Monthly Archives: March 2022

Universal Control

Universal ControlIt’s just one computer. That’s what I’m telling myself when I use Universal Control. The Mac, the iPad, functioning as one. It’s a computing experience with two screens. In the week or two since the release of the new feature there’s been a bit of debate about the usefulness of the new feature with some suggesting it’s a gimmick or just not that useful. And I suppose it’s possible that the usefulness might be a question depending on your workflow.

But in my case as I’ve been making more of an effort to use my Mac and sitting at a desk to do so, I’ve worked out a pretty comfortable flow between the two. There’s nothing here that’s set in concrete. It’s all about flexibility and flow and learning to move between the screens just as I might if my Mac were using two screens. But rather than the Mac driving both I’m using the extra compute power of the iPad as needed. The key here, and I believe Apple’s intent, is that the movement of cursor and keyboard between multiple screens be so fluid that we just do what we do without thinking too much. Initially there may be a tendency to over-think it.

An example of how it’s been useful to me. I often need to design newsletters, reports or brochures. For longer documents I’ll likely use Affinity Publisher which currently is not available on the iPad. In that case I’ll open my document full screen on the Mac and use the iPad for sourcing material sent by the client. I might have text saved to Apple Notes, or in a Word document or in an email or webpage. I can effortlessly move my cursor to the iPad, select, copy and then paste into my document. Or select and drag the text back to the Mac screen and drop it. Both work. If it’s an image I need I can do the same. The 13″ iPad Pro has a large enough screen that I can have two apps open from which to source content from, all the while my Publisher document remains focused and in full screen on the Mac.

Flipping it, while I’ve got the Mac set-up now to do website edits for clients that’s something I usually do in Textastic on the iPad. I don’t have a problem multitasking on the iPad but if I were at my desk already this would be an ideal time to use the Mac for the reference material sent by the client via email or Messages as I use Textastic to edit and upload the html files on the iPad Pro. Or, I could do the opposite.

The beauty of Universal Control, iCloud and having a similar set of tools on the Mac and iPad means that however I choose to work at any given moment, I’ve got two screens, two computers, but one fast, seamless point of control for both. As I said at the beginning of the post, it feels as though I’m working with one computer.

The last change I’ve just made to the set-up is a monitor arm for the 27″ display and two bookend speakers as the monitor has no built in speakers and the Mac Mini’s internal speaker is pretty useless. With this arrangement it occurred to me it might be better to place the iPad under the display rather than to the side as I’ve been using it. This makes room for the speakers on either side and the iPad fits perfectly below the display and just above the Keychron keyboard. Not only does Universal control work perfectly via this vertical arrangement it actually feels better and less error prone than it did when I had it off to the side.

All in all I think Universal Control will be the kind of feature, like the other Continuity features such as Handoff and Shared Clipboard, that will prove really useful in my workflow as I suspect it does for others that are using multiple devices.

M1 Mac Mini and iPad Pro Set-up

After a bit of consideration these past few months I finally bought an M1 Mac Mini. My 2012 Mini is still running but with inflation, war and the general state of world affairs, I thought I’d go ahead and get set-up with a Mac that should last the next 10 years. The new Mac will largely fill the same role as the old, essentially, a file server, internet sharing, and occasional projects that require Affinity Publisher which is not yet on the iPad.

All that said, as I posted a couple days ago, thinking about a battery powered Mac Mini and modular computing, it’s also on my mind to reconsider the value of the Mac. To that end, upon setting up the Mac Mini last week, I determined to spend as much time as possible using it over the course of the week. Largely that was to explore the new features of macOS Monterey but also just to get a feel for the new M1 hardware and finally to compare both to working on the iPad. There were even a couple days that I didn’t touch the iPad Pro.

After several days sitting at the desk I did a quick stand-up desk modification and now have everything setup as I used to 5 years ago, in terms of a standing desk set-up. I’ve got plenty of room for the iPad too. One consideration, knowing that Universal Control is coming next week, was to have a set-up that would allow me to easily move back and forth between the Mac and iPad. And of course, it’s also still very easy for me to plug the iPad in to one usb C cable and be using the external screen that’s shared with the two Mac Minis, each with their own input. The downside of the Universal Control set-up is that the Mac would be driving the larger 27″ display and the iPad Pro would be restricted to its smaller display. We’ll have to see how that goes. For now it’s acceptable as the Mac takes full advantage of the screen whereas the iPad looses a bit on each side. But letting the iPad take over the screen is as simple as using the screen sleep hot corner on the mac.

Okay, so, to compare the experience of coming back the Mac after several years of my regular, daily use of the iPad. What I’ve noticed in the past week is that while this new M1 Mac hardware is fast it still feels slower than the iPad in my normal, day-to-day usage and I think that’s largely due to multitasking.

iPad Multitasking versus Mission Control on the Mac
I’ve gotten used to the iPad way of using apps either in full screen or split screen. And so, upon returning to the Mac I’ve set-up several virtual desktops in Mission Control and have various apps assigned to them. It’s similar to the iPad multitasking experience with the most noticeable downside being that the thumbnails for screens are all at the top and small. I can’t tell what I’m looking at because the label for each is “Desktop 1”, “Desktop 2” and so on.

There is an option to run them in actual split screen (referred to as tiled), 2 apps to a shared screen which puts a label at the bottom with the app names. The downside to that is that the window becomes unavailable to other app windows. It feel locked. Compare that to an iPad where I can have my side by side apps and easily pull in an app as a slide over or a Quick Note. It’s a small thing but important in how it feels in use. Tiled apps on the Mac won’t even allow for a Quick Note and there is no such thing as slide over so it feels really restricted.

