How to Use a MacBook With an External Monitor

MacBookA MacBook Pro or Air is an excellent computer to have with you on the road. Long battery life coupled with a powerful CPU is really all someone needs while they’re working from the road, but should you live with a smaller monitor while you’re at home? Personally, I love the experience I have on my MacBook as it is, but there’s something to be said about plugging one in to a larger monitor and enjoying the full OS X experience without having to squint your eyes or deal with a cluttered desktop.

There are a few things you’ll need to make your experience with an external display a little easier.


You can’t just connect an HDMI, DVI, or VGA cable up to a MacBook unless you happen to own the latest edition MacBook Pro. If you’re not using an Apple Cinema Display (and who could blame you?) then you’ll need to grab an adapter. Depending on the year of your MacBook, you might be looking at either a Thunderbolt or Display Port adapter. Either of these can be picked up at a local Apple Store or online for around $29, and there are a number of third-party brands making these adapters available at a lower price.

Either way, you’ll want to find out what type of connector your MacBook uses for external displays.

Actually connecting the adapter and setting up the software to accept the external display is very easy. In OS X, it should detect your display and integrate it as part of your desktop automatically. If your laptop is open when you connect it, the display will be added automatically as an extension of the primary desktop. Once you close the lid and move the mouse or tap a key on the keyboard, it should wake up and utilize the external display as the primary.

If this doesn’t happen, you can configure this behavior by going through System Preferences and selecting Displays in the Hardware category. This is also where you can refine resolution and select a screen to use a primary.

Keyboard, Mouse or Trackpad

Unless you’re using the larger monitor as a second screen, you’ll need to invest in a keyboard as well as either a mouse or trackpad. The Magic Trackpad is great for anyone that prefers using the multi-touch trackpad on the MacBook over a mouse, but you can just as easily connect a USB or Bluetooth mouse to the MacBook.

Contrary to popular belief, you can use keyboards and mice that are made for Windows on a Mac without a problem. Just remember the keys are mapped differently and you might need to make a few adjustments to reclaim your preferred layout.

Dock and/or Stand

This part isn’t a requirement, but a closed MacBook on your desk can take up a lot of space. Add to that the fact that a closed lid on a flat laptop does little to prevent heat buildup. To prevent this, you might want to consider something like a BookArc Stand which stands the laptop up vertically so air can circulate across a larger surface. This keeps the laptop cool while also freeing up a lot of space on your desk. A win-win, truly.

You may also opt for a docking station which will make your MacBook’s various ports and expansion slots available in an easily accessible configuration. This allows you to basically put your MacBook down and have everything on your desk made immediately available to you without having to hassle with different cords and cables the moment you sit down. Just plug and play.

You really don’t need any special equipment other than a simple adapter, standard monitor, and perhaps some input devices to get up and running. Modern MacBooks make excellent desktop replacement machines, and adapt well to switching between external displays and the built-in screen.

Image: Twelve South