Quick Look: Screens 4.2 for iPad

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It’s been a while since I talked about Screens, the VNC app that helps me remotely control my Mac from my iOS devices.Screens 4.2 came out this past week and introduced an interesting set of in-app purchases.

You can now use a Dark Mode for a very reasonable $0.99, and for $2.99, you can enable an accompanying iOS device to act as a trackpad for your remote connection. I have no need for a dark mode in Screens because I spend most of my time controlling my Mac from the iPad, so I barely ever see the Screens UI. However, the idea of the trackpad was interesting, so I cleared some space on my desk this evening to try the iPad and iPhone side by side.

The pairing experience is pretty simple: you load Screens up on both devices, and once you’ve connected the iPad to a computer, you’ll see an option on the iPhone to act as a trackpad. The very first time you do this, you’ll need to “accept” the iPhone’s role as trackpad for the iPad. However, subsequent connections don’t seem to require this approval process again.

I’ve only tested this process out at home, so I can’t speak for remote access, but the trackpad functionality works surprisingly well. I keep the iPhone to the right of the iPad, because keeping it in front of the spacebar just takes up too much room. The iPhone is a little slippery for a trackpad (it shifts around on the desk), but it works a lot like a regular one. I can tap and double tap to select items, or long press if I want to mimic a click and drag (to highlight text or move files).

The latency of the mouse movement is actually quite good, but the responsiveness of my VNC setup on my late-2013 MacBook Pro just doesn’t seem very good. There’s always a noticeable lag as I type text out, and clicks take half a second to really show up. The worst thing for me, unfortunately, has been scrolling: it’s just far too sluggish to feel very good or comfortable.

This may be more a function of my particular computer than Screens’ own performance, so I’ll have to check a few settings to make sure. I’ve tried connecting to the Mac over VNC (with and without SSH), and I’ve also checked off the settings that halve the resolution when I connect remotely, so the Mac really shouldn’t have to work very hard. I’ve always thought that the lag I’ve experienced in Screens was par for the course, but the fact that they’ve introduced a trackpad add-on makes me think that Edovia expects the iPad Pro VNC’ing to be a comfortable enough computing experience that a trackpad will feel right at home.

If I can get this speed issue figured out, though, this could be a really fun extra use case for my iPad Pro. It’s a lot more comfortable for me to return to macOS for things like file management and video rendering. Having full access to my Mac at any time, with a trackpad, would be an amazing difference to working from a cafe. All I’d need to do is make sure my MacBook Pro was plugged in before I left home, and Screens would be able to wake it up remotely (even with the lid closed).

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