How to Connect a Mac to a TV with HDMI for Full Audio & Video Support

Apr 28, 2013 - 27 Comments

Ever wanted to connect a Mac to a TV screen? Maybe you want to use the TV as a giant external monitor, to play games on a big screen, or just for video playback and movie streaming? It’s actually quite easy to do, and we’ll cover the entire process from start to finish. We’re going to focus on connecting any newer Mac to any fairly modern TV by way of a physical HDMI connection, thus, a few third party accessories will be necessary for the task. The result will be the Mac exporting both video and audio signals to the TV.

Connect a Mac to a TV

HDMI is really the best way to connect a MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, MacBook, iMac, or Mini to an HDTV screen, whatever your intended usage purpose is. Yes, the AirPlay feature can also export a screen to show up on a TV through an Apple TV box, but the HDMI method has several distinct advantages; it’s cheaper, resource usage is considerably less, there are no slowdowns, the video quality does not depend on network latency, and it’s just generally much more versatile, making the only real downside to the HDMI approach being the physical cable connectivity. Lets get started and cover the basic requirements first.

Virtually every semi-modern Mac will fit the bill, but you will need the following:

Note about HDMI adapters and audio support: there are many options available on Amazon and some are very cheap, many of which will not actually carry audio despite advertising that they do. Generally, the adapters that cost a little bit more tend to be more reliable, so be sure to read the reviews and make sure that audio does indeed work for the adapter you are ordering. I’ve had the best experience with the Monoprice brand, but your mileage may vary. Also note that for 2010 and older Macs, the Mini-DVI to HDMI adapters do not carry audio at all, thus you will need a separate audio output option that we won’t cover here (external speakers, separate audio cable, etc).

If you plan to control the TV using your Mac from a distance, spend a couple extra bucks on a longer HDMI cable. 15 feet is usually adequate for most cases, but if you have a gigantic room you may want a longer cable.

For the purpose of this walkthrough we’ll focus on the newer Mac models with a built-in HDMI, Mini-DisplayPort, and/or Thunderbolt ports, this guide was crafted using a MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, but the same applies to newer Mac Mini and iMac models too. Again, note that the latest MacBook Pro models have an HDMI port, so you wouldn’t need an adapter on one of those MacBook Pro models, you can just directly connect an HDMI cable between the Mac and the TV.

Connect the Mac to the TV with HDMI & Adapter

Establishing the initial connection is remarkably straightforward and is just a matter of physically connecting the cables to one another from the Mac to the TV.

If the MacBook Pro has an HDMI port, you can just connect the HDMI cable to the port, this is what it looks like:

MacBook Pro HDMI port

If the MacBook, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro doesn’t have an HDMI port, and you have never connected anything to a Mini-Display Port or Thunderbolt Port, you’re looking for this port which requires the adapter:

The Thunderbolt video output port shown on a MacBook Pro

The location of the video output port varies per Mac model, but it’s usually on the right-side of the MacBook Air, the left side on the MacBook Pro, and it’s always on the back of the iMac and Mac Mini. The Mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapter that connects to the Mac will look something like this:

Mac to HDMI adapter

With everything ready, it’s time to hook everything up and get the connection going, here’s how to connect the Mac to a TV with HDMI:

  1. Connect that HDMI adapter to the video output port on the Mac
  2. Connect the HDMI cable to the adapter (or directly to the Mac if it has an HDMI port) and the other end of the HDMI cable needs to go into an available HDMI source port on the back or side of a TV
  3. Turn the Mac on if it isn’t already
  4. Flip the TV’s video input source over to HDMI (often through a “Video Source” button on the TV’s remote control)

The Mac should instantly recognize the TV and extend the desktop over to the HDTV’s screen. If that doesn’t happen, you are probably on the wrong video source of the TV, so try another HDMI source. Some modern HDTV’s have up to 6 HDMI ports, meaning you’ll have to flip through each of them to find the proper one carrying the Macs video and audio output signal. You’ll know it works because the desktop shows up on the TV instantly like this:

MacBook to TV as extended desktop

If you’re satisfied with this alone, which basically makes the TV an external display, then you can call it quits here. On the other hand, if you’re looking to watch movies through apps, watch web video, or use another playback source from the Mac on the larger TV screen, then you’ll want to take a few additional steps to greatly improve the experience. Plus you’ll probably want to get sound working properly, as you’ll notice by default audio won’t play through the TV screen and stays playing through the Macs speakers instead. Read on to optimize the TV for video playback, get sound working, and for some more tips for having the best experience.

