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MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina Display Can Run 3 External Displays

Including the built-in Retina display, the new 2012 MacBook Pro 15″ can run four displays at their native resolution.

  1. Retina on laptop @ “best for Retina”
  2. iMac used as a display @ 2560 x 1440 via Thunderbolt
  3. iMac used as a display @ 2560 x 1440 via Thunderbolt/DisplayPort
  4. LG monitor @ 1920 x 1200  via HDMI

Moving images and media didn’t create any lag and we were able to play video on all four displays simultaneously.


MacBook Pro with Retina using 3 external monitors


Related MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina display articles:


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  • Hey Mike. Great article. I have just bought an OWC Thunderbolt Dock 2 which is just awesome. I have a 2012 Mid Mac Book Pro non-retina. My set up now is MBP to 27″ TB monitor to OWC TB Dock 2 to 27″ Cinema Display via MDP. Is is possible to daisy chain a 3rd 27″ TB monitor? Thanks in advance Paul

  • Can the Macbook Pro 13 with Retina display also run 3 external displays? My configuration would be 3x Dell 22″ DVI-D monitors, connected via 2x Thunderbolt > DVI-D and 1x HDMI > DVI-D.

    • Yes it can run 3 external displays at the same time as I have friends who owns the 13inch models ( I own the 15 one)

      Even my Mac Mini Server 2012 edition is running on 2 monitors via Display Port and HDMI as extended display (not mirror)

    • Danny, how did you do this?

      I could only set up two external monitors.


      • I have a 2012 Macbook Pro 13 retina. I have 3 external DVI monitors connected via 2x miniDP-DVI adaptors and 1x HDMI-DVI adaptor. All adaptors are passive. This works very well in Linux (3 monitors visible) but not in OS X (only 2 monitors visible). I suspect that OS X either just does not allow triple external monitors on the Macbook 13, or else requires active adaptors on the miniDP ports (no PLL sharing in Intel driver).

        As I said, triple external monitors works very well in Linux, so the hardware is certainly capable of it.

        • I should have pointed out that I have the laptop lid shut in this configuration ie. there are 3 active displays in total (three monitors on, laptop screen off). 4 active displays is not possible.

      • The mystery deepens. I have just tested three external displays on a 2012 Macbook Pro retina 13 (2x active DisplayPort-DVI adaptors, 1x HDMI-DVI adaptor) and it did not work in OS X. The same setup works flawlessly in Linux. It even works in Linux with only passive DisplayPort adaptors. But in OS X, the third external display never appears in the display settings, even when the Macbook lid is closed on boot. I am also curious to know how Danny’s friends have their setups working (perhaps older Macbooks with Nvidia cards?!)

  • Desperately trying to get a 4th monitor on my MBP setup (IntelCore i7).
    Already have a chain of 2 TB and it works fine.
    Then I need to get to a Plasma TV (using VGA input) to get a 4th desktop (as I did with my MacPro using the 2 graphic PCI cards).
    Would it be a way to get a usb3-HDMI conversion?
    Or any other way?

  • I can confirm the retina mac book pro, 8 GB RAM, does a fine job in driving 2 additional monitors via a HDMI and a Thunderbolt cable, However, the region just below the screen is super hot.

    Does anyone know if this is detrimental to the video card / the battery ? Also, I noticed in this multi monitor mode, the system slows down considerably when running code on 2 separate cores.

    • I have exactly the same problem – running 3 external monitors on my MB Pro Retina (16GB RAM) has it run really hot and actually it closes abruptly with a “white” screen I’ve never seen on a Mac before – similar to what I used to get on Windows sometimes. Back to work, Apple!

  • Does anyone tryed using macbook pro retina with 2 matrox triplhead2go…so u have 6 external displays???

  • Hi,

    first of all, great review! Do you know whether this 3-display set up will work under boot camp / windows as well?

    Many thanks in advance for your help!

  • I’m puzzled about the HDMI limitation of only 1920 x 1200 that you get since it has been reported to have a HDMI v1.4 connector, which allows to send even the native screen resolution of 2880 x 1800. Can you please confirm the following:

    – Both output and input devices communicate on the HDMI v1.4 standard?
    – What is the highest supported resolution on the external display you are testing on combined with any output device?
    – 1920 x 1200 resolution is the HDMI v1.4 max resolution limitation on 48-bit/px color bit depth, so if the retina display natively displays 48-bit colors (how many it actually displays I have no facts on) what is the resolution you get on lower bit depths?


