Making it work: Four displays on a monster iMac

Making it work: Four displays on a monster iMac

Summary: David finally got his four-display, monster iMac to work reliably. This is the story of how he did it (and what not to do). Plus there are pictures.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Apple
21

I can't tell you if it was the Monoprice display or the wacky way you have to connect both a DisplayPort and USB connection to drive full 2560x1440 resolution on it and the other non-Thunderbolt monitors out there. I tried both the Monoprice adapter and the Apple Mini DisplayPort to Dual-Link DVI Adapter and had similar problems.

What were the problems, you ask? Well, sometimes the monitor would just blink off. It would shut off, completely hiding whatever I had in the window, and the only way I could get it back was a restart -- or three. On restart, all the window settings would go wonky and I'd have to go into display settings to re-setup the displays after each reboot, which would cause more wonkiness, and need another reboot. Plus, Parallels hated it with a passion.

It. Was. A. Nightmare.

I called Monoprice and they helped me through a variety of tests, but the monitor would just keep shutting down or losing its settings. Finally, I yanked the damned thing out (well after the return period), and bought an Apple Thunderbolt display (that kicked my wallet in the pants!), which connects via Thunderbolt rather than DisplayPort (yes, the very same plug on the back of the Mac), and works perfectly. Absolutely. No. Problems.

As it turns out, the Monoprice display doesn't appear to have been bad -- at least at 1920x1080 resolution. My wife saw it sitting there very much unloved and immediately adopted it to replace her old 20-inch monitor. She likes the bigger screen, doesn't need the extra resolution, and the monitor has been working fine ever since.

The moral of that story is don't try getting extra resolution out of a cheaper 27-inch monitor on a 4-display iMac using a two-headed weirdo adapter. As tough as it may be to swallow, pony up the extra cash and get the Thunderbolt display.

So, let's start this over again, enumerating the displays and their interfaces.

At the far left is a Vizio 24-inch TV connected via HDMI to a DisplayLink adapter, which plugs into an iMac USB port. Dead center is the iMac itself with its 27-inch display. To its immediate right is the 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt display, connected via Thunderbolt. And at the far right, turned 90-degrees on its side, is one of my original 24-inch monitors with DVI on the monitor side, going through a DVI-to-DisplayPort adapter into the iMac's second Thunderbolt port.

Here's another view of my setup from the front, with each monitor labeled so you can see what's what:

iMac-middle-620-labels
Image: David Gewirtz

Oh, and remember the irony I mentioned at the very beginning of this article about the iMac not having enough Thunderbolt ports to drive another DVI monitor? As it turns out, the Thunderbolt display is also a Thunderbolt hub and brings additional Thunderbolt, USB, and even an Ethernet port to the party.

I'm a big fan of hanging my monitors off arms so I can easily adjust them to whatever task I'm doing. So if you're curious about how all this looks from the back, here you go. This is the back of the Vizio TV, hanging off a very cheap monitor arm I picked up from somewhere (I don't recall, or I'd tell you). I had two, the other is holding the other 24-inch display.

vizio-tv-620-labels
Image: David Gewirtz

You can see the iMac from the back. You can't really see the Apple Thunderbolt display, but you can also see the 90-degree rotated AOC 24-inch monitor peeking through.

Next is a view of the iMac and the Thunderbolt display, on very robust (and relatively inflexible) Ergotron arms:

iMac-middle-620-labels2
Image: David Gewirtz

That Thunderbolt display is a beast. It's actually heavier than the iMac and thicker at the edges. Also, converting it from a desktop model to a VESA arm model was another $50 in Apple parts and about two hours. It was not a small job.

Finally, we walk our way all the way around the back of the desk and you can see the vertical monitor. That monitor is vertical because there's just enough room (when vertical) for me to get by and to my desk. If it were horizontal, I wouldn't be able to easily get to work. Also, I've found the vertical display to be very helpful for certain kinds of output (TweetDeck is a great example). In any case, here's the back of it all:

vertical-monitor-620labels
Image: David Gewirtz

Stay tuned. I expect to tell you more about how I got Parallels to work in this configuration, and more (including how I took the four-display picture from the front and managed to light the thing).

