How To: Run External Displays with your USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook

With the introduction of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 and the new MacBook Pro models in late 2016 came the promise of plugging in a single connection to power your entire desktop. Power, displays and every peripheral all flowing through one plug, simplifying everything to a single standard has been a dream since the earliest days of the PC and now its here – kinda.

What many early adopters found out, and what new users continue to discover, is that getting the connection of the future to work with the equipment of the present is... challenging. It’s a world full of adapters, cables, docks and dongles to do what you need, and ultimately, most fall short of that single cable promise.

Of all the confusion surrounding USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, the issues causing the most consternation is the connection of external displays. With half a dozen existing common display connection standards and the wave of next generation USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 displays getting thrown into the mix makes it difficult to sift through all of the conflicting information. We created this guide specifically for users of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBooks to take the guesswork and confusion out of running external displays with their new computers.

Some notes before we get started -

  • USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 plugs and receptacles look identical, but they are not fully interchangeable. In general, a Thunderbolt 3 connection can downgrade to USB-C, but USB-C cannot become Thunderbolt 3.
  • For the purposes of this guide we’re going to refer to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports found on the MacBook Pro models as USB-C ports unless we are talking specifically about Thunderbolt 3 capabilities.
  • “Docking station” can refer to several different types of devices. Henge Docks refers to a stand-alone docking station that connects to a computer via cable as a “tethered docking station” to differentiate it from our MacBook form-fitting Horizontal and Vertical Docking Stations (more on those solutions can be found under the Docking Station section).

Step 1: Identify the type of monitor or monitors you will be using

The type and number of displays that you are intending to use will define the capabilities, constraints and costs of using them with your MacBook. We’ve broken the displays down into four basic categories below - Traditional Displays, USB-C Displays, 5K Thunderbolt 3 Displays, and Apple Displays. Jump to the category that matches your display of choice.

Traditional Displays (HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, VGA)

Traditional Displays use standard such as HDMI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, DVI or VGA for input. Many traditional displays support multiple connection standards, but all will require some kind of adapter or new cable to be used directly with the new USB-C Macs.

Most buyers of the new USB-C MacBooks are upgrading from older MacBook models that used Mini DisplayPort cables or adapters to connect their external displays. The good news is that Henge Docks USB-C Tethered Docking Station, Stone, comes equipped with a Mini DisplayPort connection for this exact reason. If you’re one of the MacBook users upgrading, all you have to do is plug your existing cable or adapter directly into Stone.

For more information on connecting single and multiple HDMI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, DVI or VGA displays to your USB-C MacBook continue reading at Step 2.

USB-C Displays

As the USB-C connection continues to proliferate, more display options are cropping up that support this standard. The promise of a display that can handle all of your peripheral connections and power your MacBook through a single cable is enticing, but there are some tradeoffs that need to be considered. (In this case, we are specifically talking about the USB-C standard not Thunderbolt 3 displays, which are covered under 5K Displays that connect over Thunderbolt 3)

While no adapters or special cables are required to connect these displays to a USB-C equipped MacBook, the single cable solution may fall short for many users. Many USB-C equipped displays currently on the market offer 4K resolutions and refresh rates of 60Hz, but when running at their maximum resolution and refresh rates the USB expansion ports on these displays will degrade to USB 2.0 speeds. This is a limitation of the current USB-C standards.

Power delivery is another compromise. Several monitor models currently for sale offer no downstream power and many that do only offer 60W to the computer. This can present a problem for some users that require a full 85W to charge their MacBooks. In either of these scenarios users may find it necessary to add an additional connection for a dock, hub and/or power adapter.

Running dual USB-C monitors off a single connections is problematic. USB-C monitors cannot be daisy chained (plugged into each other) on the Mac platform and therefore have to be plugged directly into the MacBook independently. It is theoretically possible for a Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station to run dual USB-C displays off of a single plug, but we are not aware of any docks currently on the market with the ports necessary to make this arrangement possible.

5K Displays that connect over Thunderbolt 3

While offering a staggering number of pixels and incredible image quality, the latest 5K Displays are a special breed and require some consideration about their compromises before taking the plunge.

Running a 5K display requires refreshing 14.7 million pixels 60 times per second. This requires moving a mind-boggling amount of data over Thunderbolt 3, so much so that a single 5K display consumes most of the bandwidth for that connection, meaning downstream ports from the monitor are limited to USB-C 3.1 Gen1 (no daisy-chaining displays and no Thunderbolt 3 out).

5K displays are so resource intensive that while 15-inch MacBook Pro models will run dual 5K displays, one display has to be connected to a right side port and the other to a left side port due to limitations of the Thunderbolt 3 chipsets. 13-inch MacBook Pro models are limited to driving a single 5K display. Many 5K displays do offer full 85W charging for downstream computers.

