How to connect your MacBook to an external monitor?

Follow these simple steps to configure your Mac to connect to an external monitor.

Given the affordable price of external monitors these days people are moving towards connecting their MacBooks to an external monitor so they can see things in a bigger, better scale. Hooking up an external monitor to your Mac is very easy. Just buy the right connectors and connect the monitor to your MacBook and you are ready to go. There are very minimal changes that you’d need to make if you need some fine control over extending your screen real estate to the external monitor and such.

Cables needed

MacBook uses Mini-DisplayPort to connect to an external monitor. Mini-DisplayPorts are smaller in size to comfortably fit on the MacBook side panels but need a special cable to establish a connection with your external monitor. You’d need either of these 2 connectors.

Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter - Apple Store (U.S.).jpg

Mini-DisplayPort to DVI Adapter – If you have a monitor that supports DVI connections then your best bet would be to make use of the DVI port as it gives better display quality. It costs $29.00 at the Apple Store.

Mini DisplayPort to VGA Adapter - Apple Store (U.S.).jpg

Mini-DisplayPort to VGA Adapter – If your monitor doesn’t support a DVI connection then you don’t have a choice but to tap into the default VGA ports. Apple Store has this cable for $29.00.

Different ways of using the external monitor

Once you connect the cable to bridge the monitor and your MacBook the first thing you would notice is that now you have 2 displays, the MacBook display and the external monitor display. There are 3 ways to go with using the displays.

One way is to use the external monitor as a mirrored display, which means whatever you see in your MacBook display will get replicated on to the bigger monitor display. This would be the default setting if you don’t want to mess with fine-tuning the display settings.

Second way would be use the external monitor as an extension to your MacBook display. Imagine that as one really wide MacBook display. You can move windows to the external wide space and see it all in one shot even if you have Spaces enabled. This would be the best way to make use of that monitor investment.

Finally, you can also use your external monitor as the only display source and turn off the MacBook display completely. This would be particularly useful to those of you who are very used to the one-display-to-rule-all model.

Now, we’ll see how Mac OSX settings can be tweaked to use one of these display models.

Use the external monitor as a mirrored display

MacBook display properties.jpg

AL2223W Display Properties.jpg

This would be the default setting if you don’t do anything to your Display settings. As soon as your Mac senses there are multiple displays you can go into “System Preferences” > “Display“. You’ll be able to see 2 display preferences dialog, one for your prime MacBook display and one for the external monitor. You can use the settings in these dialogs to adjust the screen resolution, color intensity and if you have a monitor that can be swiveled (rotated) you can tell Mac OSX to rotate the display to a certain angle for that particular display.

Monitor arrangement settings on Mac Display Preferences.jpg

The main setting to note to get the (default) mirrored display is to go into the “Arrangement” tab. Once you are in there you should be able to see the “Mirror Displays” checkbox. Check the box (checked by default) to have what’s displayed on the MacBook display to be replicated to the external monitor.

Use the external monitor as an extension to your MacBook display

Monitor arrangement settings on Mac Display Preferences.jpg

As you’ve seen above, the real trick in making the external display either as a mirrored display or an extension to your current display is a matter of checking/unchecking the “Mirror Displays” checkbox at the “Arrangement” tab on Display Preferences. Uncheck (clear) the “Mirror Displays” box to make the external monitor as an extension to your MacBook display.

Now, by default, your external monitor would act as a secondary display. What that means is that you’d be working on your MacBook as the prime display and drag windows to the external monitor. All your menus and dock will show up on your MacBook display. Human eye is used to the bigger-smaller display model than the other way around. So we’d definitely prefer our external monitor as the main display and use the MacBook display as a secondary display to keep an eye on certain tasks like email, chat, Twitter etc.

To do that all you have to do is drag the bigger display (which is your monitor display) as the first display on the above dialog. Your menu bar will stick with the smaller display and you want the menu bar and the dock to come to your primary display which is the monitor display. No problem, just drag the menu bar to the bigger primary display and you are all set.

