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Anyone who is used to working on a dual monitor setup will tell you how cramped working on a single monitor is—especially on a laptop or notebook. We’ll discuss how to replicate the office desktop PC experience at home by connecting additional displays to any business laptop PC.  

The good news is that Thunderbolt 3 USB-C technology readily transforms a notebook into a desktop productivity machine just in time for COVID-19 work from home setups. And for those who have legacy laptops deployed, you have options for adding displays to older computers as well.

Current technology: Thunderbolt 3 USB-C

The Thunderbolt 3 USB-C interface provides an all-in-one port and cable for high speed data transfers, high resolution video output, and battery charging. Laptop OEMs starting building business notebooks with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity in 2018 and is now more or less standard issue for new business notebooks.

A notebook with Thunderbolt 3 is powerful enough to display video to two daisy chained 4K-resolution displays, or one 5K screen. Note that you will need a Thunderbolt 3 input on the monitor you’re connecting, however. If you have Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C on your computer but not your monitor, you’ll find an easy fix with the appropriate video adapter (USB-C to HDMI or USB-C to VGA).

In terms of deployment, using Thunderbolt 3 offers the cleanest, easiest setup available. Simply attach a Thunderbolt 3 cable to a Thunderbolt 3 enabled monitor and you’re in business. Since power passes through the USB-C interface, this setup will also charge a laptop while in use.

Laptop OEMs offer several small portable monitors designed for enabling dual screen productivity wherever you bring your laptop.

Docking stations

A laptop docking station offers remote workers a way to connect a laptop to multiple external displays and other peripherals if needed. The latest generation USB-C docking stations connect to a laptop’s USB-C port and delivers handy backwards compatibility to connect to older monitors with HDMI and DisplayPort inputs that new laptops may not support.

Laptop OEMs offer branded USB-C docking stations for their business lines (see: Lenovo ThinkPad, Dell Latitude and MacBook 2015 and later). Third party solutions are designed to replicate performance across brands at a competitive price point. (See: Belkin Thunderbolt 3 docks which offer a wide range of compatibility and connectivity for both Windows and Mac laptops.)

Workarounds for laptops without USB-C connectivity

If you don’t have the latest technology, no problem— it’s fairly easy to piecemeal a solution using technology you might already have on hand.

A laptop that is very legacy with only a VGA port can still swing a dual monitor setup as long as it has a USB port available. You will need a USB to VGA or DVI external video card and the appropriate cable to connect with a computer monitor.    

Laptops manufactured within the last eight years commonly have built-in HDMI video output. If you want to add one extra monitor, simply attach an HDMI cable to an HDMI-enabled computer. An inexpensive HDMI-DVI cable adapter will add compatibility to a monitor without a HDMI input.

Laptops that have only one HDMI video output will benefit from a USB 3.0 docking station for a dual monitor setup in addition to the laptop display. The HDMI standard does not support daisy chain monitor configurations. If you don’t want to purchase a docking station, a workaround for connecting a second monitor to laptop in lieu of docking station is to use a USB-to-HDMI adapter. Note that running video output from a USB connection tends to take a toll on computer resources and you may run into performance issues, especially for any tasks beyond basic web browsing or word processing.  

DisplayPort video output can support two monitors without a docking station in a daisy chained configuration, providing functionality that HDMI cannot support. HDMI and DisplayPort are not compatible, and you will need monitors with a DisplayPort input. Converting a DisplayPort signal to HDMI using a passive adapter cable may work but is generally not a recommended solution.

Setting Windows 10 to recognize dual monitors

(From Microsoft Support)

  1. Select Start Settings System Display. Your PC should automatically detect your monitors and show your desktop. If you don’t see the monitors, select Detect.
  2. In the Multiple displays section, select an option from the list to determine how your desktop will display across your screens. 
  3. Once you’ve selected what you see on your displays, select Keep changes.

You can change the resolution of your displays. However, we suggest using the recommended resolution to get the most out of your displays.

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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