MacBook Air & Pro External Displays – Tips for Buying & Using

Buying an external display for a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro? Here’s some quick buying tips, including how to find a cheap, thin, full HD screen for $152.

Already got an external screen? There’s tips for the best way to use your external monitor with your MacBook.

Most of these tips also apply for getting a main display for the Mac Pro and Mac Mini, as well as getting a second iMac external display. Read on for tips, and a bit about Apple’s new Thunderbolt Display.

Tips for Buying an External Display for a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air

  1. Get a wide screen. They’re great for wide content, like video or spreadsheets. They’re also good for viewing two windows side-by-side on one screen. Luckily, widescreens are pretty much standard now.
  2. Get a full HD (1080p) screen instead of a lower resolution screen. Lots of pixels means seeing lots of content with good detail. Less scrolling to do. More context. Full HD screens (1920 x 1080) are now cheap – $170 for an entry-level display.
  3. Buy around a 24 inch size. If you get a smaller HD screen, it may be hard to read. I find 30 inch and larger screens too big to take in – it’s like being at an IMAX, I’m moving my head around excessively to take in the contents of the screen. With a 30 inch plus screen, I also feel washed out from all the light blasting into my eyes all day.
  4. Strongly prefer screens with a DVI port. Other ports will work (VGA and HDMI), but DVI was designed for high resolution digital computer monitors. If the screen only has a VGA port, it’s probably pretty old technology. If the display only has HDMI ports, the display is intended as TV – it may be fine, but it probably wasn’t designed to be a computer monitor, to be used close up, for a whole day. To me, TVs have a different quality to their image – I haven’t asked a tech about why – whether the panel, refresh rate, viewing angles, color range or image processing is different between an LCD monitor and an LCD TV.
  5. Make sure the screen is bright enough for you. Nearly all screens have sufficient brightness now, but there are still cheap screens with low brightness and contrast. A dull screen makes you stare harder to perceive everything.
  6. If you’re collaborating with others, consider screens with wider viewing angles. Cheap screens can become hard to see as soon as you stand up (the panel’s vertical viewing range) or move left or right (the panel’s horizontal viewing range). The more expensive the screen, generally the further you can move and still see the image properly. This means others can sit or stand beside you, and check out your project.
  7. Try out higher-grade screens. More expensive screens have more accurate color (gamut), they’re brighter, have better contrast ratios, faster response, and have HDMI interfaces (e.g. for a Blueray player). Better screens do “feel” better to work off – there’s a crispness that makes them easy to read, yet not tiring. Sometimes the quality difference is only obvious side-by-side: you could check out a few external screens at a computer store.
  8. Buy a Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter. Apple sell them ($29). You’ll need it to connect your MacBook Air or Pro to the external display.

At home, I was on a budget and got an AOC RAZOR LED e2343F 23.0″ Full HD LED Monitor Ultra-slim 12mm, LED Panel & Backlight for $169. (This was in Australia from i‑Tech.) I was shocked by how good the image was for the price. It’s light & slim. The white base looks strange with the black bezel. At the time of writing it’s available in the U.S. for $152, according to Google Product Search.

At work, I have a LG display. It’s more expensive than the AOC screen ($250 vs $169), and a bit bigger (24 inch vs 23 inch). For me, the LG feels like just the right size. The LG can also rotate in its stand to a vertical orientation (i.e. portrait/tallscreen instead of landscape/widescreen). Portrait mode is useful for word processing , or designing pages for print, where you can see a whole page at a time. If you’d like the LG’s product code, leave a comment below, and I’ll look it up.

Tips for Using External Screens

  1. Turn the screen brightness down to where your eyes feel relaxed. It took me 28 years to work this out! Over bright screens wear me out. I can feel my eyes straining. Make the screen bright enough so the color is good, and text is readable, yet soft enough that your eyes don’t feel achy.
  2. Have a main screen directly in front of you, with a keyboard and trackpad in front of it. I’ve run off two screen systems for years. When I sit in the middle of two screens, my neck is either twisted left or right all day. Not so good. I’ve found it works better to have a a big screen directly in front of me, with windows I look at 90% of the time. I then put the smaller screen to one side, with windows that I look at less often (e.g. email or a webpage I have open to refer to). Since the laptop will be the smaller screen, this means springing for an external keyboard and mouse. Worth it. If you use the wireless Apple keyboard and trackpad or mouse, it’s easier to take your MacBook away – two less cables to unplug.
  3. Three screens may not be heaven. I’ve ran off three screens for about six months. I slowly noticed three screens felt crowded and that I got tired from three screens blasting photons at me. Dropping back to a single big main screen front and center has felt much better, and I’ve got more energy at the end of the day.
  4. Try one big screen, instead of a big screen plus laptop on the side. If it feels better with just one big screen, you can close your MacBook Pro or Air and it will keep on running (instead of sleeping), provided your external monitor, keyboard and mouse are connected. Ah, the simple life!