Configure the Mac Video Output for Optimal Display on the TV Screen

By default the Mac will attempt to use the TV as an external display, extending the desktop to the TV screen. That’s great if you intend on using the TV as a large external monitor, but if you’re aiming to watch video or a movie, or play games, you’re better off using Display Mirroring in many case. Option A describes how to do this easily:

A: Set Up Mirroring

  • With the Mac connected to the TV, open System Preferences
  • Choose “Displays” and then click the “Arrangements” tab
  • Check the box for “Mirror displays”

Mirror a Mac screen to a TV

While this almost always looks better on a 720p TV screen, that’s not always the case for 1080p HDTV’s. Since the 1080p resolution is greater than that seen on many Mac displays, you’ll either need to scale down the resolution, deal with a pixelated image, or just set the external display as the primary display and go into full-screen mode on the TV screen when playing video as described in Option B:

B: Set the TV Display as the Primary Display

  • Open System Preferences from the  Apple menu after the Mac & TV are connected to one another
  • Choose “Displays” and then go to the “Arrangements” tab
  • Drag the white menubar from the smaller built-in display to the external TV display, thereby turning the TV into the primary screen

Turn the TV into the Primary Display

This will reverse the default configuration of a dual-display setup, thereby turning the Macs screen into the extended desktop, and the HDTV as the main desktop where the menu bar shows and apps appear by default.

Change Sound Output from the Mac to TV via HDMI

Unless the Mac is hooked up to some great external speakers, you’ll almost certainly want to set audio output to go through the TV’s speakers rather than the tiny ones built into the computer. For just about every HDMI based Mac-to-TV connection, these audio settings must be adjusted manually after the two have been attached to one another and video is already displaying on the TV screen:

  • Open System Preferences from the  Apple menu and choose “Sound”
  • Click the “Output” tab and look under the “Type” list to find the “HDMI” option and select it

Mac to TV with HDMI Audio

The Output tab will usually show the TV’s model name, but since most people don’t know the model number of their TV that’s fairly meaningless and it’s much easier to just look for “HDMI” in the list. In the screenshot example, the LCD HDTV’s model is “VO320E” for a Visio 32″ but the names are often much more convoluted than that.

Note that once you set the audio output to go through the TV you will lose the ability to adjust the sound volume levels through the Mac’s audio output controls, meaning you’ll need to use the TV’s built-in volume adjustment buttons or a remote control.

Get a Good Video Playback App

If the entire reason you’re doing this is to watch videos on a bigger screen, be sure you get a good video playback app. Here are four great free apps:

  • XBMC – media center and much more, plays almost any video you can throw at it
  • Plex – media center app that also plays virtually every video format
  • VLC – barebones but powerful video playback app that works with nearly all video formats
  • MplayerX – more full-featured video player that is compatible with the majority of video formats

QuickTime Player is also a fine choice for playing .MOV, m4v, .mp4 files, but for other movie file formats like .WMV, Flash .flv, .mpeg, .avi, and others, you’ll want to get a third party app instead. For other formats, VLC is a classic app and should be included in just about every Mac users app toolbox, and MplayerX is becoming increasingly popular for being just as versatile while having the added bonus of supporting BluRay and MKV playback.

Both XBMC and Plex are full featured media apps, which are capable of turning a Mac into a media center when they’re running. If you have a spare Mac, you can even turn it into a full-time media center, server, and torrents box, and the Mac Mini is particularly great for that purpose.

Video Playback Too Small? Black Bars Showing? Use Screen Zoom

Not all movies or videos will play at true full screen, and sometimes you’ll end up with a large black border around the sides of the video. This is frequently true with many web-based streaming movies, or when playing video that is lower resolution in general. Some playback apps like QuickTime and VLC have the ability to play video at 1.5x and 2x resolution to solve that problem, but for web players and other apps you can just use screen zoom instead.

