WWDC: Universal Control on the Mac and iPad explained

Here's everything we know so far about Apple’s new productivity-boosting Universal Control feature for Mac and iPad — how it works and what systems support it.

Apple, Mac, iOS, iPadOS, macOS, monterey, iPadOS 15, Universal Control

I’ve always found it frustrating that I’ve been unable to use the same mouse and keyboard to control both computers when working across an iPad and a Mac simultaneously. Soon, I’ll be able to do precisely that thanks to a new feature called Universal Control, which Apple introduced this week at WWDC 2021.

What is Universal Control?

Universal Control lets you use your keyboard, mouse, and trackpad across all your devices. If you want to use the trackpad on your MacBook Pro to control what you do on your iPad, or even on another Mac, Universal Control is for you. And Apple says it has designed the feature to be easy to setup.

What happens?

When you use Universal Control, you’ll be able to slide your cursor left or right (but only horizontally) between your devices. You will see a Mac cursor on the screen of your Mac, and the iPad round dot cursor as you move to that device.

What can you do?

Anything you already use your mouse, trackpad, and keyboard for will work across all your devices using Universal Control.

Just get your cursor to the relevant device to get started. You can even drag and drop items such as documents, images, or media between devices – just select it on your iPad and drag it over to your Mac. This could be useful when sketching, designing, planning, or otherwise getting things done.

The expectation is that any application that currently supports Handoff will work with Universal Control. (I’ve not yet been able to test this, but I do hope this largesse extends to Office apps.)

How many devices does Universal Control support?

You can use the new feature with up to three devices. I believe this can be in any combination, so an iPad and two Macs or vice versa. I’m not certain whether you can use this with three Macs, but I think a lot of people working in high-end motion graphics studios would be thrilled if you can.

How do you setup Universal Control?

Assuming Handoff is enabled on all your devices, and they meet the requirements listed below, setup is pretty easy. All you do is use your mouse or trackpad to push the cursor (left or right on a horizontal axis) from one device to the other until it appears on the second device. You can then move your cursor seamlessly between them.

The way it works is also interesting. Apple isn’t using anything more complex than proximity, so assuming your devices are close together, you’ll start a session by dragging your cursor to the left or right of the Mac’s screen and then a little beyond.

During Apple’s WWDC keynote, execs showed the gray animated bar that appeared to the side of the iPad as the first cursor crossing took place. That bar has a couple of arrows you can use to line up the iPad with your Mac so that dragging the mouse feels smooth.

What happens if I have multiple devices?

If you have lots of compatible devices, the system will assume you are dragging toward the last iPad or Mac you used, assuming they are nearby.

I’ve heard Universal Control uses Continuity and Handoff?

Correct. The magic happens thanks to Continuity and Handoff. You’ll find the Handoff tick box in System Preferences>General on your Mac and in Settings>General>AirPlay & Handoff on your iPad.

Just toggle Handoff to on (which it should be by default) to enable Universal Control.

You can, of course, disable it if you want to stop using it.

You can set your devices up to always use Universal Control

If you use your devices together most of the time and want to use Universal Control with linking the devices using the cursor, you can. Once the new operating systems ships, you’ll find a System Preference that lets you do this.

Which Macs support Universal Control?

Universal Control is available on the following Macs:

  • MacBook Pro (2016 and later),
  • MacBook (2016 and later),
  • MacBook Air (2018 and later),
  • iMac (2017 and later),
  • iMac (5K Retina 27-inch, Late 2015),
  • iMac Pro,
  • Mac mini (2018 and later),
  • Mac Pro (2019).

Which iPads support it?

Universal Control supports the following iPad models:

  • iPad Pro,
  • iPad Air (3rd generation and later),
  • iPad (6th generation and later),
  • iPad mini (5th generation and later).

What are the requirements?

Once you’ve established that the Macs and iPads you want to use Universal Control with are compatible, you’ll need to upgrade your machines to macOS Monterey and iPadOS 15, both of which ship in this fall. Or you can participate in the public beta testing process; public betas are due out in July.

You’ll also need to make certain that both devices are signed into iCloud with the same Apple ID using two-factor authentication. Your Mac(s) and iPad(s) must also have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Handoff turned on and must be within 10 meters (30 feet) of each other. iPad and Mac must not be sharing a cellular and internet connection.

Can you use a USB connection?

Yes, to do so you must verify that you trust your Mac on the iPad using the dialog box that should appear when you connect the two.

When will Universal Control be available?

Universal Control will be made widely available when Apple ships macOS Monterey and iPadOS 15, usually around September.

If you take part in Apple’s Public Beta system you may be able to test the feature for yourself beginning next month, but Universal Control isn’t yet included in the currently available developer beta. That's why we'll need to wait a little longer to try it out.

Who is this for?

Apple observes that the feature is great if you are someone who wants to use an Apple Pencil to create a design on your iPad and then want to drop into a project you are building on your Mac.

This is true.

But you can also imagine using it across multiple Macs in a rendering or animation studio, or supporting a major Logic edit on your Mac with assets captured on the fly using your iPad Pro. Or even in the field as you take assets from across multiple machines to ingest into an edit on your MacBook Pro.

Beyond creatives, being able to access up to three distinct computers using one mouse and one keyboard should help anyone engaged in a variety of tasks, from data entry to financial trading and design. Because while one big screen is great, multiple complementary screens are even better.

Also read:

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

It’s time to break the ChatGPT habit
Shop Tech Products at Amazon