Apple’s line of MacBooks that use the company’s own Silicon M1 or M2 processors can’t connect more than one external monitor naturally, which is a huge limitation on the previous Intel-based generation of Mac laptops that could use two screens when they are connected to a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 docking station or hub.
The M1 Pro and M1 Max do support multiple external displays. We hoped the M2 would lose the M1 limitation, but it survives on the regular M2; If available, expect the M2 Pro and M2 Max to support more screens just like their M1 siblings.
However, there are ways to get around this M1/M2 limitation, allowing you to use two external displays from an M1 MacBook, which we’ll outline here. There is a software driver plus a workaround for a hardware adapter and a workaround for a hub or adapter.
There are some risks associated with the software solution, as you will need to install third-party drivers, which may not be supported by future updates of macOS. And you’ll probably have to buy at least one adapter, where previously a dock plus a display cable per external display would have been sufficient.
The hardware solution includes a dual-HDMI adapter that requires a bit of tinkering in System Preferences when setting it up.
If you’ve been waiting for Apple’s latest 14-inch or 16-inch M1 Pro M1 Max MacBook Pro models, you’re in luck because these laptops support multiple external displays. Laptops with the M1 Pro can connect to up to two external displays with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz, while MacBooks with the M1 Max can connect to three external displays with up to 6K resolution and one external display with up to 4K resolution at 60Hz. 60Hz.
M1/M2 owners, start saving for a new MacBook Pro or read on.
External Displays: The Big Problem With M1 and M2 Macs
Apple’s Mac mini, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro 13in were the first Macs to feature the Apple-designed M1 CPU. They received rave reviews for their speed improvements over Intel-based laptops, including here at Macworld.
See our comparison of the 13-inch MacBook Pro (M1) vs MacBook Pro (Intel) and MacBook Air (M1 Silicon) vs MacBook Air (Intel). We also looked at the differences between the Mac mini (M1) and Mac mini (Intel).
But if your MacBook setup includes running more than one external display, you’re in big trouble. Apple’s M1 or M2 chips simply don’t take it into account, at least natively.
Apple states in the M1 and M2 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro technical specifications that they only support “one external display with a resolution of up to 6K at 60 Hz”.
While the M1 and M2 MacBooks support only one monitor by default, the M1 Mac Mini natively supports up to two external monitors: one via the HDMI port and a second via USB-C. But the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro M1 models only support one external display.
Apple has apparently promised to fix the problem in a future macOS update, but the arrival of the later M1 Pro and M1 Max — and more recently the M2 — suggests M1 owners could be waiting a long time. We’ve got this guide to monitors for M1 Macs and what you need to know before you buy.
Workaround #1: Install DisplayLink Software Drivers
Docking station manufacturer Plugable suggests using a combination of display technologies to get around the single monitor limitation of the M1/M2 MacBooks. This should work with most third-party docks, although many manufacturers don’t recommend it.
Plugable’s multi-display docks use a combination of native USB-C Alternate Mode (native “Alt Mode” video output) and DisplayLink technology. This combination serves as a workaround for the M1/M2 platform that only supports one external display over USB-C.
Note that DisplayLink requires a third-party driver to be installed on the Mac. There are several versions of the DisplayLink driver and some bring their own compromises to the lot.
And this solution still requires an additional hardware adapter.
The DisplayLink macOS app or DisplayLink Manager app are ways to enable DisplayLink technology on macOS. The app is available as a standalone installer instead of through the mac App Store.
1. Please download the latest Mac DisplayLink driver first.
DisplayLink Manager Graphics Connectivity App v. 1.1.0 is compatible with macOS Catalina 10.15, macOS 11 Big Sur, and macOS 12 Monterey. It can be managed from the DisplayLink icon in the Apple menu bar.
The macOS requires the user to allow “Screen Recording” in order for DisplayLink devices to work properly. This can be found in System Preferences under Privacy in Security & Privacy; Navigate to Screen Recording in the list on the left, then check the Screen Recording permission for DisplayLink Manager after unlocking the padlock with your administrator password. You may need to close and restart DisplayLink Manager afterwards.
More in-depth details about DisplayLink Manager under macOS Big Sur, Catalina, and Monterey, on this DisplayLink support page.
Installation is easy, but please note that this version does not support closed-display/Clamshell mode of laptops.
Other limitations include incompatibility with display rotation. Rotation on Apple M1/M2 requires DisplayLink Manager 1.6+ with macOS 12+.
There is an option in DisplayLink manager to “start at startup”, or you can drag the DisplayLink Manager to your login items in Users and Groups.
Note that M1/M2 MacBooks can run in Clamshell mode (i.e. with the lid closed) with Displaylink attached monitors, but Intel-based MacBooks can’t and the screens turn off when the laptop lid is closed when using DisplayLink . This doesn’t matter much, as Intel MacBooks can use two screens without DisplayLink, although they need DisplayLink to add three or more monitors.
