Increasing screen real estate

I have always been fascinated by work places with multiple monitors. Years ago, it was expensive to have two monitors. With the decline of prices for LCD panels, two monitors became affordable for many. At my previous workplace two monitors was standard equipment for developers, and the young interns we had could not be impressed by that – they had two monitors at home, often even larger screen sizes than we had at the office. Randy Pausch gave a presentation on time management (that you can find, e.g., on Youtube), discussing the benefit of having three monitors to work with. „I could go back from three to two, but I could not go back to one“, he said. I am still comfortable with a single monitor at home, but I can hardly imagine to work productively with only one monitor at the office.

When I started at the college, I requested three monitors (a laptop and two external screens), but I got only two. When I acquired an unused monitor from a colleague who had left, I replaced the laptop’s internal display with a second external screen. The graphics adapter was not able to support more than two displays, so when I connected the second external display I was forced to disable the internal one. A couple of weeks ago I discovered external graphics adapters that allow you to connect monitors via a USB port. The device presents itself as another graphics adapter to the operating system and offers DVI, VGA or HDMI connectors to attach a monitor. I convinced my head of section and our IT department to invest into two devices that I would volunteer to try out.

Ten days later I was informed that the devices had arrived. I offered IT to take care of one of their many unused old LCD monitors, and started to re-wire my system. I disconnected the second monitor attached to the second DVI port of the docking station, attached the USB 2.0 UGA multi-display adapter, waited for the drivers to be downloaded from Windows Update and be installed. After a minute or two, I was able to re-attach the second external monitor to the DVI port of the external graphics adapter and to configure a third monitor. I repeated the procedure to attach another monitor via a free USB port. All four screens (the internal laptop display and three external screens) showed up in the Windows 7 control panel, and I could arrange the desktop parts to match the physical setup of the screens. I decided to rotate one of the monitors by 90° so that it became usable in portrait mode. Awesome. I now had four monitors, twice the screen real estate that I had used before.

I usually run Skype on the internal laptop display, so that I can look into the integrated camera when I look at people with whom I have a video conference; that is better than before, when the camera was atop of a disabled display, so that I was not able to see the people I was talking to when facing the camera. I also run Timepanic on that screen which happens to be the smallest of my four screens. Sometimes I open a web browser on the smallest screen.

The screen to the right of my laptop is used for email, calendar, web browser and display of documents I read.

To the right of that, I have the screen in portrait mode where I edit text documents. It took me some days to get used to it, but it seems quite convenient to have lines break earlier than on a larger screen, and to be able to see more of the remaining document below the part I am currently editing. Works also great when (pre-)viewing documents in portrait mode. It is a bit small though, when composing an email message.

The screen on the far right is the widest, and I use it mostly for presentations, software development, and when I need to have two windows side by side.

So far, I have encountered two drawbacks of my setup. First, it takes some time to move the mouse pointer from one side of my desktop to the other. Second, the graphics adapter has a problem with recovering from power save mode. When I am away from my desk, the computer will power down the screens (which is fine). Upon returning, the screens do not come back immediately. I have to lock and unlock my session, sometimes have to start task manager, wait several seconds, to have my application windows re-appear. I have not investigated further how I can avoid this issue and how to work around it, but at the moment I accept it in return for the increased screen real estate. I could go back from four screens to three (or even two), but I do not want to.

About Author: Hanno Langweg

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