How to hook up a monitor to a laptop

It didn’t used to be hard to connect a monitor to a laptop, but the large number of different connectors and seeming lack of standards makes it harder today. Let’s cut through the confusion and figure out how to hook up a monitor to a laptop.

Why is it so hard? Because adapters and cables have higher profit margins than laptops. But don’t worry. We’ll sort out how to make the connection, then how to extend or mirror the built-in display.

Find the video connectors on both ends

Is HDMI better than VGA?
To solve the mystery of how to hook up a monitor to a laptop, find your video connectors. This laptop has both VGA and HDMI ports. You’ll find similar-looking ports on the back of your monitor.

Look on the back of your monitor to see what kind of connections it has. Very inexpensive monitors may only have one connection type. Expensive monitors may have several. Most have two. But which two may vary.

Next, look at your laptop to see what kind of connections it has. Sometimes they are on the side and sometimes they are on the back.

This used to be easy because the connectors on both sides looked exactly the same. Today they frequently don’t match. But I’ll show you how to take care of that. First, just take inventory.

VGA

VGA is the most common connector, and the one you’re most likely to find on both. This makes it the easiest connection to make, though it won’t necessarily give the best quality. The standard VGA connector has 15 pins in a D-shaped connector.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - DVI
This is the standard VGA connector, connecting computers to monitors since 1987.

On the laptop side, you may find a mini VGA connector, which is completely compatible but looks different. If you have a mini VGA connector, get a couple of mini VGA to VGA adapters. Keep one at your desk and one in your bag.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - mini VGA
The mini VGA connector takes up less space but is uncommon today.

It’s much more common for laptops to have a standard VGA connector. Many PC laptops still have them for compatibility and ease of connection. If you want to know how to hook up a monitor to a laptop in a hurry, VGA is your fastest bet. Cables with a VGA connector on both ends are super common. Your monitor probably came with a VGA cable, so you can plug straight in. If you lost yours somehow, they’re cheap.

DVI

DVI connections are very common on monitors. It provides a very high-quality digital connection, so it pays to use it if you can.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - DVI
The DVI connector, common on monitors, gives a high quality digital connection.

On the laptop side, you may find a mini DVI connector. DVI fell out of favor on laptops rather quickly so you probably need an adapter to connect up to DVI.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - mini DVI
Mini DVI connectors are uncommon on laptops today, but if you have one, this is what it looks like.

If you have a mini DVI connector, get a mini DVI to DVI adapter and use a standard DVI cable, which is much easier to find. If you get lucky and your computer and monitor both have DVI connections, you’ve solved the mystery of how to hook up a monitor to a laptop. Just use a DVI cable like you would to connect a Blu-Ray player to a TV.

HDMI

HDMI is the standard video cable for high-definition televisions, so it’s very common. Many laptops have HDMI connectors because conference rooms often have a TV. Many monitors use HDMI connections since it became popular for TVs.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - HDMI
HDMI connectors are common on monitors and many laptops.

It’s unusual to be able to make a straight digital connection between a laptop and monitor with a cable involving no adapters. HDMI is your most likely bet, if you will.

But many laptops have a mini or micro HDMI connector. Because space. Or, more likely, to give stores an opportunity to sell an adapter. Here’s what those connector types look like.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - mini and micro HDMI
There are several miniaturized variants of HDMI.

Pro tip: If you have a mini or micro HDMI connector, get an mini or micro HDMI adapter with several connector types on it and keep it in your bag. Ideally, get one with full-sized HDMI, DVI, and VGA connections on it. It’s a little bulky, but it’s less bulky than carrying three adapters.

Displayport

Last and least, there’s Displayport. This port often isn’t labeled, or if it is labeled it’s just with a weird logo, so if you’ve never seen one before, it’s confusing. Full-size Displayport connectors are more common on desktop computers, but my older HP Elitebook has one. Typically, consumer laptops come with HDMI connectors and business laptops come with Displayport.

Displayport’s main selling point is that you can daisy-chain displays with it. So for multi-monitor setups, you can run a Displayport cable from your computer to the first monitor, then connect a second monitor to the first, saving space on the computer side and making cable management easier.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop - Displayport
Displayport gives a digital connection but requires an adapter to connect to other types.

Some laptops have full-size Displayport connectors. My older HP Elitebook does. But my work computer has a mini Displayport connector. Apple calls this a Lightning connector. It’s OK; I’ve used my mini Displayport adapter with both Lenovo Thinkpad and Apple Macbook laptops.

