Multi-monitor options for your Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C MacBook

One of the most common pre-sales questions we get asked is, “What docking station is compatible with my Apple laptop, and how many displays in total can I add?”

The answer can vary dramatically depending on the specific model laptop in use. Before diving into the details, let’s look at a chart that lays out all of the Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C Apple laptop systems currently available, what Plugable docking stations and accessories are compatible and the total number of displays possible (you may have to use the horizontal slider under the chart to see all the information):

Using the chart above as a reference, let’s go through the different model Macs one at time based on the type of expansion ports they offer to provide some additional context.

Apple Thunderbolt 3 Laptops
Apple laptops that have Thunderbolt 3 support, such as the 2016 and 2017 model MacBook Pro models, have the most options available. For those in need of a docking station solution, the best option we offer is our TBT3-UDV Charging Dock with 60W charging capability (https://plugable.com/products/tbt3-udv/).

Plugable TBT3-UDV Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station w/60W Host Charging

Out of the box, the dock can be used to add one additional DisplayPort or HDMI display (using the included DisplayPort to HDMI adapter) to a MacBook Pro laptop with Thunderbolt 3.

When combined with one of our USB-C to video cables (such as our USB-C to HDMI cable -> https://plugable.com/products/usbc-hdmi-cable or our USB-C to DisplayPort cable -> https://plugable.com/products/usbc-dp) a second display can be connected to the dock.

We have a video demonstration showing the setup of the TBT3-UDV (https://youtu.be/vYrriLgcoN8) that can help provide context for those unfamiliar.

If more than two displays are needed, the options available depend on the type of internal graphics adapter built-in to the MacBook Pro.

All MacBook Pro 13” Thunderbolt 3 models have an internal Intel graphics adapter that is limited to a maximum of two external displays, so using a docking station with two displays as described above would be the maximum.

All MacBook Pro 15” Thunderbolt 3 models have what is known as switchable internal graphics adapters. They have both an Intel graphics adapter and a more capable (but more power hungry) AMD Radeon graphics adapter. As the name implies, the system can ‘switch’ between the two depending on need and in doing so allows for better battery life or higher performance.

The inclusion of the more powerful AMD Radeon graphics adapter allows the system to support a maximum of four external displays. Our Thunderbolt 3 Dual Display Adapters in DisplayPort (https://plugable.com/products/tbt3-dp2x-83) and HDMI (https://plugable.com/products/tbt3-hdmi2x-83/) variants are a good solution to allow the system to reach the maximum number of displays while using as few of the available Thunderbolt 3 ports in the system.

Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Dual HDMI Adapter (TBT3-HDMI2X-83) for Windows and Mac

For example, a MacBook Pro 15” model can have our TBT3-UDV dock connected to one Thunderbolt 3 port and drive two displays. One of our Thunderbolt 3 Dual Display Adapters can be connected to one of the Thunderbolt 3 ports on the opposite side of the laptop to add two additional displays bringing the grand total to four. This configuration still leaves two available Thunderbolt 3 ports in the system.

** An important note, our Thunderbolt 3 Dual Display Adapters must be connected to a Thunderbolt 3 port on the opposite side of the system compared to where the dock is connected. This is because the laptop has two Thunderbolt 3 controllers (one for each side) and they can each power two displays.

Our Thunderbolt 3 Dual Display Adapters and USB-C video cables can also be used individually on their own (without a docking station) to allow for additional displays to be added, within the confines mentioned earlier.

** Another important note, the maximum number of displays supported by either model laptop are finite when used with our products. The maximum number cannot be expanded regardless of what Plugable products are in use or how they are physically connected.

If a Thunderbolt solution proves too expensive for your needs, any of the USB-C docking stations we mention in the next section can also be used. This is because all Thunderbolt 3 ports can also function as a USB-C port.

Apple USB-C Only Laptops
With Apple laptops that have only USB-C support built-in such as the 2015, 2016 and 2017 MacBook models (notice the absence of the ‘Pro’ designation and hence the lack of Thunderbolt 3 support) the options are more limited. A MacBook with only a USB-C port is limited to a maximum of one external display.

Given those limitations, our UD-CAM dock (https://plugable.com/products/ud-cam) is a good solution to add one additional HDMI display, charge the laptop with up to 85W of power as well as provide additional USB ports, a wired gigabit Ethernet and a combination audio input/output jack.

