Overview of the macOS Displays Preference Pane

Adjust your display to meet your needs

macOS System Preferences

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.

The information here pertains to macOS 10.15 (Catalina), but older versions of macOS and OS X have very similar functionality.

What You Can Do in the Displays Preference Pane

Depending on your monitor's configuration, some of the parameters you might be able to set in the Displays preference pane include:

  • Set the resolution of one or more monitors attached to your Mac.
  • 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.

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.

Overview

To launch the Displays preference pane, click the System Preferences icon in the Dock (or select System Preferences from the Apple menu). Then, click Displays in the System Preferences window.

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

  • Display: Control display resolution, brightness, AirPlay Display options, and mirroring options.
macOS Displays > Display
  • Arrangement: Arrange multiple displays when creating extended desktops or setting up mirrored displays.
  • Color: Manage color profiles on your displays.
macOS Displays > Color
  • Night Shift: Choose whether to have your screen's color balance shift warmer at a time you specify to promote a better night's sleep.
macOS Displays > Night Shift

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: Text and display elements, such as app windows and palettes, can appear very small because of a Retina display's high resolution. Using the scaled option allows you to select a resolution that fits your needs and eyesight.

Brightness

A simple slider controls the brightness of the monitor. If you're using an external monitor, this control might 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—handy 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, such as Apple TV 3.

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 use AirPlay devices without having to open the Display preference pane.

macOS AirPlay options in menu bar

Gather Windows

If you use multiple displays, each monitor will have a Display preference pane window. Clicking Gather Windows will force the Display window from the other monitors to move to the current monitor. This is handy when configuring secondary displays, which might 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.

Arrangement

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. It might not be present if you don't have multiple monitors connected to your Mac.

Arrangement Tab
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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. Then, in the Displays preference pane, 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 desired positions. 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

You also can have secondary monitors display or mirror your main monitor's content. This is convenient if you're a laptop user who also has a large secondary display, or if you want to attach your Mac to an HDTV to watch videos stored on your Mac on a larger screen.

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

Color

Use the Color tab of the Displays preference pane to manage or create color profiles that ensure your display is rendering colors accurately—that, say, the red on your screen is the same red that's produced by color-profile-controlled printers and other display devices.

macOS Displays > Color

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. If your Mac finds only a generic profile, check your monitor manufacturer's website for one that's specific to your display.

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 shows only generic versions, try clicking Detect Displays to make your Mac re-scan the attached monitor(s). With any luck, this will automatically select a more accurate color profile.

You also can 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.

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 and modify existing ones. This is a simple visual calibration that anyone can use and requires no special equipment.

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.