Use the external monitor as the only display

This would be convenient for those of you who are used to one-display model. This is a bit tricky as there are no explicit ways to turn off your MacBook’s display and keep it open. You might need an external keyboard and an external mouse because we’d need to keep the lid closed on your MacBook to achieve this.

Once you connect the external monitor to your MacBook follow the instructions as if like mirroring the external display (check the “Mirror Displays” checkbox). Once done, close the lid on your MacBook. It will go into the Sleep mode.

Now, awake your MacBook from sleep using the external keyboard or the mouse. Your MacBook will sense that its display is not turned on and so will direct all the outputs to your external monitor. Since the lid is closed all the time it would be smart thing to have your MacBook lifted up a little bit for proper ventilation. From now on, you can use the keyboard and the mouse to put your Mac to sleep and to awake it from sleep.

I hope this is comprehensive enough to give you an understanding of the many ways you can connect an external monitor to your MacBook. If you have any questions/comments on this topic please ask/share over at comments.

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68 comments so far

  1. David

    Really useful tips..
    Thanks a lot

  2. Harry

    Use the external monitor as an extension to your MacBook display:
    This is very helpful to peoples who want to know the use of external monitor.

  3. Guest

    "Just buy the right connectors and connect the monitor to your MacBook and you are ready to go."

    Do you need to put the macbook to sleep first. Or power down, or anything like that?

  4. demogeek

    You don't have to power down but if you intend to just keep your external display as the only display then you might want to put your Mac to sleep (close the lid down) and then wake it up while in closed state (click the mouse to wake it up, for example).

  5. Kabukisan

    Great article ! Thanks so much for these tips

  6. Ezza

    I love you!

  7. Will

    VERY helpful article, I've spent the past 2 days trying to figure this out. I wish I would have found this sooner! Thanks!

  8. Howard

    Thanks for the info. It finally allowed me to get it up and running. Now how do I set the resolutions? My Macbook travels with me ands I have a 22" samsung monitor, Can I set them up each individually?
    Thanks in advance for the info.

  9. Dave

    Okay, I do this and everything works fine (laptop closed, wake it up from the keyboard and am viewing through my external cinema display) – but after about 10 seconds, it goes back to sleep. Repeated "re-awaking" doesn't seem to help. Is there some setting I'm missing?

    10-month old 13' Macbook pro running 10.6.4.

  10. lewis

    hey… when i close the lid,, my macbook goes to slepp and yes, i wake up with the external mouse BUT, i dont know why it keeps going to sleep back n forward, and i have to pres or click the mouse every 2 seconds to awake the screen.. what should i do ?

  11. demogeek

    Lewis – not sure why it's doing it that way but I would recommend you take a look at your MacBook's Power Settings to see if there is something weird that got set accidentally. Let me know. Thanks.

  12. demogeek

    Dave – not sure why it's doing it this way. As I suggested to Lewis earlier please see if there is something weird set on your MacBook's Power Settings. If things look normal there please restart your MacBook and see if that could help. I didn't face this issue but if I find an answer specific to this I'll let you know. Thanks.

  13. demogeek

    Howard – yes, you should be able to set the display resolutions for each of your display completely separate. Just make sure when you launch "Settings" > "Display" the dialogs are not sitting on top of each other. It does normally and if you move the dialog on top you should be able to see the other dialog for your other display. Let us know how it goes. Thanks.

  14. dave

    Dave…make sure its using the power adapter.
    my wife's does the same thing when using the battery.

  15. Tiffany

    I have tried to hook up my MacBook Pro to an external display and the only things that shows up is the wallpaper-no icons, no video, etc. I've read the recommendations to click on "arrangement" and then "mirror image", but the problem is that there is no "arrangement" option. The top of my screen simply has "display" and "color". Any ideas on why the arrangement option is missing? Thanks!

  16. demogeek

    Tiffany – that kind of tells me that your Mac was not able to sense the second display. Did you use the right cables? Make sure the cable is well connected and try to restart the computer while the external is well connected and see if it helps.

