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

The definitive guide to hooking up multiple monitors to your laptop

While most of us will be opting for a day-to-day device in the form of a 2-in-1 convertible or notebook, often these compact and portable devices won’t cut it. There are certainly times that we’ll require the services of a much larger and more sophisticated display with a smoother refresh rate, brighter colours or a much sharper display - depending on the task at hand.

Thankfully, connecting your device to an external display (or even in some cases four) can give you the best of both worlds - with maximum portability and the best possible visual experience to boot. The benefits of doing so can be immense, allowing you to organise your workflow and tasks in ways you couldn’t imagine doing so before. For example, you can kee your Slack or Teams window open on one display while having your inbox open on another window beside a report you’re reading. You could even have a document open in full on one display, alongside your source material on another. Multiple monitors are particularly popular with programmers and coders, as they're great for having your code side-by-side with the app that you're working on.

Before we talk about how to make the most of using several displays through your operating system, we should first touch on the wiring you’ll need to get yourself set up. The five main types of connectivity options in 2021 include VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort and USB-C.

Finding the right cable

Somebody connecting a VGA cable into a desktop computer

The cabling that you will need will depend on what ports are available on your machine.

It’s more likely than not that your device is fairly ancient if you ever find yourself having to use VGA. This once-ubiquitous connector can be identified by its shape - a trapeze with rounded edges, and the cable head, which is typically blue with screw prongs on either side. It also uses a 15-pin connector, with 5 pins across three rows.

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The main issue with these cables, apart from their age, is that they don't support audio transmissions, so you’ll need to connect a separate audio connector to rig yourself up properly. You could potentially find a VGA to HDMI converter but they’re usually disproportionately costly for the quality of the connection you experience in the end.

We would recommend avoiding using VGA connections if you can do so. It’s best to find a more modern alternative, considering that its technical limitations are unsuited to modern connectivity.

Although it’s similar to VGA, DVI is capable of far higher resolution. Converting from DVI to HDMI will produce better results than VGA, but it’s still not ideal. DVI cables are similar in appearance to VGA, although the connector heads tend to be larger and are usually white or black in colour.

A close up image of an HDMI cable with a gold-plated connector

HDMI is the standard connection used by most televisions and should be familiar to most people. Be aware, however, as there are variants. There are micro-HDMI and even mini-HDMI connectors, as well as the standard full size, so make sure you select the right cable.

In addition, we’d recommend choosing a new HDMI cable unless you’re confident that yours is fairly new. The HDMI specification has also changed over time, and older cables might not give you HD, or even 4K. For the best performance, look for HDMI 2.0 or HDMI 2.1, but anything over 1.4 should function. If you have a spare cable lying around, it might not be good enough, unfortunately, as most HDMI cables don’t tell you what version they are.

Don’t spend ridiculous amounts of money either; HDMI cables are digital, and so either they work or they don’t. You won’t get better quality from fancy bells and whistles like gold-plated connectors, and buying a cheap one with the right spec (we bought 3x1m cables from Amazon for under £10) will work just as well as an expensive one.

DisplayPort (we recommend at least 1.2 or higher for best results) is the choice of graphic designers, animators and other creative types. If your monitor uses Displayport, but you only have HDMI on your laptop, that’s no problem, as there’s a cable for that.

Finally, USB-C is the newest kid on the block and is designed to replace all the other standards we’ve mentioned. As well as carrying power and connecting accessories, the USB-C standards include both DisplayPort and HDMI, so you’ll want either a USB-C to HDMI/DisplayPort or, if you have a very new monitor, USB-C to USB-C.

A quick warning: USB-C cables vary dramatically. In the early days, a number of manufacturers produced cables that didn’t comply with the specifications and caused serious damage to machines. If you’re at all unsure, look for cables that are USB-IF certified (though many perfectly good ones don’t carry this certification).

Tweaking the settings

So you’ve got your cable and you’ve connected it up. You may well find that Windows has done the rest for you, and your monitor is now duplicating everything on the built-in screen.

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That may be what you want, but if you are looking for extra space, you’ll want to press WIN+P and a sidebar will appear offering to display on just the main screen, just the monitor (called ’second screen’), Duplicate, or Extend.

Select extend and you should find that you can drag your mouse from one desktop to the other seamlessly. (Note: Windows 7 users aren’t offered this sidebar, you’ll need to do everything in the control panel - see below)

Windows will assume that the laptop is on the left and the monitor is on the right. If that’s not your setup, the mouse will go the wrong way, and that’s the sign for us to do a bit of tweaking.

The settings menu is very easy to get to. Simply go to the desktop, right-click anywhere and select ‘Screen Resolution’. The Control Panel menu that pops up includes numbered boxes. These represent your monitors, with ‘1’ being your built-in display.

Simply drag and drop the monitors so they appear on the screen in the same configuration as they do on your desk. You don’t even have to keep them in a row - if you have your laptop below your monitor, no problem, just drag it below Box 2.

There are loads of other settings on this screen, most of which you’ll never need, but feel free to experiment - most operations will ask you to confirm everything is ok, and if you don’t respond within 15 seconds reverts back. This is to ensure that if you’ve managed to lose the picture on both screens, you’re not stuck.

Need more ports? 

USB-C has one specific disadvantage, and it’s the fact that many laptops have a limited number of USB-C ports. In that case, you may find you’ll need to get a USB-C hub to widen your options. Make sure it has a passthrough for the power supply, and ideally an extra USB-C port too. Many hubs also have an HDMI connection for added versatility.

Now, you may be wondering, if USB-C is supposed to replace everything else, why it’s not even more common. The answer comes, once again, from manufacturers playing fast and loose with the standard.

In fact, USB-C ports have different capabilities. Early ‘gen 1’ ports only carry USB 2.0 signals, which isn’t enough for a decent monitor. More modern ‘gen 2’ ports carry USB 3.0 or 3.1, as well as support for Displayport and HDMI signals. Unfortunately, if you don’t know what you have, your options are either the operating instructions, some intelligent Googling, or simple trial and error. The rollout of USB-C has been rather messy and it’s impossible to tell the difference by sight.

Beyond two displays

A developer using two monitors while sitting on his desk

Shutterstock

But what if you want more than two displays? Again, it’s going to depend on your machine, your graphics card, and how much you want to spend. Sometimes, particularly on older or low spec machines, you’ll be limited to one extra monitor, but other, newer ones will let you connect up to four.

For example, Displayport connections will support splitters, letting you connect to multiple monitors from a single port on the laptop - but it’s not a particularly cheap way of doing it.

Some monitors have an extra port to allow you to ‘daisy chain’ the signal from the laptop to monitor to monitor, but they’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Then there’s the simple ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach. If you’ve got a laptop (or a hub) with a USB-C, HDMI, DVI and Displayport, you can mix and match your monitors - but remember to choose the best input for each monitor’s specifications so you get the maximum resolution and refresh rate out of each.

It’s not uncommon to find that the evolution of computing standards can make the result you’re trying to achieve fraught with potential pitfalls. And so it is with monitors. Displayport, HDMI and USB-C all have variants that aren’t always clear to the casual user, and so often something that should be a case of ‘plug this into this’ is actually quite fiddly. Don’t be put off though - do your research on your devices and make sure you buy the right cable. Once you’ve done that, the rest is pretty simple. 

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