How to Connect One, Two, or More Monitors to Your Laptop, Including USB Type-C
Laptops are the perfect choice for working on the go, but their relatively small displays can often feel a bit of a hindrance. Hooking up a second, third, or even fourth screen can help give you a little bit of breathing room and make your workload feel much more manageable.
Essentially, having multiple displays means you don’t need to flip between applications on one screen anymore. For example, you can display your email client on your laptop’s native screen and run Photoshop on a bigger external monitor. Maybe you have one monitor dedicated to Slack and another for browsing.
This article explains how to hook up your laptop to your external monitor and configure the display to work the way you want. There are also details on resolution limitations for various connections and advice on finding the right adapter if your video inputs don’t match.
How to Connect a Second Screen to Your Laptop: Check the Connections
If you own a Windows laptop, connecting external displays should be very easy to set up. The first step is to determine which type of cable you need. Most modern laptops will have HDMI, DisplayPort, mini-DisplayPort, or USB Type-C.
If the inputs and outputs on the monitor and laptop match, happy days: you can purchase a cable for a few quid – such as this simple HDMI lead on Amazon – and hook the two together. If the inputs don’t match, or you’ve tried connecting your PC to your monitor and have no picture, scroll down for more information on adapters and converters.
How to Connect a Second Screen to Your Laptop: Extend or Duplicate
Once you’ve got your cable, plug it into the monitor and laptop, the Windows side of things is straightforward. On Windows 8 or 10, hit WIN-P, and you’ll get presented with four options, which pop out in a menu on the right-hand side.
Use the “Duplicate” or “Second screen only” options to display a presentation through a projector or to play a movie. For work, however, the option you need is Extend. This setting will allow you to spread your whole desktop over both screens and drag windows and other items from one to the other.
Users of Windows 7 need to follow a different procedure. Right-click anywhere on the desktop and select “Screen resolution” then choose “Extend these displays” from the “Multiple displays” drop-down menu, and click OK or Apply.
Note: If your monitor doesn’t display your laptop output automatically after all this, it may be necessary to use the monitor’s controls to switch to the correct input manually.
How to Connect a Second Screen to Your Laptop: Fine-Tuning
By default, Windows will position the laptop’s built-in screen to the left and the external monitor to the right, meaning you have to move the cursor off the internal screen’s right-hand side when navigating to the monitor. If you have things the other way around, you’ll need to make a small adjustment since the monitor is stationed on the left side.
On the Windows desktop, right-click and select Screen resolution. Then, in the dialog box that appears next, click and drag the screen icons (screens numbered as 1, 2, etc.) until they’re in the correct order/position as they appear in your workspace. If you’re unsure which screen is number one and two, hit the “Identify” button, and it will display the numbers on each screen.
You’ll notice that Windows doesn’t restrict you to just left and right configurations; you can also arrange the monitor so that it sits above your laptop or below it. You can also fine-tune the screens’ position so that various windows and other items span the two screens and match up.
How to Connect a Second Screen to Your Laptop: Adapters and USB-C Problems
If you have DVI and HDMI, HDMI and DisplayPort, or even VGA and any of the above connections, don’t fear. You can still connect multiple screens using a dual-purpose cable, such as DVI-to-VGA, HDMI-to-DVI, or some other adapter or converter. An increasing number of laptops use a USB Type-C socket to complicate matters further, carrying data, video, and charging capabilities.
The Apple MacBook, rather impractically, has only one USB Type-C socket, but it gets used for everything, so you’ll need to add a multi-adapter if you want to connect it to a second monitor or USB hard disk for backup. The new MacBook Pro laptops have two to four USB Type-C ports and offer much better flexibility.
USB Type-C is brilliant, but it’s not always obvious what the port on your laptop can and cannot do. Indeed, some devices only support USB 2 connectivity and power transfer and won’t carry a video signal at all. In contrast, others offer up to USB 3, but won’t let you plug into a monitor. Alas, there’s no way of telling beyond trying it out or checking the specifications for the USB controller hardware your laptop uses.
There are also variations in USB-C specifications: the Thunderbolt 3 USB-C cable supplied with the 2016 MacBook Pro laptops, for instance, only transmits data and power.
If you attempt to use that same cable to connect your MacBook Pro to your monitor, you’ll be out of luck. Again, there’s no way of telling beyond trial and error or buying a specifically video-compatible cable.
Fortunately, cables are pretty cheap, even though USB Type-C is a relatively newer standard. If you need an HDMI to USB Type-C adaptor, For instance, you can get a low-cost converter on Amazon, if you don’t mind attaching a small USB Type-C to HDMI adapter to the end of your Type-C cable.
