How to Connect One, Two, or More Monitors to Your Windows Laptop, Including USB Type-C
Laptops are perfect for working on the go, but small displays can often hinder readability and functionality. Hooking up a second, third, or even fourth screen gives you some breathing room and makes your workload more manageable. Of course, the more monitors you add, the faster you drain the battery and the hotter the laptop gets.
Essentially, having multiple displays means you no longer need to flip between applications on one screen. 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. The possibilities are endless.
This article explains how to add an external monitor to your laptop 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 correct adapter if your video inputs don’t match. Let’s get started.
How to Connect and Use Multiple Monitors on a Windows Laptop
1. Check the Cable Connections
Connecting external displays should be straightforward if you own a Windows laptop. The first step is to determine which type of cable you need. Most modern laptops have an HDMI, DisplayPort, mini-DisplayPort, or USB Type-C port capable of display output.
If the inputs and outputs on the monitor and laptop match, you can purchase a cable, such as this simple HDMI cable 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.
2. Choose to Extend or Duplicate the Desktop in Windows
Extending/Duplicating the Desktop in Windows 8, 8.1, and 10
Once you’ve got your cable, plug it into the monitor and laptop, the Windows side of things is straightforward.
- On Windows 8, 8.1, or 10, press “WIN + P” to open the “PROJECT” menu, which appears on the right-hand side.
- Use the “Duplicate” or “Second screen only” option to display a presentation through a projector or to play a movie. For work or gaming, however, the option you need is “Extend.” This setting allows you to spread your entire desktop over two screens and drag windows and other items from one to the other.
Extending/Duplicating the Desktop in Windows 7
Users of Windows 7 need to follow a different procedure than Windows 8, 8.1, or 10 to duplicate or extend their display.
- Right-click anywhere on the desktop and select “Screen resolution.”
- Choose “Extend these displays” or “Duplicate 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, it may be necessary to use the monitor’s controls to switch to the correct input.
3. Adjust Multi-Monitor Positions in Windows
By default, Windows positions 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 adjust the placement position slightly since the external monitor resides on the left side.
Changing Multi-Monitor Screen Positions in Windows 10
- Click on the “Start Menu” and then select “Settings.”
- Click on “System.”
- In the preselected “Display” Menu, click on a monitor and move it around into position. If it sits to the left of your main screen, position it to the left of the main one, or move it wherever it sits around the built-in/primary monitor.
- At this point, no other action is necessary. Close the “Settings” menu, and you’re good to go.
Changing Multi-Monitor Screen Positions in Windows 7
- On the Windows 7 desktop, right-click and select “Screen resolution.”
- In the dialog box that appears, 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. Use “Identify” if needed.
- Select “OK” or “Apply” when finished.
You’ll notice that Windows doesn’t restrict you to just left and right configurations; you can also arrange the monitor to sit above your laptop or below it. You can also fine-tune the screens’ positions so that various windows and other items span across them and match up.
4. Solve Video Adapters and USB-C Problems
Don’t fear if you have DVI and HDMI, HDMI and DisplayPort, or even VGA and any of the above connections. 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. USB Type-C is brilliant, but it’s not always obvious what the port on your laptop can and cannot do. You’ll have to check your laptop’s manual for details. Some devices only support USB 2.0 connectivity and power transfer and don’t carry a video signal. Others offer USB 3.0 but won’t let you plug the connection into a monitor. Alas, there’s no way of telling beyond trying it out or checking the specifications for your laptop’s USB controller hardware.
If you attempt to use that same cable to connect your laptop 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 generally cheap, even though USB Type-C is a relatively newer standard. But don’t let that statement lead you to believe cheaper is better. You usually get what you pay for, and the capabilities of the cable may have limits, such as 4K versus 8K resolution and a 60Hz refresh rate versus 120Hz.
If you need an HDMI to USB Type-C adaptor, 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, 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 they provide you with connections for your monitor, your standard USB accessories, and power input all in one.
5. Adjust Display Quality
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. However, 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 a dual-link DVI cable and a dual-link compatible connector on your laptop. Look at the image below to see the difference between a dual-link (left) and a single-link cable (right).
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 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, supports 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 get a lower resolution and refresh rate produced by a monitor capable of delivering better quality.
If you’ve got a recent Apple laptop with a Thunderbolt connection, 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.
6. 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 it, hardware limitations may prevent you from doing so. Older laptops may only support one extra display monitor. Newer models often allow as many as three external displays. Other devices, such as Ultrabooks, hybrids, and tablets, may be limited by only having one extra 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 DisplayPort 1.2 support, you have 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, you only need a spare USB port to add another display. There are reasonably priced USB-to-DVI, VGA, or HDMI converters on the market. You may need drivers for Windows 7 and earlier, but Windows 8 devices and newer should pick them up automatically.
Whatever you decide to do, ensure you consider 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, you need to link the 4K monitor to the video connection, which allows the highest, and ideally native, resolution. Install them the wrong way, and you won’t get the best out of your display.
In closing, whether you’re connecting multiple monitors to your laptop for work or streaming movies to a more prominent display, there are several ways to accomplish the task. Connecting various screens directly to a laptop has never been easier. Just follow the instructions above, and you’ll be up and running.