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The screen on my laptop (Vista) has broken to the point where the screen looks like a rainbow. I connect it to an external screen and everything works fine during the start up process.
However, as soon as I get to the the log-in stage, the computer breaks the connection with the external screen and returns to the laptop. What is going on?

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Sinrai is correct with his answer; however you may find that allowing Windows to load (even after it has blanked out) then using the toggle key on your laptop will bring up the display. At this point, go into the screen settings and set monitor 2 (external) as the default.

The BIOS settings seem to get overridden when windows loads, but it will allow you to view all pre-os settings.

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Windows presumably remembers your previous monitor configuration, and resets to it on startup. (I'm guessing you never had the external monitor hooked up before, and I'm presuming this is what it's doing because this is the behavior I'd expect out-of-the-box.)

Actually changing the active inputs can be difficult at this point - a lot of laptops have a Fn+Fkey toggle for it or something to that effect, but it's different from model to model. Windows 7 has a universal hotkey for this but I don't believe Vista does.

On a lot of laptops, simply closing the lid will force it to switch to the external, but if it's configured to go to sleep when you do that, it obviously won't be terribly useful to you. You may be able to go into the BIOS (on your external monitor, before Windows loads) and disable sleep states. (If you're lucky, you may just be able to disable the internal monitor entirely, but that's not a very common feature.)

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