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Intel Mac mini Q&A - Updated November 4, 2009

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Are there any adapters or "hacks" that make it possible to use a second display on an Intel Mac mini?

The "Early 2009" Mac mini -- the Mac mini "Core 2 Duo" 2.0 (Early 2009/NVIDIA) -- and "Late 2009" Mac mini models -- the Mac mini "Core 2 Duo" 2.26, "Core 2 Duo" 2.53, and "Core 2 Duo" 2.53 (Server) -- natively support dual displays -- one at 2560x1600 using the Mini DisplayPort and another at 1920x1200 using the Mini-DVI port, so no adapters or "hacks" are necessary to use two displays.

There are no software-based "hacks" that make it possible to support a second display on earlier Intel Mac mini models -- they only have a single display port and no internal display, after all -- but the easiest way to add a second display to these models is to use a USB 2.0 to VGA or DVI adapter.

There are a variety of these adapters available, but four guaranteed to be Mac compatible and support a maximum resolution of 1600x1200 or 1680x1050 include the Gefen USB to DVI Graphics Adapter, EVGA UVPlus+16 Adapter, OWC USB to DVI/HDMI/VGA to Video Display Adapter, and VillageTronic ViBook.

In basic terms, they all work in essentially the same way by compressing and decompressing the video signal in order to utilize the limited bandwidth provided by USB 2.0, each cost in the neighborhood of US$100, and all make it possible to support as many as four additional displays -- with four adapters -- on an Intel-based Mac running MacOS X 10.4 "Tiger", MacOS X 10.5 "Leopard", or MacOS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard". These are not compatible with PowerPC-based Macs.

As great as it sounds to be able to easily connect a second display to a pre-"Early 2009" Intel Mac mini or a third display (or more) to an "Early 2009" or "Late 2009" Mac mini (or any other Intel-based Mac), it is important to be aware of the limitations of the technology. The bandwidth provided by USB 2.0 is insufficient to "fully support" OpenGL 3D hardware acceleration, and as a result, there is a "lag time".

Consequently, these adapters do not work well with gaming or other applications that place a great deal of emphasis on graphics performance such as high-resolution video playback or video editing. However, the lag time is unlikely to be bothersome for basic productivity -- word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing, chat, and so on. It is quite possible to use more graphics intensive applications on the "main" display (using the DVI port) and less graphics intensive applications on a display connected via the USB to DVI/VGA adapter.

In a fantastic review of the Gefen product that absolutely should be read in its entirety, MetkuMods provides more technical information about how these adapters work and real-world performance details, including this helpful video demonstration of the lag:

Site sponsor Other World Computing's USB to DVI display adapter is part of a kit that includes a DVI to VGA adapter, an DVI to HDMI "swivel" adapter, and the necessary drivers.

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