How to Connect a Mac to a TV
Ever wanted to connect a Mac to a TV screen? Maybe you want to use the TV as a giant external monitor, to play games on a big screen, or just for video playback and movie streaming? It’s actually quite easy to do, and we’ll cover the entire process from start to finish. We’re going to focus on connecting any newer Mac to any fairly modern TV by way of a physical HDMI connection, thus, a few third party accessories will be necessary for the task. The result will be the Mac exporting both video and audio signals to the TV.
HDMI is really the best way to connect a MacBook Air, Pro, iMac, or Mini to an HDTV screen, whatever your intended usage purpose is. Yes, the AirPlay feature can also export a screen to show up on a TV through an Apple TV box, but the HDMI method has several distinct advantages; it’s cheaper, resource usage is considerably less, there are no slowdowns, the video quality does not depend on network latency, and it’s just generally much more versatile, making the only real downside to the HDMI approach being the physical cable connectivity. Lets get started and cover the basic requirements first.
Virtually every semi-modern Mac will fit the bill, but you will need the following:
Mac with Mini-DisplayPort, Mini-DVI*, or Thunderbolt port
Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to HDMI Adapter with Audio Support ($10-$15)
HDMI cable ($5-$20 depending on length)
HDTV with HDMI input, just about any modern HDTV
Note about HDMI adapters and audio support: there are many options available on Amazon and some are very cheap, many of which will not actually carry audio despite advertising that they do. Generally, the adapters that cost a little bit more tend to be more reliable, so be sure to read the reviews and make sure that audio does indeed work for the adapter you are ordering. I’ve had the best experience with the Monoprice brand, but your mileage may vary. Also note that for 2010 and older Macs, the Mini-DVI to HDMI adapters do not carry audio at all, thus you will need a separate audio output option that we won’t cover here (external speakers, separate audio cable, etc).
If you plan to control the TV using your Mac from a distance, spend a couple extra bucks on a longer HDMI cable. 15 feet is usually adequate for most cases, but if you have a gigantic room you may want a longer cable.
For the purpose of this walkthrough we’ll focus on the newer Mac models with Mini-DisplayPort and Thunderbolt ports, this guide was crafted using a MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, but the same applies to newer Mac Mini and iMac models too.
Connect the Mac to the TV
Establishing the initial connection is remarkably straightforward and is just a matter of physically connecting the cables to one another from the Mac to the TV.
If you have never connected anything to a Mini-Display Port or Thunderbolt Port, you’re looking for this port:
The location of the video output port varies per Mac model, but it’s usually on the right-side of the MacBook Air, the left side on the MacBook Pro, and it’s always on the back of the iMac and Mac Mini. The Mini-DisplayPort to HDMI adapter that connects to the Mac will look something like this:
With everything ready, it’s time to hook everything up and get the connection going:
Connect that HDMI adapter to the video output port on the Mac
Connect the HDMI cable to the adapter, and the other end of the HDMI cable needs to go into an available HDMI source port on the back or side of a TV
Turn the Mac on if it isn’t already
Flip the TV’s video input source over to HDMI (often through a “Video Source” button on the TV’s remote control)
The Mac should instantly recognize the TV and extend the desktop over to the HDTV’s screen. If that doesn’t happen, you are probably on the wrong video source of the TV, so try another HDMI source. Some modern HDTV’s have up to 6 HDMI ports, meaning you’ll have to flip through each of them to find the proper one carrying the Macs video and audio output signal. You’ll know it works because the desktop shows up on the TV instantly like this:
If you’re satisfied with this alone, which basically makes the TV an external display, then you can call it quits here. On the other hand, if you’re looking to watch movies through apps, watch web video, or use another playback source from the Mac on the larger TV screen, then you’ll want to take a few additional steps to greatly improve the experience. Plus you’ll probably want to get sound working properly, as you’ll notice by default audio won’t play through the TV screen and stays playing through the Macs speakers instead. Read on to optimize the TV for video playback, get sound working, and for some more tips for having the best experience.
Configure the TV Screen for Optimal Video Display
By default the Mac will attempt to use the TV as an external display, extending the desktop to the TV screen. That’s great if you intend on using the TV as a large external monitor, but if you’re aiming to watch video or a movie, or play games, you’re better off using Display Mirroring in many case. Option A describes how to do this easily:
A: Set Up Mirroring
With the Mac connected to the TV, open System Preferences
Choose “Displays” and then click the “Arrangements” tab
Check the box for “Mirror displays”
While this almost always looks better on a 720p TV screen, that’s not always the case for 1080p HDTV’s. Since the 1080p resolution is greater than that seen on many Mac displays, you’ll either need to scale down the resolution, deal with a pixelated image, or just set the external display as the primary display and go into full-screen mode on the TV screen when playing video as described in Option B:
B: Set the TV Display as the Primary Display
Open System Preferences from the Apple menu after the Mac & TV are connected to one another
Choose “Displays” and then go to the “Arrangements” tab
Drag the white menubar from the smaller built-in display to the external TV display, thereby turning the TV into the primary screen
This will reverse the default configuration of a dual-display setup, thereby turning the Macs screen into the extended desktop, and the HDTV as the main desktop where the menu bar shows and apps appear by default.