While it is theoretically possible to daisy chain (plug one into the other) two 5K displays off a single connection to a MacBook Pro, each displays’ resolution will be reduced to 4K in order to operate within the bandwidth provided by Thunderbolt 3. The same issue occurs when a 5K display is connected through a Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station that is driving a second lower resolution (<4K) monitor – the 5K monitor will be reduced to running at 4K resolution.

Though 5K displays cannot maintain full resolution when paired with an additional monitor on a single connection to a MacBook Pro, Henge Docks Vertical Docking Station for the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro will support both a 5K display and second non 5k external display simultaneously.

Apple Thunderbolt Display and Apple Cinema Display

The all-aluminum and glass Apple Thunderbolt/Cinema Display remain arguably the most beautifully designed displays ever sold. With a timeless design it’s easy to understand why people are so attached to their Apple Displays despite the last Thunderbolt model being discontinued in mid-2016.

At this point, we need to differentiate the nearly identical Apple Cinema Display from the Apple Thunderbolt Display because they require entirely different equipment to connect to MacBooks with USB-C/Thunderbolt 3.

Apple LED Cinema Display

The LED Cinema Display (27-inch) was sold from mid-2010 through late-2013. The two distinguishing features are three connections coming off the monitor (MagSafe, USB and Mini DisplayPort) and three USB ports on the rear of the display housing.

For information on connecting your Apple Cinema Display see Step 2 below and follow the Mini DisplayPort guide. An important note - Apple’s Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 Adapter will not directly support the Cinema Display or any other Mini DisplayPort connection.

Apple Thunderbolt Display

The Thunderbolt Display was sold from mid-2011 through mid-2016. The distinguishing features for this model are two connections coming off the monitor to the computer (MagSafe and Thunderbolt) and six ports on the rear of the display (Thunderbolt, 3x USB, FireWire 800 and Ethernet).

The simplest way to connect an Apple Thunderbolt Display to your USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro is with Apple’s Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 Adapter.  However, the Thunderbolt Display does not provide power through the adapter so you’ll need to plug in a USB-C power supply separately. Some users also find the presence of the now unused MagSafe connector on their desk undesirable.

The only way* to connect an Apple Thunderbolt Display and power to your USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro with a single plug is through certain types of Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking stations. This arrangement requires that the Thunderbolt 3 docking station deliver 60W of power (85W for 15-inch MacBook Pro models) and a second, downstream Thunderbolt 3 port to accommodate Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter. There are no Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking stations on the market with an integrated Thunderbolt 2 port.

Running dual external displays with a Thunderbolt Display in the mix can get tricky. Thunderbolt Displays can be daisy-chained to other Thunderbolt Displays or Thunderbolt 1 or 2 devices, but other types of displays (HDMI, DisplayPort, etc.) cannot be connected directly to a Thunderbolt Display. In order to run another type of external display off a Thunderbolt Display a Thunderbolt 1 or 2 docking station must be placed between the two.

Alternatively, a Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station can be connected to a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro and used to drive both the Thunderbolt Display and the traditional display  (HDMI, DisplayPort, etc.). The Thunderbolt Display would require the addition of a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 Adapter to connect to the Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station.

* Shameless plug (pun intended) - Henge Docks Vertical Docking Station for the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro supports the Apple Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 Adapter and a connection to a USB-C power supply, without the addition of a Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station.

Step 2: Identify your ideal setup

Model Ports Max External Displays ≤ 4K Max External 5K Displays Max Power Requirement
12-inch MacBook USB-C (1x) 1 - 29W
13-inch MacBook Pro (no Touch Bar) Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) (2x) 2 1 61W
13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) (4x) 2 1 61W
15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) (4x) 4 2
(left side/right side)

Now that you’ve identified the type of display you’ll be running the next step is finding the setup that best suits your needs. Depending on whether you're just trying to get everything on your desk hooked up or run multiple displays, charging and peripherals off of a single connection or integrate everything into a docking station cost and complexity can vary greatly.

This step is broken into three sections - Multiple Cables, Single Cable, and Docking Stations. If you already know what you’re ideal setup looks like jump to that section below. For a full rundown of the capabilities and compromises of each configuration option we recommend reading through each section in the order they are presented.

Multiple Cables, Single or Multiple External Displays

Using multiple USB-C connections plugged directly into your MacBook is probably the most conceptually simple and least expensive option for some users, albeit not a particularly elegant or convenient one. Connecting an Apple USB-C power supply, a USB-C to USB-A hub or converter for peripherals and accommodating multiple USB-C display adapters to your MacBook every time you sit down at your desk is a cumbersome process.

In addition to the desktop clutter, multiple cables is not an option for 12-inch MacBook users and may not be an option for 13-inch MacBook Pro (no Touch Bar) users due to single and dual USB-C ports available ports. For those users, skip to the Single Cable section.