How to hook up a laptop to a monitor - Mini Displayport
Many laptops have a mini Displayport connector. Image credit: Jonas Martovicz Bohrer/Wikimedia Commons

If you have a mini Displayport connector, get a mini Displayport adapter with as many connectors on it as possible to keep in your bag. If you have a full-size Displayport connector, get a regular Displayport adapter with as many connections as possible. You’ll also see cables or adapters to convert Displayport to DVI or HDMI. If your monitor has one of those connections, you may prefer one of those for your desk.

Last and least: USB

Is HDMI better than VGA?
This laptop’s USB connector is blue, which indicates USB 3.0. If yours is black, be sure to get a USB 2.0-compatible video adapter.

Finally, there’s USB. It’s not just for a keyboard or mouse. You can connect a monitor too. You can get adapters for USB to HDMI, USB to DVIUSB to VGA, and even USB to VGA/DVI/HDMI.

Some of these adapters require USB 3.0, so if your laptop has USB 2.0, be sure to get an adapter that’s compatible. USB 3.0 connectors are usually bright blue, to distinguish them from USB 2.0 connectors, which are usually black.

A USB connection isn’t as fast as the internal video connection in your laptop. It’s fine for giving presentations and running productivity software. It probably won’t be so fine for video playback. But if you don’t have any other option, a USB adapter can save the day.

What to do after you make your connection

After you figure out how to hook up a monitor to a laptop, there’s the question of what the laptop should do with it. Most laptops have a shortcut key on one of the function keys you can press, usually in conjunction with the FN key near your spacebar, to toggle whether to mirror the built-in display, or use the monitor to extend the built-in display.

how to hook up a monitor to a laptop - setting behavior
On this keyboard, you would hit FN+F4 to toggle the monitor’s behavior. Look for an icon that looks like a monitor on your laptop’s function keys.

Unfortunately there’s no standard for which function key it is.

If you can’t figure it out, hit the Windows key and type display. Several options show up on your menu. On Windows 10, the options include change display settings and project to a second screen.

How to hook up a monitor to a laptop: In conclusion

It’s not as straightforward as it could be to connect a monitor to a laptop. But it occurs to me that this isn’t really anything new. In the 1980s, standards for computer monitors changed every 2-3 years, and the standards for TVs changed a couple of times too. Buying adapters is confusing and frustrating, but it’s cheaper than buying all new gear. Computers have low profit margins. Monitors have slightly higher margins, but they don’t compare to the margins on cables and adapters, which can be four digits at retail.

Hopefully I’ve helped you cut through the confusion and figure out how to hook up a monitor to a laptop. Or your laptop, at the very least.

One thought on “How to hook up a monitor to a laptop

  • May 17, 2018 at 9:53 am
    Permalink

    You forgot Thunderbolt. That may have a connector that looks like Mini DisplayPort (Thunderbolt 1 and 2) or like USB-C (Thunderbolt 3). Newer laptops may have one or the other of these.

    The kind that looks like Mini DisplayPort will work with the same adapter as a standard Mini DisplayPort if you just want to use the Thunderbolt port to hook up a monitor. Thunderbolt also has the ability to control more than one chained device. If you already have an adapter for an earlier Mac (or more rarely a PC) with a Mini DisplayPort it will still work with one equipped with Thunderbolt 1 or 2.

    The kind that looks like USB-C is more complicated. It CAN have the ability to drive two monitors at once and support higher resolutions than the earlier one, but not all Thunderbolt 3 ports have the same capabilities. Also, your laptop may have more than one USB-C connector and they all look identical, but only some of them (most likely just one) have Thunderbolt 3 capability so you have to know which port to use. There is no standard for making the ports themselves visually distinct but there may be some markings on the laptop itself, such as a Thunderbolt icon. Very few monitors have Thunderbolt inputs so you will probably need an adapter.

    Outside the realm of laptops, but of interest to some readers, is the Lightning connector used on iPhones, iPads, and the iPod Touch. No monitors have an input for that, but there are adapters to go from Lightning to either VGA or HDMI. Going even farther back, there are adapters to connect the 30 pin connector on older iDevices to VGA. Some Android phones and tablets can also be connected to monitors… but at this point we’re approaching the subject for another article.

    You also didn’t mention audio connections. If you’re hooking up to a monitor to use on your desktop that’s probably not important, but if you’re setting up a presentation you will need to get the sound to a larger audio system in some way if your presentation includes sound. The older ports (VGA and DVI) do not carry audio so you’ll need a separate connection, most likely a cable that plugs into a 3.5mm jack. The newer ports DO carry audio, so you can either use that (perhaps with a suitable adapter that brings the audio out to a 3.5mm jack), or use the 3.5mm jack instead if your device has one.

    Reply

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