However, it’s best to purchase a multi-adapter instead, which gives you much more flexibility. These connectors are a bit more expensive than one-to-one adapters, but they won’t break the bank, and it will provide you with connections for your monitor, your standard USB accessories, and power input all in one.
How to Connect a Second Screen to Your Laptop: Getting the Right Resolution
There is another factor to your choice of cable or adapter, however. Depending on your secondary monitor’s specifications, some video connections may not be capable of displaying images at the monitor’s native resolution.
Although you can still connect the monitor as a secondary display, you may find that the screen gets stretched or appears more blurry than it should be. With many affordable consumer monitors offering WQHD (2,560 x 1,440 pixel) or 4K (3,840 x 2,160 pixel) resolutions, it’s worth making the right choice to get the best quality on your particular device.
Although there’s no hard limit to the maximum resolution of a VGA connection, laptop graphics cards often top out around 2,048 x 1,536. It’s worth knowing that images can look softer and less sharp via a VGA cable as it’s an analog signal rather than a digital connection.
A DVI connection is a better choice, partly because it’s a digital connection, but you still have to be careful. If you want to use resolutions above 1,920 x 1,200, you’ll need both a dual-link DVI cable and a dual-link compatible connector on your laptop. Take a look at the image below to see the difference between a dual-link (left) and a single-link cable (right).
Similarly, although the HDMI 1.3 standard added support for monitors and displays that stretch beyond the popular Full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels), and HDMI 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 now support up to 4K resolutions, both your laptop and monitor will need to support the standard for the connection to work. If you have a portable computer with an HDMI 1.2 or earlier port, you won’t be able to push the secondary monitor resolution higher than 1,920 x 1,200.
DisplayPort is the most flexible connection of the bunch (as is USB Type-C, since it’s merely a carrier for a DisplayPort or HDMI connection). Even the older DisplayPort 1.1 standard supports up to 4K resolutions at 30Hz. That specification limits the onscreen framerate to a jerky 30fps. So, while movies look fine, it isn’t suitable for 4K gaming. DisplayPort 1.2 adds support for 4K at a smooth 60Hz refresh rate.
The most recent standard, DisplayPort 1.3, adds support for 8K (7,680 x 4,320 pixels). With some laptops and graphics cards, different outputs will support different resolutions and refresh rates. Therefore, it’s worth checking to see which connection is most capable before buying any cables or adapters. If you don’t get the right one, you may end up with a lower resolution and refresh rate, produced by a monitor capable of delivering better quality.
If you’ve got a recent Apple laptop or desktop with a Thunderbolt connection, then bear in mind that you can use a ‘mini DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort’ cable (or a DisplayPort adapter) to connect to any compatible monitor—the monitor doesn’t need to have a Thunderbolt input. You can pick up a ‘mini DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort’ cable for a few dollars on Amazon.
How to Connect a Second Screen to Your Laptop: Connect Two or More Monitors
In many cases, connecting two (or more) monitors to your laptop is as simple as plugging them into several video outputs. Depending on your portable PC’s age and the graphics chipset inside, there may be hardware limitations that prevent you from doing so. Older laptops may only support two displays: the laptop display and a secondary monitor. Newer models may allow as many as three external displays. Other devices, such as Ultrabooks, hybrids, and tablets, may be limited by only having one display output, or possibly none.
However, there are ways to add an extra monitor even if you’ve already used all the connections, or your laptop doesn’t have a working video output.
For devices with a DisplayPort 1.2 connection, there are a couple of options. Firstly, you can buy a DisplayPort hub that splits your single connection into multiple outputs. These splitters aren’t cheap, but they allow an available DisplayPort connection to power two 2,560 x 1,600 monitors and a third 1,920 x 1,200 display simultaneously. Another option is buying a monitor with daisy-chain functionality: compatible monitors use a DisplayPort output at the rear to allow you to connect multiple monitors via a single DisplayPort connection.
Even if you’ve got an older laptop or a device without any working video connections, all you need is a spare USB port to add another display. There are a variety of reasonably priced USB to DVI, VGA, or HDMI converters on the market, which will allow you to add an extra monitor. You may need drivers for Windows 7 and earlier, but Windows 8 devices should pick them up automatically.
Whatever you decide to do, make sure to think about the resolution issue we mentioned earlier when connecting multiple monitors. For instance, if you want to run a 4K monitor and a 1,920 x 1,080 monitor simultaneously, make sure to link the 4K monitor to the video connection, which will allow the highest, and ideally native, resolution to get used. Get them the wrong way, and you won’t get the best out of your display.