There's one thing I did in the last year that's boosted my productivity and made my computing downright easy (besides ignoring e-mail from my editor): I added a second monitor to my PC.
This week I present my experience (and the surprising lack of hassles), articles to help you do it yourself, and a cool utility to use if you already have a two-monitor setup.
Double Your Viewing Pleasure
For the last year or so, I've been half-heartedly thinking of setting up a dual-monitor system: One half knew it'd be cool, the other half knew I'd have to crack my PC's case to upgrade my video card. Yep, you know which half won out.
Yet I kept seeing glowing reports like "no single system upgrade has improved my personal productivity as much as adding that second screen," from Michael Desmond in "Time-Saving Tips From the Pros"; and "this second display has changed the way I compute more profoundly than any single upgrade since, oh, maybe Microsoft Windows 95," from Tom Mainelli in "Double Your Fun With a Second Monitor."
I ought to stop reading that stuff, I thought.
My resistance was still high until about six months ago, when I received a press release about an $80 gizmo that promised I could easily attach a second monitor via a USB port. I was intrigued, so I sent away for the gadget and grabbed an old LCD monitor I had on a test PC.
Hooking up that second monitor took only 15 minutes, no fuss or muss. After an afternoon of experimentation, moving apps from one monitor to the other, I was irrevocably hooked. Using two monitors is truly remarkable.
The device I used was Tritton's See2 USB 2.0 SVGA Adapter; check it out at our Product Finder. You can read more about the See2, including how to install it, in my June "Hassle-Free PC" column, "Pack More on Your Screen and Desktop."
Quick Aside: In that "Hassle-Free PC" I mentioned using virtual desktops as a way to get around hooking up two monitors. (See the "Go Virtual" subhead.) But I had to remove a reference to another good product because of space: Lorenzi Davide's Enhanced Virtual Desktop. It gives you up to nine virtual desktops, as well as an array of customizable hotkeys. You can download this freebie from us.
Dig This: I love imaginative and creative sites, and Billy Harvey's is super cool. (And no, I don't find his music or demeanor particularly interesting. But the site's design? Zowie!) Click around and you'll see what I mean. [Thanks, Brad.]
Having two monitors gives me lots more ways to view things I'm working on. (Well, duh.) For instance, when my editor phoned to compare two versions of a column, I popped the two versions onto separate monitors. In the meantime, my editor was stuck Alt-Tabbing between docs and couldn't keep up with me. Other cool side-by-sides: a confusing program on one monitor and its help screen on the other; a graphics program on one and its floating tool palettes on the other.
Now that I was addicted to having two monitors, I realized that the Tritton USB gadget, miraculous as it had seemed a month earlier, was just too slow. That's because moving the data that a display needs by way of USB isn't as fast as through a video card. So the See2's lag when I was playing games or moving application windows to between monitors became annoying. I needed a dual-head video card, like the ATI AGP Radeon 7500. (If you need help finding a graphics board, browse our "How to Buy a Graphics Board" guide.)
You can learn how to install one of these cards by reading read Stan Miastkowski's "Step-By-Step: Double Your Screen Space." Though the article's fairly old, the info is still valid--and yes, it covers Windows XP. You might also spend some time with India's Express Computer Business Weekly's "Tips and Tricks: Double Monitor Display." It's written with PowerPoint presentations in mind, but there are enough other smart ideas that it's worth a read. (And no, I'm not outsourcing this newsletter, though the idea is certainly tempting.)
For some of the technical aspects of using more than one monitor, switch to your other monitor and look at Microsoft's "Multiple Monitors Overview."
Dig This: Just as creative as Billy Harvey's site is PixelGasoline, a Web designer's site. Once you're on the main page (click English unless you happen to speak French), choose Services, and use your mouse to browse around and click the nifty graphics.
Been There, Done That
If you're already using two or more displays, take a look at UltraMon. I instantly fell in love with this utility. It's $40, but you can grab a 30-day trial from us. Among other things, UltraMon gives you abilities you can't get using Windows XP's native dual-monitor support. For instance, you can have separate taskbars on each monitor; use assignable hotkey shortcuts for maximizing, moving, and repositioning apps; or click extra icons in the menu bar of an app to quickly move the window to the other monitor.
UltraMon's author put together a valuable FAQ dealing with generic multi-monitor problems; you might want to check it out.
Flying High With Multiple Monitors
If your productivity is already high and you need to kill some time, use your dual-monitor system to play around with Microsoft's Flight Simulator program. Just so you know what's possible, check out 13 monitors in action. If you find that intriguing, browse a dozen other images of realistic flight-sim arrangements, then visit the Wideview site to get details on the $25 program that makes all this possible.
Dig This: If you haven't seen a jet break through the sound barrier, watch this slow-motion video for a startling view. [1.3MB video]