    • This is a no-brainer, please also confirm that you are using a HDMI v1.4 cable… :)

  • I wonder how much of the display were actually being render by the MBP-R and not by the iMac GPU. Would be interesting to see if the MBP-R can drive multiple real monitors, not iMac computers

    • Nothing is rendered by the iMac when using it an iMac in display mode.

  • I’m wondering if it can also handle more screens with two or even three Matrox Triplehead2Go Digital attached?

  • Are these screens all mirrors of one or are they independent?
    An image with different content of all screens would answer that question pretty quickly :)

    • They’re all independent. If they’re were mirrors the dock, icons, and menu bar that’s on the Retina display would be on all the others.

      • Hey. Are the external monitors connected to the laptop mirrored or are they independent? For example can I have 3 separate windows running on those 3 monitors or are they mirroring each other.


      • Thanks! I saw the dock is only on the laptop screen. However I never tried more than one monitor so I assumed it could also be that the two imacmonitors are just mirrors from each other.

  • Dear good folks at OWC,

    Please try this and report back to us…

    Take any Apple application that supports “Full-Screen App” mode (see Make that application go full-screen as described in the article (NOT using the green maximize button).

    Does this result in that single app going full-screen on one monitor and blanking out the other 3 monitors with that background linen pattern?

    I’ll bet it does. And assuming I am right, what is the use of multiple monitors when sending one app into full-screen mode renders all but one monitor useless?

    Please review the entire thread of “Dual monitors and fullscreen fiasco, is there a work around?” found at “”. There you will see that Apple is, apparently, not listening to this concern as the behaviour is apparently the same in Mountain Lion.

    • That’s the way it works on any multi-monitor use in full screen mode. The display selected as the main display goes full screen and the others go grey linen. Fullscreen mode tells OS X to that you only want to focus on this app right now and ignore everything else.

      It’s an interesting topic you’re bringing up. I’m curious, what would you prefer to happen on the other monitors when you go to full screen mode?

      • Standard behavior for other desktops with fullscreen-support, such as Gnome or KDE is that one screen is dedicated to an application, while the others work as normal with floating or tiled windows. You can fullscreen an application on every monitor and virtual display on both (and elsewhere), so there really isn’t any reason it should work different on Mac OS.

      • Thanks for the quick reply Mike.

        I gather that you are CONFIRMING that making a “Full-Screen App” go full screen DOES in fact render the other three monitors blank (ie: the grey linen background) and therefore you can do NOTHING with the other monitors.

        Personally I find this behaviour to be exceedingly BAD and poorly designed (and I don’t think I am alone in this opinion).

        What do I want to see? Well, simply put, I want the “Full-Screen App” go full screen on the monitor the application is on while leaving the other monitors untouched and available for whatever use I want to put them to – “normal” windows or full-screen app windows. For example, I might want to use one of the remaining monitors to have another Full-Screen App on it in full screen (ie: Safari full-screen on one monitor, Quick TIme full screen on another), while leaving the remaining monitors for “normal” use.

        By the way, when you make an app go full-screen, does it do so on the monitor where you have it or does it go to the primary display? Apparently Mountain Lion will let full screen apps go full-screen on the display where they are BUT still the remaining monitors become useless. But I have not seen Mountain Lion so can only relate rumours.

        You seem to indicate about this full-screen app behaviour “That’s the way it works on any multi-monitor use in full screen mode”. I am not 100% certain what you mean, but I can say that in other operating systems you can make an app “full-screen” and it will go full screen on that monitor and leave the other monitors alone and available for any other uses. Aria mentions that this is what Gnome and KDE so. In that other operating system, what’s it called, oh yes, Windows 7, you can make an app full screen on one monitor and the other monitor(s) remain available for whatever use – even another full-screen. For example take Firefox to one monitor and hit F11 and you’re in full screen (ie: kiosk mode) while the other monitor(s) remain fully available, you can even have another instance of Firefox on another monitor and make it full-screen on that monitor.

