The Case for Two (or Three) Monitors

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Technology  »  Hardware and Operating Systems  »  The Case for Two (or Three) Monitors

The Case for Two (or Three) Monitors

By Hector Calabia | Published  08/16/2006 | Hardware and Operating Systems | Recommendation:
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The Case for Two (or Three) Monitors

This morning I had a rather tight agenda: I had received a rather complicated source language file (you guessed it: a PDF!) and its translation. My instructions were to carefully compare them, so that nothing was missing and to improve, where possible, the quality of the translation. Besides, I was waiting for another file that was about to arrive this morning and I had my brother on an instant messaging window, asking for instructions on his new PC configuration. Complicated? Not too much for my two-monitor setup. I put the original document in one screen, and the translation on the other one, I left a small window open with the instant messaging program on my right monitor, and the mail program open (in a somewhat elongated window) on the left monitor. Best of all, I was able to compare the original and the translation, almost in full screen, side by side.

Multi-monitor setups have been around for a while, but they have not entered into the mainstream, and I have the distinct impression that they are not being enjoyed by professional users as much as they should. They are quite useful for translators, editors and writers, as these often have to work with several documents at once. Having to click each time to bring background windows to the foreground is certainly not the same as having them fully open on your desktop, side by side, or (sometimes) one above the other. In fact, with today's prices and software and hardware features, enjoying a two- or three-monitor setup is easier and more economical than you would expect. In fact, you may perhaps own the resources to do it right now.

Isn't a bigger monitor the same? Definitely not. Although bigger monitors are enjoyable, even a big 21 incher cannot compare with two smaller 17-inch monitors. The 21 incher has an image area of approximately 208 square inches, while the two 17 inchers offer about 274 square inches. See the difference? You get considerably more viewable real state with two monitors. Besides, with a bigger monitor the increase in viewable surface is always proportional (that is in the usual 4:3 aspect ratio); while two (or three) monitors get you an increase in the most usable direction, that is, horizontally.

Ready to give it a try? I have just said that you might already have the equipment to do it.

Multiple screens using existing hardware

Is your main computer a notebook? Most probably you already have all that is necessary. The only thing that you need is a spare monitor. Most notebooks have an auxiliary monitor output. This is generally used for connecting it to a video projector and duplicating the main screen in conferences and training courses. What many people do not know is that you can connect another monitor to this output and not just clone the main screen, but extend it too. It can be a CRT or LCD model, it does not matter. For doing this, after you connect the spare monitor, go to Control Panel > Screen > Setup and click "Extend the Windows desktop to this monitor". This is it. This last step, by the way, is the same in all other configurations, so keep it in mind.

If your main computer is a desktop PC, then check if you have a "dual output" graphics card. These do not usually come by default, but if your PC is relatively recent, then you may have a card with both a VGA analog output and a newer DVI digital output. If you have this, you are lucky. You just have to connect another monitor to the spare output. If the output does not match your monitor input there are DVI-to-VGA converters that will do the job. (Converters in other direction are not that common, but they are usually not necessary, as DVI monitors also usually come with a VGA input.) You can use two LCD monitors, one connected to the DVI output and the other one to the VGA output. There will be a slight quality difference between the two outputs, but we are not getting picky at this point, are we? If you have an LCD and a CRT (the tube-type monitor), then just connect the LCD to the DVI (through an adapter if necessary) and the CRT to the VGA output.

What if your video card is a traditional VGA-only card?

In this case, you have three choices:

a) Replace the card with a newer VGA and PCI output card (as above). You can get such a card for as little as 35 euro (about 40 dollars) if you look carefully (for normal work, not full-action, full-definition games!) This is probably the best option.

b) Use an analog "dual head" VGA graphics card. These cards have two VGA (traditional) outputs. Matrox makes the most well-known "dual head" line, although there are some by N-Vidia and other manufacturers. These cards are not particularly cheap, and not very widely distributed. You'll have to ask around.

c) If you have an AGP or a PCI-Express card in your computer, or the graphics are built-in on the main-board, add a PCI card. Then you can define the new card as the "secondary display" card (you'll probably have to make a change in the BIOS). This may be tricky, but you may try it if you can get a used PCI card (they are pretty cheap these days), or if you have an old one sitting around.

d) Use a small USB to VGA adapter, such as the one manufactured by Tritton Technologies. According to their Web page, "The TRITTON SEE2 USB 2.0 SVGA Adapter instantly allows you to add a second display through your USB 2.0 port. Simply install the included drivers, plug the SEE2 into the USB port and your ready to go." This device sells for US$99.

d) Use a software solution (see below)


Multiple monitors using software

What if you have a seldom-used notebook computer laying around? You can use it as a secondary monitor for your main system. In order to do this you need a software program that will enable your notebook as a display for the PC. Such a program is Maxivista (http://www.maxivista.com).

In order to use this program, you need to connect both computers through a network (either wired or wireless) and load the server program on your PC. Then you load a very small "viewer" program on the second PC, and you are ready to go. The process is very fast and painless. I have used it on several machines without any trouble, and the programs have a very reduced "footprint", that is, they use little system resources.

Although you can work pretty well with the basic edition of Maxivista, the professional edition lets you connect up to four connected PCs (!) or up to three monitors on the secondary PC. Exaggerations aside, Maxivista also lets you control your secondary PC using just one keyboard and mouse. So you can choose: you can have use the laptop as a mere monitor for the main PC or you can use it as a full computer, controlled by your main mouse and keyboard, AND you can share the clipboard contents between both machines.

On the other hand, if you just want to share a keyboard and mouse between several computers (using just one video monitor), you can use Synergy, which can control Windows, Linux and Mac machines. (http://synergy2.sourceforge.net/)

You can now enjoy your work more, and translate or revise faster and more naturally. The gains in productivity that a two- or three-monitor setup provides cannot be dismissed.


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