A few days with the Luna Display

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a Luna Display. It worked fine, but it didn’t feel comfortable doing what I’d bought it for, and I returned it after a few days. I learned in those few days that I don’t like running Mac software on an iPad, especially an iPad without a hardware keyboard.

If you know about Squarespace web hosting, Away luggage, and Casper mattresses, you’re familiar with the Luna Display. It’s been a ubiquitous sponsor of Apple-centric podcasts for months, so you know it’s a little plug that pops into the USB-C or Mini DisplayPort on your Mac and allows you to use your iPad as a sort of controllable monitor.

Luna Display dongles

If you want to supplement what you’ve heard on podcasts and what you can read on the Luna site, T.J. Luoma has an excellent writeup on his Luna Display configuration, including some practical tips he’s picked up as he’s gained more experience with it.

When I bought my Luna, I had a very particular use in mind, and it’s that use that informed my ultimate decision that the Luna wasn’t for me. I have an iMac in my office at work on which all my project-related files reside. Each project gets a folder (in Dropbox so I can also get them easily on my home iMac) and a bunch of subfolders for drawings, plans, specifications, and photographs of the machinery or building that the project is about. While I do most of my work in my office, inspections and testing of equipment are done in my company’s laboratory space, some 75–100 feet from my office. What I wanted from the Luna display was a quick and convenient way to refer to drawings and (especially) photographs from my iPad while I was looking at parts back in the lab.

With the photos on Dropbox, I could access them from the lab through either the Dropbox or Files apps, but latency was often a problem, as the iPad had to download each photo from the cloud before it could be displayed. I figured a local network solution, like the Luna Display, would solve the latency problem.

And it did. Photos viewed through the Luna software popped up on the iPad screen quickly because they were coming through a fast internal network instead of through a sometimes sluggish outside connection. Overall, I’d say the Luna Display worked exactly as advertised. But…

Because my iPad was acting as a Mac display, I was viewing the photos through Mac software, and none of the software I tried—while perfectly fine when run directly on the Mac itself—felt right when run indirectly on the iPad.

When I’m working on my Mac and I need to flip through a bunch of photos, I typically open up the folder in which the photos are stored and do one of two things:

This system doesn’t work well on the iPad because its efficiency depends on keyboard shortcuts—the space bar to go in and out of QuickLook and the arrow keys to flip from photo to photo—and I don’t want to bring a keyboard with me into the lab. The value of the iPad in this situation is its compactness, the ability to set it up in a small space that doesn’t intrude on the inspection or test. You might think a keyboard wouldn’t take up enough space to get in the way, but it does.

There are other software options for viewing photos. Xee was the photo viewer I used to use a lot in the pre-QuickLook days. It’s a nice piece of software, and using it again during my Luna Display tryout has made me think I should go back to it (its ability to quickly show EXIF data very useful). But like the Finder/QuickLook system described above, it isn’t efficient without a keyboard and wasn’t a good fit with the Luna.

I also tried out Phiewer, which can give you both an overview of the photos in a folder like Icon View and a detailed view of an individual image like QuickLook. It has onscreen buttons for navigation—which is a waste of screen space for a Mac app, but a godsend if you’re running that Mac app on a keyboardless iPad—but it doesn’t allow zooming via pinching, and that just seems wrong when working on an iPad.

In fact, everything felt wrong when I was running Mac apps through my iPad. Buttons were too small, even when I tried tapping on them with the Pencil. Resizing windows was a chore; dragging felt off. I confess I didn’t spend time examining why the behavior just didn’t feel right, but it didn’t.

I use both my Macs and my iPad a lot, and while I don’t have any trouble switching between the two, I found it very annoying to be forced into using Mac-like actions on an iPad. This was surprising to me, as I have nearly 35 years of Mac use under my belt and only 2½ years of iPad use.1 But my immediate sense—a sense that didn’t change over the 4–5 days I used the Luna—was one of unease.

Would I have felt this unease had I been using the Luna Display in a more keyboard-centric manner? Maybe not. And I can see where people who are iPad-first users would find the Luna very convenient if they only occasionally need to be hands-on with their Mac mini server. But for my use, the neither-fish-nor-fowl behavior that the Luna forced me into was very inconvenient. It made me have to think about what I was doing instead of just doing it, and that got in the way of my real work.

The good thing that came out of my Luna Display tryout was that it made me think harder about a software-only solution to my problem. I finally learned of a way to use FileBrowser on my local network that was pleasant instead of teeth-grittingly frustrating, which was my previous FileBrowser experience. I’ll describe that in a later post.

  1. The 11 years of iPhone are probably a confounding factor in this comparison.