        Don’t get me wrong, this is not about which OS is better – only that in my view Apple is wrong if “Fullscreen mode tells OS X to that you only want to focus on this app right now and ignore everything else.” That may be what Apple is doing – or thinks users should be doing – but I want to be able to go full-screen on one monitor and still be able to focus on other things in other monitors.

        Now, I can always use the green button or otherwise maximize and app on a certain monitor to get pretty much the desired effect. However, it drives me bananas the way Apple has provided full-screen apps that render other (expensive) monitors useless whenever I want to take advantage of the full-screen feature of an Apple app.

        • We didn’t try it. I meant for Mac OS X right now that’s how multi-monitor works. Others but the main display go dark. Maybe they’ll fix it in the future. It would be nice to be given a preference. I bet Apple really hasn’t addressed the most likely on how few people use multi-monitor and instead work single screen.

        • Thanks again for the response Mike.

          If you make an Apple full-screen app go full-screen then what you get is what you get – one application full-screen on one monitor and any other monitors become useless. This disrupts work-flow, eliminates options and devalues investment in external monitors (and what happens when using a projector for that all-important presentation???).

          I guess that’s the issue in a nutshell – there’s no choice and no way to set a preference to alter this behaviour. Too bad because and app in full-screen mode can be rather pleasing in and of itself, but not to the exclusion of rendering other monitors un-usable.

          It is extremely unfortunate that Apple has not addressed this restrictive behaviour at all. Very un-Apple.

          The only solution I know of is to forego the full-screen app ‘feature’ and do regular window maximization.

          • The problem you mentioned is not on the OSX side. It is all about the app you using.

            For example, Blizzard’s games such as WoW and Diablo 3, those games have 3 different screen options.

            1, Windowed.
            2, Full Screen.
            3, Full Screen Windowed.

            If you choose the 3rd option, you will have your main screen in full size without menu bar nor 3 color button frame, which is a complete full screen mode. and the other monitor remain functional not grey out.

            • Arron – you say it is all about the application that one is using. YES that is EXACTLY the point!!

              I am referring ONLY to APPLE applications and the “new” feature of OS X Lion (and now Mountain Lion) of Apple’s Full-Screen Apps. Recall my initial posting here said “Take any Apple application that supports “Full-Screen App” mode (see”

              Please have a look at the (very long) discussion at – you will have to sift through some diversions but you’ll see some really intelligent and thoughtful comments about this.

              You’ll see in that discussion mention of another non-Apple application that can be full-screen on one monitor and leave the other monitor(s) available for whatever else the user wants. That would be VLC. You have identified another. And there may be more out there.

              Part of the beauty of Mac for me is the integration of Apple applications that come with the OS and Apple’s great support for same (during the initial year and beyond that if you have Apple Care). Unfortunately the Full-Screen App behaviour is problematic, to say the least.

              Why Apple would implement full-screen mode for its applications in the way it does (rendering other monitors unusable) remains a mysterious failing to me.

    • That’s the way full screen mode works in Lion; it’s not a function of the hardware. And I hate it. They are (I think) addressing this in Mountain Lion. But what you cite is the very reason why I hardly ever use full screen mode when running a multiple monitor setup; maximizing gives me most of what I want and lets me keep the other monitors.

      I have long observed that there are two types of desktop users; those who maximize every window, and those who size them to just what is needed. I tend to be the latter, so fullscreen mode is of limited benefit to me.

      • In Leopard and Snow Leopard, I could run Quicktime and DVD movies in fullscreen on a projector without mirroring. Now, if I try and do that in Lion it gives me the grey wallpaper and it sends the movie to the main screen. It was annoying because I used to do work on my MacBook Pro and have the kids watch a clip in class. Now, I can’t work since I have to mirror my display.

        Now, wouldn’t it be lovely if I ran all three monitors in fullscreen?

        Will Mountain Lion fix this?

  • I really like the idea of running 3 1920×1200 Dell UltraSharp U2412M Monitors off this machine, in vertical orientation. Note that 3 of these cost about the same as a single 27″ Apple monitor, but more pixels, 3600×1920, instead of 2560×1440. I think the HDMI will do 1920×1200 sure.

    Would be great if the article specified the exact cables they used and where they plugged them. The above idea would require two mini-DP to DP cables, plus an HDMI to DVI cable.