Apple Thunderbolt Display

Apple has offered a fairly giant Mac display display for awhile, both as a separate screen – the 27 inch Cinema Display, and well as built in to the 27 inch iMac. Now the Cinema Display has been upgraded to the 27 inch Thunderbolt Display.

Thunderbolt technology uses the video cable to send high speed data to external devices as well as sending video to the monitor. The Thunderbolt Display has a Gigabit Ethernet port, a few USB ports, a Firewire port, and a webcam, and they all come courtesy of plugging in one tiny mini DisplayPort connector to your Mac Pro or Air. You can daisy chain more Thunderbolt devices onto the monitor, like disk arrays.

Thunderbolt turns the tiny “Mini DisplayPort” connector on the current MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models into a docking station connector. You can flounce around with your tiny two pound, 11 inch MacBook Air. Then get to the office (or come home), plug in one tiny cable, and suddenly that tiny laptop has become a big powerful computer workstation, with a big display, fast networking and large capacity disk storage. It makes the Thunderbolt connector the modern day equivalent of a docking station, but way more convenient.

I suspect it’s the way computing will go: light, small, fast, thin laptops. When you need big screens and storage, you just plug in one cable. Thunderbolt, made by Intel, is finding its way on Windows PCs and laptops in 2012. One day day you’ll probably be able to just plug your iPad or iPhone into a Thunderbolt Display to get a full sized workstation.

I tried out the Thunderbolt Display’s predecessor, the 27″ Cinema Display. It is a gorgeous display. It has the same crazy better-than-HD resolution: 2560 by 1440 pixels. (Full HD is 1920 by 1080 pixels.) It’s pretty big – I don’t know if I could live with the “IMAX head swivel” effect, but perhaps it would work if I put a big distance between the monitor and I – I’d need a deep desk. I’d really like to try one out for awhile. (If you have one, please comment below to let us know how you find it!)

I mention the Thunderbolt Display in case you have the money, appreciate the quality, and it’s not too big for you. I’ve tested the new MacBook Air running a Cinema Display, which has similar screen specifications and video technology to the Thunderbolt display – you can see the video at MacBook Air external display.

Thanks!

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41 Responses to MacBook Air & Pro External Displays – Tips for Buying & Using

  1. Marty Knapp says:

    Please let me know what the model code of the LG external display you use with macbook pro (or air) Thanks!

    • Tasman Hayes says:

      Hi Marty,

      At work I’m using a LG Flatron W2442PA display.

      I’m using this monitor with a Ubuntu Linux and Windows 7 PC.

      I have not tested this screen with a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.
      I’ve never had a problem with monitors not being compatible.
      If you’d like me to test it, I can bring a MacBook into work.

      -Taz.

      • Ajay Prabhu says:

        I want to know which key is use to switch display from macbook air to external monitor screen . I have 10.7.2 os even i want to know where we can get single display screen in mac while connecting to external monitor. Please help me for same.

  2. pmagunia says:

    Personally, I have a dual setup of the 27″ 2010 LED Cinema Display and a 17″ VGA Dell E193 FP.

    Yes, as Tasman mentioned: the 27″ is kind of oversized for day to day use (I use the Dell for surfing and mail) and the Cinama Display as a text editor which is indeed stunning.

    Both monitors are hooked up to 2009 Mac mini 3,1 which does support the full resolution of both monitors simultaneously. The only thing is when viewing HD video on the Cinema Display the image frequently freezes in full screen mode. Trimming down the window size fixes the problem. I’ll have to see if the maximum resolution is better supported in full screen in HD with a newer Mac.

  3. George Knott says:

    Hi,

    Based on your recommendation I bought the AOC Razor E2343F 23″ LED LCD Monitor – and I bought the Mini Display Port to DVI Adaptor but they don’t connect?

