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.