  17. Kip

    You mention to "have your Macbook lifted up a little bit for proper ventilation." Are you talking about opening the lid up to a partly open position, or something else? I have used a second monitor for quite some time, and have found that without opening the lid, my Macbook gets very hot. Is there a different way to keep it ventilated without opening the lid?

  18. Ryan W

    Great guide. My Macbook Pro's screen recently broke (well Apple says its the logic board which means the backlight isn't working, but you can still faintly see the screen) so I have an external monitor to use the old macbook for mundane tasks – now it's like have an iMac.

  19. EtM

    Thanks for your guide, I was going nuts trying to use my HD TV as the only monitor of my MB PRO…
    Just I cannot believe that Apple is not able to make this feature available through display settngs without messing up with closing the lid, waking up by external kb etc. :( ((

  20. MaryLou

    Hopefully this is what – we've been looking for. My son's MB Pro is unuseable because of a problem with the screen – They said it wasn't worth repairing the screen, but that they thought the rest of the machine could be fine. So the cost of one of these cables seems an inexpensive way to find out.
    What I'm wondering is, if we do connect it to an external monitor and doesn't default to "mirrored" display, is there anything we can do to get it into that mode ( with no screen to reference ??? )

  21. mike

    Hi KIP, I believe the original poster for this handy info meant to actually raise your closed macbook off the surface it is placed on. By using a stand or some well placed (on the corners) coasters etc simply to create more airflow under the macbook itself.

  22. demogeek

    As soon as you connect your MacBook to the external monitor your MacBook would sense the activity on the port and would recognize your external monitor.

  23. Nagarajan

    Very clear, elaborate, and useful indeed. Thanks!

  24. Pratyush

    I had the similar problem and I thought something wrong with the settings.

    Later I guessed that I was running the Macbook without any power chord.

    After I plugged in the power and followed the procedure again, it worked fine.

    Hope this helps.

  25. bullett007

    Clamshell mode only works when your MB has external power supply.

    i.e. connect the charger.

  26. Bonne

    Oh! You're wonderful – and you speak English. Thank you.

  27. robyn

    My mac book pro screen is broken, and I can get it to hook up to tv and see the desktop photo, but I can't get into system preferences to change to mirror display, as I can't see on my macbook screen. any ideas how I could get around this? I'm desperate to get the info off my computer, and if I can get it hooked up to an external monitor I know I could then put everything onto my external harddrive….
    thanks :)

  28. JustPassingBy

    Great article! Just what I was looking for! Thank you!

  29. demogeek

    Robyn – what do you mean by not able to get into System Preferences? Were you able to get in but couldn't see the Display options? Or were you not able to see System Preferences at all? If you are not able to see it then I would suggest you use a tool like QuickSilver or Spotlight to get into it.

  30. demogeek

    Robyn – what do you mean by not able to get into System Preferences? If you can't find it in the screen you can use a tool like QuickSilver or Spotlight to launch System Preferences.

  31. scott

    I have same issue…………….no arrangement option………how did you resolve………..Scott

  32. Mark

    Snow Leopard installed on my MacBook-Pro and the children in charge of the Mac GUI can not provide a straightforward method to make the external monitor the default only screen if detected and attached. Dell laptops have had this feature for a decade even under Win2K… Shame on Apple. The Unix mach kernel is a thing of beauty,…. the Apple coded GUI with it's lame 1980's limited FINDER interface …. not so much.

    I can get a single external display to work …. but the feature is hit and miss and involves mysterious external keyboard activity at certain moments but not others …. GUI amateur hour.

  33. milo

    Well presented topic with good illustrations!

  34. Len

    New Mac Book Pro with wireless mouse and keyboard. external monitor will mirror and extend but will not wake up via mouse or keyboard. After reopening lid it will awake but hunts for external monitor sometimes successfully other time I have reboot the monitor power switch. An ideas?

  35. Scott

    Regarding the third option of using the Macbook’s mouse and keyboard with an external display as the only display. The method seems to only work if you have the charger connected.