First, let’s enable screen zoom if you haven’t done so yet:

  • Open System Preferences from the  Apple menu and choose “Accessibility”
  • Choose “Zoom” and enable the zoom features, choose either the keyboard shortcut or zoom gesture option

Enabling Zoom to remove black bars on video playback

Optionally, check the “Smooth Images” option to attempt to have less pixelation when zoomed in, though this tends to blur the picture for heavy zooming and can look strange. You’re better off trying this out yourself to see if it works for the video you want to watch.

Now to put this to you use, play back a video as usual either from a web player or movie file, center the mouse cursor in the middle of the video, and now use the zoom feature to eliminate the black borders. For those who enabled the gesture option, this is done by holding the “Control” key and then using a two-fingered upward gesture to zoom in (or two finger down to zoom out).

For example, this video of an older NOVA Origins video is fairly low resolution, and when maximized in the web-based player it still won’t play at full screen. This is a perfect situation to use screen zoom for, which turns this:

Video playing on a TV from a Mac, showing black bars around the video

Into this full-screen maximized version, simply by zooming in on the playing video:

Zoomed video playback on the TV removes the black borders

Much better huh? It won’t do a anything to resolve the lower resolution playback, but at least it doesn’t have the large black bordering bars showing alongside all of the video, making the playback itself smaller than it needs to be. Sometimes just increasing the web browser zoom works too for just web video, but that shouldn’t be considered universally reliable enough to recommend for all situations.

That should be about it, enjoy your Mac-TV hookup, go watch some movies, browser the web on an enormous screen, game on the big screen, and have fun!

MacBook to TV

Sidenote: If you happen to have an Apple TV and a Mac running 10.8 or later, you can just use AirPlay Mirroring and do this entire thing wirelessly without the need for any cables or HDMI adapters. Typically AirPlay offers excellent video playback, but on weak wi-fi signals the connection can suffer, which is never a problem with a physical HDMI cable. Plus, the combination of an HDMI adapter and cable is about 1/10th the price of an Apple TV box, making the method offered above a much more economical choice.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks


» Comments RSS Feed

  1. torkild waagaard says:

    Thanks Paul! very very good instruction
    hav tried out to connect mac to tv for years until to day Its finally works,
    its not so sharp but dosent matter proably my setting torkild Norwegian in bangkok thailand

  2. Phil N says:

    Thanks so much for this. Just got a 23 inch monitor and was all good for mirroring but was getting the black box when playing videos – which was the main reason I got the monitor. After switching the main monitor to the display as you suggested … Perfect! Thanks for the clear and useful help.

  3. santina says:

    hello, i would be grateful if you could tell me if i can connect my mac ibook400 with the tv.
    actually i don’t see any “thunder symbol” on the left side of the computer so i wonder if i can do it in some other way.
    thank you so much in advance.
    best wishes

  4. Lucia says:

    This article was extremely helpful!!! Thank you.

  5. Lupe says:

    Hey thanks so much for these awesome instructions but I have my Mac book pro connected to my 42in and I don’t want to have both displays playing is there anyway I can close my Mac while the movie still stays playing?

  6. Victor says:

    Awesome and exhaustive article, thanks!

  7. Cindy says:

    Terrific instruction – I’ve done it all but when I go to change the sound output, only internal speaker is in the list. The hdmi connection isn’t listed. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • Tyler says:

      I am having the same problem. Did anybody ever help you out?

      • futia says:

        If you don’t have the sound option for HDMI it’s likely because the adapter you are using does not support HDMI audio. Many of the cheaper adapters for display-port to HDMI do not support audio, you have to buy an adapter that specifically does support audio output.

        On new MacBook Pro models you will find there is a direct HDMI port, that will always support audio and video.

  8. John says:

    Thanks Good to know

  9. Angelo says:

    great job man.
    very instructive this articule.

  10. Josh Eynon says:

    I found your instructions great, but I had a problem the screen on the tv has a pink tinge to it. Any suggestions

  11. Donna says:

    Opened my system preferences and then sound, but there is not an HDMI option listed. Internal speakers listed only. Any ideas?

