Working from home? Add a second display to your Mac setup

If you worked at an office job before the novel coronavirus pandemic, there’s a good chance you’re now working from home. It can feel limiting, especially if you only have a MacBook.

Fortunately, you can drastically improve your productivity by hooking up an external monitor to your workstation, usually by using one display as a reference and doing your actual work in the other. (Less wholesomely, you could work in one and watch a movie in another—but I didn’t say that.) An HDMI-compatible TV should do the trick if you don’t have an extra monitor sitting around, but the pixel density and refresh rates likely won’t be as satisfying.

First off—here’s the bad news. It’s usually a lot easier to hook up an external monitor to a PC rather than a Mac, as you can usually just use any ol’ HDMI cable. You’re almost certainly going to need some kind of a dongle with a contemporary Mac. On the other hand, the Apple ecosystem now lets you easily use newer iPads as secondary monitors within seconds, so it does bring clear advantages. Below, we’ll walk you through the most common options.

Use the proper dongle or cable

As I said, the easiest way to hook up an external monitor or a TV to your MacBook would be to run an HDMI cable from either a monitor or TV directly to your Mac, but that’s usually only an option on the 2011 and 2019 Mac Pros, the Mac mini, or MacBook Pros from 2012 to 2015. If you have one of those models, congratulations!

For everything else, you’re going to need a dongle or a specialized cable. And if you just want a specialized cable for a USB-C compatible MacBook, we recommend Apple’s own $39 USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 cable if you have a Thunderbolt 3-compatible monitor. If you have a standard HDMI-compatible monitor, we recommend this highly rated six-foot $17 USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 to HDMI cable from Uni.

As for dongles—while not exhaustive, the options below should help with most contemporary USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 Macs. Let’s start with Apple’s own options for HDMI and VGA, which are outrageously expensive for what you’re getting, as you might expect.

  • Apple USB-C to HDMI Multiport Adapter ($69)
  • Apple USB-C to VGA Multiport AdapterRemove non-product link ($69)

Here are some of our recommendations for third-party adapters, most of which have additional ports for products like SD cards, allowing you to get the best bang for your buck. They’re a lot more affordable, too.

  • QGeeM USB-C to HDMI Adapter ($13)
  • CableCreation USB-C to HDMI/VGA Adapter/Splitter ($16)
  • FlePow 7-in-1 USB-C Hub ($49)
  • Ikling 9-in-1 USB-C Hub ($35)

And if you have an older Apple monitor with a Mini DisplayPort, I recommend using this dongle for modern USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBooks. It’s what I personally use for the 2010 Cinema Display that I keep hooked up to my 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro, and it has served me well for two years.