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Why is Apple Sidecar still missing these two critical features?

I hooked up my iPad using Sidecar and was baffled to find out that these two simple but important features are still missing four years after release.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

Apple Sidecar is one of those handy features that just makes sense when you're part of an ecosystem like Apple's. It enables you to turn your iPad into an external display for your Mac.

In terms of concept, it's brilliant. If a user owns both a Mac and an iPad, why not use that iPad screen to support the Mac?

When I did my big hurricane-escaping move across country in 2017, I traveled with my MacBook Pro and my iPad. Every night when we stopped at a new hotel, I went down into the lobby and did my work day (at night). I used the Mac, but I also used the iPad as a second screen, looking things up in Safari on the iPad as a reference for what I was writing. But it was inconvenient, because, back then, macOS 10.12 (Sierra) didn't support Sidecar. I was constantly switching between mouse and finger control, and I certainly couldn't move windows between the devices.

I would have so benefited from Sidecar back then. 

Apple introduced Sidecar with macOS 10.15 (Catalina) in 2019. It stayed in beta for a fairly long time, but it's now a relied-upon feature. As long as you meet Apple's system requirements, have both devices logged into the same Apple ID, are on the same Wi-Fi network, and have Bluetooth turned on, you can use Sidecar.

Also: I survived using my iPad Pro as my main desktop PC for a day (mostly)

You can also connect your iPad through the power cable to your Mac, so you always have enough power. But you still need Wi-Fi and Bluetooth running to make the thing do its magic.

What Sidecar can do

Once you enable Sidecar, your iPad becomes indistinguishable from any other second screen. That means you can either mirror your Mac's display to the iPad, or extend the Mac's desktop to the iPad. This is the most functional approach.

With an extended display, you can drag windows to the iPad from the Mac and back again. You can move your cursor between the Mac's display and the iPad, and click and drag on either display.

You can also use the Apple Pencil on the iPad, on Mac apps. You can certainly use it to select menus and click and drag. For some applications, you can even draw using the Pencil. I had some limited success using it to draw in Photoshop, which was exhilarating until I realized that the Pencil didn't improve my artistic skills all that much. Even so, for layout design and other tasks, I sometimes find direct drawing with the Pencil in Photoshop to be more precise and comfortable than using the mouse.

Also: How to take notes on your iPad with an Apple Pencil -- 3 very simple ways

Finally, you can switch between using the iPad as a second monitor and using the iPad as an iPad. There are a bunch of swipes involved (described here), so you can use the device as an iPad and a display at the same time.

What Sidecar can't do

Oddly enough, even though Sidecar has been around through four major macOS upgrades (Catalina, Big Sur, Monterey, and Ventura), there are a couple of obvious features missing in its implementation.

I found these, because I tried to use them. Not believing they just plain didn't exist, I spent an afternoon trying to diagnose why I couldn't get them to work. Eventually, I found out they weren't there, which explained exactly why I couldn't get them to work. 

Issue #1: No portrait mode

The first seems like something you should obviously be able to do. You can't flip the iPad screen from landscape mode to portrait mode when it's in Sidecar mode. Most users use their iPads in portrait mode to read things and landscape mode to watch things. Portrait mode seems to be Apple's assumed priority configuration because the front camera lives in the middle of the top of the screen when held in portrait mode.

And yet, you can't flip the screen from wide to tall and use it with a Mac. You can make this flip for almost any external display. I have one of those portable displays I discussed last month permanently flipped to portrait next to my Mac Studio so I can read documents on it, watch my scrolling Twitter feed, and keep up with Slack. It works just fine. But the iPad with Sidecar in portrait mode? Nope.

Issue #2: No sound output using the iPad's speakers

Let's move on to the second issue and a different Mac.

I have a traditional monitor (not a TV) connected to one of my Mac minis. The monitor doesn't have any sound output capability, and while the Mac mini has a speaker, nobody would confuse it with a speaker that's worth listening to. Its primary purpose is to make the startup chime. While it can output some sound, it's not good sound.

Also: Don't waste your money on these Apple products

But the iPad Pro. Now, that's a device with excellent speakers. My thinking was that since I was using the iPad Pro as a second monitor on that Mac mini, I could also switch the sound output to the iPad Pro's speakers. And… Nope. Not supported.

A few final thoughts

There's no technical reason Sidecar can't support these features. Both the orientation feature and the ability to choose sound output devices are capabilities built into MacOS already. Neither requires much in the way of additional hardware performance or machine capacity. So it's really a matter of software.

Hopefully, next year, when Apple introduces its next macOS version, it will include these two basic features in Sidecar.

Have you used Sidecar much? Have you used it with the Pencil to draw directly into a Mac app? Are there any features you wish were implemented? Do you share my desire for portrait mode and audio output? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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