Review: iDisplay Gives You Second Monitor Capability on Your iPad (and iPhone)

All images courtesy of Shape Services

A couple of months ago, Shape Services–the makers of IM+ and IM+ Pro for the iPad and iPhone (which I will also be reviewing)–let me test out their iDisplay program.  The idea behind iDisplay is simple:  why not turn your iPad or iPhone into a second monitor?  How did it work out in practice?  Read on.

I tested this app with my  Lenovo T-61, which has an Intel Core Duo 2 Ghz/777 Mhz, with 2Gb of RAM, running Windows XP SP 3.  Being a work laptop, it also has considerable security software running, which might contribute to any latency issues.  (Soon I will have a MacbookPro, and am really looking forward to giving this a roll on that platform, too; I’m hoping the latency issue that I had–see below–will be better on a Mac.)  For the purposes of this review, I’m going to concentrate on how the app worked with my iPad rather than my iPhone, although I have a few comments about the iPhone towards the end.

Installing the software was really no problem.  You install the app from iTunes on your iPad as usual, and download and install the associated application for your PC (or Mac, I presume).  Once you have the software installed, just fire it up on your PC and your iPad, and that’s all you need.  (If you don’t enable the software on your PC before firing it up on your iPad, the app just reminds you to do so.)

The “discovery” process, where your PC and the app find each other, is insanely simple.  You plug in your iDevice through your sync cable, and bam, the PC software finds it.  Can’t be simpler.  The app stores the list of devices it has been connected to as well, so if you are hopping back and forth from one laptop to another, you can get going easily.

The Shape folks were smart; in a lot of emulation software, you (understandably) lose functionality on whatever device is performing the emulation.  So on my iPad, I would have been completely unsurprised to find that the iPad was acting as, well, just a monitor.  But that’s not in fact the case; you can rotate your iPad, and the screen rotates to the other mode; if you flip it over, the display flips over, too; and best of all, you can use the touchscreen as a real touchscreen.  You can pinch and zoom, tap and drag to select text, tap and double tap to open and close windows, and probably some other stuff that I simply didn’t discover.

I can’t tell you how cool I found this:  to move back and forth between my Lenovo’s static, non-touch-screen to the iPad’s touchscreen was a real kick, and it gives you added options when doing your work.  For example, you can keep your hand on the Lenovo’s touch pad/keyboard, while simultaneously performing operations on the iPad touchscreen.  Tap and drag to select text and then, with your other hand, hit Ctrl-C to copy instead of having to right-mouse  click or something.  Or tap and drag a window around the touchscreen while typing with your other hand.  Stuff like that.  I got a real bang out of it.  Shape Services has a pretty good video on this:

Now, the iPad is a 10″ screen, more or less, so there’s not as much screen real estate as on most laptops (but more than most netbooks), so you have to adjust to that a little.  But overall, having an entire iPad’s-worth of screen to work with while on my laptop at home was simply awesome.  As a technical writer, I frequently need to have multiple apps up while writing about them, and having the iPad to display them on in one screen while writing them up in another was a huge productivity gain.

The down side of this app is an issue I mentioned before:  latency.  Every emulator that I’ve ever worked with has had some kind of latency–I don’t think it’s avoidable, because you’re essentially running the bare-bones of one operating system through an entirely different operating system.  That’s just going to slow things down.  And that’s indeed the case with iDisplay; the responses on the iPad are slower than on the laptop, and a little more sluggish than I would really like.  It’s absolutely the nature of the beast, and you can definitely live with it, but it would be great if the Shape software boffins could cut it down a bit.

On the other hand, using your iPhone for a second monitor really isn’t very useful.  I think it’s cool that it works–and given the high resolution of the iPhone’s “retina” display I’m not all that surprised–but there’s not much you can do with it.  Yes, you can pinch and zoom stuff to get a close-up and whatnot, but a sub-4″ screen really doesn’t buy you much.  A place to display error messages or something, maybe.  I would be interested to see how iDisplay works on slightly larger devices like the Samsung Tab; where does the “okay, I can work with that” feeling kick in?  Somewhere around 7″ is my guess, but that’s just a guess.

Overall, I think this is a great app, and I had a whale of a lot of fun with it.  While 5 bucks tends to hover on the boundary of my “impulse buy” zone for iOS apps, I really think this is worth it.  If you travel a lot and carry a laptop and an iPad, it gives you the capability of having a second monitor without having to, you know, lug around a friggin’ second monitor.  It also lets you turn your iPad into a 2nd monitor at work, and even your iPhone too (in a pinch, although the screen is really too small for anything serious).  A good app.

What it is: iDisplay, an iOS app to turn your iPad or iPhone into a 2nd monitor for your Mac or PC
MSRP: $4.99 (iPhone and iPad versions both)
What I liked: Turning my iPad into a 2nd (and third!) monitor for my PC!; able to do touch-based and cursor-based actions on my iPad
What needs improvement: Latency is too high, causing slowness in response on the iPad–not unusual at all for emulation software, but would like to see it improved

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