How to power four simultaneous screens with the Retina MacBook Pro

The new MacBook Pro with Retina display has many noteworthy features, from a unique 2880x1800-pixel screen to new Nvidia graphics and large SSD storage options.

(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

But the most surprising may be the multiple video outputs — something not seen on a MacBook before now.

The last several generations of the MacBook have had either a mini-DisplayPort or combo Thunderbolt/DisplayPort jack. HDMI has been on our most-wished-for lists for years, so Apple finally adding HDMI (which is found on pretty much every other current laptop) is a big move — especially when combined with a second Thunderbolt port.

Now that we've had a little extra time to spend with the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, we've a chance to look at some areas in more detail. One of the first questions we received was: "Can the Retina Pro do multiple video outputs?"

Arrange your monitors on this settings menu.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

The easiest way to test that was to simply get a few monitors together and try hooking everything up. Step One was to connect a 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt display via that monitor's built-in Thunderbolt cable. The second external monitor was a 30-inch Dell Ultrasharp U3011, which was connected via a DisplayPort to VGA adapter. Finally, I connected a second Dell U3011 to the MacBook's HDMI port.

As you can probably guess from the headline, all three external monitors connected successfully. Along with the MacBook's built-in Retina Display, that gave us four simultaneous working screens.

Using the Display menu under System Preferences, I could set the three external monitors to either mirror or extend the main screen, and then arrange them in virtual space by dragging and dropping icons for each of the screens (to line up the tops or bottoms of the displays, for example). My extended desktop was a little awkward, as I was using different size displays with different resolutions. Interestingly, the Dell monitor, connected via DisplayPort/VGA, was able to display 1920x1200 pixels, while the exact same display, hooked up via HDMI, could display up to 2048x1280 pixels.

Identical monitors, different connections, different supported resolutions.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)

But, before you go hooking up every spare monitor you can find, note that the frame rate on the Diablo III window, which we had running on the external Apple monitor, definitely started to slow down when all four screens were running at the same time (with Web browsers and iPhoto on the other screens).

Is this anything you're likely to use? Perhaps not; but for those who regularly use two monitors, we can see this being useful for photo or video editing, or other MacBook-centric tasks. Either way, adding that HDMI output makes it much easier to get an external monitor connected to the Retina MacBook Pro.

Do you use external monitors with your laptop? Would three be more useful than one or two? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


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Rolloxan posted a comment   

It's interesting as a feature, but beyond 2 external displays performance with video will probably be a bit so-so.

Also, the screen is so good now, with proper calibration I think people will use it more than that 3rd monitor. Can't wait till all of the 3rd party programs catch up with the resoultion scaling!

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