  36. Scott

    Regarding the third option of using the Macbook’s mouse and keyboard with an external display as the only display. The method seems to only work if you have the charger connected.

  37. amosmom

    Bless your geeky heart. My husband uses Windows (it's a mixed marriage), and since the local Radio Shack has stopped hiring anyone who knows ethernet from wi-fi I've had to go in search of online assistance. Found this page, clipped it into Evernote, walked into Best Buy, showed the dude the pictures and was out of there in 5 minutes. It's now taken me all of 2 to set up. Thank you for speaking non-geekese to those of us who love technology, but don't speak its language.

  38. demogeek

    Thank you @amosmom for those nice words, I'm glad that it helped you this way!

  39. Georgina

    Can somebody tell me whether all macbook models have the arrangement tab option so you can use the monitor as an extended desktop? Currently i only have the colour & display tab in my system preferences. Does the arrangement tab only appear once the external monitor is connected or am i going to have to put up with mirroring my mac onto a HDTV using the macs max resoultion of 1280 x 800 :(

  40. new to mac

    Thanks really helpful, but couldn't get step three to work. Oh well.

  41. Raymond Johnson

    THANK YOU! I never imagined how difficult it'd be to find this simple explanation.

  42. dino

    will this work to hook up to a dell monitor?

  43. chris ridley

    have a macbook pro and tried to connect g1 screen to it via connectors. does not work.

  44. demogeek

    Dino – as long as you have the ports to connect to I don't see why you can't hook up a DELL monitor.

  45. patty

    I have a a macbook that I bought about 3 years ago. My 20 month old stepped on the monitor and cracked the lcd screen so the screen is just a jumbled mess of cracks and horizontal lines. I took it in and was told the repair to replace the screen is only about $400 less than what a new computer would cost. ive had my macbook sitting idle since, not knowing what I wanted to do. Then it dawned on me that maybe I could hook up my macbook to an external dell monitor I have sitting around. I bought the correct cable and hooked up the monitor. The problem i have now is that the external monitor just has the wallpaper (the "nemo" fish in his anemone) on the display and nothing else. I cant see anything on the macbook monitor because its broken. is there anyway I can adjust the external monitor to show my macbook desktop without having access to whats on my macbook desktop? Im not that computer saavy and would really like to access the information i have on my macbook. Please help!! Thank yo.

  46. demogeek

    Patty – try this, put your laptop to sleep (hold Command and Option buttons and then press the Eject button). Close the lid on your laptop. Attach an external keyboard to the laptop. Attach the external monitor. Now, hit any key on the external keyboard to wakeup your laptop. This should make your laptop behave as if the external monitor is the only monitor and so your primary desktop would show up on the external monitor. Let me know if it helps.

  47. Tony

    My HP monitor keeps going to sleep as if there is no signal from my MacBook. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t.

    The System Preferences / Display boxes do not give me anything other than resolution options


  48. Heartbeat

    I have the same problem did u figure out how to force it to go to mirrored mode?

  49. Denny

    Wow, that is one tricky procedure to have the external on the primary monitor. Never would have figured that out with your help. Thanks a bunch!!

  50. PEggy McDaniel

    Can I get my work computer which is Windows 7 from the Mac air using citrix?

  51. Traci

    How do I connect an External Monitor Dell using MacBook Pro while running Windows 7. I have an HDMI adapter and the Dell monitor which is HDMI is fuzzy. Now a co worker can use his MacBook (running Lion) and the resolution is perfect. I am puzzled!

  52. Carlos

    my macbook pro doesn't have a display port. is there another way to connect it to my tv?

  53. Marty

    I just encountered a new problem I noticed yesterday. I connect my my macbook (2009/Leopard) using the mini display port to vga to a Sony LCD 19" because my Mac lcd was damaged and so this is the only way I can access the contents of this computer let alone use it at all.

    The sudden problem:

    I open the lid on my Mac which then turns my tv on. The tv displays the resolution but nothing else. So I know it detects my Mac but nothing shows up on the screen. The first time it happened I just opened and closed my Mac lid a few times till the password box showed up on the screen. Second time the same thing only took much longer including bringing the Mac and cables to other tv till it finally worked and now late er, early this morning, it took almost an hour to get working!

