Overview of the Mac's Displays Preference Pane

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 The Displays preference pane is the central clearinghouse for all of the settings and configurations for your Mac's display. Having all display-related functions in one easy-to-access preference pane lets you configure your monitor and keep it working the way you want it to, without spending a lot of time fussing with it.

System Preferences Displays Highlight
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The Display preference pane lets you:

  • Set the resolution of one or more monitors attached to your Mac.
  • Set the refresh rate used on each attached display.
  • Control the display's orientation (landscape or portrait) if your display supports rotation.
  • Set the brightness level.
  • Arrange multiple monitors in one cohesive virtual display.
  • Set secondary monitors to mirror the primary display or extend the desktop across the displays.
  • Choose from existing color profiles.
  • Create custom color profiles.
  • Calibrate your display.
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Display Tab

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The Display tab in the Display preference pane contains options for setting the basic working environment for your monitor. Not all of the options we list here will be present because many of the options are specific to the monitor(s) or Mac model you are using.

The Display preference pane uses a tabbed interface to organize display-related items into three groups:

  • Display: Control display resolution, orientation, brightness, and refresh rate.
  • Arrangement: Arrange multiple displays when creating extended desktops or setting up mirrored displays.
  • Color: Manage color profiles on your displays.

How to Launch the Display Preference Pane

  1. Click the System Preferences icon in the Dock or select System Preferences from the Apple menu.
  2. Click the Displays icon in the Hardware section of the System Preferences window.

Resolutions List (Non-Retina Displays)

The resolutions, in the form of horizontal pixels by vertical pixels that your display supports are listed in the Resolutions list. The resolution you select determines the amount of detail your display will show. The higher the resolution, the more detail will be displayed.

Generally, for the best-looking images, you should use the native resolution of the attached monitor. If you haven't changed the resolution settings, your Mac will automatically use your monitor's native resolution.

Selecting a resolution will cause the display to go blank (blue screen) for a second or two as your Mac reconfigures the display. After a moment the display will reappear in the new format.

Resolution (Retina Displays)

Retina displays offer two options for resolution:

  • Default for Display: Automatically selects the best resolution for the display being used.
  • Scaled: Due to the high resolution of a Retina display, text and display elements, such as app windows and palettes, can appear very small. Using the scaled option allows you to select a resolution that fits your needs and eyesight.

Refresh Rate

The refresh rate determines how often the image on display is redrawn. Most LCDs use a 60 Hertz refresh rate. Older CRT displays may look better at faster refresh rates.

Before you change refresh rates, be sure to check the documentation that came with your display. Choosing a refresh rate your monitor doesn't support can cause it to go blank.


If your monitor supports rotation between landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical) orientations, you can use this dropdown menu to select an orientation.

The Rotation dropdown menu lists four options:

  • Standard: Normal landscape display
  • 90: Portrait display
  • 180: Flipped landscape
  • 270: Flipped portrait

After making a selection, you're given a short amount of time to confirm the new orientation. If you fail to click the confirm button, which can be difficult if everything is upside down, your display will revert to the original orientation.


A simple slider controls the brightness of the monitor. If you're using an external monitor, this control may not be present.

Automatically Adjust Brightness

Placing a checkmark in this box allows monitors to use your Mac's ambient light sensor to adjust the display brightness based on the illumination level of the room the Mac is in.

Show Display in Menu Bar

Putting a checkmark next to this item places a display icon in your menu bar. Clicking the icon will reveal a menu of display options. I suggest selecting this option if you change display settings often.

AirPlay Display

This dropdown menu allows you to turn AirPlay capabilities on or off, as well as pick an AirPlay device like Apple TV 3 to use.

Show Mirroring Options in the Menu Bar When Available

When checked, available AirPlay devices that can be used to mirror the contents of your Mac’s monitor will be displayed in the menu bar. This allows you to quickly make use of AirPlay devices without having to open the Display preference pane.

Gather Windows

If you use multiple displays, each monitor will have a Display preference pane window. Clicking the Gather Windows button will force the Display window from the other monitors to move to the current monitor. This is handy when configuring secondary displays, which may not be set up correctly.

Detect Displays

The Detect Displays button will re-scan your monitors to determine their configurations and default settings. Click this button if you don't see a new secondary monitor you have attached.

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Arrangement Tab

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The 'Arrangement' tab in the Displays preference pane lets you configure multiple monitors, either in an extended desktop or as a mirror of your primary display's desktop.

The 'Arrangement' tab may not be present if you don't have multiple monitors connected to your Mac.

Arranging Multiple Monitors in an Extended Desktop

Before you can arrange multiple monitors in an extended desktop, you must first have multiple monitors connected to your Mac. It's also a good idea to have all of the monitors turned on, although this isn't a requirement.

  1. Launch System Preferences and select the Displays preference pane.
  2. Select the 'Arrangement' tab.

Your monitors will be shown as small icons in a virtual display area. Within the virtual display area, you can drag your monitors into the positions you would like them to have. Each monitor must touch one of the sides or the top or bottom of another monitor. This point of attachment defines where windows can overlap between monitors, as well as where your mouse can move from one monitor to another.

Clicking and holding a virtual monitor icon will cause a red outline to display on the corresponding real monitor. This is a great way to figure out which monitor is which in your virtual desktop.

Changing the Main Monitor

One monitor in the extended desktop is considered the main monitor. It will be the one that has the Apple menu, as well as all application menus, displayed on it. To select a different main monitor, locate the virtual monitor icon that has a white Apple menu across its top. Drag the white Apple menu to the monitor you wish to be the new main monitor.

Mirroring Displays

Besides creating an extended desktop, you can also have secondary monitors display or mirror your main monitor's content. This is handy for notebook users who may have a large secondary display at home or work, or for those who want to attach their Macs to an HDTV to watch videos stored on their Mac on a massive screen.

To enable mirroring, place a checkmark next to the 'Mirror Displays' option.

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Color menu on Mac

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By using the 'Color' tab of the Displays preference pane, you can manage or create color profiles that ensure your display is showing the correct color. Color profiles ensure that the red you see on your screen will be the same red you see from color-profile-controlled printers or other display devices.

Display Profiles

Your Mac automatically attempts to use the correct color profile. Apple and display manufacturers work together to create ICC (International Color Consortium) color profiles for many popular monitors. When your Mac detects that a specific manufacturer's monitor is attached, it will check to see if there is an available color profile to use. If no manufacturer-specific color profile is available, your Mac will use one of the generic profiles instead. Most monitor manufacturers include color profiles on an install CD or their website. So be sure to check the install CD or the manufacturer's website if your Mac only finds a generic profile.

Display All Color Profiles

The list of color profiles is limited by default to those that match the monitor attached to your Mac. If the list only shows generic versions, try clicking the 'Detect Displays' button to make your Mac re-scan the attached monitor(s). With any luck, this will allow a more accurate color profile to be automatically selected.

You can also try removing the checkmark from 'Show profiles for this display only.' This will cause all of the installed color profiles to be listed, and allow you to make the selection. Be warned, though, that picking the wrong profile can make your display's images look nightmarishly bad.

Creating Color Profiles

Apple includes a built-in color calibration routine you can use to create new color profiles or modify existing ones. This is a simple visual calibration that can be used by anyone; no special equipment is required.

To calibrate the color profile of your monitor, follow the instructions in our article, ​How to Use Your Mac's Display Calibrator Assistant to Ensure Accurate Color.