Many people have been writing in to ask how they can take what’s on their Mac’s screen and view it on a TV. Whether you have an iMac, MacBook Pro, or even a Mac mini, all Mac computers can output their video to a modern television. The only question is whether you’ll have to spend some money to make it happen. If you want to watch something you’ve purchased in iTunes, stream a movie from Netflix, or simply watch a live ESPN3 broadcast, here’s what you need to know to get the video (and audio) from your Mac to your TV:
Which TVs will work?
Just about any modern TV will work. By this, I mean an HDTV. If you are still living in the age of analog television, you may be able to hook your Mac up to it, but I won’t cover it in this tutorial. Basically, you want to check to see if your TV has at least one of these three video ports:
- VGA port (also requires an audio port, such as a headphone jack or left/right RCA ports)
- DVI port (also requires an audio port, such as a headphone jack or left/right RCA ports)
- HDMI port (may require an audio port, depending on which adapter you use)
DVI ports are preferred over VGA ports for their superior video quality, but you’ve got to use the hand that you’ve been dealt. You may be able to use component or composite video and audio ports, but this can get more complicated, and virtually every HDTV will have at least one of the above three ports. Because VGA and DVI ports only carry video signals, you would also need the TV to have an audio input port that it can use along with the VGA/DVI signal so that the TV can receive audio signals from the computer. This is most likely to be a headphone jack (like on your Mac) or left and right (white and red) RCA audio ports. HDMI ports can also carry audio, so you may not need separate audio ports on your TV, but this will only be true if the HDMI connector from your Mac sends both audio and video. If it only sends video, you’ll still need the separate audio port. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
Which Macs will work?
All Intel Macs have video-out capabilities, as do all PowerPC G4 and G5 Macs. Many G3 Macs do as well. Thus, unless you are using an incredibly old Mac, you will have some way to output your video to a TV.
What will I need to buy?
Depending on your Mac, you may need to buy up to three things:
- An A/V adapter for your Mac
- A video cord that runs from your Mac’s A/V adapter to the TV
- An audio cord that runs from your Mac or its A/V adapter to the TV
The latest Mac mini model already has an HDMI port on it that supports audio, which means you could simply buy an HDMI cable (like you would for your Blu-ray player or TiVo) and connect it between the mini and your TV. For all other Macs, there is a little more work involved.
How can I figure out which video adapter I need?
Apple has used a ton of video output ports on their Macs over the years, and it can be difficult to determine which kind you have. There are a couple of easy ways to do this:
- One is to simply pull out your Mac’s manual, if you still have it, and read the technical specifications.
- Another is to use Apple’s Tech Specs Database to determine which kind of port you have. You can even enter your serial number to get your exact Mac model.
- Finally, you might download the excellent Mactracker application, which contains a database of all Mac hardware tech specs (and it’s free!).
Remember that many Macs actually have two (or more!) video connectors, and you can use any one of them. Your TV likely has several ports, and if you can’t figure out which it has, you should consult your TV’s manual, too. Here is a list of the possible connectors on your machine, starting with ports on the most current Macs:
- HDMI (latest Mac mini only)
- Mini DisplayPort (most Macs 2008+)
- Micro-DVI (1st generation MacBook Air only)
- Apple Display Connector (ADC)
If you have a Mac with a VGA or DVI port, and your TV also has this port, then congratulations! You can simply buy a VGA cable or DVI cable to connect the two devices. This is likely a male-to-male cable (meaning the cable’s connections have the pins in them, not the pin receptors).
If your Mac has a Mini DisplayPort, Mini-DVI, Micro-DVI, Mini-VGA, or ADC computer, you will need to purchase an adapter so that you can connect a VGA, DVI, or HDMI cable to it, which you can then connect to your TV. Here is the list of possible connectors for each type of port you have on your Mac (links are to adapter products — if Apple still makes a specified adapter, the link is to the Apple product rather than a 3rd party product). Unless specified, all cables and adapters carry video ONLY:
- Mini DisplayPort to…
- DVI to…
- Mini-DVI to…
- Micro-DVI to…
- Apple Display Connector (ADC) to…
- Mini-VGA to…
- VGA to…
If you need to purchase an adapter, don’t forget that you also need to purchase a cable to connect the adapter to a TV:
Do I also need an audio cable?
