UPDATE: This article from 2019 is obsolete now that iPadOS 16.2 includes full support for external displays.
Dramatic changes in the iPad Pro line make it reasonable for the average user to consider adding an external display to their tablet.
I’ve been exploring this with an LG UltraFine 4K monitor for several weeks. Here’s everything I’ve learned.
iPad Pro as your desktop computer
The most-recent iPad Pro models are the first with a USB-C port, allowing this computer to be used with a plethora of off-the-shelf peripherals, including monitors. And now iPadOS makes this port even more useful, finally adding mouse support.
Together, they enable Apple’s tablet to become the center of a desktop computer, in the same way that laptops could for decades. The iPad is used on the go, while at home you connect a larger screen, keyboard and mouse.
The LG UltraFine 4K is driven through a USB-C connection so all that’s necessary to use it is plug the monitor into the tablet. What’s on the tablet’s screen is immediately copied on the external display, only larger and easier to see.
The same can be accomplished by connecting a USB-C hub with an HDMI port to the iPadOS computer, then plugging a monitor into it. The process is a bit more complicated, but it’s doable.
There are limitations. What’s displayed on the second display often won‘t fill up the full screen because this tablet depends so much on screen mirroring. That means the image on both has to have the iPad’s 4:3 aspect ratio, not the monitor’s 16:9.
And, in most cases, iPadOS doesn’t yet allow a second screen to display something different from the internal one. Exceptions include video players, the Procreate drawing and painting application, Apple’s Keynote presentation app, and some others. I discuss these in the second part of this article.
Keyboard and mouse + big display = desktop
I connected a Logitech K780 bluetooth keyboard to my iPad, but any designed to be used with Apple devices will do. You could even keep typing on the Apple Smart Keyboard Folio or other keyboard case if you wanted to.
Thanks to iPadOS 13, it’s now possible to use a mouse or trackpad with your tablet. The process isn’t as simple as it could be, but Cult of Mac has a handy guide to using a mouse with your iPad.
Apple possibly held off adding support for this type of external pointing device because it takes some getting used to. The mouse pointer doesn’t act like it does on a Mac. Instead, it’s substitute finger. With practice, you can get used to it though.
The result of all this working together is your 12.9- or 11-inch iPad Pro suddenly has a much larger screen — a 23.7-inch one if you’re using the UltraFine 4K. Admittedly, much of the time the tablet will only be able to employ part of the display, but a quick measurement finds that screen mirroring is the same as having a 19.25-inch monitor for your iPad. And in some situations you get the whole display. More on that in a bit.
Don’t forget that iPadOS 13 also brings full read/write access to USB drives. You can easily work with terabytes of data stored locally.
If all this is intriguing, you might already have everything you’d need to try it out. With a good USB-C hub you can connect to any fairly recent monitor, mouse and keyboard. If you don’t have the hub, consider buying one; it’ll really expand the usefulness of your iPad Pro.
Right now, the sticking point is iPadOS is still in beta. But hold onto the thought — the full release isn’t that far away.
And if your tests go well and you want the best monitor for this setup, we haven’t run into a finer external monitor than the UltraFine 4K. Its USB-C connector makes it a snap to connect to this tablet, and the color gamut matches.
Note: Be sure to read my full LG UltraFine 4K review for more details on this outstanding screen.
iPad apps designed for an external monitor
Some iPad applications are designed to embrace a second screen. These use the tablet as a sort of control panel for what’s on the larger display.
Photographers can transfer images onto an iPad to see their images on a larger display. Take this to the next level by plugging in an external screen. Apple’s default Photos app automatically puts any photograph selected on the big monitor. This isn’t screen mirroring; only the image is on the second monitor.
The UltraFine 4K is especially well suited for this task thanks to its 500nits brightness and excellent color gamut. But it’s not required. I hooked a TV to the iPad Pro through a USB-C hub with an HDMI port and the images were displayed just as they ought to be.
As a side note, iPadOS 13 brings much greater control over importing images from cameras. These can go straight from the external device to iCloud Drive now, or to an image-editing application.
Apple TV and other video software
Movies and TV shows purchased through iTunes played via the iPadOS TV app appear full-screen on the larger external display, with the iPad Pro acting as a sort of touchscreen remote. The UltraFine 4K’s 23.7-inch screen is hardly IMAX, but it’s much better than an 11- or even 12.9-inch display for your favorite TV shows. This also works with over an HDMI connection.
Some other applications also support playing full-screen video on external monitors, through either USB-C or HDMI. I tested a few, and Amazon Prime Video does, and the same is true of VLC. The CBS app doesn’t, so this is a mixed bag.
The digital illustration application Procreate lets artists work on the iPad and see the result on the bigger display. This isn’t simple screen mirroring because the external monitor shows the art uncluttered by controls. After a brief adjustment period this becomes a very natural way to draw or paint.
Incidentally, Apple loves this trick so keep your eyes open for Procreate in iPad marketing materials.
My tests found that this works just as well over an HDMI connection as to does with the LG UltraFine 4K and USB-C.
Keynote and Powerpoint
Both Apple Keynote and Microsoft Powerpoint offer presentation mode in which the iPad shows more than just the slides. You can see the next slide early, or your notes. Meanwhile, the UltraFine 4K external monitor connected via USB-C offers just what you want the audience to see.
Keynote offers this feature over an HDMI connection but Powerpoint does not. You can use screen mirroring for that of course, but it’s not as full featured.
Just be aware, if you’re accustomed to the external display mirroring what’s on the iPad screen while controlling the computer with a mouse then any of these applications will be a sudden adjustment. As soon as you open an image in Photos, for example, the mouse cursor disappears from the second screen and you only get what the app shares from the tablet.
iPad with a second screen final thoughts
Admittedly, it’s early days for using an iPad Pro as a desktop. Thanks to iPadOS 13 it’s possible, and even somewhat practical. Your tablet is a very powerful computer; the days when you need a second computer for the house could be over.
I generally hook a mouse and keyboard to my tablet when writing articles or emails. I find using a mouse with a keyboard a more convenient way to edit text. And the larger screen means I don’t have to wear reading glasses.
Many of the current limitations to using an iPad as a desktop will probably be removed in the future. Looking ahead, iPadOS 15 may well allow external monitors to display different applications than the internal one. And tweaks to mouse support are likely to come as well.