Increased productivity using multiple displays is no myth. With more than one panel, you can sling apps for email, communication, and more onto one screen, move the browser to another, and load Word or Excel on a possible third. Your eyes can finally breathe. Ahhhhh.
If this sounds like your ideal desktop in the home or office, you’ll want to read this guide on how to setup dual monitors in Windows 10. It’s (typically) not just a plug-and-play ordeal. You need to know your PC’s limitations and options in order to get the best multi-monitor experience you can buy.
Making sure your system is compatible
Connecting with Integrated Graphics (such as Intel HD)
This first factor you need to determine is what type of graphics component you have inside your desktop or laptop.
In a desktop, video output generated by integrated graphics is piped through ports mounted on the motherboard that protrude through their designated holes at the back of the case. This area is typically called the I/O panel, as shown above, and consists of a handful of connectors that are grouped together for audio output, peripheral input, networking, and so on. Typically, motherboards include three types of video output to cover the huge assortment of monitors and technologies spanning the last ten years. These include:
Video Graphics Array (VGA): This is typically blue, features 15 holes, and includes a screw on each side to secure the attached cable. This port handles analog video only, and is the oldest video output of the trio. VGA can’t carry audio.
Digital Video Interface (DVI): This port is typically yellow and rectangular, and shoves all pin seats to the right. There are actually five versions of DVI, including DVI-I that combines digital and analog, DVI-D that’s digital only, and DVI-A that’s analog only. To find out what you have installed, the diagrams are located here. Most new computers have DVI-D or DVI-I.
High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI): The most common video output on the mainstream market. It serves as an all-in-one output for both digital video and audio, so you’re only dealing with one cable. The standard Type-A port is mostly rectangular save for a slight dip on the lower half. Most computers use the regular Type-A port, but on rare occasions you’ll see a laptop with a smaller version. In the case, you’ll probably need an adapter or mini-HDMI to HDMI cable.
Connecting with discrete graphics (Such as AMD and Nvidia)
Meanwhile, discrete graphics cards installed in desktops have their own ports that can rely on any of the standard noted above. They’ll be located below the motherboard I/O port on the back of your desktop. If the PC has a graphics card, ignore the I/O panel and connect your displays to the ports on the video card.
They’re likely to also include a fourth port type — one which is common on high-end PC monitors.
DisplayPort: Digital video output created by Dell for extremely high resolutions. It was created to replace VGA and DVI, and is backwards compatible with both, along with HDMI. The connector is mostly rectangular save for a slight “dent” in the bottom left corner. It’s the most common connector on modern discrete graphics solutions, beating out even HDMI.
As an example of an add-in card’s output, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 includes three DisplayPort connectors, one HDMI connector, and a DVI connector (see above).
What about notebooks?
Because of their form factor, you will have a limited number of video outputs.
For instance, our Dell Alienware 17 R4 includes one full-sized HDMI connector, and a smaller, compact version of the DisplayPort connector (aka Mini DisplayPort). The laptop also includes a Thunderbolt 3 port supporting DisplayPort video output, and three USB 3.1 Gen1 ports.
So, this laptop includes three ways to connect external displays: Thunderbolt 3, DisplayPort, and HDMI. Technically, it’s also possible to connect displays through the USB ports, but that’s uncommon and you’ll need an adapter or dock to do it.
The Alienware is a gaming laptop, however. A different laptop, like a budget notebook, might include just one HDMI port. In that case, adding more than a single display could be tricky — you’d have to fall back on trying to use the USB ports with an adapter or dock.
Driver compatibility limits your connections
With laptops, your ability to add displays is For instance, the Intel Core i7-6820HK processor in our Alienware 17 R4 includes the integrated HD Graphics 530 component that can only handle three displays at one time, one of which is the laptop’s screen.
Meanwhile, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 cards installed in PCs can support up to four simultaneous monitor connections with 3,840 x 2,160 resolutions. And because PCs can typically support more than one add-in graphics card, you could turn your desktop with four monitors into a huge visual wall with eight screens. Their orientation can be horizontal or vertical, depending on the model.
But on laptops with the same GTX 1080 chip, Nvidia doesn’t support more than two external displays. There’s also Nvidia’s Optimus technology to consider, which will activate the discrete chip only for GPU-compute applications and high-resolution games, leaving the integrated graphics to handle web browsing, email, and Facebook trolling.
Check the support site of your laptop or desktop’s manufacturer for more information on driver limitations. Generally speaking, though, you shouldn’t have a problem with dual monitors on a modern computer. Limitations are only a concern if you want to connect more than that.