Use Your iPad as a Second Display and Wacom Tablet

How would you like to use your iPad as a second (or third) display for your Mac? Now, how would you like to get a glimpse into what it would be like to experience OS X apps on a touchscreen? Finally, what would you say to using your iPad to draw in Photoshop and Illustrator just like a Wacom Cintiq?

If you answered “heck yes!” to any of these questions, read on to see how to make this dream a reality using only a single app!

The Goals

I recently purchased my first iPad. After a few weeks with it I’m absolutely addicted to the thing. However, as the initial “wow factor” begins to wear off I’m starting to transition the device from an amazing toy to something that can actually improve my workflow.

I set out on this task with two goals in mind. The first is screen space. These days I work primarily on a 13-inch MacBook screen after spending well over half a decade on a 20-inch cinema display. I have to admit, the size kills me.

At any given time I’m running a dozen different apps including email, a browser or two, a few Adobe apps, an ever-present Twitter app (Tweetie), occasionally Skype and/or iChat, a text editor and a few Fluid instances. Needless to say, on such a small screen, this leads to major clutter.

The palettes alone in Illustrator and Photoshop can easily eat up half my screen. Ideally, I’d just run out and buy a cinema display but since that’s not realistic for me at the moment, I was hoping my shiny new iPad could serve as a little extra screen space where I can offload some clutter.

The second function that I was hoping to achieve was to combine my iPad and Pogo stylus with Illustrator and Photoshop for an amazing Wacom-like drawing experience.

Searching For a Solution

Since I was much more excited about the second of these goals, I first set off in search of an app that mimics the functionality of a Wacom tablet (I already knew that there were several apps for using your iPad as a second display). Surely, I thought, since the iPad’s interactive multi-touch display would make for an awesome way to draw with vectors in Illustrator, there must be a bunch of apps aimed right at this market. I was wrong.

After searching the app store high and low and finally resorting to Google, all I found was other designers in search of the same functionality: no solution in site. Using Adobe Ideas for iPad, you can create a sketch, export it as a PDF and then import that as vector artwork into Illustrator, but this is a really round-about workflow that doesn’t give me access to the powerful drawing tools I’m used to in Illustrator or the robust brush system in Photoshop.

It amazes me that no one is directly targeting this market. When a Wacom Cintiq runs upwards of $1,000, you know designers would gladly fork out $10-20 to find a similar (though admittedly less effective) experience on a device that they already have lying around.


Wacom Cintiq

Unfortunately, after consulting Twitter, the app store, Google and everywhere else I could think of, I was forced to give up my Wacom emulating app search and move on to getting myself some extra screen space.


One of the first apps that I found for turning my iPad into an additional display for my MacBook was Air Display. At around ten bucks, it seemed like it did everything I wanted, possessed a no-brainer setup process and had great reviews.


Air Display

One killer feature for me was that while using Air Display as a second display, you can take advantage of the iPad’s touchscreen and actually interact with your Mac applications almost as if they were iOS apps!

As I was excitedly thinking about what OS X applications I wanted to interact with directly, I thought back to my pervious search. Had I accidentally found the answer for both of my goals in a single app? As it turns out, yes I had.

Air Display

As I mentioned before, setting up Air Display is simple. All you do is install the app on your iPad and download the accompanying menu bar app for your Mac (Windows version available as well). As long as both devices are on the same network, they effortlessly connect without a single hitch.


Connecting to Air Display

Once you’ve got your connection up, Air Display works exactly like any second display: just drag your OS X windows off the side of your screen and they appear on your iPad.


OS X Apps on Your iPad!

As I mentioned before, in addition to using your mouse, you can simply reach out and touch anything that you want. Clicking and dragging works like a charm, which means when you fire up Illustrator, drawing works exactly like I always wanted it to!


Illustrator on an iPad: a beautiful thing

There you have it, for a measly $10, you can turn your iPad into the ultimate OS X companion that works as a second monitor, allows you to interact with OS X apps via touch, and even use your favorite art apps like Photoshop and Illustrator in a very similar way to how you would use a fancy touch-screen Wacom tablet.

Closing Thoughts

Unfortunately, the solution isn’t perfect. When you make a big change such as moving a window, there is a bit of pixelation due to redraw time (very similar to using the OS X screen sharing feature).

The biggest downside for those looking to mimic a Wacom though is the lack of pressure sensitivity. There may be a way to set it up, but I’m simply not seeing it. A light touch with your stylus/finger and a heavy touch with the same are both interpreted as the same mouse click, no matter how much of your finger is used to touch the screen.