2. Then connect the MacBook to a dock, such as the Plugable UD-ULTC4K Triple Display 4K Docking Station or the Caldigit TS3 Plus dock. Learn about the best Thunderbolt 3 docking stations for more details, or you can connect via a simpler USB-C hub.
3. For the first display, you can connect through the dock’s DisplayPort or HDMI port, and this is handled by the M1/M2 MacBook by default.
You could also connect the first external display via a Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C to HDMI or DisplayPort adapter.
The HDMI or DisplayPort output uses alternate mode (Alt mode), and since it’s basically a pipeline going straight to the system’s native GPU, it’ll act like you’re using a USB-C to HDMI dongle to your laptop. This does not require installation of a user driver.
4. Additional displays cannot be processed by the M1 MacBook.
You must connect the second or third display through one or more of the USB-A ports on your dock or hub, using an adapter such as StarTech.com USB 3.0 to HDMI/DVI Adapter. This costs £80 or US$80, so it should be taken into account when pricing an M1/M2 MacBook purchase if you need multiple monitors.
Another option is Plugable’s USB Dual 4K Display Adapter.
This adapter turns an available USB-A 3.0 port into one DVI-I or VGA port (DVI-to-VGA adapter included) and one HDMI output. Each display can simultaneously support the maximum resolution of 2048×1152 at 60 Hz.
Make sure to use an active HDMI DisplayLink adapter that can support 4K at 60 Hz, as some are limited to 4K at 30 Hz.
DisplayLink uses an installed driver and the system CPU and GPU to convert graphics data on the system into USB data packets. That USB data is then sent as data packets over the USB cable and converted back into video information and output to the monitors via the DisplayLink chip in the docking station.
Workaround #2: Use a Dedicated Dual HDMI Adapter
Accessory maker Hyper sells two hardware solutions that allow you to add more than one display to an M1 or M2 Mac.
The Hyperdrive Dual 4K HDMI Adapter for M1 MacBook and Hyperdrive Dual 4K HDMI 10-in-1 USB-C Hub expandable to two HDMI displays: one at 4K 60Hz over HDMI and DP Alt mode, and one at 4K 30Hz over HDMI and Silicon Motion’s InstantView technology.
Hyper says these work “without having to download cumbersome drivers”, but there is some software installation involved and you need to give InstantView access to your privacy settings in System Preferences. You connect the hub or adapter to your M1 MacBook and find the HyperDisplay app that appears in a sidebar of the Finder folder. Double-click the macOS InstantView icon and follow the instructions in System Preferences. Once this is complete, your MacBook will automatically recognize the adapter from then on.
The Dual 4K HDMI 3-in-1 USB-C Adapter ($129.99) has two HDMI ports and connects to your M1 Mac via the integrated USB-C cable. An additional USB-C PD port allows you to charge the connected laptop with up to 100W – handy because the adapter itself uses one of the two Thunderbolt ports on your M1 or M2 laptop.
A more full-fledged solution is the Dual 4K HDMI 10-in-1 USB-C Hub ($199.99), which features 10 ports, including the two HDMI ports and 100W PC port seen on the cheaper adapter, plus Gigabit Ethernet, 3.5mm audio Combo Jack, SD and MicroSD UHS-I card readers, and two USB-A (5 Gbps) ports. It also connects to the laptop via an integrated USB-C cable. Out of the two, this multi-port hub is more affordable as you can use it as a dock when connected to a decent USB-C PD wall charger.
Buy directly from Hyper. Shipping to the UK currently costs $66, so keep that in mind if you’re not based in the US.
DisplayLink route effective but not supported
Note that neither Plugable nor Caldigit officially supports such a DisplayLink configuration for Macs. The fix works, but they warn that it could come loose in future versions of macOS.
When there is a new OS update, the drivers may need to be updated every time.
Plugable does not recommend the workaround for gaming, video editing, digital audio workstations (DAWs), and protected content (HDCP) playback. For these workloads, users want the full throughput of a “bare-metal” native GPU connection, as provided by the DisplayPort or HDMI port on the dock using Alt mode.
Caldigit actively discourages the use of DisplayLink because it finds it unreliable and there would be no synergy between the driver and the dock. Since it requires a third-party driver, users are at the mercy of Apple and the third-party developer to support later versions.
However, this combination of display technologies allows M1 and M2 MacBooks to use more than one external monitor, and the M1 Mac mini more than two.
The only risk is that it could stop working at any time, although it wouldn’t harm your system if it did, and you could simply uninstall DisplayLink.
So it’s a workaround with a potentially limited time frame, but there’s a good chance that compatibility will be restored at some point if the worst happens and you get your multi-monitor setup back.
The Hyperdrive dual 4K HDMI hardware solution seems to be the more expensive but more stable solution of the two.
Read our M1 MacBook Air review.
If you want to use a second display with your Mac and don’t have your Mac’s screen on, read our How to turn off a Mac’s screen.