Retina MacBook Pro: How to See All External Monitor Resolutions

Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina Display (rMBP) is a marvel of engineering and performance, but its unusually high resolution, 2880-by–1800, and the way that Apple scales it to lower “equivalent” resolutions means that the Cupertino company had to change the way that it presents resolution options to users.

Instead of an extensive list of all available resolutions, which is offered on Apple’s other non-Retina Macs, the user is presented with a relative “Scaled” choice, which allows a selection of relative resolutions from 1024-by–640 to 1920-by–1200.

Retina MacBook Pro Built In Resolution ChoicesSimplified resolution choices for the rMBP’s built-in display.

This is a good solution for the rMBP’s built-in display, but Apple seems to have carried this simplified choice strategy over to external monitors as well. Connecting a 23-inch 1080p monitor to the rMBP via HDMI gives the user just four resolution choices: 1080p, 1080i, 720p, and 1600-by–900.

Retina MacBook Pro External Monitor Limited Resolution ChoicesLimited resolution options for external displays on a rMBP.

Connecting that same monitor to a 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro via a Mini DisplayPort to HDMI cable gives us 13 resolution options, from 640-by–480 to native 1080p, and everything in between.

2011 MacBook Pro External Monitor ResolutionsThe Display Preferences for the external monitor on a 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro
give the user a full range of resolution options.

Thankfully, the always helpful Option key can restore all resolution options. After connecting your external monitor, open your rMBP’s System Preferences and go to the Display preference pane. There will be two Display preference windows: one on your rMBP’s built-in display and one on your external monitor.

Using the Display preference window on your external monitor, select “Best for Display” if it is not already selected. Next, hold the Option key and click on “Scaled.” You will now see all possible resolution options presented in the window.

Retina MacBook Pro External Monitor Resolutions Option KeyOn the rMBP, holding the Option key while clicking on “Scaled” gives the user the full range of
resolution options, the same as the default options on the 2011 MacBook Pro above.

Most users will want to stick with “Best for Display,” as that will run the external display at its native resolution, ensuring the best image quality. For those that need to run external displays at non-native or unusual resolutions, such video editors and hardware testers, using the Option key restores full resolution control to the user.