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iDisplay for Android review: turn your smartphone or tablet into a 2nd or 3rd desktop display

iDisplay screen extending for Android
When we first heard about iDisplay, there was something about it that piqued our curiosity. It extends your desktop onto another screen -- your Android or iOS device, to be exact -- and while that sounds cool, its actual usefulness isn't immediately apparent.

All you have to do is install the app on your Android device (2.1 or newer), run the server program on your Windows or Mac PC, and then connect from your phone. Voila! An extended desktop.

In theory, it sounds as easy as pie -- and we'd be lying if we said the concept of extending your screen to your mobile device didn't appeal to our the inner nerd -- but in practice, iDisplay for Android is an untamed beast that doesn't really do what it's meant to do.

iDisplay for Android: extending your PC desktop... kind of


The Android app is easy enough to install (but it does cost $5 -- and don't buy it yet!). It requires zero configuration, which is nice, but to be honest, the app doesn't even have a 'settings' screen.

The Windows app requires a little more effort. It has to install a virtual display driver, which will probably require a reboot. You will also need to let it through your firewall when you first launch it. Once the server's running on Windows, run the Android app. The app should automatically find your computer, and you're good to go!

For Mac OS X users, it sounds like installation and connecting might be a little more laborious; check this Android Forums thread for more info.

Crazy display extending hijinks

Before we show you our results, let's just stop and think about the actual practicality of extending your desktop onto a smartphone or tablet. First of all, unless you have some kind of stand for your mobile device, you can't actually use it to extend your desktop -- unless you want to hold it there... for ever.

Basically, the only real use for iDisplay is to 'off load' stuff from your main display onto your smartphone or tablet -- a bit like in 24, when Jack tells Chloe to "send the terminal to my phone." For example, you could drag the Windows calculator, and dump it on your smartphone's screen. Or you could bypass Firefox Sync and just drag a tab directly onto your smartphone. You could even play Windows games on it!

In practice...

Unfortunately, in practice, none of those cool applications actually work.

Well, that's not totally true: Calculator works, but why not just use a damn calculator app? Static browser tabs work OK, but it seems to choke on anything animated -- like Flash games, or the HTML5 FishIE Tank Test Drive.

As far as desktop games go, Civilization 4 kind of works, but iDisplay seems to do some kind of 'desktop snapping' which prevented us from 'docking' Civ 4 completely on the smartphone's screen.

Finally, we're not sure if it's a hardware limitation, or due to some poor coding, but the framerate of the Android app seems very low in general.

The bits that work

It would be unfair to ignore the bits that actually work. It handles multiple displays well -- as in, our test system has two monitors, and iDisplay happily accepted a smartphone as the third display. You can 'attach' your smartphone above, below, or to the sides of any monitor, too.

iDisplay adds a 'Move to iDisplay' option when you right click a window's title bar, which is handy.

Also, you can show the extended display in a window on your desktop -- though we're not really sure why. Rather hilariously, you can then move this window to your mobile device and cause an infinite loop.

Proceed with caution

In conclusion, iDisplay might sound like it's exactly what you're looking for, but don't expect it to blow you away. The Windows program occasionally crashes, and the Android app's output sometimes 'corrupts'. In short, it's hard to be excited about something that only just works.

If you want to try out iDisplay, we strongly suggest you install the Windows or Mac server program first. Once you've installed the Android app, you only have a 15 minute window to claim a refund, so be swift!

Incidentally, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users can grab the iOS version (which should be a little more mature) from the App Store. It's still $4.99, though!

Tags: android, apps, extend, features, hands-on, ios, mac, mobile, multiple displays, MultipleDisplays, screen extending, screen sharing, ScreenExtending, ScreenSharing, shapeservices, software, windows