Using an iPad as an extension of a Mac (or Windows PC)

I’m a recent convert to the Mac universe and have been taking some geeky delight in setting up my new MacBook Pro and tweaking OS X to suite my personal computing habits and make me as productive as possible.

A recovering longtime Windows user, I wrote earlier this week about how I brought the best features of Windows with me to OS X. Hey, just because I’m being assimilated to the Apple Borg doesn’t mean I can’t have my right-click mouse, Aero Peek task bar previews, and Aero Snap features. But after I got my Mac feeling more familiar and comfortable, my attention turned to my iPad mini.

I wondered how I might use it as an extension of my MacBook – after all I notice these things happen to have the same logo on the back, and that probably means something. But it turns out there’s really not much built-in integration between the two devices and that’s probably a lost opportunity for Apple. The enhancements I was able to implement to take advantage of having both an iPad and a MacBook were third-party applications that would be just as useful to Windows PC owners who use an iPad.

Regardless, here’s a couple more steps I’ve taken to “pimp my Mac” since cracking it open:

Turn your iPad into a wireless touchscreen display for your laptop

Once you go to two monitors, you can’t go back to just using one. It’s a bit like having the luxury of sleeping in a king-sized bed and then having to rough it in an army cot. For me, the advantages of more screen real estate and having more windows laid out on it are just too good to give up. But it’s a bit harder to plug in an extra display when you have a MacBook Pro. You have to carry an adapter around to plugin to DVI displays, and VGA monitors are just out of the question. (Admittedly, Apple has addressed this problem with the newer MacBook Pros that have a standard HDMI port).

The good news is you can turn your iPad into a wireless, touch screen display that works with your Mac or Windows PC for just a few dollars. My research turned up two different apps that can make this work, AirDisplay and Splashtop XDisplay. Both cost money, $9.99 for AirDisplay, and $4.99 for the full version of XDisplay, and both depend on being connected to the same WiFi network as your computer.

Because I’m a spendthrift and several posts to online forums described XDisplay as the superior option, I went with it. The setup was simple enough, you download a client from Splashtop’s Web site to your Mac or Windows computer and then install it and set a password. Open up the XDisplay app on your iPad and if you’re on the same network, your computer should be detected automatically. You can enter your password into the properties of the computer on the app so you don’t have to type it every time you connect.

From there, the controls are simple and useful. You can tap on the screen to interact with your computer just as you would expect to use your iPad. Tapping the screen with three fingers brings up a menu to control some settings – you can choose to run XDisplay in a performance mode that will result in smoother video playback but a less sharp output, or a quality mode that will allow you to read text easily but be a bit choppy. You can also have audio from your Mac play on your iPad.

Even my iPad mini served as a useful second screen with my device. I used it to organize notes, and monitor my HootSuite dashboard with good success. I even connected XDisplay with my Windows media centre PC at home and found the video playback reliable and good quality. I imagine having a full-sized iPad would be an even better experience.

Unfortunately, despite a lot of poking and prodding I couldn’t get my XDisplay app to act as a third extended display when I had a real second monitor connect by DVI. It would mirror either my primary monitor or secondary monitor depending on the arrangements I chose in Display settings.

Use your iPad as a wireless trackpad and keyboard

HippoRemote can be customized to work with any application – even a videogame.

Sometimes you need some extra screen real estate, and sometimes you just need a better way to navigate around the screen in front of you. There are myriad options to turn your iPad into a remote control for your Mac or PC, costing varying amounts in the App Store. The one that I’ve already been using with my media centre PC is HippoRemote, and I’m equally pleased with it for Mac.

The HippoRemote setup is very similar to XDisplay – you download a lightweight client and setup a password. Then you connect your iPad and Mac to the same network and you’re ready to start.

The default screen for HippoRemote is a trackpad that offers left and right mouse click buttons, or you can tap to click. There’s also a virtual keyboard complete with arrows and F-keys. But the real power of HippoRemote comes in the different profiles available to use.

Profiles reconfigure the remote control space to be better suited for the app you’re using at the time. For example, the Chrome profile has shortcut buttons to go back and forward, open a URL, or do a Web search. You can also swap between tabs or close and open tabs with shortcuts. More rarely used controls such as “Find in Page” or going full screen can be found in the Macros menu.

The best part is that you can edit the various profiles to add in shortcuts or macros that you use often. There’s even a HippoRemote community built around swapping these differing configurations.

The useful scenarios for HippoRemote are endless. Whether its clicking through PowerPoint slides in a presentation, controlling your Mac as you’re sitting back on the couch to enjoy some entertainment, or just prefer a bigger trackpad than the one offered on your laptop.

So while my new MacBook Pro didn’t really hold any advantage to enhance my iPad, at least getting one inspired me to do the research and set up some useful connections.

Do you have a unique or useful way you’re putting your iPad or other mobile device to use as an enhancement for your laptop or desktop computer? Let me know in the comments section below.

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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