How To Get The Most Out Of Multiple Monitor Setup On Mac

Mac Book With External Display1

So you got an external monitor to use with your MacBook or you’ve upped your game and got yourself two of them. Coding will never be the same, I’m telling you. Neither will writing, or research. With all that room you can have a lot of fun with multiple windows arranged just the way you like it.

But when you attach a monitor to your Mac, it will default to mirroring mode. And that’s just the start of all the things you’ll need to change before the awesome productivity dream materializes. To make it easier for you, I’ve compiled all the multi-monitor pitfalls in this article. They include how to use your Mac in clamshell mode, how to configure multi-monitor displays, find awesome panoramic wallpapers and most importantly, how to take care of window management.

A note about connectors: MacBooks come with Thunderbolt ports but they are backwards compatible with mini DisplayPort. Plus mDP to HDMI convertors are pretty cheap. And although I don’t have any personal experience with them, you can also find USB to HDMI convertors if you want to attach more than one display.

Setting Up The Clamshell Mode

Macbook Clamshell1

If you’ve got a huge external monitor and wish to dock it with a MacBook and attach Bluetooth keyboard and mouse instead of creating a multi-monitor setup, you’ll need to use the clamshell mode.

Mac Book Wires1

All you do is connect your display to MacBook via the Thunderbolt adaptor and connect the power cable. Shut the lid and your MacBook now works as a desktop CPU unit. The most important part here is the power cable, without that your Mac will just go to sleep as soon as the lid is closed.

Default Display

If you want to change the default monitor from your MacBook’s screen to one of the connected displays, go to System Preferences -> Displays and you’ll see an Arrangement tab. This lists all the available monitors. First, make sure the Mirror Displays option is deselected.

Arrangement Desktop

In there you’ll see the menu bar sitting atop your MacBook’s display. Just click and drag it over to any of your external displays to make that one the default monitor.

Arranging Displays

In the same Arrangement screen you can drag the displays around to change the placement. If you’re mounting your external display above and your MacBook’s screen below, you can go ahead and drop it on top.

The display sizes are scaled accordingly. So if you have 27 and 24 inch monitors connected to a 13 inch MacBook, you won’t have any problems figuring out which is which. Replicate your physical monitor setup in this window to make the transition between multiple displays really easy.

Managing Workspaces

Thanks to Mavericks, the multi-monitor capabilities of Macs have improved exponentially. Now every new display gets its own workspace and you can create different desktops or fullscreen apps for individual monitors.

This is great if you plan on using one monitor just for media, to monitor your website, or for social media updates. The Mac will also remember these workspaces so you don’t have to start from scratch every time.

Multi Monitor Wallpapers

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When it comes to multi-monitor wallpapers, Mac is kind of weird. When you right-click on the desktop and select Change Desktop Background the app will actually bring up the wallpaper picker window on each different screen.

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Of course, there are apps out there that make the process of applying panoramic wallpapers easy but most of them are paid. But you can still do it for free; all you have to do is download panoramic wallpapers that are already cut out for individual screens. You can do that with Wallpaperfusion or

Wallpaper Left

Once you have your cut out wallpapers downloaded, select that folder from the sidebar and choose the relevant images for each screen.

Wallpaper Right

Window Management with BetterTouchTool

And now we come to a grave problem with the Mac that only amplifies itself when you add more displays. Window management. Windows has great window management (had to live up to the name, I guess), where everything is tight and snaps into place.

Mac’s more liberal philosophy spills over into window management as well, where it can’t afford to be. You can’t fling a window to the side with one gesture, telling it to take up exactly 50% of your screen like you can in Windows with the Aero Snap feature.

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Wait – actually, you can. Thanks to an awesome free app called BetterTouchTool. I’ve written about it in detail before but it’s basically an app that lets you create custom gestures for trackpad, keyboard and mouse (more on that below), and as a cherry on top, adds the same window snapping features.

Once you’ve activated the Window Snapping feature from the pop-up and given the app accessibility permissions, it’s time to get snapping!

Just click and drag any window to the left or right edge to make it take up half the screen. Moreover, you can go to the corners to allot your window to the relevant quarter of the screen.

Finally, dragging a window up to the menu bar expands the window on the current screen (not to be confused with the fullscreen mode). The best part is that the app gives you a little preview of the exact space the window will take while you’re still holding the mouse on the hot corner.

As you’d imagine, this window snapping doesn’t always work between multiple monitors. But fear not, because alternatives exist and they are discussed below.

Window Management With Multiple Monitors Using Shortcuts

As I said above, BetterTouchTool lets you map specific actions to trackpad, keyboard and mouse shortcuts. And BetterTouchTool has an amazing library of window management actions. You know where this is going.

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From all the great actions available, here are the highlights.

  • Move window one space/desktop left or right
  • Maximize window to the next monitor
  • Move window to the next monitor
  • Plus all the window snapping shortcuts and a lot more can be turned into actions

That’s right, using a keyboard/mouse shortcut or just a trackpad gesture, you can fling the current window either to the next monitor or make it full screen when it gets there.

As you can see below, I’m unable to dock the window to the right side of the screen. But thanks to some pre-configured shortcuts, I am able to do so. Using similar keyboard shortcuts, I can fling the window to another monitor as well.

You’ll find a lot of apps out there for doing these things. In my research I found apps ranging from $5 to $20 dedicated to window management. But I’m telling you, you don’t need them. BetterTouchTool will take some time to set up but once done it will be your setup. You can set any kind of crazy keyboard shortcut or trackpad gesture for snapping or moving windows. It will be personal and intuitive, and it will work.

Here’s what I say to everyone after I recommend BetterTouchTool and I’ll say it to you as well.

Go Crazy.

A Simpler Alternative To BetterTouchTool

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If you find the feature set overwhelming and don’t want to endlessly customize BTT, try Spectacle. It’s a little app that comes pre-programmed with keyboard shortcuts (that are customizable) for the same kind of window snapping features of BTT. There’s also a shortcut for flinging a window to another display.

Last updated on 03 February, 2022

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