    What caused this? Im stumped? Im currently working on it now using the Sony as my display and was messing around with the wifi network settings where I changed the password and bam! The display mirrored my mac!

    sorry for the long winded question, but any one have any ideas? Im one of them paranoid people (lol)who thinks my upstairs neighbor (we share the network) is messing with me! I wouldn't put it past her thats for sure, she does some really bazaar stuff, but has no access to my physical computer and isn't smart enough to do anything like this so I may be giving her too much credit-but then, who knows right?

  54. Naveed Rafi

    So any tip for a country like Pakistan where we face power outage for more than 12 hours in a day and we can put our external display on alternate power source but can't do that to our Macbook charger. :)

  55. Satya Prakash

    good tip, I had a experience of extended monitor but not with only one monitor mode. One monitor is better for me. I got a macbook in office.

  56. Jay

    My mac book pro works well by using the VGA Adapter connect to the Dell monitor. But, it has really weird sound all the time.

    it’s so annoyed. Does any one have same problem? How can i fix that!

  57. Kati

    Hi! I'm using an external monitor as the only display and when I check the option " Mirror Displays" my monitor mirrors my MacBook Pro's resolution (which is much lower). If I uncheck the " Mirror Displays" option, I can only use my monitor if my laptop is plugged in. If not, it only wakes up for a few seconds (I can see the picture on the monitor) and than goes to sleep again. Does anybody know how can I solve this problem?

  58. Matt

    this is very helpful.
    can I skip the VGA or DVI and go with just one cable? mini-display to HDMI?
    this would be for my MacBook Pro (late 2008) to connect to an external monitor/TV.

  59. Kati

    Hello Dave! Did you find the solution for your problem? The same thing happens to me :/

  60. georgie

    thank you very, very much

  61. Stephen G.

    you have to plug in your macbook pro for it to work

  62. Ricardo

    Thanks for posting this, it worked just like you said it would. Surprisingly, the Apple Store Geniuses did not know how to do this, or at least wouldn't admit they knew how. I was able to add a 23" monitor, via HDMI, with no problems at all. My macbook is about 2 years old without the Thunderbolt port.

  63. Bill Price

    I have a VGA mini port connector and the monitor has worked off and on but has always been difficult to re-connect once I have taken my Macbook pro laptop off site and then returned to my office at home.
    But this week it will not connect at all the monitor screen is just black, could it be the cable connector?
    Bill Price..

  64. Dawn Baird

    This is really useful, thanks.

  65. thomas

    My 4 year old broke my screen is there a way to do this process without actually seeing the monitor on the laptop?

  66. Please Answer

    Great Job. I have one more question though. When and why would someone need to use or integrate another video graphics card into their setup? Is it only for older computers? Does it make things go a bit faster, etc.?

  67. ken

    here is something strange….. I have a mac book pro connected to an external viewsonic 27" monitor via mini port to HDMI. it works great, except there is 1.5" of dead space on the right and left on the viewsonic monitor. I've tried every setting available and I'm getting nowhere. just when I thought I simply cannot make this adjustment with this setup, I noticed my laptop screen was off (asleep?) and my viewsonic monitor gave me a complete viewing area! now, I can't get it back since the laptop screen is on? can I put the laptop screen to sleep, but not the viewsonic? what am I missing???

  68. Pam N.

    Just got an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. My desk space is small but I have a keyboard drawer so I thought this would be a way to have more work space. Used Apple mini to DVI adapter and figured out that with MBP closed, the monitor worked as advertised. I didn't know about these other options. Will experiment tomorrow.

    I unplug my MBP at night and when I'm away and I'm wondering if, since the MBP is asleep when closed, can I just turn the monitor off and unplug it from MBP or is there a special procedure? I read somewhere that I needed to put the MBP to sleep before disconnecting but seems, if closed, it is asleep? I have a late 2011.

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