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How To: Two Screens Are Better Than One

Adding a second screen to desktop and notebook PCs is affordable, easy, and quick. Here's how it's done.

Here's a new upselling opportunity for system builders who are upgrading, replacing, or selling new PC systems to clients. With some 17-inch LCDs selling for less than $200, and selected 19-inch models for just $100 more, it's more affordable than ever to put two monitors on a desktop instead of one large screen. The incremental cost is quite modest. What's more, nearly everyone who works in front of a PC all day will find that doubling up screen space provides a significant productivity boost.

The simplest way to sell this notion: Ask your clients how they work on a single screen. Assuming they switch among multiple applications, a dual-screen setup can help. For example, they could be looking at a Web browser open to some kind of technical information site on one screen while working on a Word document or spreadsheet on the other.

Dual-screen setups are relatively easy to implement, in part because the latest Windows versions recognize multiple monitors. That makes it easy to spread out across multiple screens. What's more, modern graphics cards on desktop PCs typically include a standard VGA port and a digital video port—usually a DVI-I port, which can output either digital or analog video signals. Because you can also drive one display from each of these two ports, adding a second monitor involves no extra outlays beyond the cost of the second display device.

Many notebook PCs also offer external video ports, and they will happily keep their built-in screens going while also driving a second, external screen. Also, notebooks that support docking stations or external port blocks often sport VGA and DVI-I connectors—for example, both Lenovo and Dell offer this option—and will even permit your notebook to drive two external monitors when docked.

When selecting a pair of displays, keep in mind that displays of the same size, if not exactly the same make and model, work best. This relates to your ability to position both displays right next to each other. It also relates to your ability to set the displays at the same height and viewing angle, to create something like a single visual field. So when you select displays for dual-viewing configurations, factor in the width of the display frame around the outside of the LCD itself. The narrower the frame, the easier it will be for your clients' eyes to adjust when jumping the gap between the two displays.

But even if you match the two monitors as closely as possible, you'll observe that driving a pair of identical LCD monitors—one with digital, the other with analog signals—will produce a slight but noticeable difference in color balance. You may also see a difference in relative sharpness, because digital signals unquestionably work better on digital LCDs than do analog ones. A little judicious tweaking of your displays can correct this to some extent. (For more, see my recent Recipe, Making the Switch from CRT to LCD Displays.)

Ingredients

To add a second monitor to a desktop PC or notebook docking station, or an external monitor to supplement the built in display on a standalone notebook, you'll need the following three components:

  • Any Windows PC running Windows 2000 or later desktop or server version of that OS. (It seldom makes sense to do this on a server machine, but modern Windows operating systems will happily support it.)
  • A second display, with a video cable that matches whatever graphical output is not currently in use on your graphics card (or video port on a notebook or notebook dock). This typically means either a standard VGA or DVI-I cable, both of which you should get with any new LCD display. Or, you can purchase a new cable at an electronics retail store for less than $20.
  • If the PC or notebook to which you intend to add the new display doesn't already have the necessary driver installed—as will be the case if you're adding an identical display—find the driver CD that's included with the display, so you can install the driver yourself. Or visit the display vendor's Web site to download the driver to some known location on your hard drive. I keep my display drivers in D:\downloads\drivers\display to make them easy to find. I also rename the drivers to include the vendor name, make and model; this makes them easy to identify later.

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