    • Tim says:

      Hi Donna,

      I have the same problem. I think external speakers are the answer unless some clever person out there has a solution

    • Tyler says:

      I have the same problem as well. It used to go through no problem but for whatever reason, now there is no HDMI option under the “sound” tab of system prefs. Someone please help, I can see the video but have no audio.

  12. Derrick B says:

    I’ve been able to connect my Macbook Pro to my HDTV for years with the HDMI cord and Mini Display Port Adapter. But now when I try and connect, the connection of my desktop on the TV screen only lasts for a few seconds, and it goes blank. It will flick back on for a second, and then go black again for a few minutes.

    I don’t know how or what I am doing wrong, as I am not doing anything different than before.

    I can’t get my desktop to stay active on my TV screen for more than a few seconds before it dissapears. It seems like the TV or the computer isn’t reading it. But when I use the same HDMI connection for my Apple TV, it works fine.

    Is my my Macbook, or my TV?

    • Blair says:

      Hi Derrick

      I had the same problem with my Macbook pro and TV. The problem resolved when I got a new Mini Display Port Adapter. I was worried it was the TV or the Mac, which are both much harder to fix, but it turned out it was the much cheaper Mini Display Port Adapters so just get a new one.

  13. Still having trouble says:

    I followed the instructions step by step and yet I still don’t seem to get the picture to show up on my tv. I have tried the three different HDMI ports on my tv and flicked through the tv HDMI settings also but I am still having trouble. Not sure where I am going wrong #frustating

  14. Josh says:

    Good stuff. I’m a tech guy but after a few beers I was too lazy to think for myself. This helped ease the pain. I had to unplug/plug the mini display 2 times after everything was set up to finally get my desktop screen to show up on my TV. However, it works great now and the picture is very acceptable.


  15. Jason says:

    I have a MacBook (13-inch, Mid 2009) 2.13 Core2Duo running OS X 10.10.1. I’m trying to connect my MB to my TV with a MiniDVI to HDMI converter. When I connect my MB to the TV it flickers like it recognizes it but nothing happens. In my Display settings, it doesn’t offer a Mirroring option beyond Show Mirroring Options in Menu Bar When Available (which I assume would be Airplay, which this computer is not capable of doing). I’m at a loss. I guess it could be a substandard adapter cable but it could be something else too. I’m hoping someone on here has an idea or two.

  16. Jessica says:

    Thanks so much! Both my HDMI connection problems answered in one very easy to follow post! :)

  17. RSM says:

    I am having almost the exact same problem as Jason. My computer flashes as well as though it recognizes that something is happening. I do see pages as Option A and Option B above, and I see an option of optimizing the display for a Samsung on my computer, so there is something going on, but no video.

    One additional question: does the laptop need to be plugged in connecting to a tv?


  18. state of psychosis says:

    My problem is that I’m using the thunderbolt port for streaming my sample library for east west in pro tools. I also need both the other usb slots for my mbox and ilok. Unless someone invents a firewire to hdmi adapter i can’t hook up to the tv without seriously hurting the speed at which i sample for creating music and without also using a usb hub on my equipment which i’m reluctant to do.

    What I really wish I could get is an adapter that sends the hdmi from the laptop’s built in bluetooth to a receiver that you plug into the hdmi slot of your tv. I don’t think that’s possible or else it would have been done already, but that would solve my problem better than anything.

  19. Cindy says:

    Thank you!! You’re instructions are clear and easy to follow. You saved me hours!! So glad I found this.

  20. Stephanie says:

    I have had my Mac Air hooked and working and suddenly now it wont work when I attach it to my tv. I have the correct input and the cables are fine…could this be an OS X update issue? I have not updated Yosemite…

  21. Mark says:

    I have attached a 40″ HDTV (1080p) to my 2011 27″ iMac. I primarily want it to push secondary screens containing documents or watching a youtube etc.

    My issue is the fonts on the iMac have all changed, everything is now much smaller. The safari browser fonts, email, ichat, calendar……everything now has much smaller font. I can’t figure out a single setting to put everything on the iMac, back to what it was.

    Moving a safari browser over to the bigger tv works fine, but the iMac is my primary display in this case and I need to be able to read without a new prescription :)

    Any help would be appreciated, thanks for the great article.

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