when I’m working on my desk. I have two Macs so switching between them with a single set of mice and keyboard will be a huge productivity boost as well.

I’m sure it took a lot of effort to get this right (which explains why it took so long to release after the initial announcement). And I’m glad to see it works exactly as advertised.

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