    I think this “runs hot” issue needs to be investigated. Apple has developed a nasty habit of letting their equipment run really hot. For example my Time Capsule, we used it to keep the brewed coffee warm. Ran real hot for about 13 months, then just died, a month after the warranty expired. That product was just junk and Apple neglected it. Similarly, my year old mac mini sometimes goes berserk and gets quite hot. So its worrisome that you report that driving several monitors gets the macbook to hot up.

  • Incredible long shot, here, but the new MBPwRD doesn’t do Target Display Mode, does it?

    • iMacs are the only ones that have target display mode. Interesting idea though

  • I truly wonder whether it’d be possible to daisychain four monitors solely off the Thunderbolt ports. You could do two with earlier Macbook Pros: TB display-TB nondisplay device-DP monitor. Does this work twice, I wonder?

  • Does SwitchResX enable non-Retina display modes on the Mac Book Pro Retina display (such as 2880 x 1800)?

    You can use SwitchResX to create new scaled resolutions. What’s the greatest 16:9 scaled resolution you can create on the iMacs while they are connected to the MacBook Pro? What’s the greatest 16:10 scaled resolution you can create on the MacBook Pro’s Retina display? I know it can at least use a 3840 x 2400 resolution for it’s 1920 x 1200 Retina display mode.

    For my 30″ Cinema display (2560 x 1600) connected to a Radeon HD 5870 1 GB card in a Mac Pro 2008, I can create resolutions up to 4096 wide or 4096 tall but the memory allowed for the screen buffer seems to be limited to something like 32 MB so the max 16:10 resolution I could create and use was 3584 x 2240. The MacBook Pro seems to not have that limit.

    It sounds like the iMacs were using their native 2560 x 1440 mode. Can you use Quartz from Xcode 4 to enable HiDPI modes for those monitors? When you enable HiDPI modes, it should add to the Display Preferences resolutions a list of HiDPI modes that are half the width and height of any resolution greater than 1600 wide. This is how the Retina display modes are rendered. They draw into a screen buffer that is twice as wide and twice as tall as the resolution they represent. The text is smoother because there’s 4 times as many pixels to use. You can see this when you take screen shots with Command-Shift-3.

    You can use the HiDPI modes in combination with resolutions you create with SwitchResX to get the same effect on your non-Retina displays as the Retina Display modes on the Mac Book Pro.

    For example, the 1920 x 1200 Retina Display mode is rendered at 3840 x 2400 which is 1.333 times greater than the 2880 x 1800 native resolution in each direction. So to create a similar effect for the iMac’s display, you could try creating a resolution of 3413.3 x 1920. That’s not a whole number though so you should round 3413 to the next 16 (3424) then times 9 / 16 = 1926 to come up with a new resolution of 3424 x 1926. Then you can use the 1712 x 963 HiDPI mode to get the Retina display effect. The effect is not exactly the same though as the 1920 x 1200 HiDPI mode though (scale factor 1.333 vs 1.3375). However, the effect you see with the Best for Retina Display mode on the MacBook Pro (1440 x 900 HiDPI mode) is exactly the same as you would get from using the 1280 x 720 HiDPI mode on the iMac’s display.

  • Thank you for that test!

    Could you tell me if a generic hdmi to dvi-D Adapter works?

  • The macbook pro retina has 2 Thunderbolt ports plus an hdmi port. So in theory I could drive the 3 Dell 2412’s off of it.

    Now, can you daisy chain the Thunderbolt ports if you have an apple Thunderbolt monitor? If so can you then run a pair of monitors daisy chained off each Thunderbolt port, that’s 4 total, plus a 5th monitor off the HDMI? And what would be the maximum resolutions?

    Worrisome that this makes the machine hot. Steve wouldn’t like it.

    • Apple only supports 2 monitors via Thunderbolt. I take that as whether you daisy chain two on one port or use two connected directly that you can use two. We’ll test some more later on to verify, but I don’t “think” you could drive more monitors.

    • didn’y work for me 2 days ago

      MBP(TB1) – TB-TB daisy chain ok

      connect 3rd TB into second MBP TB port, black screen

  • Got my mid-2012 MBP (non-Retina) a few days ago and it’s totally maxed out spec-wise thanks to OWC. Would I be able to run 2 external monitors via daisy-chained Thunderbolt most likely? I do motion graphics work professionally and if I can run 2 externals then I’ll barely need a MacPro on most projects!

