If you don’t need to be mobile, though, working off of only one screen can be tricky, particularly if you need to use many big windows and tabs.
Fortunately, you can connect your MacBook to a computer monitor and give yourself a second screen. We’re here to tell you exactly how to do that, and what to look for in a monitor if you’re buying one to connect to your MacBook.
Check the Ports on Your Monitor and MacBook
To connect a monitor to your MacBook, you need to know what ports you’re working with.
Most modern MacBooks, particularly the MacBook Pro, have USB-C ports for connecting external accessories, like a monitor. Apple helped to make the USB-C port pretty ubiquitous by including it in the MacBook lineup.
The 2020 MacBook Air or MacBook Pro computers have Thunderbolt 3 or USB 4.0 ports. These ports are compatible with USB-C cables, but they’re faster at transferring data.
Much like other MacBooks, the 2020 models only have one type of port—just two to four of them, depending on your model. If your laptop is a few years older, you might have USB, HDMI, Thunderbolt, or even Firewire ports to consider instead.
In terms of monitors, most modern ones will likely have HDMI ports. Some monitors may use DisplayPort, but this is less common than HDMI.
An older monitor may use a DVI port, VGA, or Firewire if it’s very old. A few modern ones sport USB-C ports, but that’s still relatively rare.
USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports do exist on monitors, as they do on some MacBooks, but they’re too slow in transferring information to let your MacBook display on a monitor through them. Even iPads can’t be used as second monitors with them—you need to use Sidecar to display your Mac on an iPad instead.
If you don’t have a monitor yet, we’d recommend getting one that has the same ports as the ones on your laptop, as that really simplifies things for yourself and reduces how many cables and adapters you need.
If you have multiple computers you hope to use on the monitor, though, or your MacBook is getting a little long in the tooth, a monitor with HDMI ports should be easy to find, and can connect to just about anything.
Get the Right Cables and Adapters
Once you know what ports you’re working with, you just have to buy cables that fit them.
In some cases, that’s as easy as just buying one cable. In other cases, you may also have to invest in adapters that will allow you to plug one cable into two different ports.
More likely than not, you’ll be buying an adapter for a port on your MacBook. Thankfully, HDMI to USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 adapters are fairly common, and you can get them at the Apple store, as well as online
Make sure you consider the length of your cables before you buy them. Generally it’s better to get something long, as you’ll be able to move things around a desk or table more easily. You can also rearrange things when you need to.
It’s also much less of a headache to cover up or tuck away long cords than it is to work with cables that are too short to comfortably connect two machines. Shorter cables may pull themselves free; long cables won’t do that!
Plug Everything In and Adjust Your Settings
With your ports understood and cables obtained, the next step is to plug the cables in and start using your monitor with your MacBook.
First, make sure your monitor has its power cord plugged in and is turned on. Then, plug the cable you’ll be connecting to your MacBook into the monitor.
On your MacBook, you shouldn’t have to do more than plug in the cable (or the cable with an adapter). At that point, your screen will blink black for a second and your monitor screen should turn on, showing a continuation of your laptop display.
Depending on where you’re setting up your monitor relative to your laptop—to the right, left, or even above or below it—you’ll want to adjust how your screens work to mimic what’s happening in real life.
If your MacBook thinks the monitor is to the right, when it’s really to the left, you’ll still have to move your cursor all the way to the right to get over to the monitor. This can be disorienting, and it definitely hurts workflow if you need to go between the displays a lot.
To fix or avoid this, head to System Preferences > Displays. You’ll see two preferences windows when you do this, one for your MacBook screen, and one for your monitor. On both of these windows, you’ll be able to adjust the brightness, resolution, rotation, and colors of the screens.
It’s good to have these settings match up, as it makes for a better viewing and work experience in the displays.
To change the display arrangement of your MacBook and your external monitor, click on the Arrangement tab that’s available in one of the display windows. Then click and drag the blue boxes that represent your MacBook and monitor screens to positions that match how they look in real life.
While in the Arrangement tab, you may notice one screen has a white bar at the top of it and the other doesn’t. That bar determines which screen is the “main” display, which is the one that displays the Dock and notifications as you use your MacBook.
To change which screen is the main display, click and drag the white bar to the blue box you’d prefer it to be.
Also in the Arrangement tab, you’ll find a checkbox labeled Mirror Displays. Clicking on this box will stop your monitor from acting as a continuation of your laptop screen. Instead, it makes it show an exact copy of your MacBook screen.
Mirror Displays is a feature that’s perfect if you’re plugging your MacBook into a TV or projector display and giving a presentation. With a monitor, though, it’s probably best to leave that box unchecked and to use the larger workspace the monitor creates for you.
Fixing an External MacBook Monitor
If your MacBook monitor is staying black or saying “no connection detected,” make sure your cables are fully plugged into their ports. If they are, try unplugging them and plugging them back in again. It can be worth plugging cords into other ports, if you have a few of the same kind on either device.
Still not connecting? Try using a new cable to connect your MacBook with an external monitor. You can also try straightening out your original cable, in case the bends in it are causing issues.
If your MacBook says you have a monitor connected, but the monitor is still dark, hit the monitor’s power button to see if that’s the issue. Also, try pushing any buttons on it that increase brightness.
As simple as it is, unplugging the monitor’s power cord and plugging it back in again can also fix issues. And if you can test the monitor with another laptop or a computer tower to ensure the monitor is functional, that’s good too.
Using a Monitor With a MacBook Is Easy
MacBooks and monitors come with different kinds of ports, depending on their model. Once you understand those, and have the appropriate cables and adapters for them, all you have to do is plug them into each other to start using two screens.
It doesn’t have to stop there—you can connect to two monitors at once, or even more. But even just one extra screen can make work and play so much better, so we hope you get yourself a monitor and use your MacBook more than ever.
A higher refresh rate should be great for gaming, similar to 120Hz support on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
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