Change Sound Output from the Mac to TV via HDMI
Unless the Mac is hooked up to some great external speakers, you’ll almost certainly want to set audio output to go through the TV’s speakers rather than the tiny ones built into the computer. For just about every HDMI based Mac-to-TV connection, these audio settings must be adjusted manually after the two have been attached to one another and video is already displaying on the TV screen:
Open System Preferences from the Apple menu and choose “Sound”
Click the “Output” tab and look under the “Type” list to find the “HDMI” option and select it
The Output tab will usually show the TV’s model name, but since most people don’t know the model number of their TV that’s fairly meaningless and it’s much easier to just look for “HDMI” in the list. In the screenshot example, the LCD HDTV’s model is “VO320E” for a Visio 32″ but the names are often much more convoluted than that.
Note that once you set the audio output to go through the TV you will lose the ability to adjust the sound volume levels through the Mac’s audio output controls, meaning you’ll need to use the TV’s built-in volume adjustment buttons or a remote control.
Get a Good Video Playback App
If the entire reason you’re doing this is to watch videos on a bigger screen, be sure you get a good video playback app. Here are four great free apps:
XBMC – media center and much more, plays almost any video you can throw at it
Plex – media center app that also plays virtually every video format
VLC – barebones but powerful video playback app that works with nearly all video formats
MplayerX – more full-featured video player that is compatible with the majority of video formats
QuickTime Player is also a fine choice for playing .MOV, m4v, .mp4 files, but for other movie file formats like .WMV, Flash .flv, .mpeg, .avi, and others, you’ll want to get a third party app instead. For other formats, VLC is a classic app and should be included in just about every Mac users app toolbox, and MplayerX is becoming increasingly popular for being just as versatile while having the added bonus of supporting BluRay and MKV playback.
Both XBMC and Plex are full featured media apps, which are capable of turning a Mac into a media center when they’re running. If you have a spare Mac, you can even turn it into a full-time media center, server, and torrents box, and the Mac Mini is particularly great for that purpose.
Video Playback Too Small? Black Bars Showing? Use Screen Zoom
Not all movies or videos will play at true full screen, and sometimes you’ll end up with a large black border around the sides of the video. This is frequently true with many web-based streaming movies, or when playing video that is lower resolution in general. Some playback apps like QuickTime and VLC have the ability to play video at 1.5x and 2x resolution to solve that problem, but for web players and other apps you can just use screen zoom instead.
First, let’s enable screen zoom if you haven’t done so yet:
Open System Preferences from the Apple menu and choose “Accessibility”
Choose “Zoom” and enable the zoom features, choose either the keyboard shortcut or zoom gesture option
Optionally, check the “Smooth Images” option to attempt to have less pixelation when zoomed in, though this tends to blur the picture for heavy zooming and can look strange. You’re better off trying this out yourself to see if it works for the video you want to watch.
Now to put this to you use, play back a video as usual either from a web player or movie file, center the mouse cursor in the middle of the video, and now use the zoom feature to eliminate the black borders. For those who enabled the gesture option, this is done by holding the “Control” key and then using a two-fingered upward gesture to zoom in (or two finger down to zoom out).
For example, this video of an older NOVA Origins video is fairly low resolution, and when maximized in the web-based player it still won’t play at full screen. This is a perfect situation to use screen zoom for, which turns this:
Into this full-screen maximized version, simply by zooming in on the playing video:
Much better huh? It won’t do a anything to resolve the lower resolution playback, but at least it doesn’t have the large black bordering bars showing alongside all of the video, making the playback itself smaller than it needs to be. Sometimes just increasing the web browser zoom works too for just web video, but that shouldn’t be considered universally reliable enough to recommend for all situations.
That should be about it, enjoy your Mac-TV hookup, go watch some movies, browser the web on an enormous screen, game on the big screen, and have fun!
Sidenote: If you happen to have an Apple TV and a Mac running 10.8 or later, you can just use AirPlay Mirroring and do this entire thing wirelessly without the need for any cables or HDMI adapters. Typically AirPlay offers excellent video playback, but on weak wi-fi signals the connection can suffer, which is never a problem with a physical HDMI cable. Plus, the combination of an HDMI adapter and cable is about 1/10th the price of an Apple TV box, making the method offered above a much more economical choice.