  • Were all of the displays being driven by the discrete NVIDIA card or by the integrated Intel HD4000?

    • We didn’t turn off any of the graphics support. But we really just plugged it an saw everything displayed.

  • We drive 30″ displays (2560 x 1600) on old c2d MBPs using a mini-dp to DisplayPort adapter. No reason to think this machine couldn’t drive 2×30 instead of 2×27 when the Apple website says it supports 2560×1600 :)

    Interesting that the apple website also says it only supports two external displays, not three.

    • I think apple is really regarding the HDMI as a TV/projector output only, but it works as long as you don’t need to display larger than 1920 x 1200

        • We tested that and that’s how we found out that it’s limited to 1920×1200 as that’s the highest res available we got via hdmi connected to my 2500×1600 display

          • The HDMI connector is Type A single link. Is it HDMI 1.0 (165 MHz) or is it HDMI 1.3 (340MHz)?

            1920 x 1200 @ 60 Hz requires about 154 MHz (using CVT-RB timing).

            340 MHz seems like it would be enough to handle 2880 x 1800 @ 60 Hz max.

          • Your 2560 x 1600 display is probably dual link DVI-D. HDMI 1.0 is the same as DVI single link. HDMI 1.3 is also single link but twice as fast. Can the MacBook Pro do HDMI 1.3 and does there exist an HDMI 1.3 single link to DVI-D dual link adaptor?

              • HDMI 1.4 is the same speed as 1.3 but it adds higher resolutions (with correspondingly lower refresh rate) and also adds stereoscopic 3D modes.

                Can you play 3D movies on the MacBook Pro from Windows using Boot Camp and an external Blu-Ray drive or other movie source? I wonder if you can play games in stereoscopic 3D? The product page for the GeForce GT 650M suggests that’s possible with the NVIDIA 3DTV Play and HDMI Support features.

                • I’ve read that some displays like the Dell U2711 can support high resolutions (2560 x 1440 @ 60 Hz) via HDMI 1.3. They may advertise only supporting 1080p but you can create a custom resolution (via the NVidia control panel in Windows and possibly SwitchResX in Mac OS X). If you can’t get 60 Hz to work, then a slower speed such as 35 or 40 Hz will get 2560 x 1440 below the single link DVI speed limit of 165 MHz.

  • Mike, you mentioned this configuration causes the rMBP to get pretty hot. When you get a chance, would try this configuration using a number of pro apps (CS5, FCP etc) I’m curious how well the rMBP handles these (performance as well as heat). I’m pondering retiring my old MP and replacing it with this.


    • Well even CS6 has display issues on the new Retina. So you’d need to use the external until an update is made “if” that indeed fixed 1:1 pixel editing. You’ll need to rely on other reviews to put the MacBook Pro through it’s paces on Photoshop and FCP, as we’re not planning on doing that here, though even a MacBook Air can do a great job with Photoshop and FCP… just depends what your needs and demands are.

  • Thanks for trying this out! Can you drive two DVI displays using thunderbolt to dvi dongles and an additional HDMI display? No thunderbolt displays for me.

  • I know you didn’t notice any lag, but what about stuttering? Could you scroll an image / video heavy web page on an external (Thunderbolt) screen without dropping frames? Any other measurement tool beyond your eyeball? :) Inquiring minds wanna know.

    • Moving images and such around was not laggy at all, buttery smooth, just like with one external display. Everything was smooth, even when we dragged the video around to the certain monitors… that was smooth too, but video really doesn’t tax a processor or video card too heavily unless you’re editing it.

  • It would be interesting to see how much vRAM is getting used in this configuration. iStat Menus can display that. Pull down the CPU menu. There is a graph of the video memory usage.

  • Do you know how many monitors it will support without utilizing Thunderbolt? For instance, will is support two DisplayPort monitors or a DisplayPort and an HDMI? Or perhaps all three?

    • If you look at the pic you can see we’re actually connecting one of the iMacs with a mini DisplayPort cable and the other is Thunderbolt. Since mini DisplayPort is interchangeable with Thunderbolt except that you lose the ability to daisy chain, it wouldn’t have been an issue if the other iMac was also connected via mini DisplayPort.

      • Any idea if it might also work with the DVI adapters (i.e. thunderbolt/displayport -> DVI)?