Supporting a multiple cable setup is a matter of identifying and locating the appropriate adapter for your monitor. For example a 4K monitor equipped with HDMI would be connected with Henge Docks USB-C to 4K HDMI Adapter. To support dual external displays, simply add a second display adapter and plug it into the computer.

Single Cable

The great benefit of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are the abilities to supply power, data and video connectivity over a single connection. There are large performance differences between the standards, but the two factors most users will be concerned with are multiple display support and cost. These factors are broken out into two subsections below - Single External Display and Dual External Displays.

With a single connection, in addition to power and data, USB-C can support a single external display while Thunderbolt 3 can support two, but the Thunderbolt solution will generally cost between 50% and 300% more than other options. USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 plugs and receptacles look similar, but they are not fully interchangeable. In general a Thunderbolt 3 connection can downgrade to USB-C, but USB-C cannot become Thunderbolt 3.

Single Cable, Single External Display

In addition to delivering power and data connections to a MacBook, a USB-C connection can support a single display with maximum resolution of 4K at 30Hz (4K at 60Hz is possible but data speed drop from USB 3.0 to USB 2.0 speeds). Solutions typically come in two forms: dongles and tethered docking stations.

Dongles like Apple’s USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter offer data and power a la carte with an HDMI or VGA connection, but offer limited port expansion in favor of portability. Tethered USB-C docking stations, such as Henge Docks Stone, offer extensive port expansion options and integrated power delivery to charge the MacBook, in addition to supporting an external display.

Additionally, Henge Docks USB-C Tethered Docking Station, Stone, comes equipped with a Mini DisplayPort connection for direct compatibility with the Apple LED Cinema Display and upgrading customers’ existing Mini DisplayPort adapters.

Single Cable, Dual External Displays

The only Apple supported method for running two traditional external displays (HDMI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, DVI or VGA), in addition to power and data, with a single connection to a MacBook is by using specific models of Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking stations. Some lower-end Thunderbolt 3 docks, such as the CalDigit TS3 Lite, do not supply power to the MacBook and cannot be a true single cable solution for a dual external display setup.

For higher end Thunderbolt 3 tethered docks that do power the MacBook, such as the Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Express Dock HD, dual external traditional display support comes in the form of a video-out port such as HDMI or DisplayPort and a downstream Thunderbolt 3 port on the dock. The downstream Thunderbolt 3 port on the dock requires a USB-C display adapter, such as Henge Docks USB-C to 4K HDMI Adapter, to run the second display. This prevents users from daisy-chaining additional Thunderbolt devices off of the dock, but allows the support of dual external displays running at 4K 60Hz.

Cost is the biggest consideration when running a dual display setup off of a single connection to the MacBook. Expect to pay $300-$350 for a Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station plus another $20-$30 for a USB-C display adapter for the second monitor.

Docking Stations

In addition to the Stone USB-C Tethered Docking Station, Henge Docks created the Vertical Docking Station and upcoming Horizontal Docking Station to make connecting a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 MacBook Pro to a desktop setup as easy as possible. These form-fitting docking stations do away with cable clutter by automatically connecting directly to the MacBook’s ports when the computer is inserted into the dock - instead of the user plugging in each cable by hand. Because of this unique design the docks not only make moving from desktop to mobile exceptionally easy they also resolve many of the connectivity compromises listed above.

The Vertical Docking Station interfaces with the two left-side USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports found on MacBook Pro models allowing any devices that can be plugged into the MacBook to connected directly to the dock. Because the Vertical Dock offers two ports multiple cables can be used with no convenience trade off for the user, reducing costs and simplifying the setup process.

In the simplest setup, with a single external display and a wireless keyboard/mouse, no additional cables would be required. The external display and power supply for the computer would be connected to the rear of the dock. Then a user would simply place their MacBook Pro into the Vertical Dock, making all of the connections in a single action.

To run dual external displays Apple’s USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter could be connected along side Henge Docks USB-C to 4K HDMI Adapter to provide a USB-A connection for a wired keyboard/mouse, power and dual 4K HDMI connections. This arrangement would cost an end user around $250 less than accomplishing the same connections over a single cable with Thunderbolt 3.

In the same example, Henge Docks Stone USB-C Tethered Docking Station could replace the Multiport Adapter for users looking for dual display support and additional port expansion. This arrangement would add dual 4K display support and eight expansion ports (ethernet, SD card, three USB Type-A, one USB-C, audio and power) for about $150 less than a single cable setup with the same capabilities.

Taking the versatility of the Vertical Docking Station to the extreme, a 15-inch MacBook Pro could run four external 4K displays while docked. A Thunderbolt 3 tethered docking station and a Thunderbolt 3 Dual DisplayPort Adapter would connected to the Vertical Dock. The tethered dock would provide power and port expansion while support two 4K displays. The remaining two 4K displays would be connected through the Dual DisplayPort Adapter.