Universal Control, new Macs, etc.

Warning, this is a hotchpotch of a post. (Not that any of my other posts razor focussed and ever to the point!)

New Macs were announced this week. Yay! The Mac Studio looks interesting. I don’t need it but I like the specs and the ports. The price is pricey, but expected I suppose considering all other Apple products. Unlikely most people who are sad they didn’t release a powerful iMac 27″ I am not too fussed because if they had released then they I’d definitely have to buy it. :) But the way it stands with a Mac Studio + Studio Display, I have no temptation. Sure each of them are great, and I’d love the 27″ Studio display as that’d be a great upgrade over my LG Ultrafine 24″, but I can pass it for now.

All of these is still kind of pricey though. But yeah, Apple could have easily released a 6k figure priced monitor and thankfully they didn’t do that. :D And the Mac Studio could have been cheaper, but sure for that price I am getting 32GB RAM (not needed) and ports and more performant chips etc.

I had this feeling in my head that somehow all Apple products of recent times seem to be more Pro focussed, and I am not Pro enough. You know… like I don’t edit videos or make $$$s on YouTube to justify splurging the money. I keep convincing myself that I am not a Pro, I am just an IT guy who mostly works in the browser and Visual Studio Code, and heck I don’t even compile code on my Macs or use XCode to create apps. So I am not really a Pro in the Apple sense of the word, and while these new Pro toys are drool inducing (and drool worthy) they are just not for me. It’s out of my range, not just in terms of spending that much money but also in terms of the work or need.

I don’t like that feeling, but it is what it is I suppose. So I was glad to read this post by Adam Engst who manages to put this across way better than the few paragraphs above. That yes, even though we are not the Pro users Apple targets we too are Pro users, and that Apple could do better for folks like us by improving their products (starting with better iMac ergonomics for one, like he points out in his post I too have a stack of books below my iMac just to raise its height – nuts, isn’t it!).

Looking at the Mac Studio and Studio Display though I am now tempted to buy the MacBook Pro from a few months ago. Especially the 16″ version. I have the MacBook Air currently (the cheapest M1 version, with 7 cores) and I am happy with it but I do dislike the small screen and something larger would be great. The MacBook Pro is crazy expensive compared to the Air (a huge jump in price just for a larger screen) but looking at the Studio and imagining that M1 Pro chip with 16GB RAM and a 16″ display maybe the price is justifiable. Sure, it would be great if it were less, but at least I can convince myself that I need it and it’s not so crazy? :) On that note this post from Michael Tsai is a good read where he too wonders about what to purchase (he settles on the 14″ version though).

Anyways, switching gears I decided to check out Universal Control this weekend. I know it’s out on the macOS 12.3 Betas and I had been wondering if I should upgrade to those for a while, so today I finally bit the bullet. (In a way this is to satisfy this craving in me to get a new toy and try something out… I figure Universal Control will excite me and take the edge off for a few days :o)).

I have a 24″ iMac which I don’t use much but keep around as it has a larger disk and is my local cache of iCloud data basically. And I have the M1 Mac mini connected to the LG Ultrafine. I used to hook up a second display to it just because its useful when you are working from home and have calls etc. wherein you need to share stuff or work on the side while watching someone’s screen… that display was just for this additional occassional purpose. I avoid even having a browser window on it as I don’t like turning my neck and working off there for long, it results in neck pains.

So I removed that screen, moved the iMac in its place, upgraded both iMac and Mac mini as well as incidentally an iPad Mini I use for listening to Podcasts (mainly the TWIT network podcasts as they have video and I usually place this iPad Mini below the LG Ultrafine monitor so I can watch a podcast while working). After upgrade I turned on Universal Control on all and boom now all three work sweetly with the same Keyboard/ Mouse/ Trackpad attached to the Mac mini. (Here’s a link with instructions for those interested; I didn’t use it but it’s one with instructions for both platforms and has good screenshots).

Mac mini on the left; iMac on the right; iPad Mini below the Mac mini.

It has its quirks which is why it is still in Beta I suppose. The connection to the iPad Mini seems to forget after a while. As in if the iPad Mini is asleep for a while and then I move the mouse down to it, it doesn’t wake. Waking the iPad Mini gets that working though. Worse though is that sometimes turning it on doesn’t help either and when I go to the Display Settings on macOS I can see that the iPad Mini is missing in the section above. In this case I simply move the mouse past the left edge of the LG screen and it goes into the iPad Mini; and then I drag the iPad Mini down.

