Having dual monitors can be immensely helpful for productivity. Your life is much simpler when you no longer have to switch back and forth between tabs on a single screen. Toggling is time-consuming and can make you lose your train of thought.
Dual monitors allow you to see the bigger picture when looking at multiple spreadsheets and documents. This guide walks you through how to set up dual monitors in Windows 10.
Making sure your system is compatible
The 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 for audio output, peripheral input, networking, and so on. Typically, motherboards include three types of video output to cover the vast assortment of monitors and technologies spanning the last 10 years. These include:
Video Graphics Array (VGA): This is typically blue, features 15 holes, and has 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 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 figure out what version 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 ports that can rely on any of the standards 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 also to include a fourth port type — one which is standard on high-end PC monitors.
DisplayPort: This digital video output was created by Dell for extremely high resolutions. It was designed 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).
Compatibility with 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. Other, more modern laptops like Apple’s MacBook Pro, also connect to displays with USB-C, or Thunderbolt 3.
But, our 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.
Limited connections due to driver compatibility
With laptops, your ability to add displays is limited. 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 vast 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.
Adding displays in Windows 10
Now that you understand the basics of how displays work, you can connect your displays in Windows 10. Doing so is easy, and you can quickly access the Display interface by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting Display Settings on the menu (shown above).
All connected displays should appear on the screen, with your primary display listed as #1. Here you can choose to extend the primary display across all other connected panels or duplicate the primary display.
As an example, you may be adding two external displays to your laptop (which is fantastic, by the way). The laptop’s screen is the primary, and you can widen your desktop to expand left and right across the external panels. But they may not be physically connected in the order Windows 10 is detecting. If this is the case, simply rearrange their rectangular icons on the Display window. The Identify button will flash numbers on the screens, so you know which panel Windows 10 is assigning as #2 and #3.
Other features worth experimenting with include setting the resolution of each screen. For instance, if you want to change the resolution of the screen to your left, simply click on its rectangular icon in the Display window and pick the desired resolution. You can also have the display go into Night Light mode at a specific time, flip its orientation, designate it as the main display, and change the scale of the Windows 10 interface, apps, text, and so on. Scaling can come in handy if the resolution is high, but text and buttons are just hard to read.
So many displays, so many options
Honestly, the end result should be a plug-and-play experience. The bottom line is that you need to have the latest drivers installed before connecting a display. You should also consider your PC’s hardware limitations and the kinds of connectors it supports before purchasing external displays. Another detail to consider is the maximum resolution each video output on your PC supports.