My MacBook Pro Retina Running 3 External Monitors (& Could Do 4, 5….)

My old MacBook Pro had no problems running three external monitors. My new MacBook Pro Retina is easily able to do the same and should be able to do more, if I wanted. Here are the details of my setup.

I’m using three Dell monitors. My center one is a widescreen running 2560×1440, and the two side screens are running 1600×1200. I like the side screens being vertical, rather than horizontal, because it makes it easy for me to use them for reading web pages without scrolling as much. I use my middle screen for writing and main production. My internal laptop screen (which I’m running at 1680×1050), I use for email.

The middle monitor is powered out of one of my Thunderbolt ports (though I’m using the same DisplayPort connection to that I used before). The two side monitors use Diamond BVU195 USB adapters (that links to Amazon; it’s an affiliate link, so I earn a bit if you buy there). I’ve used this setup successfully for two years, and it continues to work fine now.

If you want to do the same, the posts I’ve written below have more details on using the USB adapters and making sure you can power through DisplayPort at the full resolution:

You’ll need the DisplayLink “alpha” driver that you’ll find here. After installation, gather your windows to your non-rotated screens (if you rotate), and that will help you confirm settings after doing a rotation (it’s hard to move a mouse when the image is on its side).

The MacBook Pro Retina has some interesting new options I haven’t tried yet. For one, there’s an HDMI port. That means I could easily power a fourth monitor that way, if I wanted. In addition, there are two Thunderbolt ports. I’ve never tried using Thunderbolt for powering monitors directly, but as Techmeme noted today, some are using those as another way of powering external monitors.

All these ports mean that my setup above could be done without the USB adapters. I should be able to use a Thunderbolt-to-DVI adapter to run my side monitors (they only have VGA and DVI input) and HDMI for my middle adapter.

In short, anyone should be able to easily have three monitors running. I believe with daisy chaining, the Thunderbolt ports each could run two monitors (that support that), so that would give you a total of four, the HDMI would be five, and your laptop monitor would be six. USB remains an option to run two or more. How about 10 monitors total, anyone?

Performance might be an issue with 10 monitors, of course. But three? Using my USB outputs, I have no performance problems for ordinary web browsing and regular work. I also prefer a three monitor solution, because my head mainly continues to face a single direction, straight ahead, with the alternating look to the left or right. With two monitors (which I’ve used before), you’re constantly looking to one side or the other.

Also related, my CNET column this week – Forget Retina, look how much the new MacBook Pro displays! — is a deep dive into how much more screen real estate the Retina display opens up, making 1920×1200 easily legible on a 15″ screen.

Postscript: I’ve tried using the HDMI-out to my Dell’s HDMI-in port. Disappointingly, I could only push 720p (1280×720), 1600×900 and 1080i or 1080p (1920×1080) resolutions, rather than the full 2560×1440 that a DisplayPort output supports. It might be that a high-end HDMI cable could push more signal. I’ll be trying this next.


Comments

  1. says

    Great stuff Danny, I might be following the way your example here about your MacBook Pro Retina screens.

    Thank you for sharing some information about the screen resolutions especially with this HDMI cable.

  2. Matt says

    Reading lots of reports on the forums about sluggish UI animation on the Retina. Have you noticed any choppiness or UI issues?

  3. says

    Hi Danny. Just started reading your blog and I’m completely hooked! What are the sizes of the three external monitors you run?

  4. Randy Lane says

    Read you articles about the shift from Windows to Mac. Agree with much I what you say. I was “Mac’d” 5 years ago and have finally settled on my new MacBook Pro running OSx Lion on 375GB and the other half runs Windows 7 and Office 2010 for work.

    Windows works well on a Mac system and my only complaint is having to use the on screen keyboard to execute certain Windows commands.

    Give it a try. Run Bootcamp to set it up and you can pick up Win 7 OEM for about $110

  5. Bob says

    Hi Danny,

    I was reading your CNet article about your recent conversion to Mac OS X. I did the same thing several years ago and am still very happy. A couple of suggestions for you:

    1. Try using Command-Tab to cycle between apps- much quicker than Mission Control I think.

    2. You can move the menubar to any single screen in the System Preferences Displays pane – just drag the menubar to the desired screen in the Arrange tab. In your three external monitor setup perhaps the best location would be the large external center screen – that way all other screens are at most one screen away from it.