      • Hi,

        I was testing a similar scenario running my brand new MBP 15′ with retina display attached to 2x (1680×1050) DVI monitors (through mini DisplayPort adapters) and a LED TV (1080p) on the HDMI out. I couldn’t get the four displays to work at the same time even if all of them are well below the max resolution supported! Even if I closed the lead the HDMI display will stay without input. Only by unplugging one of the DVI/mini DisplayPort monitors I could get te desktop to appear on the HDMI screen. Any I dea why?
        The only difference from other set ups tested here is the fact that the monitors are actually DVI and connected via adapter but I don’t suppose that should make a difference…

  • Nice! Can the MBA drive more than one external display though? The HD4000 should be capable to do this.

  • Imagine a (near?) future with an external Retina display? Maybe not doubling the current 27″ Thunderbolt Display, but say a 4K display. Will this mid-2012 MBP/R be able to drive such a display? The tech specs say it can drive up to two external 2560×1600 monitors, but it would take nearly four to get to a doubling of the 27″ Thunderbolt. Is there some technical reason that would preclude driving a 4K monitor with the MBP/R, even though the lowly Intel HD 4000 is supposed to do 4K? If so, I might actually want to wait until a future-gen MBP/R appears that can drive an external Retina display.

    • No idea. We’ll have to wait for the future to come to find out :)
      You and I could only guess based on apples original support specs, which doesn’t state anything about resolutions anywhere near 4k.

  • Is this the limit, or just the limit you tested. Based on previous Thunderbolt MacBook Pros, you should be able to connect another two screens (I think they have to be Thunderbolt Cinema Displays) to the Thunderbolt ports.

    • We may indeed try that test next, though it got pretty hot running four, and we had to plug them in one at a time to get the system to accept all screen. After it got it all setup, it was solid after that, with restarts making all the screen appear without fail. Stay tuned…

        • Right, but are there one or two Thunderbolt busses? If it’s two, then each port should support two displays, plus the internal, plus the HDMI for a total of six.

          • You will never get more than four because the Kepler GPU in there only supports four. The big question is, can you drive four external making the internal screen go dark.

            Re. someone else, no, I do not think there is an active HDMI to dual link DVI converter although the demand is there for sure. Maybe now it’ll happen. The HDMI port is 1.4 almost surely.

  • Do you know if you can drive a CRT at 100Hz or higher with the Retina MacPros? I am in real need of this to replace a MacPro with something smaller and mac minis cant do this.

  • Very cool.

    I’d love to know if it can drive 3 thunderbolt displays in a closed-lid configuration (1 on 1 TB port, 2 daisy-chained on the other). Would be right around 11MP, so under the 14 here. That would basically get me back to my old Mac Pro config.

    • According to Apple (I asked to clarify this exact issue), this is not possible. Thunderbolt will max at 2 so the 3rd must be from the HDMI port.

      • the HDMI port will not (currently) connect to a TB display; no cable.

        A mini display adaptor does not work as a TB substitute.

        Tried it.

        David Empson in a comp.sys.mac.apps post ( Re: MacBook Pro retina display does not run 3 Thunderbolt displays) gave a technical explanation as to why not.

  • Does the 3rd external monitor have to be off HDMI or could you daisy chain via one of the thunderbolt displays

  • Amazing! On a side note, did you mean that the resolution was 2560 x 1440 on the iMacs? 2560 x 1600 is not supported on any current Apple products, unfortunately.

  • Is it really 2560×1600 ? My 27″ iMac is 2560×1440 native ; I didn’t think there was a 16:10 iMac.

    • They used to make 16:10 imacs, but they stopped doing that a couple years back. And those only went up to 24″ at 1920×1200.

  • Have you tried hooking up a display with greater or equal 2560×1440 pixels to the HDMI port?

      • What is you tried using a converter to mini displayport or other for Apple regular non-Thunderbolt Cinema Display (27″ LCD that came before thunderbolt display)

      • Even with the lid closed there is no way to get 2560×1440 from the HDMI port?

    • No direct temps, but we could feel the area above the keyboard get hot to the touch.

  • So… 2500×1600 ==> 4 megapixels
    and 1920×1200 ==> 2.3 megapixels
    and the Retina Display is 5

    So that’s a total of 15.3 megapixels all being driven by a single laptop.
    Pretty impressive graphics system…