How to use a new monitor with an old Mac

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While Mac 911 receives a lot of email about connecting Apple’s old series of displays to new Thunderbolt 3 Macs via USB-C connections, it’s also possible to go the other direction: connect a new “USB-C” monitor to older Macs—so long as the monitor has multiple video ports. (We published a large FAQ on what you need to connect old displays to newer Macs.)

Many display makers advertise their newer monitors as “USB-C” models. And there’s no backwards compatibility from USB-C, whether that port offers Thunderbolt 3 or just USB, video, networking, and power. No manufacturers have created docks for Thunderbolt 2 that allow a USB-C connection. I’m not sure it’s even possible, but there’s simply not enough of a market for it if it were.

You can purchase USB-C to Mini DisplayPort adapters, but they don’t work in reverse: the host computer has to possess a USB-C controller on its motherboard to bundle the signal correctly from USB-C outward; a display adapter just accepts a signal wrapped in the right format and decodes it.

However, read the specs on a “USB-C” monitor, and you typically find that it also includes DisplayPort (full-sized) and HDMI. For instance, the 1080p 24-inch and 27-inch Dell monitors, P2419HC and P2719HC, include USB-C, DisplayPort, and HDMI.

Because these standards incorporate backwards compatibility, you just need to find a way to connect a Mac with Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 2 to a DisplayPort or HDMI connection. (Find the specs for your Mac on the video dimensions it can output, however, to avoid the disappointment of spending the money on a monitor that you have to run at lower resolution than its maximum.)

Mini DisplayPort and Thunderbolt 2 have the same connector type, but are different standards. That’s a problem when you try to connect a Thunderbolt 2 hard drive to an older Mac that only has a Mini DisplayPort connection. It won’t work. (A rectangle with a vertical bar on each side indicates Mini DisplayPort, while a Lightning bolt signifies Thunderbolt 2.)

However, if you plug a cable directly into an Apple Thunderbolt 2 port, it can be used to drive Mini DisplayPort-equipped monitors, as Apple notes on its lengthy ports page, a useful read for anyone trying to figure out compatibility across generations of Macs.

Mini DisplayPort-to-DisplayPort adapter and cables remain readily available. You can purchase something like the AmazonBasics cable ($ 10.99 for the six-foot version) to plug into a monitor jack. If the monitor has integral DisplayPort cable or you want to more easily swap a DisplayPort cable among devices, you can opt instead for a Benfei adapter ($ 9.59), which plugs into a Mini DisplayPort jack and offers a female DisplayPort connection.

If you want to use an HDMI connection instead or only have an HDMI port available or free on your monitor, a Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI cable is also inexpensive. An AmazonBasics six-foot cable is just $ 10.47.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Faisel.

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We’ve compiled a list of the questions we get asked most frequently along with answers and links to columns: read our super FAQ to see if your question is covered. If not, we’re always looking for new problems to solve! Email yours to mac911@macworld.com including screen captures as appropriate, and whether you want your full name used. Not every question will be answered, we don’t reply to email, and we cannot provide direct troubleshooting advice.

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