Remember that almost all of these video cables and adapters ONLY transmit video. If you want to transmit sound from your computer to your TV, you also need to buy an audio cable. There are two exceptions to this: if you’re using an HDMI cable on the new Mac mini with a built-in HDMI port, OR if you’re using the Mini DisplayPort to HDMI-with-audio adapter listed above (this adapter also has a USB cable that transmits the audio).
If you need to purchase an audio cable, you need to base which cable to purchase on which port your TV has. For example, your TV may have a headphone jack, or it may have a pair of left/right RCA ports. The key is to determine which audio input the TV will use when your video source is set to VGA/DVI/HDMI. It may use any connected audio input or only a specific one. You should refer to your TV manual to determine this.
Because all Macs have at least analog headphone jacks, you can either purchase a male-to-male headphone cord (if your TV also has a headphone jack) or a headphone-to-RCA audio Y-cord (if your TV uses the standard left/right audio inputs).
Connecting the cables and adapters
Now that you have everything you need, you connect the video adapter (if necessary) to the video-out port on your Mac and then connect the video cable from the adapter to the TV. You run the audio cable from your Mac’s headphone jack to the TV’s audio input.
Once you turn the TV on and switch the video source to your VGA/DVI/HDMI connection, your Mac’s screen may temporarily flicker while the computer identifies the newly connected screen. At this point, you may see that your Mac’s screen is mirrored on the TV screen, or you may see a blank Desktop. This is where your Mac’s video capabilities come in…
Video mirroring vs. video spanning
Depending on the video card in your Mac, you will have 1-2 ways to send video from the computer to the TV. One is called video mirroring and the other video spanning.
Video mirroring means the video on your Mac’s screen is simultaneously displayed on your TV. It is “mirrored.” This is more common in Apple’s low-end products (such as the old iBooks). There are two negatives to this set up. First, you can’t use one screen for one set of windows and the other for a second set. Second, unless your Mac and your TV screen have the same native video resolution (horizontal and vertical pixels), your Mac will put both screens in whichever resolution is the maximum resolution on the screen that has the lower of the two maximum resolutions. What does this mean? If your MacBook’s maximum resolution is 1200×800, but your TV’s resolution is 1920×1080 (1080p), you will be stuck with 1280×800 pixels on your TV because your MacBook’s screen can’t show more than that. And you can bet that low resolution won’t look very nice on your HDTV. The better choice is video spanning.
Video spanning means your Mac treats the TV as a second monitor, and your Mac’s desktop “spans” the two monitors from left to right. You can drag a window left or right off of one monitor to the other. This is found on higher-end Macs and nearly all modern Macs. If your Mac offers both video mirroring and spanning, video spanning is turned on by default. It will attempt to display video on each’s screen in each screen’s maximum resolution, if your Mac’s video card supports it (and nearly all modern Macs can handle 1080p).
If you want to adjust video mirroring and spanning preferences (such as video resolution and which screen is “left” vs “right”), you simply open the Displays preference in System Preferences. Likewise, you can adjust which audio port sends the audio signal (such as headphone jack vs USB) in the Sound preference in System Preferences.
- Always set the TV’s resolution to its maximum resolution listed in the Displays System Preference. This will ensure the clearest picture for your video.
- If your Mac cannot properly detect your TV’s maximum (native) resolution, consider using a 3rd-party utility like SwitchResX to create custom resolutions in the Displays System Preference.
- You may need to auto-adjust or manually adjust the positioning of the video on your TV in order to get the video centered and to take up the full amount of your TV screen.
- Keep the system volume on your Mac at its maximum and instead adjust the volume on your TV.
- If you want to use home media software to run your Mac like a TiVo, check out software like Plex and Boxee.
Did this article help you connect your Mac to your TV? Do you have any tips on how to make the experience a better one? Write your thoughts in the comments.
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