Pacific Tides
My name is Thomas Sturm and I'm a programmer, photographer and writer.

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Dual Monitors on a Mac Mini

Just recently I got my hands on a second LCD monitor and my first thought was to set up my Mac Mini as a two-monitor setup similar to the rig I was used from work. It initially didn't occur to me that this would be a lot more complicated on the Mini than what I had anticipated.

The Mac Mini is designed as a simple home system and has only one graphics adapter, and there is no split cable that allows you to simply add a second monitor. There are really only two solutions to add a second monitor to the Mini:

  • Matrox offers DualHead2Go, which splits the video signal from one video card across two monitors, using a special graphics driver that simulates a very wide monitor to the computer. The problem with this solution for the Mac Mini is that the internal graphics adapter can only support 2048x768 in this mode - which means that my two 1280x1024 monitors would both be running at non-native 1024x768, which is far from perfect and would not really improve my situation.
  • VGA via USB. When I first heard of this concept, I couldn't believe that this is actually possible, but I read up on some of the reviews and they were quite favorable. And to add to that, just a few months ago, DisplayLink - the manufacturer of the chip set of many of these USB video adapters - launched their Mac OS X drivers. Once I had found these drivers I went with the Kensington sd200v notebook docking station, which in addition to the second VGA port also offers 5 additional USB ports.
The Kensington VGA adapter works great. I have now a second monitor on my Mac Mini in portrait mode at 1024x1280 which is very useful for web development and just generally great to surf tall web pages.

The performance is surprising, and while I don't know exactly how the DisplayLink chipset works, I guess the driver actually compresses only the difference from one video frame to the next and sends it via the USB connection to the VGA chip, which then buffers the screen content and only applies new changes as they come in.

In most normal situations where I use the second monitor (browsing, scrolling, working on Photoshop palettes) the performance is easily adequate. It even supports Flash content in web pages and video players, but that obviously reaches the limit of what is possible.

All around, the USB VGA port has greatly improved my desktop environment and makes my tiny Mac much more useful for many years to come.

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