However, for the time being, I can gladly live with these limitations. I’m using OS X in a new and amazing way and rediscovering my love for Adobe’s drawing tools. This is by far the best $10 I’ve spent in a long time.

  • Julia Altermann


    is there any way to run iPad apps while using AirDisplay and then use a Mac recording app to record what I do on the iPad?

    I’ve done some research on that matter and stumbled across Air Display, but I’m not sure it can accomplish what I’m looking for.


    • Joshua Johnson

      No, since the Air Display app must be running on your iPad, there isn’t a way to launch another app without killing it. Maybe next month when the iPad gets multi-tasking?

      • Julia Altermann

        I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed :)

    • Tina O’Keeffe

      You can run display recorder while another app is running. It records video nd audio of what you are doing on the iPad. Works great.

  • iyyy69

    Thanks for the review! I’ve been reluctant to shell out the $10, but I just might now. I already have a second screen, and using an iPad as an external screen seems like a bit of a novelty… but turning my iPad into a simplistic wacom tablet is kind of intriguing.

    • iyyy69

      update: I went ahead and purchased a copy – just figured what the heck – I like gadgets! So far, works great! I’m not one to read instructions, so I forgot that you have to launch the Air Display app on the iPad before it will show up as a device in the menu on my Mac… that was the only thing that tripped me up. It’s very slick. I only played with it for about fifteen minutes, so I can’t comment on stability or bugs or anything like that. Unfortunately I don’t have a stylus to play around with it like a wacom tablet in Photoshop. That might be super cool for simple photo touchups, etc.

      p.s. when searching the app store, don’t get “Air Display” mixed up with the cheaper (and many say inferior) “Air Screen” app.

  • Mia Lazar

    Look future keyboard or input tool.

  • Stanley

    Interesting compromise. I don’t know if it’s comparable, but apparently Wacom is developing some kind of fancy multitouch Cintiq:

  • asbenicio

    Hi Joshua

    I want to use my IPAD with some kind of Handwriting Recognition software. Have you experienced this?

    I think the answer is yes, but my fear is that the HWR software does not recognize the IPAD as an input device.

    Thanks in advance

    Best Regards

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  • Jason

    I don’t see pressure sensitivity as a big issue. The entire problem can be solved by using different brushes and adjusting opacity. Pressure can also be mimicked by time in place. A feature used on sketchbook pro. Sketchbook Pro has been a great app to start projects and then port them into illustrator>photoshop for editing. Also Brushes is great, because it generates a URL gallery for all your projects from the ipad to your computer for really quick ports.

  • Anonymous

    Does anyone know if it is possible for airdisplay to work through USB? It would be great to be able to use it as a 2nd screen, but not need to be on a wireless network, for several reasons: 1) privacy, 2) speed, and 3) when a wireless is not available. In other words, it’d be great to just plug the ipad into the computer via USB and use it that way.

    thank you.

    • Bramick

      I believe you can direct connect using computer to ipad and not go through the network…

  • AkCook

    It’s been about a year, does this software still hold up as the best for your purposes? I was looking for a drawing app to finally convince me to get an iPad. I didn’t even consider a second display! This would allow me to watch DVDs on the iPad, something I also wanted! Thanks for the post

  • Anthony

    Can this app be used to make my ipad a display for my iphone? if not, do you know of an app that does? I want to be able to use splashtop while away from wi-fi, but the screen on the iphone is too small, and I don’t want to buy a 3g ipad and pay another data package.

    • Jeremy

      Hey Anthony, did you find anything better since then? thanks for the help!

    • Bilal Khwaja

      tether your ipad with your phone and then you can use splashtop on your ipad using your phone’s 3g or 4g connection

  • Dave Berzack

    For musicians, the iPad offers several apps that function as MIDI inputs to Ableton Live and other software. I would love to see a customizable companion interface for Photoshop. I imagine a screen with a color palette, brush modifier and layer navigator. Using a Cintiq for the primary display, this would allow an awesome workflow. Does anyone know of an app like this? Please contact me.

    Also, for $10 you can buy one of several styluses that can turn your finger painting toy into a serviceable art tool.

  • Lorna

    You can use remote mouse to turn your ipad or iphone into a mouse. It acts just like a stylus.

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  • Bracey

    Ok have you seen this? The Jot Touch pressure sensitive stylus? It might allows us to turn ipads into fully functional cintiqs. The combo of an ipad and jot is still far cheaper than a cintiq and more portable without all the wires and such.

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