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/).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org (or post in the comments below) and we will be happy to help.