For many long-time Mac users the iPad is described as restrictive and as an environment where getting things done is more difficult due to what’s described as inferior multi-tasking. I’m finding the opposite to be true but I’ve also gotten out of the habit of using my Mac and having lots of windows open on a single screen. For many Mac users I think this is the key thing, just lots of windows from different apps on top of one another. I guess I did that as well in the days before the multi desktops brought by Mission Control. And to some degree, even after that. I think I often used overlapping windows but it now seems cluttered to me. Nevertheless, I’m going to continue for another week or two in an effort to give macOS a nice visit. My hope with this experiment is to discover how I can best use the Mac and the iPad together, as complimentary computers and screens. I’ve got two very powerful computers, if I can use both side-by-side I will.

And on the topic of multitasking and windows, I’ve decided to download and use an app called Raycast primarily for window management. There are paid apps to do this but Raycast seems to do what I want. It does a lot more than window management but that’s what I’ll start with. I changed the Command-Space shortcut to open Raycast and Spotlight is now Option-Command-Space. Raycast has the added benefit of doing window management. So I can activate it and start typing “right” and it has learned that I probably want to tile the current window to the right using half the screen. Then I can tap over to any other window and type “left” and it will prompt me to move the window to the left half. Or I can type “center” or a variation such as “center third” to place the window. Lots of options. All in all, it will make keeping windows organized easier when I feel that need, which I expect to be most of the time. I found it odd that I had to download a third party app to do this kind of keyboard shortcut window management.

App Launch Times
Surprisingly, the M1 Mac Mini is not as fast as I expected. Coming from the contrast of a 2012 Intel Mac and the iPad Pro, I expected apps to launch faster than they do. Many do launch with one bounce though the Affinity apps take longer to launch than they do on the iPad, about double the time. The same can be said for Pages and Numbers. If they’ve been open recently then they open with one or two dock bounces. Otherwise it’s 4 bounces or more. This compares the iPad where they appear to open instantly. This is part of the experience is very much related to memory management so I’ll dive into that a bit next.

Memory Management
This is an interesting one that is surprising me a bit. I knew going in that a budget Mac Mini running 8GB would be a bare minimum. It was the right choice for me though. Still, it’s worth mentioning a comparison to the iPad Pro with the same 8GB memory and M1 processor. Given how I’ve been using the iPad Pro, it seems noticeably better at managing memory for multitasking and yes, this goes against the common narrative that Macs are better for multitasking. I bring it up because yesterday as I worked on an Affinity Publisher project on the Mac I needed to open Affinity Photo to optimize a few images. Most edits can be done within Affinity Publisher’s very cool Studio Link feature that just opens a sort of Photos Mode. But I actually wanted to open an overly large png file externally and export it to a smaller png. Upon clicking the Photos app in the dock I found myself waiting for quite awhile for the app to open. Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce. It seemed to go on forever. I wish I’d counted. I expected maybe 4 bounces but guessing it was over 10. Now, to be fair, I had several other apps open and both of these Affinity Apps are resource intensive. But here’s the thing, on the iPad often bounce between Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer and then over to Safari, Mail, Obsidian then back to Photo to Designer then to Messages to News Explorer. As I type this in Obsidian I did the above to test. The sort of thing I do often on the iPad but I wanted to try it again to confirm my memory. It wasn’t till I got to News Explorer that I saw an app reload and that’s not surprising because I hadn’t used News Explorer since sometime yesterday afternoon. And the reload time was a mere half second.

I find that with the iPad I don’t “close apps” or manage them in the same way I do on the Mac. On the Mac when I see an app in the dock that indicates it is an open app I’m more likely to close it if I’m not using it or planning to use it. Perhaps that’s unnecessary and something I need to let go of as a habit from previous years’ habits. As a test I’m going to try to leave apps open longer and see how well the system manages it. I noticed the other day in the System Preferences app that there is an option to turn off the dock indicator for open apps, I’ve just turned that on so I’ll no longer know which apps are open. This brings me closer to the iPad experience and might also change how I think about managing app usage.

Finder on the Mac, Files on the iPad
This is one that’s brought up often as a subpar experience on the iPad. For the most part I disagree. Comparing the two, they seem to be very close to the same in experience. The one primary advantage that the Mac does have is that Finder has a customizable toolbar and the ability to view more columns of data about files in list view. It’s also got better file searching in that the contents of pdfs, text documents, etc are all indexed and searched. There’s no doubt that there’s room for some of these features to be added to Files and they should be. Sure, Apple probably needs to keep the default simple but certainly settings could be added for those that want more. All that said, using the Finder this past week has not led to any sense that I’ve been missing out anything essential on the iPad. In day-to-day, probably the most notable feature would be adding extra columns in list view then having the ability to click those column headers for quick sorting.

Built in Mac apps have all been as expected. I notice slight changes coming from macOS Catalina but mostly small refinements. Speed wise, it all seems to be about the same, perhaps just a bit faster in daily tasks. I guess that says something, too, about how optimized macOS is at this point. Made for iPad apps seem to run pretty well on the Mac.

Working together
Overall, I like and appreciate the refinements of macOS. Also, that while it still looks like macOS, visually, it’s getting closer to iPadOS. They’re coming together in a way that it’s easy to fluidly move back and forth without it being a jarring experience. And really, that brings my to my final point and something I was already thinking about even with Catalina, and something I touched on with my last post, that the Apple ecosystem, particularly the Mac and iPad, function so similarly that I could just as easily be on the same device. I think that’s counter to much of the narrative online which is focused so often towards which of the two is better, always framed as a competition and the differences. I’d much rather enjoy them both and use as needed.

A final edit to add after initial publishing, Apple released the OS updates hours after I posted this that include Universal Control. It seems amazing. I’m planning to return in a week with more about this experiment of using my Mac and iPad together and if it’s been impacted by Universal Control.