Back to Mac - 1: Multiple External monitors setup for a Mac

Introduction

I have been an avid Mac user for almost a decade now, but when I graduated and started working as an Engineer, the company (as it was a startup) did not support Macs and I was forced to start using Windows again and worse, I was forced to use a Dell laptop. And surprisingly (I know I should't have been) the experience was still as shoddy as I had remembered when I used a Dell laptop last in 2007! Anyway after tolerating much much below par computing experience for more than three years now, I decided to jump the gun and switch to a Mac for work and convinced my company to let me use my personal MacBook. After the initial jubilation of getting back to my Mac subsided, I came across a number of issues in trying to use a Mac in a Windows only environment. I am going to be posting a series of blogs on this so that anyone who finds themselves in a similar position as I did, can find easy and fast solutions. 

External displays

The Dell Latitude E6410 laptop that was given to me by my company (Source: Dell.com)

The Dell Latitude E6410 laptop that was given to me by my company (Source: Dell.com)

My work setup consisted of a Dell laptop, dock, two Dell monitors (DVI ones), a Windows keyboard and a Logitech mouse. Nothing fancy here, just the typical Silicon Valley (though I am a hardware Engineer beating the Valley's stereotyped Software Engineers) cube and office setup. The Dell laptop I had, supported two displays at once, both through the dock and using DVI ports (the laptop itself had only one DVI port). So I could tweak the system settings of Windows 7 to allow the laptop to stay powered on with the lid closed, when connected to a power source (or docked). Hence I had two 22" monitors side by side and had my Dell laptop docked next to it.

Late 2011 13" Macbook Pro (with DVD drive) I was trying to replace my Dell laptop with, at work (Source: Apple.com)

Late 2011 13" Macbook Pro (with DVD drive) I was trying to replace my Dell laptop with, at work (Source: Apple.com)

Monoprice's Thunderbolt to DVI adapter (Source: Amazon.com)

Monoprice's Thunderbolt to DVI adapter (Source: Amazon.com)

Dell P2210 monitor (Source: Dell.com)

Dell P2210 monitor (Source: Dell.com)

The Mac I was trying to replace my Dell laptop with was a Late 2011 model 13" MacBook Pro (no Retina display and it has a DVD drive). It might sound archaic now with all the fancy MacBooks, that are much thinner with Retina displays and no DVD drives, but like all Macs, this one is a more than capable machine and most importantly allowed me to upgrade my RAM from a mere 4GB to 16GB (yeah... try that with the new Retina display ones). It has two USB 2.0 ports, one Thunderbolt port, one mini-display port and an Ethernet port. So when I used this Mac for my personal work at home, I hooked it up to a HP monitor through a Thunderbolt port to DVI adapter that I got from Amazon.com for less than $10 (including the shipping charges) and it had been working with no issues. With the HP monitor and the MacBook Pro's 13" LCD monitor I had a decent setup at home. But at work I wanted to drive two Dell monitors with my MacBook Pro and soon found out that it was close to impossible to do that, at least that is what I thought at that time!

Since the Thunderbolt port and the mini-display port cannot drive two monitors separately (I have no idea why), there were two potential options I was left with, 

either buy a Thunderbolt to dual DVI adapter to use one Thunderbolt port and drive two monitors or buy a USB to DVI adapter. I tried doing a lot of research online and found literature on this topic to be either very little or very un-reliable. The option of using a Thunderbolt to dual DVI adapter was impractical as I wanted to use the two Dell monitors in Extended display mode (like a wide display panning two 22" monitors) and this option would only mirror my displays, meaning I will have the same thing being displayed in both my screens! The issue with the USB to DVI converter was that I was warned that there was going to be a perceivable lag in using this option and it would be useless if I wanted run videos on that monitor. 

Monoprice's Thunderbolt to Dual DVI adapter (Source: Amazon.com)

Monoprice's Thunderbolt to Dual DVI adapter (Source: Amazon.com)

StarTech's USB to DVI adapter (Source: Amazon.com)

StarTech's USB to DVI adapter (Source: Amazon.com)

So I finally decided to place a call to Apple Care (alas some use for the couple of hundred dollars I spent on Apple Care). After a brief wait, a nice (but very professional sounding) lady answered my call. After researching herself on this issue, told me that unfortunately there is no definite answer that she can provide for my question. She said that if my computer had two Thunderbolt ports, like the new ones, I can use two DVI monitors separately (with two $10 Thunderbolt to DVI adapters), but since my MacBook only had one Thunderbolt port and since the mini-display port was tied to the Thunderbolt port, I cannot use that one. And then as potential solutions to my issue at hand, she suggested the same two options that I had found out on my own, either a Thunderbolt to dual DVI or USB to DIV adapter. She said that these are only her suggestions as she cannot recommend either one of the two options as they were not Apple solutions and only third party ones instead. She was not sure if either one of these options will work definitively, but she did mention that my MacBook Pro's graphics card should allow at least two external monitors. 

With my Dell laptop I was forced to sacrifice my laptop’s LCD display for two external monitors because it could not drive more than two displays, but looks like my three year old Macbook Pro can drive at least three displays, as I was pleasantly surprised to find a third... display also available in extended mode. So now I had three displays in series!

Instead of doing more research I decided to jump the gun and ordered a USB to DVI adapter from Amazon. There was only one of the models that was compatible with Mac and it came with a DVD containing some driver files. If you want one for your Windows laptop there are more options available and there are even ones that have a USB through port, meaning you don't have to sacrifice a USB port for your monitor. After installing the drivers from the DVD that came along, I connected one of my Dell laptops through the Thunderbolt to DVI adapter and another one through the USB to DVI one. Again not surprisingly everything worked as advertised and after some adjustment in the display arrangements, I was able to set up my two Dell monitors in Extended display mode, within a few minutes. But that was not it, with my Dell laptop I was forced to sacrifice my laptop's LCD display for two external monitors because it could not drive more than two displays, but looks like my three year old MacBook Pro can drive at least three displays, as I was pleasantly surprised to find a third (albeit tiny in comparison) display also available in extended mode. So now I had three displays in series! 

Three display setup with my late 2011 13" Macbook Pro (with DVD drive) - one from the Thunderbolt port and one from the USB port. 

Three display setup with my late 2011 13" Macbook Pro (with DVD drive) - one from the Thunderbolt port and one from the USB port. 

Conclusion

Nobody said anything was easy and to experience something better you need to put in some effort. But in the end the effort I put in to solve this issue paid off more than I expected when my three display set up started working like a charm. There are caveats though. The USB to DIV adapter is pretty compact and does not need a power supply for itself, but it takes up a USB port and that leaves only one free USB port for other peripherals like Keyboards, mice and memory sticks. Also as advertised, the monitor connected using the USB to DVI port, is prone to lags. If you are using it for productivity stuff like office documents, coding, etc. it works just fine. But if you try to run a video or some graphics intensive application on that monitor, it lags like crazy. I use such applications on my other monitor, that is through the Mac's Thunderbolt port and this adjustment works fine for me. And of course there is the cost issue, the Thunderbolt to DVI adapter is around $10, while this USB to DVI one is around $70! But for me it either this or upgrading to a newer Mac and since I am waiting for Apple's 2014 Macbook refresh, I did not want to upgrade now. More challenges and potential solutions of using Macs in a Windows dominated environment in future posts.