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Topic: Apple

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

21 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Making it work: Four displays on a monster iMac

    Imagine the view you would have if you loaded Microsoft Flight Simulator with those monitors. It would be like you were in the cockpit.
    Loverock.Davidson
    • Haven't tried any games

      This is a production work machine, so I haven't tried any games (and I'm not all that great with Flight Sims). That said, I do wonder how the four displays would play out in games. Someday, when I get a little time... also not sure how the PC VM would do on all four screens for games. Does the Mac even have games? :)
      David Gewirtz
  • Why not just get a 4X HDTV display?

    .....unless you like the panoramic multi window sill look?
    kd5auq
    • Pixels are too small

      Also, not sure whether this would support 4K. Didn't try. I did see a 40-inch 4K display for $600 or $700 on Ben's Bargains the other day, but I definitely prefer a span of smaller screens than one ginormous plank hanging over my head. Again, this is about work preference.
      David Gewirtz
    • Reminds me of that line in "The Avengers"

      "How does Fury see all these screens?"

      "He turns".
      William.Farrel
  • Re: Four displays on a monster iMac....

    An utterly pointless exercise. What are you achieving? Not much from what I can see.
    5735guy
    • He's achieving maximum Matrix Reloaded coolness

      is there any other reason? Tech has always been a "climbed the mountain because it is there" profession. :)
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • I need a LOT of screen space

      The work I do requires a LOT of open windows, a lot of screen real estate. It's actually not pointless at all. It's optimizing for my specific workflow (and it's saving me a relatively measurable amount of time, even with the setup pain).
      David Gewirtz
  • Come on, David, you have a few iPads around. Go for the record.

    Use Air Display 2 and add those iPads to your system - just for the heck of it.

    Oh, BTW, I noticed an absence of an Apple Magic Trackpad. If your wallet can pony-up one more purchase, I have found that having one around on an OS X system comes in handy every-now-and-then. Besides, it looks way geeky cool. Grin.
    kenosha77a
    • There's a trackpad

      Yep, there's an Apple "Magic" trackpad. Don't use it often, but it does help sometimes. As for extra iPads, there is... technically ... space for them. Maybe one day when I'm bored, I'll try to add them just to make you folks giggle.
      David Gewirtz
    • Look just to the right of the mousepad

      In the first picture in the article. You'll see it.
      David Gewirtz
      • I see it.

        PS .. Very nice system.
        kenosha77a
  • Re: a type of "what if I could do it all over again" mental exercise.

    I noticed that Dell was selling their 28" 4K monitors for around $550 dollars. If you had to do it all over again, would it have been better to opt for a Mac Pro (with all those HDMI and Thunderbolt ports available and use that as the CPU and GPU hub for a 4 monitor system? (
    three 4K monitors and that HDMI Visio 24" beastie) It might have been more cost effective in the long run.
    kenosha77a
    • Wait 18 months

      That's about how long my systems tend to last before I need "More Power!". We'll see then.
      David Gewirtz
  • BTW, since your system is still running Mountain Lion (I assume)

    that "Goto Fail" bug has passed you by. You see, there is a silver lining in all those Mavericks storm clouds. Grin.
    kenosha77a
  • Multi monitors

    Have never used a MAC so not sure about them but my wife and I both have had 4 monitors on our work computers for years.

    Just use 2 video cards and plug in the monitors and we were set to go.

    Not sure if it works with Apple but we use Ultramon to control the displays.
    Richardd43
    • Ultramon is great

      I've used Ultramon for years, on and off. Good product. Yes, in a PC tower, this is a relatively easy exercise. But running it on an iMac (I use both Mac and PC applications constantly) is a bit more interesting.
      David Gewirtz
  • Multi Monitors

    The problem with multiple monitors is once you try them it is hard to get along without them.

    I am 70 and retired but still use 2 monitors on my PC.

    If I ever hit the lotto I will give a MAC a go.
    Richardd43
  • For the work you do

    A second hand 15 inch CRT would be just fine.
    adacosta38
  • So…..

    When is your Mac Pro being delivered?
    Userama