Can support MacBook Pro 2 monitors

Home office: optimize your Mac with a second monitor

Leif Johnson

If you have to work remotely due to coronavirus precautions, connecting a second monitor to your Mac is one of the best things to do in the home office.

If you have an office job, chances are you will now be working from home in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. That can feel limiting, especially if you only have a Macbook (Air, Pro).

Fortunately, you can dramatically improve your productivity by connecting an external monitor to your computer, usually using one screen as a reference and doing your real work on the other. (It would be less productive if they used the second monitor to watch films). Even an HDMI-compatible television should serve the purpose of a secondary monitor if you don't have a dedicated secondary monitor, but the television's pixel density and refresh rates are unlikely to be as satisfactory.

First the bad news. It's usually a lot easier to connect an external monitor to a PC rather than a Mac, as you can usually just use any old HDMI cable. With a modern Mac, you will almost certainly need some kind of adapter. On the other hand, thanks to the Apple ecosystem, you can now use newer iPads as second monitors within seconds, which has clear advantages. We'll walk you through the most common options below.

Cables and adapters: which solutions fit

As I said earlier, the easiest way to connect an external monitor or TV to your Macbook would be to run an HDMI cable from a monitor or TV directly to your Mac, but that's usually just an option for the 2011 Mac Pro and 2019, the Mac Mini or the Macbook Pro from 2012 to 2015. If you have one of these models, congratulations!

For everything else you will need an adapter or a special cable. And if you just need a special cable for a USB-C compatible Macbook, we recommend Apple's own USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 cable for 43 euros if you have a Thunderbolt 3 compatible monitor. If you have a standard HDMI compatible monitor, we recommend this highly rated 18 Euro USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 to HDMI cable from Uni.

As for the adapters, while not exhaustive, the following options should help with most modern USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 Macs. Let's start with Apple's own options for HDMI and VGA, which are outrageously expensive for what you get, as you might expect.

Apple USB-C to HDMI multi-port adapter (72 euros)

Apple USB-C to VGA multi-port adapter (79 euros)

Here are some of our recommendations for third-party adapters, most of which have extra ports for products like SD cards, so you get the most bang for your buck. They are also much more affordable.

QGeeM USB-C to HDMI adapter (15 euros)

Cable Creation USB-C to HDMI / VGA adapter / splitter (13.58 euros)

FlePow 7-in-1 USB-C hub ($ 32)

You can find more multiport adapters here

And if you have an older Apple monitor with a Mini DisplayPort, I recommend using this adapter for modern USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 Macbooks. What I personally use for the 2010 Cinema Display I keep plugging into my 2017 15-inch Macbook Pro, and it served me well for two years:

ITD Itanda USB-C to Mini DisplayPort adapter ($ 15)

Configure monitors in the settings

Now things really get going: when you've managed to connect your second monitor, you need to arrange the two displays so that you can intuitively drag windows and files from one to the other. Apple makes this easy for you.

Go to your Mac's System Preferences, then click Monitors, then click Arrange. If everything is set up correctly, you should see two blue rectangles representing the screens, with the host Mac showing a white bar across the top.

EnlargeThe Macbook Air is the host here
© Leif Johnson / IDG

Now that I've arranged the displays this way, I can move my mouse pointer to the second monitor by simply moving it up. The transition is immediate.

From here you can easily orient the monitors as they are in real life. So when you place your second monitor over your Macbook (as in the photo above), make sure to align the blue rectangle of the second monitor so that it is over the blue rectangle that represents the Macbook.

After that, you can move your macOS dock to the second screen if you will be looking at it often. To do this, move your mouse pointer to the desktop of the secondary monitor and click anywhere. Then make two quick downward movements along the bottom of the screen where you want the dock to appear. The dock should then toggle, but keep in mind that this will take some practice. (If you've set up your monitors the way I did, make sure you make those downward strokes in a corner of the screen that doesn't intersect with the main Macbook screen; otherwise, your mouse pointer will just go down to the bottom screen ).

Use the iPad as a second monitor

Unless you happen to have a second monitor or TV standing around, an iPad now works as a second monitor for your Mac too. Just remember that you will be working with a smaller screen. There's a bonus though: if you've already set up a proper secondary monitor, that setup allows you to use your iPad as a third display.

EnlargeYou can connect multiple iPads in this way.
© Leif Johnson / IDG

First, make sure that you have at least macOS Catalina installed on your Mac and at least iOS 13 on your iPad. More specifically, you'll need at least a 5th generation iPad, iPad Air 2, and iPad Mini 4, or any iPad Pro. You'll also need a Macbook or Macbook Pro made in 2016 or later, a 2015 27-inch iMac 5K or 2016 iMac or later (including the Pro), a 2018 Mac Mini, or the 2011 or 2019 Mac Pros.

Make sure your iPad is turned on and near your Mac. On your Mac, click the AirPlay button on your Mac's menu bar, which looks like a rectangle with a solid triangle pointing bottom-up. Find the iPad that you want to use as a secondary monitor from the resulting drop-down menu and select it. It should work right away, and you don't even have to unlock the iPad. For more information on setting up Sidecar, see our dedicated guide.

Use an old iMac as a second monitor

Do you have an old iMac? You can use it as a secondary monitor for your Mac with Apple's Target Display Mode - but the host Mac must be pretty old too.

To be honest, we've got to the point where this isn't as practical as it used to be because it requires some really precise conditions. The feature is not supported on iMacs with Retina displays, and specifically only works on the following models: 27-inch iMac (late 2009 or mid 2010) or iMacs from mid-2011 to mid-2014.

If you'd like to try it out, Apple has a dedicated Target Display Mode support page that should answer all of your questions. Aside from the iMacs themselves, all you really need is a Thunderbolt cable.

We'd like to believe that it would be possible for Apple to implement such a feature for modern Macs that is similar to the Sidecar with iPads, but that's not the case at the moment.