if its too loud, turn it down

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Connecting multiple external monitors to a Macbook Pro


4 Monitors

Are four high-resolution, independently-managed monitors possible with a Macbook Pro? Yes. Excessive? mmhmm. Awesome? You bet!
Stop laughing at my ancient keyboard and yes, I am watching "The Hangover".


I've been using a Macbook Pro (MBP) for three years now and still love it. I've made a few upgrades to it that have brought it more or less up to date: maxed out the RAM at 3GB, swapped out the drive with a 250GB solid state drive, and attached a 24" LCD monitor to the DVI out interface.

But one thing I did miss from my desktop days was being able to connect multiple external monitors to the computer using a dual-head video card or multiple dual-head video cards. That extra desktop space really helps with productivity. I suppose that begs the question...why not just get a Mac desktop? Travel.

Until relatively recently, MBP multi-monitor the options were surprisingly limited and/or prohibitively expensive, despite the fact that the MBP has an ExpressCard34 slot that seemed ideal for the purpose. But, the problem has finally been solved...and I've even tried a couple of these solutions. Here they are:

1. Crappy

Tritton Technologies SEE2 XtremeI was excited when the Tritton SEE2 Xtreme became available. At under $100 it appeared that it would affordably allow me to connect an additional 24" LCD monitor to my Macbook Pro. And that it does, but not very well. My spirits sank as soon as I plugged this thing in and started dragging windows into it. It behaved as if I was connected to it over VNC. Anything moving lags considerably, and it has to "refresh" new windows really pretty much like VNC does. It's particularly incompatible with Thunderbird - when trying to highlight text to copy/paste, the cursor disappears!! And video...don't even think about it.

In its defense, the 1920x1200 screen resolution of my monitor was alot for that little device to handle (though it DOES say it's supported). So much so that it would even black out for a few seconds roughly every hour or so, almost like it was being overloaded or something. Very annoying. Please do not waste your money on this (but if you want mine, I'll sell it to you cheap).

There are other USB DVI solutions out there like VillageTronic's ViBook and Kensington's Dual Monitor Adapter. I can't imagine they are any better though, I don't think USB is a robust enough interface to handle hi-res video properly.

2. Decent (I guess...haven't actually tried this one)

Matrox TripleHead2GoThis one's been around the longest, relatively speaking. Matrox offers DualHead2Go and TripleHead2Go devices which do just as the names imply...allow you to connect two or three external monitors to a computer (doesn't need to be a Macbook, but that'll work). At the time of writing, the DualHead2Go Digital Edition, which is the one you'd want with a MBP, is around $200.

It doesn't use USB or ExpressCard interfaces, it actually takes the DVI out signal and splits it into two or three. In effect, what that does is make your external monitors one HUGE monitor in the eyes of the OS. Now, you could look at this as an advantage or a disadvantage. Some people love it. I personally think it's a dealbreaker. You can't have your external monitor be your primary monitor unless you want the dock stretched all the way across two or three monitors. You also have to use matched monitors because the colors and resolutions can't be independently managed in the OS. Sorry - no thank you!

3. The BEST

After exhaustive research I concluded that the only way to go would be a solution that used the ExpressCard34 interface natively (i.e. no adapter necessary). There are a few of these.

There's the Digital Tiger's SideCar which is about $1,500. Ixnay on that one. Not even sure OS X is supported. Then there's the Magma ExpressBox1 which will set you back about $725. Nope! Then, there's the one I actually ended up getting...

ViDock 2 Mac Box

The ViDock 2 Mac Box with a Sapphire 2600XT dual head video card installed. A well done piece of machinery.

The VillageTronic ViDock 2 Mac Box is the only affordable solution out there that does what I want...allow me to attach two external monitors, manage them as separate displays in OS X, support 1920x1200 resolution, and run high-performance apps like video with no lag. Warning: this solution is somewhat DIY.

