How to connect one, two or more monitors to your laptop, including USB Type-C

The definitive guide to connecting one, two or more monitors to your laptop

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.

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Essentially, having multiple displays means you don't need to flit between applications on one screen anymore. For example, you can fix your email client to your laptop's native display, and run Photoshop on a bigger external monitor, or maybe you have one monitor dedicated to Slack, and another for browsing.

In this article, we explain how to get your computer hooked up to your external monitor, and then how to configure it to work in the way you want. There's also advice on finding the right adapter if your connections don't match, along with the resolution limitations of various connections.

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, plugged it into the monitor and laptop, the Windows side of things is straightforward. On Windows 8 or 10, hit WIN-P, and you'll be presented with four options, which pop out in a menu on the right-hand side.

Use the "Duplicate" or "Second screen only" choices if you want to display a presentation on a projector or play a movie. For work, however, the option you need is Extend. This will allow you to spread your whole desktop over both screens and drag windows and other items from one to the other.

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Users of Windows 7 need to follow a different procedure. Right-click anywhere on the desktop and select "Screen resolution", then select "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 manually switch to the correct input.

How to connect a second screen to your laptop: Fine tuning

By default, Windows will position the laptop screen to the left, and the monitor to the right, meaning you have to move the cursor off the right-hand side of the screen to reach your desktop monitor. If, in the physical world of your desktop, you have things the other way around, with the laptop to the right of your monitor, you'll now have to make a small adjustment.

On the Windows desktop, right-click and select Screen resolution. Then, in the dialog box that appears next, click and drag the screen icons at the top of the box (they'll be numbered 1 and 2) until they're in the correct position. If you're unsure as to which screen is which, hit the Identify button to help you out.

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 position of the screens so windows and other items that span the two screens roughly match up.

How to connect a second screen to your laptop: Adapters and USB-C problems

If you have a mix of DVI and HDMI, or HDMI and DisplayPort, or even VGA and any of the above connections, don't fear it's likely that you can still connect, either by using a dual-personality cable (such as DVI-to-VGA or HDMI-to-DVI), or some kind of adapter or converter.

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To complicate matters further, though, an increasing number of laptops use a USB Type-C socket, which can carry not only data but also video, as well as charging your laptop.

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The Apple MacBook, rather impractically, has only one USB Type-C socket, but it's 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, while others offer up to USB 3, but won't let you plug your monitor in. Alas, there's no way of telling beyond trying it out or checking the specifications for the USB controller hardware your laptop uses.

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There's also variation in the specification of cables: the USB-C cable supplied with the 2016 MacBook Pro laptops, for instance, is only data and power compatible. If you attempt to use it to connect your MacBook Pro to your monitor, you'll be bang out of luck. Again, there's no way of telling beyond trial and error or buying a cable that's specifically video compatible.

Fortunately, cables are pretty cheap, despite USB Type-C being a fairly new standard. If you need an HDMI to USB Type-C adaptor, for instance, you can get one for just over a tenner on Amazon, or even less if you don't mind attaching a small USB Type-C to HDMI adapter to the end of your Type-C cable. However, I'd advise purchasing a multi-adapter instead, which will give you much more flexibility. They're a bit more expensive than one-to-one adapters, but the one I've linked to just below from Amazon won't break the bank and it will give you connections for your monitor, your standard USB accessories and power input all in one.

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For these or any other video cabling mashup you're thinking of carrying out, check out TVCables to find out if your mix will work.

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 the specifications of your secondary monitor, some video connections may not be capable of displaying images at the monitor's native resolution. Although you will still be able to connect to them as a secondary monitor, you may find that images are stretched out or more blurry than they should be. With many affordable consumer monitors now 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 make the most of your particular display.

For reference, although there's no hard limit to the maximum resolution of a VGA connection (shown above), we've found that laptop graphics cards often top out around 2,048 x 1,536, and it's worth knowing that images can look softer and less sharp via a VGA cable as it's an analogue rather than a digital connection. A DVI connection is a better bet, partly as it's a digital connection, but even here 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).

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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 laptop with an HDMI 1.2 or earlier port, then you won't be able to push the secondary monitor resolution higher than 1,920 x 1,200.

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DisplayPort is the most flexible connection of the bunch (as is USB Type-C, since it simply a carrier for a DisplayPort or HDMI connection). Even the older DisplayPort 1.1 standard supports up to 4K resolutions at 30Hz (this 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 resolutions at a smooth 60Hz; and the most recent standard, DisplayPort 1.3, adds support for 8K resolutions (7,680 x 4,320 pixel). With some laptops, and graphics cards, different outputs will support different resolutions and refresh rates, so it's worth checking which is the most capable before buying any cables or adapters -- if you don't, you may end up not getting the highest resolutions and refresh rates out of your monitor or TV.

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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 couple of quid 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 a spare video output. Depending on the age of your laptop, however, and the graphics chipset inside, there may be hardware limitations that prevent you from doing so. Older laptops may only support two displays -- that is, the laptop display and a secondary monitor whereas 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 at all.

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However, there are ways to add an extra monitor even if your laptop doesn't have a working video output, or if you've already used all the connections you do have.

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 DisplayPort connection into multiple outputs. These aren't cheap they often cost over 100, or slightly under that for a three-slot hub on Amazon but these can allow a single DisplayPort connection to power two 2,560 x 1,600 monitors and a third 1,920 x 1,200 display at the same time. Another option is buying a monitor with daisy-chain functionality: compatible monitors use a DisplayPort output at the rear to allow you 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 they retail from around 40 and upwards which will allow you add an extra monitor with little in the way of faff. You may need drivers for Windows 7 and earlier, but Windows 8 devices should pick them up automatically.

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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 connect a 4K monitor and a 1,920 x 1,080 monitor simultaneously, make sure to connect the 4K monitor to the video connection which will allow the highest, and ideally native, resolution to be used. Get them the wrong way around, and you won't get the best out of your display.


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