The sudden shift to remote working in 2020 has left millions of people relying on a laptop to stay productive from home. This has often involved trading multiple screens in the office for just one, as well as giving up a dedicated keyboard and mouse setup.

While the latter two can still be connected to a laptop, the screen real estate you're missing out on can dramatically affect productivity. However, with a few simple steps you can transform it into a desktop setup of sorts. It won't be quite like the real thing, but could significantly improve the remote working experience. 

You will need a suitable monitor and accessories, but we feel it's a price worth paying if you're planning to work remotely over the next few months. 

Make sure your laptop is up to the task

Before thinking about anything else, you'll need to make sure your existing laptop is up to the task of being connected to an external monitor, keyboard, mouse and any other accessories you might need.

The good news here is that the hardware requirements are relatively minimal - even devices that a decade old should be able to manage. As a general rule, any recent Intel Core or AMD Ryzen chip will cope just fine. 

You may run into problems if your laptop has a less powerful processor, like something from Intel's Pentium or Celeron ranges, but only if you're planning on using both the laptop and external monitor displays at the same time. That brings us nicely on to the next thing to consider...

Do you plan on using the laptop itself?

This makeshift desktop setup relies on connecting your laptop to an external monitor. You'll therefore need to decide whether the laptop will simply be used to power the larger display, or whether you'd like to keep using it as a second screen.

The latter will require a bit more power, as indicated above, but will also affect how you arrange your desk. A regular laptop stand can be extremely useful in this situation, helping to raise the device to a more natural angle and prevent neck strain.

However, if you just want the laptop to stay connected to the display and be out of the way, consider a vertical stand. These can be extremely useful for space saving, allowing you to focus your attention on the external monitor. 

Our round-up of the best laptop stands includes many great examples of both. 

Get a suitable monitor

The monitor is the most important part of this desktop-like setup, so you'll want to get it right. Our best monitor chart has some great options, but whichever model you choose will need to be compatible with the laptop that you already own (assuming you don't need to buy a new laptop right now).

Philips 243b1 monitor
The Philips 243b1 is a 1080p monitor that offers great value for money. Image: Philips

The big limitation is likely to be ports - as the weight and profile of laptops has reduced in recent years, so has their range of built-in connections. Here are the ones you're most likely to use to connect to an external display:

  • HDMI - One of the most common ways to connect to an external display. Many modern laptops don't have this port by default, but it will work just as well with an adapter
  • DisplayPort - A smaller, more squared connector which is seen as a more modern alternative to HDMI. It's often able to output video at a higher resolution and refresh rate than HDMI
  • Mini DisplayPort - A smaller version of the above, it also supports 4K video at 60fps.
  • DVI-D - More common on budget and mid-range devices. If your monitor has only a DVI-D port, you'll need an adapter to connect it to a laptop
  • VGA - Extremely popular on early PCs and with an unmistakeable design. We'd only recommend using VGA on devices where there are no other display ports

All of the above ports should work fine for connecting to an external monitor, although you may need an adapter in many cases.

Once you've sorted the port situation, you'll need to consider the quality of the external display you're using. As a general rule, look for a monitor with the same resolution as your laptop, which will minimise any impact on performance. However, we'd still stick with 1080p even if the actual resolution of your laptop is slightly lower. 

If your laptop has a recent Intel Core or AMD Ryzen processor, or even discrete GPU, it's worth considering 1440p or 4K monitors. 

Choose an appropriate keyboard and mouse

The monitor is far from the only important aspect of a great desktop setup. At the very least, it's worth getting a great keyboard and mouse to complement it. These can connect physically to the laptop, usually via a USB-A or USB-C port, or wirelessly using Bluetooth or a USB adapter. 

Check out our round-ups of the best keyboards and best mice for some great options. 

Get everything up and running

Before you get started, it's important to connect everything properly before you start. Don't be tempted to try out your setup until all the components are in place.

Once it's ready, turn on your laptop, making sure your display is also powered on. The majority of PCs will automatically adjust to use the external display, but only after you've logged in to your account.

If you don't see anything, it's worth waiting a few minutes. Then double check the cables to see if they're all connected. If you're still having no luck, head to Settings > System and ensure 'Display' is selected in the left pane. Scroll down to the 'Multiple displays' sub-heading and click 'Detect'.

Windows 10 detect external display

If you're still having problems, it will likely be a wider issue. In extreme cases, you may even want to consider resetting your PC

Adjust settings in Windows 10

Once you've managed to figure everything out, it's worth adjusting the settings to suit your workflow. From the same Display menu as above, scroll down to where it says 'Multiple Displays'. You'll see options to 'Duplicate these displays' (show the same on both), 'Extend these displays' (use external display as an extension of the main one), 'Show only on 1' or 'Show only on 2'

Windows 10 multiple displays options

In this situation, 1 refers to your laptop and 2 to the external display. Pick the option that best suits how you're planning to work - it'll likely be either 'Extend these displays' or 'Show only on 2'.

For more information, see our separate tutorial on how to use a laptop as a second monitor. You may also be interested in how to set up a home office