Most people choose laptops for their portability. However, you can get a lot more utility out of a laptop by plugging it into a larger display while at home or in the office. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Plug It In
The first thing you’ll need to do is figure out which connectors you can use. You can do this by checking the output on your laptop and the input on your monitor of choice. If you don’t yet have a monitor, you can choose a model based on what you have available on your laptop.
Whatever combination of monitor and connection you choose, the process is the same: connect one end of the cable to your laptop and the other to a suitable input on your monitor. Make sure that the input choice is set on the display. Your laptop should then appear on the monitor.
From here, you can configure the display using your operating system’s settings since you may encounter resolution, orientation, or display mirroring issues.
Understanding Different Cables and Connectors
Various cables and connectors exist out there. The cable or connector you choose will depend on your setup.
HDMI & Mini HDMI
HDMI outputs are commonly found on many laptops and monitors. Even the older HDMI 2.0b standard can support resolutions of up to 4K at 60Hz, including HDR display modes for high dynamic range video and gaming. Some laptops use a Mini HDMI connector (not to be confused with Micro HDMI) instead of the full-sized port.
If you have a smaller Mini HDMI output, you can use a Mini HDMI to HDMI adapter or an HDMI cable with a different connector on each end. HDMI is a digital connection that carries both video and audio signals, with the newer HDMI 2.1 standard supporting much higher resolutions and faster refresh rates.
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Mini HDMI Adapter to HDMI
Use this adapter with a standard full-sized HDMI cable to connect your laptop or another device to a standard monitor or television.
DisplayPort is another common connection type that you may encounter. It’s used almost solely for computer monitors, with some monitors only able to use a DisplayPort connector (though it’s more common to find both HDMI and DisplayPort).
DisplayPort is an obvious choice if your laptop and monitor support it, especially if you already have a free cable. DisplayPort 1.4 is the current standard and has been for years (DisplayPort 2.0 is set to launch later in 2022) with enough bandwidth for 4K resolutions at 120Hz or more plus HDR.
Like HDMI, DisplayPort is a digital standard that carries both video and audio signals. You may have a full-sized DisplayPort or mini-DisplayPort output on your laptop, both of which are compatible using an adapter.
You may find that you have a mixture of these two common ports, for example, an HDMI output on your laptop and a monitor that only accepts DisplayPort. If this is the case, you can use a uni-directional DisplayPort to HDMI cable or a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter to bridge the gap.
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Uni-Directional DisplayPort to HDMI cable
Plug your laptop’s DisplayPort output into an HDMI input (and vice versa) with this simple, uni-directional cable that maximizes compatibility between devices.
Another connector choice becoming increasingly common is USB-C, which utilizes the DisplayPort standard in a familiar USB-C housing. This is a popular choice for its ability to both charge your laptop and act as a display cable at the same time.
Both the monitor and laptop will need to support DisplayPort over USB-C. And for charging, you’ll need to ensure that the monitor can supply enough power.
Thunderbolt is a similar data cable connection that works like USB-C, using an active cable with much greater bandwidth. Thunderbolt is often used to chain devices together. For example, you can plug your laptop into a monitor and then plug a Thunderbolt RAID drive into your monitor. You can then use both on your laptop with a single connection.
Set Up Display Preferences
With your monitor connected to your laptop, you can now configure it to get things working the way you want. This works differently across operating systems.
On Windows 11 and 10, head to Start > Settings > System > Display. Your internal display and external monitor should be listed.
If they aren’t, click the “Detect” button. Once you detect your displays, you can choose things like resolution, orientation, and whether to extend or mirror your display.
On a Mac, connect your display, then head to System Preferences (System Settings) > Displays. You should see your internal display and external monitor listed in the sidebar on the left.
You can click each one to make separate changes to resolution and display output type (including HDR output modes), as well as turn off mirroring and use each as a separate display.
You can also do this with Linux, but the level of support and exact instructions vary significantly with the sheer number of Linux distributions. Your best bet is to look up instructions for your particular distribution.
Many Chromebook laptops also support external monitors. Simply plug in using the display output available and head to Settings > Displays to configure things.
Positioning your monitor so it appears where you want it is another hurdle you’ll have to overcome. On a Mac, you can simply drag the monitor into position under the Displays preference pane. On Windows, you can do the same under the Display preferences.
Dual Monitor Setup with Laptop
Many laptops support dual monitor setups, which means using two or more external monitors on a single computer. If you’re going this route, you’re technically using three monitors if you include your internal laptop display.
The first thing you’ll need to do is ensure your laptop’s GPU supports multiple monitors. You can do that by looking up your GPU or laptop model on the manufacturer’s website. If you have dual HDMI or DisplayPort outputs on your laptop, you can safely assume that your laptop supports a multiple external monitor setup.
If you only have a single port, you’ll need to explore other methods of connecting more than one external monitor to your laptop. This could involve linking Thunderbolt displays, using a USB-C to HDMI or DisplayPort adapter, or using a display that supports Thunderbolt or DisplayPort over USB-C output alongside your existing HDMI or DisplayPort output.
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Connect your MacBook, Dell XPS, Samsung Galaxy, or even iPad Pro to a display with HDMI input using this handy adapter.
You could also invest in a laptop-appropriate docking station to access more ports, including multiple HDMI or DisplayPort outputs (like this Triple Display USB-C Docking Station). These are ideal for home and work setups, allowing you to plug your laptop in with a single cable and quickly connect to displays and peripherals.
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Connect three displays (two HDMI, one VGA) with this docking station that lives on your desk. Just make sure your laptop is compatible with dual HDMI outputs before you buy.
Using an iPad as a Second Display
If you have a spare iPad you’d like to get more use out of, you could always try using it as a second display via the SideCar feature. You’ll need macOS Catalina and a compatible Mac and iPad for this to work.
If you have a Windows computer, older Mac, or iPad that isn’t compatible with SideCar, you can use Duet Display to connect your laptop to an iPad instead.
Multiple Screens: Worth It for Productivity
More screen real estate means less switching between windows, desktops, or tabs. You can watch videos on one screen while browsing the web on another. You can be playing something and chatting to friends in Discord without having to Alt+Tab your way around. The possibilities are endless.