    3. Try out SecondBar or Menu Everywhere or MenuPop to let you have the menu bar on non-primary screens.

    4. The more you use the Mac and its apps you will learn the keyboard shortcuts for the different menu commands and can even create your own if you wish – look in System Preferences Keyboard to see where it’s done and look on the web for details on how.

    5. I think that every running app does put an icon in the Dock – on the rightmost part of it – not sure if there are utilities that put the Dock on non-primary screens or not, but wouldn’t be surprised.

    6. Check out your area for local Mac user groups – there are a lot of good ones out there full Of people who love their Macs and are happy to share what they’ve learned.

    Overall, i do agree that multiple monitors could be better supported in OS X, so wish Apple would devote some resources to making this happen but given the trend to make OS X more like iOS don’t think that’s likely, so third party apps are probably gonna be the source of the solution until you memorize all keyboard shortcuts in all apps anyway and create your own shortcuts for the menu commands that don’t have shortcuts (and don’t need the menubar to get around).

    Good luck with your new setup…

    -Bob

  6. says

    Running 3 external + MBPROr display(2 1900×1200 and 1 2560×1600 – which is pretty impressive in itself) monitors right off the MBPROr does causes crashes via thunderbolt & dvi. The crash reports point to the graphics card.

    The best way to pursuit multiple monitors is Danny’s way with usb adapter cards.

    Thanks for your blog Danny

  7. says

    I’m running a total of 4 monitors, 3 external and laptop screen, on my rMBP (2.6 GHz, 16 GB RAM). 2 of the external monitors are connected via Thunderbolt to DVI (1920×1200 and 1024×1280 rotated). The other external monitor is connected via HDMI to DVI (1024×1280 rotated). Not sure if the below ASCII will work, but here is an external link to the configuration I’m running:


    +----------+ +----------+
    | |+----------------+| |
    | || || |
    | || || |
    |1024x1280 || 1920x1200 || 1024x1280|
    | || || |
    | || || |
    | |+----------------+| |
    +----------+ +----------+ +----------+
    | |
    |Best 4 rMB|
    | |
    +----------+

    With this configuration I’m not having any errors or crash reports.

  8. says

    Matt,

    I think it’s the total resolution size. Might have over done it.
    1) 1x 2560×1440 (DELL U2711)
    2) 2x 1900×1200 (DELL UM2412)
    3) 1x 1680×1050 (MBPROr)

    It works for the most part, and then every couple days it will crash. Yesterday it crashed twice. The MBPROr temperature for the the GPU hovers between 60-69 Celsius. I turned off switching mode

  9. says

    Thanks for sharing your setup Danny,

    I have been searching for ways on how to do this and gave up, and then I saw your link on DIYThemes which lead me right to your setup, gonna get my 13in MAC Pro hooked up :-)

  10. says

    I ran my rMBP with 2 external screens without a problem (using the thunderbolt ports), and as far as I know you can use the HDMI port up to at least 1920×1200.

    See this post:
    http://blog.macsales.com/14241-macbook-pro-15-with-retina-display-can-run-3-external-displays

    As far as UI Lag – there is no major lag when using external displays, but the internal retina display runs about as smooth as my Macbook Pro from 2010, if not worse, which is why I sold mine and bought one of the older non-retina macbooks instead. UI lag is something I just can’t work with.

    Whether it’s software or hardware, the retina display is just not ready for primetime.

  11. David says

    Hi there, excellent setup, I’m working on getting the same thing up and running and have had an external monitor connected via the diamond adapter and working well for a while. Today though I tried to rotate the monitor for the first time and the whole system completely sh* itself and froze up when I selected the orientation through my Mac preferences. Any ideas? Thanks

  12. Venkat says

    Will this setup work with all 3 monitors being u2711?
    Can I get all three at the max 2560x resolution? Can I also get 3 u2711 in PLP format like you have above? If I get an external keyboard and mouse will the setup work with the MBP closed?
    Thanks