Adding an extra monitor to your desktop can do wonders for your productivity. Just ask anyone who’s already done so — they’ll make a believer out of you. In Windows it’s surprisingly easy to use more than one screen, though exactly what you need depends mostly on what you already have.
Windows has support for multiple monitors built-in. If your current screen or monitor is already working and it’s displaying the correct resolution, congratulations! Your video drivers are ready to go, and you probably don’t need to do anything else on the software side.
If not, you’re probably using a desktop with a discrete graphics card from Nvidia or AMD you need to download and install the graphics driver. Head to the download page (this one for Nvidia, this one for AMD, and this one if something’s wrong with your integrated Intel graphics setup).
Download the correct package for both your specific graphics card and your version of Windows (XP, Vista, 7, 8, or 10 — make sure to select the 64-bit option if you’re on a 64-bit version of the OS). If you don’t know which card you’re using or which architecture version of Windows you’re on, use the automated tools at all three sites to auto-select your correct drivers.
Hardware for laptops
Laptop owners, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that your laptop probably already has the ability to use a multi-monitor setup! The bad news is that you can probably only use dual monitors — one external monitor and your laptop’s built-in screen.
Check on either side of your laptop and find the video port. Depending on your manufacturer and the age of your laptop, it may be VGA, DVI, HDMI, or DisplayPort. Most modern systems offer HDMI or DisplayPort. A few — Macs in particular — use Thunderbolt, which is compatible with DisplayPort monitors.
Related: HDMI vs. DisplayPort vs. DVI vs. VGA
Most laptops have only one video-out option, so depending on the compatibility of your external monitor, you may need an adapter on top of a video cable. If you have HDMI-out and a DisplayPort monitor, for example, you’ll need an adapter to connect. Plug the cable and any necessary adapters in, turn your monitor on, and Windows should detect it automatically.
Hardware for desktops
Desktop hardware is trickier. Budget and small form factor desktops usually have video ports only on the motherboard – the VGA, DVI, or HDMI port will be right next to all the other ports on the back of your computer, like the various USB and speaker ports. Some motherboards only include one video option, but many include two, often for the sake of compatibility. A DVI port plus the older VGA port is a popular choice (see below). If you want a two-monitor setup then plug one monitor into each, using the correct cable and/or adapter as necessary.
If you’ve only have one video port of any kind, then you’re going to need a discrete graphics card. There are literally hundreds of options, mostly due to the various levels of gaming technology that they’re primarily used for, but if you only care about using multiple monitors you can choose a much cheaper card. AMD’s Radeon HD 5450, for example, is usually $35. It offers at least two display outputs and can handle 4K resolution.
You’ll need to do some research to figure out which graphics card fits your needs. Check the specifications to see how many concurrent displays each card can support on its own, and whether it needs any special adapters to do so. Most cards — particularly affordable models — offer several different connection options rather than multiples of the same type.
Nvidia cards can support no more than four monitors at once, while some AMD cards can support up to six. This is a hard cap in the driver — some Nvidia cards come with more than four ports to provide additional connection options, but if you try to use them all at once, only four will work.
Note that you can’t combine Nvidia and ATI cards. It is possible to use two video cards together, or to use a video card with on-board motherboard graphics, but only in certain situations. Opting for such an approach can make using multiple displays rather tricky, so we recommend avoiding such a hack unless absolutely needed.
If you have a DisplayPort or Thunderbolt video connection on your laptop or desktop you can take advantage of a feature called daisy-chaining. This lets you use the single port with several monitors by chaining one to the next. One DisplayPort can drive up to four 1080p displays. Macs can daisy-chain to two Thunderbolt Displays through a Thunderbolt port.
The catch? You need monitors with DisplayPort-out, and most don’t have that. Dell’s high-end monitors are among the most likely to include the feature. If you’re looking for a way to extend your current display, though, this probably won’t be much help.
If your laptop or desktop has no external monitor support, or you simply want to use more monitors without buying another graphics card, there’s another option: a USB adapter. These gadgets plug into a standard USB port on one side and a video cable (DVI, VGA, or HDMI) on the other, allowing you to use external monitors without any extra internal hardware. There are even stand-alone monitors that use a USB connection only, usually marketed as “portable” monitors.
Keep in mind that these adapters and monitors will require their own drivers (usually included on a disc or downloaded from a website), and they also use a lot more software processing compared to regular external monitors. Older or cheaper Windows machines may struggle to use them, especially if you connect more than one at a time.
Configuring your monitors
Both Nvidia and ATI have configuration tools for setting up monitors, but they’re unnecessary unless you need specific options for gaming. For simple placement and resolution, all you need is Windows.
To get to the configuration window in Windows XP, right-click anywhere on the desktop, then click “Properties,” then the Settings tab. In Windows Vista, you first have to open the Control Panel, then click “Appearance and Personalization,” then “Adjust screen resolution.” In Windows 7 and 8 just right-click the desktop and click on “Screen resolution.” In Windows 10, right-click the desktop then click “Display settings.”
If any of your monitors are blank or mirrored, click on them, select “extend desktop to this display,” then click “Apply.” you can now use all your screens to display programs.
Now it’s time to fine-tune your setup: click on each monitor and make sure it’s set to the recommended resolution (usually the highest one available). If you’ve set any of your monitors in a portrait (vertical) orientation, you can adjust the rotation in the Orientation drop-down menu. You can also drag and drop the monitors in the top of the window to match their physical location of your desk, both vertically and horizontally – if one of your monitors is a little lower than the other, slide it down a notch or two on the screen. Click “Identify” if you’re not sure which screen goes where.
Finally, click the center monitor (or whichever one you intend to be your “primary” screen) and click the box marked “Make this my main display.” This is where your Start menu, desktop icons, and program buttons will appear. Click “Apply” to see if everything is working, then adjust as needed.