Use the iPad Air as a second monitor for Mac and Windows laptops

Use the iPad Air as a second monitor for Mac and Windows laptops

Summary: Laptops are good rivals for the desktop, especially if you use the iPad Air as an external monitor.


While laptops have evolved to have good resolution displays, sometimes you need as much screen real estate as you can get. If you have an iPad or Android tablet, there’s an app that turns them into a good second monitor for a laptop.

Air Display Two Monitors
(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

It’s not the only option for turning a tablet into a monitor, but Air Display has evolved into a very good one. While it works on Android tablets, I haven’t tested it. I use it on the iPad Air, which serves as a second monitor for the MacBook Air. I’m writing this in the local coffee shop with a two monitor setup.

Air Display is not cheap at $19.99 for the iPad ($9.99 for Android), but it’s cheaper and easier than buying and carting an external monitor around. Once installed on the iPad, it prompts you to install the host app on the Mac you want to use it with. Once it’s set up and running, the iPad connects to the MacBook over Wi-Fi. Both the MacBook and iPad must be connected to the same Wi-Fi network to use wirelessly.

The MacBook sees the iPad running Air Display as a regular second monitor, so the OS X settings work as expected. You have all of the options with the iPad as you have with any monitor, including using it as a second desktop. You can set the dual monitor arrangement in OS X to match how you have the iPad placed in relation to the MaBook.

OS X display settings snapped on iPad
OS X display settings for iPad (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

What makes this setup work so well is how fluidly it works. Moving apps to the iPad is as simple as dragging them from the MacBook to the tablet. While there are occasional lags due to the network, for the most part the duo works smoothly. It’s easy to forget you’re on the iPad and not a “real” monitor.

Using the iPad Air with the MacBook Air is what I usually do. This has two advantages that provide a great working environment. It brings Retina Display to the MacBook Air in a way the laptop lacks, plus Air Display uses touch on the iPad. It adds touch control to OS X, at least on the second monitor.

I use the two-monitor configuration with Air Display for writing articles, and it works great. I put the Evernote editor, which I use for all my writing, on the iPad Air screen and the web browser on the larger MacBook Air display. This lets me refer to the web as needed without leaving the writing screen. This is just a single example; you can use the dual screens any way that makes sense.

Air Display desktop on Mac
iPad desktop displayed on MacBook (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

One cool feature of Air Display is invoked when you need to use the iPad in the middle of a session. Hitting the Home button on the iPad takes you to the iOS screen for normal tablet use. When you do this, Air Display takes a snapshot of the second monitor, ie. the iPad screen, and sends it to the MacBook. This serves as a reminder that you can return to the two-monitor configuration by running Air Display on the iPad, which resumes where you left off in OS X.

The dual Air system is a dynamic duo that creates a desktop-class working environment while working remotely. It takes little more space than the MacBook Air alone, yet packs a wallop. Sitting in the coffee shop with a two-monitor system is very productive. It is an effective configuration for the business traveler, too.

While Air Display works well using the iPad Air and MacBook Air, Windows PC owners need not fret. The host app works with Windows 7 and 8. While it may feel strange using an iPad as a second monitor for a Windows system, the utility makes it worthwhile.

As mentioned, Air Display works with Android tablets. It doesn’t stop there. It can also use other computers (laptops especially) as second monitors. Basically it turns any extra screen you have handy into a second monitor for the Mac or Windows system you’re using.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, Apple, Laptops, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • Is this a joke?

    If I am going to attach a second monitor to a PC the last resort would be a small 10 inch screen. Here's a better tip, get 24 inch Dell Ultrasharp monitor.
    • Mac users who really want to push the boat out a Thunderbolt Display….

    • Pack your bags...

      You're going to carry that around in a separate briefcase?

      This is obviously meant for mobile users. I for one will definitely be giving the Android version a spin. If I can turn my Galaxy Tab 4 into a second monitor for my Dell Venue 11 Pro, $9.99 will prove a very small price to pay for the added screen real-estate.
      • Does someone really want to carry around TWO devices to be "mobile"

        It seems that James is praising aspects that make up what Microsoft has been offering in Windows9 and/or Surface devices for some time.

        Here in the Apple solution is it somehow convenient to run two separate devices with two separate operating systems, touch (on one screen only), apps, etc.

