As much as laptops are a godsend for mobile workers, they have some limitations. Their life span is shorter than desktops, particularly when dragged around dirt roads and through airport security. You’re not the only one suffering on long travel days. Storage space is often more limited, and as a rule, screens are much, much smaller.
If you’re a graphic designer or video editor, every inch of screen real estate matters. Even text-based tasks like programming and writing, though, benefit from a little extra room.
If you’re in the market for more pixels on the road, we’ve got good news. There’s something you can do that doesn’t involve shelling out for a larger laptop, or trying to fit a monitor in your backpack. The answer could be sitting right next to you already, in the shape of your iPad.
That sleek Apple tablet can also be an excellent second screen for your laptop, and it’s actually pretty simple (and inexpensive) to make it happen. The trick isn’t exclusive to iPad owners, either — many of the tools listed below also work with iPhones. If you’re a Windows user, you’re also in luck, and some apps also support Android.
How Does It Work? A Review of Second Screen Apps
The mechanics behind this technique are actually quite simple. As we hear so often these days, “there’s an app for that.”
There are a few of them, in fact, which all work in similar fashion. You download an app on both your iPad and laptop, and they link (through either Wi-Fi or standard Lightning /30-pin cable) to provide one cohesive image across both screens.
That said, not all of these apps work equally well, or offer the same quality of service. Here’s the lowdown.
Duet Display is arguably the most recommended dual-screen app, with tech sites singing the praises of its easy set-up, lag-free wired connection, and customization options.
Pros: Connects via cable, with no Wi-Fi needed. Delays between first and second screen are virtually non-existent. Display options include Retina, 30 or 60 frames per second, and high resolution.
Cons: Apple laptops need to run on Mavericks for Duet Display to work. High-resolution display can slow down transfer between laptop and older versions of the iPad. No free version.
Price: US$19.99, for both MacOS and Windows.
Air Display also gets some love in the media, mostly because of its regular updates and bug fixes. Currently there are two versions of Air Display, Air Display 2 (available for Windows, Mac and Android) and Air Display 3 (Apple devices only, for now).
Pros: Works both through a wired and a Wi-Fi connection. Display lag on iPad is unnoticeable, especially through a wired connection. It’s the best option if running an older Mac, since Air Display 2 works with OS X 10.7 Lion. Options for display include Retina and high resolution.
Cons: Limited for Windows — only Air Display 2 is available, and only for Windows 8 and older versions. Air Display 3 works on OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion and newer, so older versions will be directed to Air Display 2. Users complain of clunky display and connection between iPad and PC, having trouble resizing the screen.
Price: US$14.99 for Air Display 3 (OS only), US$9.99 for Air Display 2 for MacOS and Windows.
Splashtop XDisplay offers a wired option for turning your iPad into a second screen for your Windows or Mac computer. Even though it doesn’t offer as much in terms of image quality and connectivity, it’s a good option for users looking for a more affordable app.
Pros: Wired, no need for Wi-Fi. Supports 1080p and Retina 60 frames per second. Available for Windows 7 and newer.
Cons: For Apple laptops, it’s only available for OS X 10.9 and up. Users complain that display lag can be considerable.
Price: Free for basic version, US$4.99 for full version, both MacOS and Windows.
iDisplay is less loved, but still an option for users without a lot of technical requirements.
Pros: offers both Wi-Fi and wired connection, depending on your needs.
Cons: More bare-bones than other apps in terms of screen customization and high resolution. Reportedly suffers more lag between screens than other apps. Android version seems all but abandoned, and iOS version is expensive for what you get.
Price: US$19.99, for both OS and Windows.
So, which one to choose? If price isn’t an issue, and (if using a Mac) you use Mavericks, go with Duet Display – its performance easily justifies the investment.
For casual users without intense graphical requirements (e.g. if your work is mainly text based and you’d just like your internet browser open alongside), I’d suggest giving Splashtop’s free version a try. It might just be enough for your needs, and if not, you’re not out of pocket.
Now Go One Step Further
Once you’ve picked the app you like, go the extra mile and turn your laptop + iPad into a makeshift double-screen computer.
Sure, you could just let your iPad sit next to the screen on a classic iPad cover, and it will do the trick — but if you’re going to use your new second screen regularly, look into investing into a mounting clip as well. This attaches your phone or tablet to the laptop display, resulting in a pretty cool double-, or even triple-, screen laptop.
Mountie and SideCar are two examples, and you can’t go wrong with either. Retailing for between US$25 and US$30 each, they help build a neat work station (I mean, how great does this look??). SideCar is designed exclusively for Apple, whereas Mountie is compatible with most laptops, tablets and phones 5-9mm thick. For a budget option, Android/PC users can be more inventive — check out this article by Instructables for inspiration.
I’d definitely recommend placing your second screen at eye-level if you can. It’s perfect for work, since your eyes won’t tire as quickly, but also for play. If you use your extra screen for an episode or two of Game of Thrones, there’s nothing wrong with that!
Would you find a dual display like this useful on the road? Tell us why in the comments!