    Do I need to order a cable or something else to hook the Adapter that runs from my airbook to the monitor ?

    • Tasman Hayes says:

      Hi George!

      The way the MacBook Pro or Air connects to the monitor is like this:

      MacBook Air or Pro < ==> Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adaptor < ==> DVI Cable < ==> AOC Razor LCD Display

      From memory, my model included two monitor cables: a VGA monitor cable (blue ends, older technology), and a DVI cable (white ends, newer technology).

      Do you have these cables in your package? If so, you want the DVI cable – the one with the white ends.

      There is another possibility: I’ve checked and there does seem to be another version of AOC. At least one site is selling AOC Razor e2343F2k (instead of just E2343F) that has a VGA port (labelled “D-SUB”) and two HDMI ports. This is instead of my models VGA port plus DVI port.

      Have a look at the back of the monitor’s base, and look at the at the names (in raised black plastic) printed below the ports. What ports does your model have? You will need good light to see this.

      -Taz.

  4. Jason says:

    I have a 27″ iMac and a 27″ Cinema Display as a second monitor at work. I have a deep executive desk and I find that it works great, no eye strain at all. I recently bought a 27″ Thunderbolt Display to go with my 2011 Macbook Pro (with thunderbolt) and found that the desk that worked great for my laptop is suddenly too small. Here is a picture: http://i.imgur.com/o9rFU.jpg

    No room for my MBP, so it sits on my shredder and by the time im ready for bed, my eyes are all dried out and burning. I never had this issue when just using the MBP, so its definitely the Thunderbolt Display straining and drying out my eyeballs. I am going to be replacing the small laptop desk with a large deep-dish L shaped corner desk.

  5. Bluestone says:

    I used 2011 iMac 21″ & Acer H243HX at work, connected with HDMI to Display port cable, can’t work with 1 monitor anymore!

  6. Dave says:

    Where on the Macbook Air 13″ late 2011 is the connection port for the mini displayport adaptor? is it the same as the thunderbolt?

    • Dave says:

      Yes…the Macbook Air 13″ late 2011 model’s Thunderbolt port is ‘unisex’…it will run a mini displayport jack/adaptor.

      http://store.apple.com/us/questions/product/MB570Z/A

      • Tasman Hayes says:

        Thanks for the question and answer Dave! The Thunderbolt port is “backwards-compatible” with Mini DisplayPort. Cables and adaptors designed for mini display port work with the Thunderbolt port. The current MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models have Thunderbolt ports, rather than Mini DisplayPorts. Since the existing MiniDisplay Port to DVI and MiniDisplay Port to VGA adapters work fine, Apple didn’t bother making new “Thunderbolt to DVI” and “Thunderbolt to VGA” adapters.

  7. Kris says:

    Hey Tasman Hayes,
    Can you recommend me for a good external monitor 24″ that will work very well with my Macbook pro? ( I mean cheaper then the apple version of $1000 :-)

    Thanks
    Kris

  8. William says:

    I want to get a 13″ Macbook Air and have two external monitors + the native notebook monitor. All extended. So three extended LCD displays.

    Monitor 1 connected with the mini-display port to DVI.

    Monitor 2 is problematic as I understand the graphic card on the Macbook Air can only handle one external monitor. However, I can use a USB external graphic card, such as SEE2 Xtreme UV250 from http://www.eclipsetouch.com/.

    What is your opinion on this set up? I currently run this identical set up with a Sony Vaio, not problems. I am curious if there would be any issues with a MAC.

    What do you think?

  9. Karin H says:

    Could you please help with the details of the LG monitor which is compatible with Macbooks and Airs? Thanks for a VERY informative page! Thanks in advance! Karin

  10. John Manner says:

    Thanks for sharing this article! I have been using my MacBook Air for several months now and absolutely love it, but the 13″ screen is constraining at time for some content.

  11. Frank Medjuk says:

    Just wanted to say thanks. Great website. Very clear.

  12. Tim says:

    I’m a new MBA user – purchased late 2010. What commands do I use to activate a secondary monitor my TV? I have the thuderbolt connected to HDMI directly into the TV.

