Help Me, Laptop: How Do I Add a 2nd (or 3rd) Display?

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 You know your laptop can do a lot, but you might not always know all the details that tell you how to do it. Case in point: How the heck do you add a second or third display to your computer?


Tom's Guide forum user
ziyan.tejani1107 is trying to figure out this very problem.

I have an Acer Aspire V Nitro 17.3 laptop with a GTX 965m graphics card. I currently have it connected to an external monitor via a HDMI cable. I want to connect a second external display (1080p 60hz) to my laptop. I have multiple USB 3.0 ports, and I have a USB C (Thunderbolt 3) port available. How could I connect my other display to my laptop? Which cable would I need and would I need any adapters? Am I actually able to have 2 external displays usable for my laptop at once?

Thanks

This isn't an uncommon question. No matter how nice the display is on your laptop, even the best looking 17-inch display won't offer the view-filling real estate that a larger display will. While we might love 4K displays and big-screen monitors, even a simple 20-inch, 1080p monitor will offer a big improvement over the display on your laptop.

But connecting your extra monitors may not be as simple as just plugging into an HDMI port. The vagaries of hardware and software support may leave some users out of luck when they try to add an extra display, or you might run into the simple (yet frustrating) problem of having one plug on your monitor and a different connection on your PC.

Whether or not you can connect a second or third display comes down to a few key factors:

Graphics Hardware

The first question is whether or not your PC's hardware will support multiple monitors. If you've got a system that's only a few years old, you should be fine, since dual and triple displays are supported both by integrated graphics from Intel and AMD, as well as discrete graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia.

However, if you're using an older system, or a current system that uses low-end processing and graphics hardware, you may run into some limitations.

Since ziyan.tejani1107 has a laptop with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 965M graphics card, it's safe to say that it should be able to support a second, external monitor.

Display Connectivity

The next issue is more obvious: You need to make sure that your monitor uses the same connection as the video outputs on the PC. HDMI is common, but it's not unusual to see systems that rely on DisplayPort (both full size and mini), DVI or Thunderbolt 3 instead. Older systems may also offer VGA output. If you don't have a matching connection, you won't even be able to plug in a second monitor. This becomes an even larger issue when you're connecting a third display, as the primary video connection will already be in use, leaving you to make do with whatever connections are still available.

Most monitors are also compatible with multiple connection types, but you may need to invest in a new cable or even an adapter in order to match the display with the computer's available outputs. These vary in cost, from $10 to well over $100, depending upon the connections involved, and ordering online will inevitably include waiting for a package to be shipped to you. If you want to get a second monitor up and running right away, make sure you have the necessary cable or adapter ahead of time.

MORE: Which GPU is Right For You

In ziyan.tejani1107's case, the laptop has an HDMI port that is in use, leaving a USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 connection as the remaining video output. This is where things get a little tricky, because we don't know what connection is used on the second external display they want to connect. If it's a newer model that offers USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connectivity, then plugging in should be a straightforward matter. If it uses the far more common HDMI or DisplayPort, however, then an adapter will be needed. A quick search of Amazon or Newegg for "Thunderbolt 3 to HDMI adapters" will yield plenty of options that will work.

Another excellent option is to use a Thunderbolt 3 docking station. These are small accessories that connect to a single port, but offer multiple connectivity options. Think of it as a multiple port adapter, which frequently includes video outputs such as HDMI or DisplayPort. In addition, a good dock will offer extra USB ports and frequently, an SD card slot, making them a great choice for PCs that don't have all of the connections you want built in.

Display Settings

Once you've got your monitor connected, you may still need to adjust your settings in order for the extra display to work properly. You can usually do this right from the desktop, either by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Display Settings or the Windows + P shortcut, which pulls up the menu for multiple displays.

On some systems that use discrete graphics, you'll need to make these setting changes in the GPU settings instead of through the operating system. On an Nvidia-based machine, you can do this by right-clicking the desktop and selecting Nvidia Control Panel. In the control panel menus, where several options will be listed under Display, find the entry for multiple displays, and it will walk you through the process of adding screens.

MORE: The Best Computers That Can Fit in Your Hand

On AMD-based PCs, you can do the same through AMD's Catalyst Control Center dashboard, which can also be accessed by right-clicking the desktop. In Catalyst, select Displays Manager, and you can again add or remove displays.

Generally speaking, you'll want to extend your desktop to all connected monitors, and then adjust the resolution for each monitor individually so that text and icons display correctly on each. You'll also want to make sure that the order of monitors set in your control panel matches the physical setup you have on your desk — otherwise, you'll run into issues as you try to move windows from one screen to another.

Intended Use

Finally, you may want to think about how you intend to use your multimonitor setup. Pretty much anything that supports multiple monitors will be able to handle documents and web browsing across two or three screens, but once you throw gaming or other graphically intensive uses into the mix, you may hit a wall.

Here the question isn't so much, "Will the monitors work?" but whether or not you can support those external displays while still getting the sort of performance you want. Driving a high-resolution display for basic use is easy enough, but driving multiple displays at high resolution in a game dramatically increases the amount of work your GPU has to do.

A high-powered graphics card may be able to handle it without breaking a sweat, but if you're running an older card, such as ziyan.tejani1107's Nvidia GTX 965M, you may actually find that gaming performance drops off when the game is running on more than one display. Take the time to try out games individually, and be ready to dial down the eye candy – running a game at lower resolution, or with less demanding settings can be the difference between playing on one screen, or playing on three.

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