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Mac 101: Using External Displays With Your Laptop Closed

A lot of the time when you connect an external display to a Mac (s aapl) notebook, you’ll want to continue working on the large display and close the lid of the laptop. It can be tricky to get your Mac to do so, but here is a step-by-step guide to getting it right every time.

Step 1: Cables

First off, you need to make sure the right cables are plugged into your Mac. The most important is the video cable connecting the display to the laptop. For a recent Mac, you’ll need a Mini DisplayPort cable if you’re using a new 27-inch Apple Cinema Display, or some kind of adapter, such as Mini DisplayPort to VGA or DVI. Older Macs will most likely require Mini-DVI adapters.

The next cable you need is your laptop’s MagSafe Power Adapter (the charging cable). Without having that plugged in, your laptop won’t stay awake when you shut the lid. Having the charging cable plugged in all the time shouldn’t harm the battery of your portable, but if you’re worried, you can always unplug it when you turn off the computer.

Finally, you’ll also probably want an audio cable so that you can channel sound through either your display’s speakers or a set of external speakers. While this isn’t necessary, the audio from a laptop’s built-in speakers doesn’t sound too good when the laptop’s closed. Usually you’ll audio cable is plugged into the headphone jack of your laptop, which is one of the small circular ports at the end of the row.

Step 2: Peripherals

If you want to continue working when the laptop is closed, it’s essential that you have an external mouse and keyboard, since you won’t be able to access the internal ones once the lid is shut. It doesn’t matter whether they are wired or wireless; as long as they are connected and working before you shut your laptop, it’s fine to carry on. Before continuing to step three, make sure your input devices are connected, and that they are working properly. Wireless devices can sometimes be notorious for not connecting straight away, so make sure you check.

If you’re using wireless input devices, open System Preferences and navigate to the Bluetooth pane. Click Advanced… and you should see four checkboxes. Make sure Allow Bluetooth devices to wake this computer is checked. This ensures that clicking the mouse or pressing a key on the keyboard will wake the computer from sleep mode.

Step 3: Shut the lid

Next is the all-important part: actually closing the laptop. It tends to work best if the Mac is already up and running when you do this, so if your computer is turned off, I’d recommend powering it on before continuing. While your computer is running, simply close the lid. At first your Mac will enter sleep mode, and any connected displays will go blank. This is fine, since Mac portables automatically go to sleep when they’re shut. Once your computer is completely asleep, either tap a key on the keyboard or click the mouse to wake it up. After a few seconds, your external display should come back on and be displaying your desktop. Be patient, since your Mac could take 30 seconds or so to wake back up.

If your display doesn’t come back on, double-check that you have the power cable for your Mac plugged in. Also check that the display hasn’t turned off completely when the Mac went to sleep, rather than entering standby mode. Now you can use your Mac portable as a home theatre PC, or as a makeshift tower for your home computing needs.

9 Responses to “Mac 101: Using External Displays With Your Laptop Closed”

  1. This is funny to me, because just last week I received a monitor that I ordered so I could run my MB in clamshell and turn it into a desktop. This article describes exactly how my MB is set up right now.

    BTW the 22 in LED monitor is way better than the 13 in LCD screen.

  2. Cyberdemon

    I use InsomniaX to keep my MacBook awake and just turn the brightness down. Though, I always mirror the display. I don’t know about extending it…

  3. mike sanders

    Thanks for this but what is the quick way to get the screen back to the macbook? In the end I shut down and restarted, must be a quicker way do I have to go back through sys prefs?
    Just read cold water’s comments, is this really the only way?

  4. I’ve got a strange situation where my internet connection dies if I plug in an external monitor, keyboard, etc. to my Air. Rebooting fixes it, but I’m finding that I have to reboot every time I want to work with an external display.

  5. Cold Water

    Actually, I’d rather use both displays, unless I can daisy chain a pair with Thunderbolt. That usually just works, but if I reconnect with the MBP sleeping, I have to go back to System Preferences and have Displays redetect.

  6. I’ve been working with a docked MBP for a number of months now. The Henge dock keeps the cables really clean so the desk looks way nicer than any other dock. It also means you don’t have to fiddle around with the cables each time you bring the machine back to your desk (unlike other stands) which makes the whole process easier.