  13. Resident in Cape Town SA and wanting to buy an external monitor for my MacBook Air. Must be compatible, could be second hand. Private user new to Apple

  14. Rah says:

    I just bought a 23.6″ Philips 247E3LPH Monitor to use at home with my Macbook Pro. I hooked it up with the HDMI input as there is no DVI connection. I’m not mirroring displays, I’m using the external as my main screen. The quality looks ok, but the text looks fuzzy. I tried to find mac drivers off the philips site but they are only available for a PC. I’m not sure what to do. The fuzzy text is straining my eyes and I checked the manual and it said the monitor displays best at 1920×1080@60Hz, but there is no option for that setting. Do I need to upgrade my video card in my macbook (It’s only 2 years old) or do I need a monitor that is compatible with a mac. Please help. thanks.

  15. John says:

    One thing to keep in mind is a camera. I do a lot of video sykping and can not get by without the camera. The Apple display has it built in. All with one TB cable.

  16. John says:

    Great site. I have a MBA and need an external monitor so I can prevent and manage RSI.

    The Apple monitor is so nice, but would like to know what other options exist.

    The one must have for me is a built in camera. I video Skype a lot for work and I can not find any monitor that comes with the camera built in.

    Do you know of any? If not, looks like I will be making a trip to the Apple store today instead of BestBuy.

  17. Barry says:

    Thanks for your very helpful and simple to read web site! I have a new MBA late 2011 (13″) and would like to test a couple of large displays (23″-27″) that are cheaper than the $1,000 Apple Thunderbolt unit. Since I want to take my MBA along to several stores to see how the displays look- I’d like to know what i’ll need to take with me. I gather I’ll need a MiniDisplay port to DVI adaptor (which I can buy from my local Apple store) and a cable to connect that with the DVI port on the monitors I’ll be testing. Do monitors always come with cables that will connect with the Apple MiniDisplay adaptor? Is that all I need?
    And does anyone, by chance, have any experience with the Samsung S27A850 27″ monitor?

    • Tasman Hayes says:

      Hi Barry,

      Yes, your Macbook Air and a MiniDisplay port to DVI adapter should be all you need to test some monitors.

      The monitors I’ve gotten in the last few years have all included a DVI cable.

      Cheers,
      -Tas.

  18. Dave says:

    Do you recommend an adapter cable for the thunderbolt port to HDMI on a Mac Pro? I would love to use my TV as a monitor but I have read several horror story reviews on the Apple support websites.

  19. Cameron says:

    I am trying to connect a 17 inch AOC (DVI and VGA only) to my MacBook pro 15 inch late 2011. PLUS a 23 inch AOC which is already pluged into pluged into the thunderbolt port via adapter. How can I do it? I am in nz so I can only buy adapter here!! I watched a clip on YouTube and there was a guy that had 2 third party monitors and with one he connected it via USB to hdmi adapter and with the other he connects it via thunder bolt to hdmi,so again how can I do this?

  20. Naush Malik says:

    Hi, I have a MBA late 2010 (11 inch). I am considering the 30 inch HP LP3065 – will the display adaptor on my Mac be able to drive the screen?

    Thanks much in advance,
    Naush

  21. Nice summary article. I agree with most of your workspace conclusions that more isn’t better in terms of brightness, number of displays, etc. I’m still looking for a third party external display that can handle Apple text as well as my (very old 2002) Apple ADC Cinema Display. I’ve tried HP2311xi and Dell u2412m and infinite display/calibration/cabling tweaks but can’t quite get text rendering as good as the ADC with my 2011 MBA or my 2009 MBP. Perhaps Thunderbolt Apple Display is the only solution…..

  22. Donna Vulpis says:

    What model of the LG are you using at work?

  23. Soami Bhatia says:

    I have a 13.3″ Macbook Pro with me and I want to connect an external Screen with that to view large images and spreadsheets but have a width of 23″ only available for that. Do we have anything slightly smaller than the 27″ screen from Apple as I have a bit of space constraints maximum 23″ width is available on my desk for the external display

  24. laurie says:

    Hi -

    I would love the product code for the LG monitor you use at work. This would work well with a Macbook Air, yes?

    Thank you!

  25. Joakim says:

    Does anybody know how will the Macbook Air (2012) handle a resolution of 2560 x 1080 ?

    I am considering buying the new LG’s 29-inch EA93
    http://www.engadget.com/2012/11/07/lg-ea93-29-inch-ultrawide-lcd-monitor-shipping/

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