Dual Screen On The Road

I use a multi-monitor setup at home on my primary computer for all my Photoshop and Lightroom work.  I love it, and it’s true what they say: once you go multi, you never go back.

Multiple screens can spoil you so bad, in fact, that you’ll never again feel as productive on your laptop.  (Oh the curse of first-world problems, amiright?)

So how can I get a similar experience on the road, without lugging along a huge screen?  And in the process of solving this issue, can I perhaps improve the color accuracy so I can get some color work done, too?  Yes and yes.

The secret lies in your iPad.

Apple doesn’t allow a video signal to be streamed directly over the USB connector, but some intrepid developers have worked around this by creating a link via WiFi.  So long as your laptop and your iPad are on the same WiFi network, you’re good to go.  And the best part? If you already have an iPad, you can do it for free.

There are a few solutions available, but I’m using the one from DisplayLink.  Why?  Simply because it was the first one I tried, and it worked great.

There are two pieces of software to install.  The first is the DisplayLink app that goes into your iPad, or search for “displaylink” in the Apple App store.  Second is to download the piece of software that goes into your Windows laptop.  You can get it free on DisplayLink’s website.  The file to download is near the bottom of the page, and is labeled, “DisplayLink iPad software for Windows.”  This program creates a “virtual” monitor in Windows, and links it to the iPad app via WiFi.

(Mac folks, from what I read your solution is Air Display by Avatron, but I can’t speak for it as I haven’t tried it.  It also works on PC, but it’s a paid solution vs DisplayLink’s free software.  If you’re using it, please comment below on your experience.)

Connecting the two pieces together is quite simple.  Make sure both devices are connected to the same WiFi network, then launch the app on the iPad.  It will show you a list of all the PCs running the Windows DisplayLink App.  Simply tap the name of the computer that you want to connect to.  On your very first connection, you’ll be asked to put a password in.  The software will remember the password on subsequent connections.

The screen may flicker on your Windows PC once or twice while it initiates the new “monitor,” and this is normal.  If at first all you get is a mirror of the screen on your laptop, right-click anywhere on an empty space of your desktop and go to “Screen Resolution” (Win7/Vista) or “Properties” (WinXP).  From here you’ll be able to change the mode between mirroring and extending the desktop.  You want to extend.  Also drag the screens around so they are organized in the computer the same way they’re organized in your physical space.  Windows needs to know that you’ve chosen to put the iPad to the left of the main screen, so that when you move the mouse cursor to the left edge of the laptop, it then continues on to the right edge of the iPad.

So what are the pros, cons, and limitations of this setup?  Well first off, if you’re on the 3rd gen iPad, DisplayLink only runs at 1024×768.  This is the exact resolution of gen1 and gen2 iPads, but on a gen3 if you look closely, the image may appear a tad bit soft.  For my purposes I still found it usable, and far better than nothing at all.  Secondly, because WiFi bandwith is very limited compared to a real display connector (DVI, Display Port, HDMI, etc) the software does have to compress the image some.  The result is a little less color fidelity and some banding in smooth gradients.  Again, still better than nothing.  Third, you probably don’t want to use the iPad display for video or motion.  There’s a bit of lag, and the framerate may not be acceptable.  If you want to watch Netflix while working, download the native Netflix app to the iPad and don’t bother linking as a second screen.

So what does it work well for?  I use it for color correction in Lightroom.  I put the main LR screen on my laptop display, press F11 to enable Lightroom’s secondary monitor support, and put a loop-view on the iPad.  The color on my gen3 iPad is good enough that I can get the bulk of my color correction done on the road.

Is it perfect?  No.  All generations of iPad are limited to about sRGB color gamut.  Further, while the gen3’s screen is pretty close to perfect sRGB, the screens in a gen1 and 2 have a very slight twist in the gamut.  Again, we’re looking for good-enough while working on the road, not absolute perfection.  For me, this gets me damn close to what I want, and I can do final fine-tuning when I get home.  I’ve found that the iPad setup gets me to the correct degree of white balance, shadow, and highlight detail.  There are no major surprises when I get back to my fancy 30″ wide-gamut screens at home.  Further, I’d consider this just fine for creating blog posts.  (Remember, 99% of the people on the web are looking at your blog with far inferior screens, anyway.)

What would I like to see in the future?  I’d like to see the option of connecting via USB, I’d like to see less compression in the signal, and I’d like to be able to use the full resolution of my gen3 iPad.  All pretty tall orders.  My understanding is that Apple hasn’t opened up the software API to allow writing directly to the iPad over the USB port.  This may or may not come with a future iOS upgrade.  If it does, that would give devs a little more bandwidth to play with, and may create the possibility of my other two requests, both of which require more bandwidth to implement.

What do you think?  Will you try this out?  Are you using a different solution that you think I should try?  Let me know in the comments below, and come join the discussion on Facebook!

[Edit:  Here’s a photo of my setup, working “on the road” in Vail, CO.]

Using an iPad as a secondary monitor with a PC and Adobe Lightroom.

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