The box itself cost $200 and is just that...a box with a cable coming out of it. At the business end of the cable is the "magic", an ExpressCard34 interface card. Inside the box is a PCI express slot. It's meant to take a Mac Pro ATI 2600XT Video Card, which is conveniently discontinued! So, one must be acquired off of eBay. There are also a few aftermarket manufacturers that sell new ones, but you have to be very careful about the dimensions of it. The ViDock 2 is meant to take this card specifically, which is 256mb. I got the Sapphire 512mb card because that's how I roll, but you can get a used ATI 2600XT 256mb card for about $100. So, total cost is going to be about $300 to get this thing going. Well worth the cost relative to the productivity gain of having multiple high-performance monitors.

Once you have the box and the card, it's relatively easy. if you've ever installed a PCI card into a desktop the process is essentially the same...few screws, that's it really. Plug the box's external power in, plug each monitor's DVI cable into the box, then the ExpressCard into the MBP. One thing about the ViDock is that it's not a hot-swappable solution, so be sure you shut down before plugging in the ExpressCard. Once you boot up, you'll see all your displays in System Preferences...no extra software needed!

There's a couple more wrinkles you should be aware of. First, this solution will only work with generations 2 and 4 of the MBP. To find your generation, pull down the Apple menu in the very top-left of your screen. Select "About this Mac", then the "More info..." button. That opens System Profiler. Under "Hardware Overview" look for "Model Identifier". It should say something like "MacBookPro2,2". The generation number is on the right side of the comma.

Why only generations 2 and 4? I got in touch with Josh at VillageTronic, a small shop out of Witchita, and he helped me a great deal with my questions. Apparently in generation 3, resources were "taken away" from the ExpressCard34 slot so that it is not usable to interface with a dual-head video card. The put those resources back in generation 4, but took them away again in generation 5. And if I am correct, the 15" version of the generation 5 MBPs doesn't even have an ExpressCard34 slot, only the 17". So that's definitely something to be aware of.

Here's the second, possibly deal-breaking wrinkle...the ViDock 2 Mac Box may no longer be available. At the time of writing, I could not find the item on the Harmonic Inversion (VillageTronic's store) site. I don't know why this is. It's possible they discontinued it because there's no future for it, I suppose that the likliest reason. When talking to Josh a while back he tried to steer me towards the cheaper ViBook Plus, but when I said I'd tried USB solutions and they were too slow he agreed I needed the ViDock 2 Mac Box. That seems to indicate they were planning on discontinuing it.

You could contact VillageTronic and they may be able to scare one up for you (I am pretty sure they are machining these things themselves, not getting them from China). It's also possible that the ViDock 2 Box will work just as well, but this is unverified. If you are a real nerd, you could even try to build your own.

But trust me...if you can get a hold of one of these, it's well worth it. Since there are two heads on the video card, one DVI interface on the MBP itself, and of course the MBPs built-in display, you could conceivably run up to FOUR high-resolution, high-performance displays from your MBP. Life changing! OK, that may be overdoing it a bit...

9 comments:

  1. The next logical step is to add an iPad to that setup as a 5th display: http://www.ubergizmo.com/15/archives/2010/04/turn_your_ipad_into_an_external_monitor_via_idisplay.html

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  2. Oh neat. I'd love to see how well that'd work as an external monitor connected via 3G.

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  3. What the hell, I had no idea you had a geek blog. Fun.

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  4. Hi Rory,

    Great post! I have a MacBook myself and I've connected it to an HP monitor, but ever since it all runs really slow. Any idea why?

    Thank you!

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  5. Takes additional resources to drive external monitors. May need to add more RAM.

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  6. Any idea if it'll work on a generation 6 17 inch Macbook?

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  7. Pretty sure it won't, even if you could get a hold of one of those devices. This post is kind of irrelevant anymore.

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  8. Why irrelevant? This is the only reasonably priced solution out there. I'm getting one shortly.

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  9. I was under the impression they were discontinued. But if you can get one, great!

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