Air Display App Review: Wireless Secondary Monitor For Your Mac or PC

Avatron is a software company, and one that you may not be immediately familiar with. But almost every iPad owner has heard of "Air Display," if only in passing. The app has been around since the beginning, and it was viewed as one of the more useful productivity apps right at launch. The iPad App Store has since grown tremendously, but even today, there are few apps in the market with as much potential as Air Display. Early critics felt that the app was great in theory, but lacking in execution. But before we dive into what has changed, let's take a look at what Air Display offers.

The app, which sells for $9.99 in the App Store currently, is at version 1.2 as of this writing. Basically, users download the app and then head to Avatron's website to download a small accompanying piece of software for their notebook or desktop. You'll need either Mac OS X 10.5.8, any version of OS X 10.6 or Windows XP/Vista/7. Once you have installed that and rebooted your machine, you'll need to ensure that both your iPad and your machine are on the same Wi-Fi network. If that's not the case (if your machine is using a wired Ethernet connection, for example), you can manually create an ad hoc network to connect the two. In our testing, it's far easier to simply have both on the same Wi-Fi network.

Then, you use the taskbar Air Display icon to select your iPad and toggle the function on. The rest is easy. You can then make a few adjustments within the control panel (turning on/off the touch functionality of the iPad display, auto-connect, move windows back to iPad, etc. We tested primarily on OS X 10.5.8 and Windows 7 Ultimate, and we're happy to report that the performance issues plaguing earlier versions of the app are history.

It took our machines around 10 seconds to refresh and recognize the iPad as a secondary display -- the desktops flashed, and then popped back quickly. No resizing or changing of the screen resolution was required. It was all very straightforward. Once we had a secondary display to tinker with, we slid a few windows over, and all of them popped over with next to no lag. Within OS X, you can easily move the iPad panel to the left or right of your main display, and even move the Dock to your iPad. More impressive is how the iPad automatically rotates vertically and horizontally as you turn it; if you lock the orientation lock, it will remain in that position as well.

The concept here is much like those USB secondary monitors that swept the consumer electronics space earlier this year; the difference is that there's no USB connection required here. It's a totally wireless setup, which makes this far more mobile and easy to setup/breakdown. The simplicity is definitely one of the better aspects of this app. We did notice that when dragging windows, programs and tiles from our MacBook to the iPad, there was very slight pixelation on the window as we were in the act of dragging it (only noticeable on the iPad, not the MacBook). Once we released the window and stopped creating motion, the pixels returned to being crisp in about one second. We guess this is just the nature of the system; there's a limited amount of bandwidth to deal with here (we used 802.11g, a common protocol), and Avatron would probably rather introduce slight compression while moving instead of lag. We agree, that's the lesser of the two evils.

The good news is that this pixel lag only occurred while dragging over desktop icons, tiles and programs. For example, we loaded up Solipskier in Camino on the iPad display and began to play; this is a fast-moving web-based game that requires constant mouse use. The small main character was never blurred (at least not to where you could notice in real-time), nor was any of the game surroundings. In other words, you're safe to play Flash games and the like on your iPad screen without worrying over lag. Also, our mouse response was perfect on the iPad display. We didn't notice any lag whatsoever, and lag is very easy to spot in a quick-moving game like Solipskier. We were very impressed with the response time.

Productivity hounds will probably end up using this app to place select programs on their iPad, off to the side. Things like iCal, chat programs, IRC clients, BitTorrent windows, etc. -- these are all important programs, but programs that generally reside on a side of the display and aren't constantly viewed like a Webpage. What this does, for iPad + notebook owners, is gives them tons more screen real estate. If you're using a netbook, you now can nearly double your screen space as long as you bring your iPad along. The only catch is the battery life, but in reality, your notebook is likely to die long before your iPad. And you can always charge it via USB if you're going to be using it for long periods.

In conclusion, we are really impressed by the improvements in the newest version of Air Display. It's quick, easy to install, easy to launch, and nearly flawless in design. Having the ability to use your iPad as a wireless secondary display with both a Mac and a PC is pretty impressive. At $9.99, this is a must-buy for anyone looking for a cheap way to expand their mobile setup. How else will you get a second display to work with for under ten bucks? And since the app does a great job of relocating objects to your main display (and vice-versa), you can easily toggle your iPad on/off if you need to use it for some other task while working. If you purchased an iPad early on, and have now found yourself not using it nearly as much as you thought you would, this is the perfect app to make it useful again. Hopefully the company can clear up that minor pixelation when dragging windows between displays in future versions, but it's not bad enough to discourage users from picking this up. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.