When I first started working in IT, one of the first difficult issues I had to deal with was trying to figure out how to get dual monitors to work correctly.
It’s a simple enough concept. You would think that all you’d have to do is just plug any video display into the applicable computer port on your laptop or PC and you’re good to go. The monitors should just instantly turn on and start working, right? Well, that’s definitely not the case.
There are a lot of scenarios to consider here – maybe you’re trying to get external displays to work with your laptop, and no matter what you do it doesn’t seem to work. Or maybe, you’re trying to use both the VGA and HDMI ports on the back of your desktop PC, yet when you plug it in only one monitor seems to work.
These are common problems for a task that really shouldn’t be as complicated as it is. But when it comes to computer video output, there is a certain way that you need to go about connecting and using extended displays. In this article, I’m going to cover some of the most common issues I’ve come across that often throw people for a loop.
3 Things to Keep in Mind
The three things that you need to consider when you want to use extra displays with your computer includes: (1) Is your video card (or cards) capable? (2) What is your hardware setup, and finally (3) Have you set it up correctly?
In this article I’m going to cover each of those areas and help you troubleshoot the issues you may be having with your extended displays.
1. Check Your Video Card Settings
The first step is to determine if your video card even has the ability to display to multiple monitors. It’s easy enough to check – just plug in the monitors and then go into Control Panel – Display. Then click on “Change display settings”.
In the display settings, you may actually see the multiple displays come up, with some disabled and others set up as either your primary display or as an extended display. You can ignore those for now and instead click on “Advanced settings” at the bottom of this window.
At the bottom of the next page, you’ll see “Display adapter properties”. Click on that.
Click on the Monitor tab of your video card display (if there is a monitor setting), and check to see if the card “sees” the number of monitors that you’ve plugged in.
If more than one shows up, then the card is capable of displaying to multiple monitors. If you only see one, then you should quit here because even though there are two ports, the card is only able to utilize one at a time. Much of your success in this comes down to hardware capability, so checking this first is the most important thing.
If you’re using a video card with the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator Driver, then checking and setting things up becomes even easier. You’ll see the “Intel Graphics” tab above under Advanced Settings, and when you click on it you can launch the setup app for your display devices.
This is one of the easiest tools to use, and the fastest way to configure how you want your multiple screens to display.
However, if you’ve confirmed that your video card can “see” all displays that you’ve plugged in, yet you can’t seem to get additional monitors to work, don’t give up. There are a few little techniques I’ve picked up that might help you fix your own issues.
2. Check What Ports Are Available
As I mentioned above, before you start shoving wires onto ports in the back of your PC or the sides of your laptop, stop and take a closer look at those ports so that you know what you’re looking at. In most cases, if you have a VGA port and a different type of port – HDMI (either style) – then your computer can likely send out a signal out of both of those ports and you can use one as an extended display – with some limitations (see below).
You may see a port on your computer that accepts a plug like this – this will be one type of digital port that most monitors today can take. In fact, some of them out there are moving away from the old style VGA ports and moving entirely to digital.
In my case, the side of my VAIO has both a VGA monitor port and a smaller HDMI port. Notice anything strange? Yeah, Sony did not have the foresight when manufacturing this model of VAIO laptop, to realize that the HDMI port is scrunched too close together with the VGA port if you are using a standard VGA cable.
Given what I stated above – that the two different ports should work at the same time – I decided to test that out to prove my point. Of course, it required that I completely shave off the right side of my VGA cable so that it can fit alongside the HDMI cable.
By the way, when it comes to laptops, another option is to purchase and use compatible docking stations. You may have a docking station option that may extend your laptop (which may only have a single video port), into a docking station that features two or more ports. So even if you only have one video port available on your laptop, definitely research this option.
3. Understand the Procedure
So now this gets us to the third concept. You’ve confirmed your video card can “talk” to more than one monitor, you’ve taken an inventory of the types of output ports available on your PC or laptop – and that you do actually have two or more output video ports available to plug into. So now you should just be able to plug it in and go, right?
Nope – plug in those monitors while your computer is turned on, and if you’re lucky just one of the external ports will be enabled and start displaying, like shown below.
My laptop display stayed on, and my VGA connection started displaying immediately. Yet, the third PC is plugged in and I know my video card can see it, so why is it blank? There are a lot of reasons this can happen.
When it comes to laptops, there’s a little secret that most people don’t know. Just because it comes with a built-in display doesn’t mean you can have a 3-display setup. Many laptops only have two video outputs – or if the main display can be enabled, only one external monitor can be used in extended mode. The other must be a clone.
With some laptops, to get those two external monitors working requires a certain sequence. First, shut down your laptop. When it’s off, turn it back on and immediately close the display so that the display is turned off.
In my case, I believe the Sony VAIO would allow me to keep my laptop display and rebooting would be enough, but I know with HP docking stations, you have to close the laptop display for the two docking displays to both work. In either case, it’s a good idea to just shut off the laptop display if you’re having problems getting two external monitors working. As you can see above, the VGA port is used as my main display upon boot-up.
Once it’s booted, only one display is working. But don’t worry, just go back into the display settings, and you’ll either see your two external monitors, or you might even see all three if the computer is capable of displaying the laptop video at the same time as well. Set up the first external as a clone of your laptop display, and then set up the second external as an extended display.
Your particular laptop may not behave this way. I have an HP at work that I can keep the display open while it’s attached to the HP docking station, and if it’s plugged into two monitors (via the two ports on the back of the docking station), when I boot up the laptop, both displays start up fine — as does the main laptop display. It all depends on your hardware and your video card.
Here is how I set up both laptop (1) and external (2) as a duplicate.
And then the second external (3) as an extended display.
Click “Apply” and voila – I now have an operational setup with two large external displays running off my laptop – one off the VGA port and the other off the HDMI port.
As you can see, there are a lot of points in the process where some people would give up and conclude that it just doesn’t work – not realizing that if they just rebooted and shut the laptop display (or just plug in both monitors and then reboot the computer at that point), the dual monitors would work. It comes down to just making sure your video card is capable of doing this (most are these days), and then playing around with those display settings and making sure that the monitors are configured correctly. And as is usually the case in IT, when all else fails, reboot.
Have you ever beat your head against the wall setting up external displays? What sort of problems did you have, and what was the solution? Share your own annoying external monitor experiences in the comments section below!
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