Speaking of which, that is another issue… or an oversight perhaps? Apple expects the devices to be next to each other and not below or above. Which is fine and probably mostly the case, but I guess there could be others like me who have an iPad Mini below their Mac screen. Good thing you can rearrange it to below after it picks up, so it’s just the one time setup thing (unless of course the connection is forgotten like above and then you gotta do it regularly).

The best thing of Universal Control is that your Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad gestures work across the devices. I’ve previously used Synergy and ShareMouse to share a Keyboard/ Mouse/ Trackpad between the Mac mini and iMac but the issue is that none of the two or three finger swipes register on the other device. That’s probably a limitation due to Apple, but Universal Control being native is able to work with this… that’s my guess at least. It’s awesome though, being able to share the Mouse and Trackpad between devices and being able to use gestures… love it!

I had a niggle with the keyboard. I don’t use a Magic Keyboard. Nothing wrong with it, I’ve tried that and other keyboards, but what I like the most is Microsoft’s Sculpt Keyboard. Pretty sure I’ve mentioned that in the past and also about hidutil. Anyways, on the Mac mini to which the Sculpt is connected I have swapped the Cmd and Option keys via the Keyboard Settings.

When this keyboard gets shared to the iMac though the settings on the iMac are what naturally takes effects. But for whatever reason on the iMac I cannot swap the Cmd and Option keys as above. I can, if I connect a keyboard to it directly, but if I am sharing it via Universal Control as above the settings revert to the default as soon as I click OK above. Bummer!

Not a problem thankfully, as I figured I can use hidutil to swap the two keys. :) Using the lovely hidutil key remapping generator tool I was able to add the following to my existing configuration and that swapped the keys even during Universal Control:

I wonder if any of these will break when I reboot the iMac or how it would be when I have to login to it after a reboot. Can I use the keyboard via Universal Control to type my password? Not sure, but I’ve kept the iMac’s keyboard nearby for such situations.

Update (the following day): My old issue of the iMac crashing is back! Must be some side effect of the Beta I hope. It was working fine with no crashes the past many months, so this is irritating.

Anyways, once it rebooted I couldn’t sign in with the shared keyboard. I figured since the Sculpt connects via a wireless adapter I can connect that to the iMac, sign in, connect it back to the Mac mini and after a few minutes (the iMac is slow) Universal Control starts working.

Update 2: Not sure if this was the case before, but after the crash earlier today I notice that whenever the iMac goes to sleep (in the sense that the display turns off, not that it is “sleeping” or hibernating) the mouse doesn’t go from the Mac mini to the iMac. I have to give the iMac a nudge by clicking its mouse and that will cause the Universal Control link to be established.

I am one of those people who use both a Trackpad and Mouse – for former for my left hand, the latter for right. So I connected the Mouse to the iMac as the good thing with Universal Control is that devices can be connected to either machine. This way clicking the Mouse wakes the iMac. :)

Another issue is that often the mouse will move to the iMac, but the keyboard wouldn’t. This is especially irritating as I end up typing incorrectly in the Mac mini. The only fix for this is to unlink and relink Universal Control from the Mac mini. Thankfully one can do this easily from the menu bar.

Other minor issues – if say I move into screenshot mode on the iMac, when the pointer is there, the pointer jumps back to the Mac mini. I then have to go back to the iMac. If I press Esc the cancel the screenshot it doesn’t register either, I have to press it twice.

Update (two days later): So yesterday I had connected my mouse to the iMac and started using it from there. Which works, but as I noticed today has an irritating side effect that when I am on the Mac mini and start typing the mouse goes back to the iMac. It’s like it knows the Mac mini devices are in use now so let’s get out of the way. I wonder why I didn’t notice this yesterday.

Update (three days later): I turned off Universal Control. Everything works fine except that every now and then when I move the mouse to the iMac (and click somewhere, so I know focus is in the iMac) the keyboard just doesn’t follow. Whatever I type is still on the Mac mini. I tried unlinking and relinking as above but it didn’t help. This is irritating coz I could be in the middle of something copy pasting between Mac mini and iMac and I don’t want to be bothered by such issues, so I simply turned it off and removed the iMac. Sucks, but I guess I’ll wait for this to come out of Beta.

I had the same issue from Mac mini to iPad mini too today, but unlinking and relinking fixed that. For now.