Review: Lux Orion

by on January 17, 2024

Over the years, many people in tech circles have had a love/hate relationship with the iPad. While certainly a great device, there were often long stretches over the last decade where it almost could replace a Mac, then leaves users wanting more. With the advent of Apple Silicon Macs, it’s become clear that even Apple doesn’t think the iPad is going to replace the Mac. Where the iPad shines is in unique ways where the device disappears to perform a unique task. Lux Optics, makers of the well-regarded Halide camera app, has enabled iPad users to transform their devices with Orion, an app that turns your iPad into an HDMI monitor.

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With features like Sidecar and Universal Control, Apple has created ways of using your iPad in tandem with your Mac. Prior products have also existed to use an iPad as an external display for computers (typically either wirelessly or via a USB cable), but what about other things? Thanks to iPadOS 17’s support for inexpensive video capture devices, Orion is a product that wouldn’t have existed a few years ago. The introductory post about it on company’s blog provides explains:

This summer, Apple announced iPadOS 17 would support UVC, or USB Video Class devices (basically:”webcams”). This could be compelling to us, so we researched adding support to Halide. After all, how cool would it be to have Halide’s interface for your digital camera?

After some quick research, we found it didn’t really work quite like we had hoped. However, our experiments uncovered that those inexpensive USB-C “capture cards” you find on Amazon work like webcams. With one of those, you could plug any HDMI device into your iPad and its output would show up on your screen. It was a “Woah” moment.

While the app is free, there is a $4.99 in-app purchase unlock for advanced features, You also need to have an iPad with a USB-C port and some sort of HDMI-to-USB-C capture device (I’m using this one that runs about $20.) While inexpensive USB-C monitors exist for under $100, there’s something oddly satisfying about having a cheap dongle that can make a device you already own more useful. If you plan on using it for long periods of time, you may need to get a USB-C dock/hub that has a power pass-through (due to the iPad’s single USB-C port).

As for using the app, one simply has to plug the dongle into their iPad, connect the video source, and launch Orion. With nothing connected, one is greeted with a display that looks like a retro TV or video monitor. Touches like that give an arguably simple app some personality and make it a joy to use, as explained some more in the previously linked blog post:

While Ben worked on the technical functionality, in parallel, I explored Orion’s potential visual design. I wanted it to be very fun and even a little campy — I got a lot of inspiration from in the 80s which had a very futuristic, yet tacky look.

I loved the optimism and almost science-fiction like reverence for technology back then. There was a lot of color and whimsy involved.

I’ve tested Orion with a number of devices, including a Sony video camera, a SNES classic, a Raspberry Pi, a few Windows 10 desktop PCs through a DisplayPort->HDMI cable, and an Apple TV and it works as advertised. The free version should be enough for most people, but the in-app purchase adds 4K upscaling (the capture devices max out at 1080p and it’s also a bit hard to test on my iPad mini’s small screen), a few picture adjustments, and a selection of three CRT effects (great for retro video games). I do appreciate the attention to detail on the CRT effects, imitating the three common layouts of color phosphors (including Sony’s Trinitron displays). I didn’t necessarily think these features were necessary, but I appreciate the idea of more than just a plain video feed, and it’s also a way to support future development. What could make this upgrade worthwhile is the ability to stretch or zoom 4:3 content to 16:9 as most modern TVs do.

As mentioned, while small, inexpensive displays exist, most people aren’t going to buy one just in case. For people who already own an iPad, a small dongle to keep in your gear bag transforms your iPad into a battery-powered HDMI monitor. Besides travel purposes or gaming, I’ve found that it works great as a live monitor for camera work. It’s definitely a “good in a pinch” temporary solution.

One additional capability that is a bit of a side-effect of being displayed on an iPad screen is that you can use the built-in screen recording capability, which can be really handy for sharing gaming content.

My only gripes is that for some things, I’ve noticed a bit of video “tearing” with games, although I’m not sure if it’s a limitation of my iPad, the capture dongle, or using using UVC devices on iPads. I tried the same capture device with VLC on my MacBook Air and actually saw poorer performance. Complaints about this and some latency lag seem to be affecting all iPad UVC “monitor” apps, so I think it’s out of Lux’s hands.

Update: Reader Jason Robinson was having the same issue and it seems that it might be an issue with the cable being old:

I have the same Guermok capture card that you linked, and was seeing the same tearing issues.

BUT I can report that I did some testing and found that using *the best HDMI cable we own* completely fixed the issue.

I unfortunately can’t offer any insight about what specs specifically make this cable work better than others — I purchased it when we bought a nice TV last year — but I was pleased to discover that it’s not a limitation of the capture card or iPadOS or Orion itself.

Although fuzzy on the specific cable, Robinson said it looks like this modern HDMI 2.1 cable. My test cable was the old Apple-branded HDMI cable (MC838LL/B—it’s in my gear bag), which I’m guessing probably predates even HDMI 2.0. After my own tests, I can confirm that a newer cable made all the difference and all issues of latency and tearing went away. If you’re running into these issues, it might be worth trying a different cable (keep in mind that the capture dongle is converting the stream to H.264 video on the fly).

Should you get Orion? I’d argue that for anyone with an iPad that has a USB-C port, yes. Obviously there’s the expense of the capture dongle, but for the price of $15-$25, it’s a small price for something to add to a gear bag that’s nice to have on hand. The only thing I’d like to see is the app expanded to run on iPhones and Macs (even as an iPad app). It might be a limitation by Apple, as iOS 17 doesn’t appear to have UVC support—that’s a shame as a pocket-sized monitor can be especially handy for IT folks troubleshooting or anyone shooting video that is stuck with an older LCD viewfinder. As for Macs, there are a wide variety of UVC-capable applications, although certainly not as easy and charming as Orion.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

Orion is a creative and thoughtful tool that does a great job of turning your iPad into an HDMI monitor in a pinch.

Pros: Free, well-designed, can use built-in screen recording
Cons: iPad-only, requires iPad with USB-C and video capture dongle

Rating: 9/10

The Facts

Product: Orion
Company: Lux
Platform: iPad w/USB-C, iPadOS 17+
Price: Free, $4.99 in-app purchase for extra features

This post has been filed in iOS Apps, iPad, Mobile Devices, Reviews