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12/15/2008
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Trick Out Your PC With Multiple Monitors

A video card, the right utilities, and an extra display or two can dramatically enhance the way you work, use multimedia apps, play games, or simply surf the Internet. Here's how to tweak your rig.




Sub-$100 video cards now routinely come outfitted with dual DVI outputs to drive multiple displays.
(click for image gallery)
Hardware

Most people don't start by buying two displays right off the bat; rather, they add a second one to their existing display. To do so requires a video card that can support two displays, but this has become an almost standard-issue feature for video cards. Consider: As of this writing, NewEgg lists an ATI-based Sapphire Radeon HD 3850 with 512 MB of display memory and dual DVI outputs for $69.99, plus a mail-in rebate.

For those who want to ramp up to three or more displays, the options include upgrading the existing video card, adding a second one CrossFire-style -- or, probably the most economical and flexible option -- adding a USB-connected display adapter. The eVGA UV Plus is an example of one such device. Connect it to a USB 2.0 port, plug a monitor into it, and your computer now has an extra video output that behaves as the real thing.

Note that USB-connected displays have one major disadvantage over the real thing. Because the data for the display has to be sent over the wire in real time, they are not suited to high-refresh functionality like displaying video playback or playing games. To that end, they're best used for a tertiary display that isn't running at a gargantuan resolution -- e.g., a display used for checking e-mail or something not too strenuous.

Another option for multiple displays -- which isn't cheap, but is a hugely useful option -- is to mount at least one of them on a movable armature. Aside from adding that much more adjustability to the display (many armatures allow you to switch between landscape and portrait mode on the fly, for instance), it also frees up desk space: You don't need to devote a spot on the desktop for the monitor stand itself, since an armature can clamp to the side of the desk or even be wall-mounted. Ergotron, one of the largest manufacturers of monitor armatures, offers several models specifically designed for multiple-monitor setups.

A final note about monitors themselves: It is not required that the monitors be the same size, the same resolution, or even the same type. You can mix and match CRT and LCD displays -- either as part of the way you intend to work, or as a provisional measure to see what kind of improvements in productivity you receive by working with two displays.

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