Screen real estate just might be the one aspect of using a computer that has the greatest impact on productivity. While the penny pinchers at your company might initially scoff at spending the extra funds on what might be perceived as a luxury, all you have to do is plunk a second LCD panel on your CFO's desk and they will quickly see the value. In this article, I'll share with you a few tools that I've employed to help manage my multi-monitor experiences.
HP USB Graphics Adapter
Now days, most laptops will support two monitors, or at least, make use of both an internal and external monitor simultaneously. Most decent dedicated graphics cards are also capable of supporting two monitors. However, if you're using on-board video and you want to add a second monitor without cracking open your case or you want to go beyond two monitors and don't want to plunk down the cash for a pricy quad monitor PCIe X16 card, you have an alternative: The HP USB Graphics Adapter.
With USB graphics, you need to keep you expectations in check. This is not what to get for high-end gaming or 3D CAD. Frankly, with a $60 USB device, I expected pretty pathetic performance. I was pleasantly surprised! For business apps, this adapter is a champ! Even for YouTube videos, it worked just fine. I did notice some ghosting with some text on a white background, but nothing too distracting. The adapter itself is a small box (0.71 x 2.13 x 3.1 inches) with a mini-USB port on one side and a DVI port on the other. It included a USB cable and a DVI to USB adapter, and it supports resolutions of up to 1600x1200 or 1680x1050 (widescreen). Driver installation was straightforward, and Windows recognized the additional monitor immediately and made it available in Display Settings. According to HP, you can use up to 6 USB Adapters simultaneously. Just for kicks, I added a second one to my rig to bring my total monitor count up to four. Having four monitors on your desk is both ridiculous and awesome. I highly recommend it. It's surprisingly easy to find uses for them all, especially as an IT pro.
UltraMon is a $39 multi-monitor utility. I find it to be a little pricy, but it offers some functionality that is really useful when you've got a desk full of monitors. UltraMon allows Desktop Wallpaper to be split across multiple displays or for different images to be displayed on each. It also allows the quick movement of an app from one display to another. For those who often do presentations, it can mirror one desktop on to one or more additional displays. UltraMon additionally will allow different screen saver settings for each display.
All this is fine and dandy, but the one feature which makes the $39 utility worthwhile is the Smart Taskbar, which adds a taskbar for each additional monitor. With Smart Taskbar, each taskbar only shows the apps running on its particular display. With dual displays, this feature is nice, with four, it's mandatory.
Winsplit Revolution is a freeware application that solves the problem of quickly positioning multiple applications on one or more displays, and quickly moving an app from one monitor to another. Using its systray applet, you can quickly size an app to a particular half or quadrant of your monitor.
If you're willing to learn a few easy keyboard shortcuts, you'll be immediately more efficient with your monitors. To move an app from the left monitor to the right one, hit CTRL+ALT+Right Arrow. To position the selected app into the top left quadrant of the computer, press CTRL+ALT+7 (on your number pad). To cycle several predetermined windows sizes, hit the same key sequence several more times. I'll let you figure out the rest of the keystrokes on your own.
For more useful multi-monitor tips, see Alfred Poor's excellent tutorial on setting up a quad-head display.
Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.