Use Two or Three External Displays with the MacBook Air (or any Mac)

Aug 13, 2011 - 9 Comments

Sure, the MacBook Air 2011 can’t drive dual displays through Thunderbolt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have two or even three external displays powered by the ultra portable if you get creative. The focus is on the MacBook Air here, but you can apply all of these solutions to any other Mac too.

Using Dual External Displays
If you are determined to use dual external displays on the MacBook Air there are a few options available. The first is how everyone was using dual-external screens on MacBooks and MacBook Pros for a long time, connecting the first external screen to your standard Thunderbolt/MiniDisplay output, and then utilizing a USB to DVI display adapter to power the third display. These USB to DVI adapters work but they are slower, so you wouldn’t want to play games or videos on the screen powered through the USB adapter.

Alternatively, if you are just looking to store iTunes, Twitter, or app toolbars on a third display, you could use something like DisplayPad for iPad to turn an iPad into a third external screen. This solution is likely slower than the USB to DVI adapter because it sends the video signal over wireless, but it’s perfectly viable for less video intensive tasks, assuming you don’t mind the 1024×768 screen limitation of the iPad. The MacBook Air below is using this iPad solution to form an ultraportable dual-screen setup:

MacBook Air 11 with an iPad using AirDisplay

Finally, here’s a MacBook Air 2010 model combining both a standard external display via the Mini-DisplayPort and DisplayPad to get dual external displays, proving that using both the standard display port and the DisplayPad application is a perfectly viable solution:

MacBook Air 2010 driving dual external displays

Both of these pictures come from our ongoing Mac setups series.

Need More? How About Three External Displays?
Now if you wanted to get technical about it, you could actually drive three external displays from a MacBook Air by using all of the solutions mentioned above: a standard Thunderbolt display for one, a USB to DVI adapter for another screen, and the DisplayPad iPad solution for the third. Factoring in the MacBook Air’s (or any Macs) built-in screen, and you’d have a grand total of four displays to work with. That’d be a ton of screen real estate (don’t forget to set the primary display so the menubar is where you want it), and if you happen to go for that show-off solution please send us a picture and we’ll post it!

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Hardware, Mac

9 Comments

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  1. Mike says:

    Surprised you post something that is not working with Lion. Should of at least mention that it was only for OS 10.6
    I am all for helping someone promote their apps but this app has not been updated since Feb 2011.
    Sorry but this was a bad post.

  2. Jason says:

    Surely somebody’s come up with a thunderbolt hub that would allow this.

  3. Keson says:

    Another solution is using matrox dualhead… http://db.tt/bR7MdZi
    Together with ipad I get 4 displays where 3 work on full speed an one for chatting and so on.

  4. John Hansen says:

    Hi – I’m located i North West part of Greenland.
    Can any one tell me if the new OS X Lion can be installed on my iPad 2

  5. James says:

    I have 3 external displays hooked up to my 13″ MacBook Pro (late 2009). I love it but I notice a few mild performance issues (ie. LaunchPad is nearly useless… it takes about a minute to show up if I launch it) probably due to an overworked video card. Or maybe it’s the two USB to DVI converters. I keep the MBP closed when using it with the monitors (use a HengeDock).

    Has anyone done similar that knows for certain the cause of this slight performance difference and if there’s any work around?

  6. […] the MacBook Air can only drive one external display through the Thunderbolt port, although by using USB adapters or even the iPad you can get around this limitation in a somewhat clunky […]

  7. Has anybody here actually run two fully functional external displays? I’m just trying to make it supports it without any “hacking”.

    After using a MiniDisplay to DVI adapter, do you think a DVI splitter like this one would work? http://www.amazon.com/Cables-Unlimited-DVI-D-Splitter-PCM-2260/dp/B000H09RFM

    Thanks!

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