        Why is carrying around a laptop and an iPad somehow a great solution to being mobile and being productive? I get the novelty of having multiscreen setup at a coffee shop (while looking rather ridiculous), but is this really the lowered standards we need in order to get full functionality out of a device?

        Carry two completely different devices just to do one task?
        • Um, if the task is running multiple monitors

          then yes, by its very definition, that means two devices.

          I for one find the article useful - the information in it is, the way I see it, a take it or leave it proposition.... if it doesn't do anything for you, then by all means don't carry the second device, and don't use it as a second monitor.

          For those who might find the extra screen real estate useful, I'm sure this is handy trick to now know.
        • Simple fact

          The simple fact is that many people do, in fact, carry around two devices when they're mobile. The iOS (or Android) app ecosystem puts what's available in the Windows Store to shame, and iOS/Android form factors are far preferable for daily tablet use over Windows offerings. I have yet to see anyone using a Windows surface at an coffee shop or airport as a tablet.

          What this app allows you to do is employ your iPad as a second screen when you're doing "real work" on your Windows laptop. The only other option is to carry around a second, dumb USB screen to plug in when you need it. I see absolutely no advantage to the latter, whereas the former seems like a no-brainer to me.
          • Why do you think people carry around two devices in the first place?

            Because despite the massive number of apps for iOS/Android, those devices still fail to replace laptops.

            The thing is, there is really no need to carry around the iPad if you have a windows tablet/hybrid. Unless someone needs a $500 10 inch extra screen for use at the local coffee shop to do "real work"... like typing a blog post.
          • Well, there'd be one need

            that being that the app you want isn't available in the Windows app store. For all the hype about all the stuff you can't do on an iPad, it is funny how most everyone is making their stuff for, well - not to put too fine a point on it - the iPad!
          • Those apps don't run on phones?

            I realize iPhones still have small screens and are not really as good at replacing tablets as phones from other platforms, but large screen phone and phablets are doing a fine job of replacing tablets.

            A laptop, 10 inch tablet and a phone seems like overkill just to meet the needs of a user.
        • It's not JUST about having available two OS ecosystems available

          It's primary advantage is having a light weight dual monitor mobile setup. At any rate, as Panos Panay stated, most Apple consumers already have an OS X and and iPad so this relatively inexpensive software application greatly enhances their mobile experience.

          I have multiple iPads to choose from but I have found a MacBook and an iPad Mini Retina tablet is a great compromise (in terms of weight and usefulness) for this type of dual monitor setup.
          • PS. Sorry about the grammar. I really wish for that comment editor

            But we will never see a ZDNet comment edit function again, I fear..
        • What's your problem?

          If someone sees that as a useful thing, they will use it. If people see it as a joke, they will not use it. Your input is totally worthless.
    • You're going to haul all that to the coffee shop?

      Because its pretty clear from the picture that's something James either did here, or can do... without any real issue.
    • Get a 24 inch Dell Ultrasharp? Seriously?

      Do your Dell 24 inch monitors run on batteries and fit on the small tables in your local coffee shop alongside a laptop? You're telling us that you plan to cart around a laptop and a 24 inch monitor to use in airports, coffee shops, and on planes? You obviously missed the point of the article.
      • Well said

        Nicely stated, BillDem. It appears ZDNet needs to implement a reading comprehension test prior to letting people post.
      • To be fair

        there are very very few situations any airline would give a passenger that much space to set up two devices (or the mythical 24 inch portable computer).

        Not that there are not 20 inch windws AIO devices with touch screens and batteries. So yeah it could be done, but again to what effect.
  • Think mobile

    The whole point of this is to do it while traveling or otherwise away from the office. No joke.
  • Windows

    Last I checked (Spring 2014) it wasn't really usable with Windows, as it used over 5 MByte/s and was still lagging. This is Windows Client with Windows Server. Any idea if this has been fixed?
    • Haven't tried it lately

      That was the case the last time I tried it with Windows but that was over a year ago. That's why I carefully described the Mac setup I use, where it works well.
    • Try something like the HP U160

      There are other options like a HP U160 that plugs in and is powered off of your USB port so you only have one cable to it and it allows a second monitor. When I know I will be camped at a site for a few days, I will even take a 21" HP thin portable monitor with me.
      Rann Xeroxx