How to Add and Configure an External Display to your Mac Laptop

If you use a MacBook, you can add an external display to give yourself more screen real estate. A second display can really help your productivity and make everything feel a little less cramped.

Before you can connect your Mac to an external monitor, however, you have to know what kind of cable to use. If you’re unsure, it’s pretty easy to Google it or use the MacTracker app to find out. If your MacBook or MacBook Pro was manufactured after 2015, then you will need a USB-C (Thunderbolt 3) cable that goes to VGA, DVI, or HDMI. The other end will be determined by your monitor–so double check its available ports to see which it offers. If you have a choice, HDMI and DVI are preferable to VGA, which is an older analog standard.

Pre-2015 MacBooks will most likely sport a Thunderbolt 1 or 2 connector or Mini DisplayPort connector. The connector for all three of these is the same, so finding a cable to attach to your older MacBook shouldn’t be an issue.

Once you have your monitor connected to your MacBook, it’ll likely show your Mac’s screen immediately. But there are several configuration options you should know about.

Head to System Preferences > Displays on your Mac.

If your Mac’s desktop doesn’t appear on your second monitor, make sure it is detecting it. Newer monitors typically have two or more display connections. While most will autodetect your Mac with few problems, you may have to manually press the “source” (or similar) button on your monitor until you reach the right one—kind of like you do on your HDTV. Read through your monitor’s product manual for more information if the problem persists, and also make sure to check your cable’s connection, to assure it hasn’t come loose.

You can also hold the “Option” key and the preference pane’s Gather Windows button will transform to Detect Displays, which may do the trick if your display’s input source is correctly configured and the cable is tightly connected.

You’ll have two preference panels: once for your built-in display, and one for your external.

If you don’t see both preference panels, the other one is probably on the other display. You can click “Gather Windows” to make both preference panels appear on the current display.

You can adjust the resolution on your displays to default or scaled. The top-most resolution listed is the optimal one, anything below that will render noticeably inferior results.

The arrangement of your displays is important for navigating from one to the other. For example, if your external is to the left of your MacBook and your arrangement has it on the right, it will be confusing because every time you mouse right, the pointer will hit the screen edge instead of continuing onto the next display.

Click on the Arrangement tab and then drag your displays into the desired position. You can also click and drag the little white menu bar to relocate it to your preferred display.

You can also choose to mirror your displays. When you check this box, both displays will show the same thing. You will have the option to optimize it for either the built-in or external, or you can scale both monitors so the resolutions match on each.

Mirroring is well suited for doing presentations, whereas extending your desktop (non-mirroring) is better for day-to-day work.

If you look at your second monitor’s preferences, you’ll have two tabs for display and color. Unlike the built-in display’s preferences, you won’t be able to adjust brightness, nor will there be an AirPlay option, but you can rotate it (90, 180, 270 degrees) if the display’s stand will accommodate rotating.

The last option is the color panel. While the options here are beyond the scope of this article, you can learn more about color profiles and calibrating your display if you feel you aren’t seeing colors correctly.

Probably the most challenging aspect of this process is getting the cable. Beyond that, macOS makes it a cinch and once you understand how to adjust the preferences, you will have everything arranged so it best works for you.

Connecting a second (or even third) monitor to your MacBook can open up new possibilities and alleviate the logjam of various windows and apps that typically crowds your built-in display. It allows you to better dictate and organize your workflow, possibly increasing your productivity, making you a more efficient and happy worker.

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

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