Plugable UD-CAM Docking Station

Another dock option is our UD-CA1A dock (https://plugable.com/products/ud-ca1a/) that provides a slightly different configuration compared to the UD-CAM. The UD-CA1A provides up to 60W of power to charge the laptop and has a slightly different arrangement in terms of the number USB ports, audio jacks, and orientation as compared to the UD-CAM

UD-CA1A Docking Station

If a full-size docking station is not required, our USB-C Mini Dock (https://plugable.com/products/usbc-md101/) is a portable addition for MacBook users that can provide one additional HDMI display, a single USB 3.0 port and pass-through charging capabilities.

Plugable USB-C Mini Dock (USBC-MD101)

Of course, one of our USB-C video cables such as the USB-C to DisplayPort and USB-C to HDMI cable can also be used on their own.

Finally, any of our USB-C docking station products referenced above can be also used with a Thunderbolt 3 Apple laptop. This is because all Thunderbolt 3 ports can also function as a USB-C port.

Apple Laptops without Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C
For earlier Apple systems that do not have either Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports, the options get much more limited. In previous generation systems, typically the only option to provide a single additional display was a mini-DisplayPort output or Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 output built-in to the system (they all share the same physical connector type). These could be used to connect to a single DisplayPort or Thunderbolt display. If a HDMI display is necessary, our mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapter (MDP-HDMI -> https://plugable.com/products/mdp-hdmi/) can be used along with a HDMI cable.

Conclusion
Apple Mac systems with Thunderbolt 3 support have the most options when it comes to adding additional displays. Apple Mac systems with USB-C only are more limited, but can still have multiple options. Legacy Mac systems without Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C are unfortunately the most limited, Hopefully we have helped clear up what options are available for your Apple Mac laptop, and if not please reach out to us directly via support@plugable.com (or post in the comments below) and we will be happy to help.

9 comments on “Multi-monitor options for your Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C MacBook”

  1. joevt Reply

    A single Thunderbolt 2 port (such as on the MacBook Pro 2015) can output one 4K 60 Hz display or two 2560 x 1600 60 Hz displays. For example, two Thunderbolt displays can be chained together. Note that the limit of 2 displays per Thunderbolt controller is the same as Thunderbolt 3.

    You can also use any of the Thunderbolt 3 solutions with a Thunderbolt 2 Mac with an Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter (other similar adapters are not bidirectional – they can only allow Thunderbolt 2 devices to be used with Thunderbolt 3 computers).

    To use a Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Dual Display Adapter with a Thunderbolt 2 Mac, you also need a Thunderbolt 3 device with two Thunderbolt 3 ports (such as a dock or a raid or an expansion chassis) because the Plugable and Apple adapters both contain a non-detachable USB-C male connector (why?) that cannot be connected together directly.

    If the Mac is running Windows, then multiple MST displays (chaining) or a MST hub can be used. The maximum number is limited by the graphics controller/driver. The maximum resolution is limited by the bandwidth of the supported version of DisplayPort and the resolution of the other MST displays. macOS does not support MST (because Apple) except in the case of old 4K displays which used MST for the left and right half of the display.

  2. TitanRidge Reply
    • Gary Zeller Reply

      Thanks for posting! For those who aren’t familiar, Ifixit teardowns are always a great resource.

      We’re hopeful that the Mid 2018 MBP systems will have good compatibility, and ours should be arriving in the next few days so we can test and confirm. We’ll be posting a new video on YouTube and updating our website with our results.

  3. DonTay Reply

    If my macbook has two thunderbolt 3 ports, could I add two of the tbt3-hdmi2x-83 adapters to add four monitors?

    • Bob Boerner Reply

      The maximum number of external displays a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air with Thunderbolt 3 ports built-in can support is determined by the system’s internal graphics adapter. Systems with an Intel graphics adapter support a maximum of two external displays. Systems with an AMD graphics adapter support a maximum of four displays.

      Apple provides this information in their system specifications published here -> https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201300 and here -> https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201862

      To the best of our knowledge, all Apple Mac laptops with two Thunderbolt 3 ports have an Intel graphics adapter. As a result, only two external displays are supported. To put that another way, what you describe will not work. Please reach out to us directly via support@plugable.com if you have any additional questions.

  4. DonTay Reply

    The Macbook actutally has 4 TB3 ports. Based on my specs below, it sounds like it will work:

    15.4″ 2880 x 1800 Retina Display
    AMD Radeon Pro 555 Graphics (2GB GGDR5)
    4 x Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C) Ports

    • Bob Boerner Reply

      Thank you for getting back with the additional information. A MacBook Pro system with four Thunderbolt 3 ports and an AMD graphics adapter will support four external displays via two of our TBT3-HDMI2X-83 adapters.

      An important note, as I describe in the blog post above, each adapter must be connected to Thunderbolt 3 ports on opposite sides of the system. This is because the laptop has two Thunderbolt 3 controllers (one for each side) and they can each power two displays.

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