Confessions of a multi-monitor madman

— 12:05 PM on April 8, 2011

The first thing guests will notice upon entering my home office/playground is not the functioning-but-retired T-bird Athlon motherboard adorning the back wall, nor the pair of shadow boxes to its left containing a genealogy of Intel and AMD processors. Inevitably, new arrivals divert their gaze toward the 2x2 grid of mix-and-match monitors towering above my desktop's keyboard. Some scoff at the arrangement. Most are merely amused by dragging dialog boxes from screen to screen. Others will ask if I've launched any space shuttles recently. At the end of the day, however, it doesn't matter what people think about my monitor obsession, because I love my LCD array and cannot fathom going back to a single monitor.

This fascination with multi-monitor setups was borne out of boredom and curiosity while working as a technician at a local computer sales and repair shop. During some down time, I rounded up five old ATI Rage 128 video cards, slotted them into a single Pentium II box, attached five used monitors, and set up a scrolling marquee screen saver that spanned all of them. Customers were captivated. The old "doorstop" computer had a new purpose in life, and I had unknowingly committed myself to spending way more of my future income on monitors than most rational people.

If you've never worked on two (or more) monitors before, it might be hard to understand the appeal. Using single-monitor systems is kind of like breathing through a stuffy, particle-filtering face mask. Adding a second monitor feels much like removing that mask and inhaling a deep, full breath of crisp morning air. Suddenly, your desktop is opened up. You can see and do more things at the same time. The computer feels a bit more sprightly for some reason, and that hint of pixel claustrophobia you now realize existed is gone.

As far as PC upgrades go, I would argue the addition of an extra monitor offers about the same perception of boosted performance and functionality as a hefty RAM upgrade. I'm not saying everyone should run out straightaway and purchase a multi-monitor setup—because then my rig wouldn't seem as cool and unique. However, I would like to discuss some of the pros and cons, so you can arrive at your own conclusions about what pixel nirvana looks like.

What do I need?
Most multi-monitor setups found in advertisements and trade-show demos are comprised of identical panels on custom-built stands. Often, all the displays are linked to one monster graphics card. The beauty of running multiple monitors is the flexibility one has when configuring them. Take my current setup, which is a bit unorthodox. The primary display, a 24" HP LP2465 with 1920x1200 pixels, sits at eye level on my desk next to a 20" Dell 2001FP with a 1600x1200 resolution. Both are hooked up to an aging rock star: a GeForce 8800 GTX. Above those displays, bolted to the wall on articulating arm mounts, are two 1080p, 21.5" Acer G215HAbd panels connected to a GeForce 8600 GT.

Most discrete graphics cards from the past decade have at least two video outputs available, as do most motherboards with integrated graphics released in the last two or three years. Odds are, your computer is already capable of driving multiple displays. Doing so with a single graphics card or IGP is pretty straightforward. If you opt to use multiple graphics cards, as I have, be sure they use GPUs from the same manufacturer and DirectX generation. Otherwise, driver issues and hair loss will inevitably ensue. Also, make sure your monitor, graphics card, dongles, and cables all speak the same language.

Gaming considerations
I, for one, cannot stand bezel interference while gaming. Even when the bezels are razor thin, they're still a distraction. When AMD introduced Eyefinity, it made a valiant attempt to resolve this issue by cropping on-screen images to create the impression that part of the display exists behind the bezel. At the end of the day, though, you've still got big strips of bezel interrupting your view of the game world.

To make matters worse, my mismatched displays and 2x2 configuration are hardly ideal for gaming, even with bezel compensation. As a result, I restrict games to my main 24" monitor. Setting this display as the primary panel in Windows works nicely with games, which automatically use the monitor and the more powerful graphics card connected to it.

I don't want to discount Eyefinity or other multi-monitor gaming setups. 3x1 display configurations can be a lot of fun with racing sims and some first-person shooters. That said, for my particular collection of monitors, playing games on a single screen is the way to go. Your mileage may vary.

Of course, you don't have to lose out on multi-monitor goodness while gaming on a single screen. On my other displays, I can still see the cluster of widgets displaying clocks speeds, hardware utilization graphs, temperatures, and network conditions. I can also keep several IM windows open and an eye on my inbox, all while having a web browser showing the latest weather updates, so I know when there's enough cloud cover for safe outdoor expeditions.

There is one caveat with this arrangement, however. Some older games, particularly real-time strategy titles, refuse to lock the mouse to a single screen. Click outside the boundary of the game window, and you'll send the computer flickering and stuttering back to the desktop. These interruptions can sometimes be avoided by adjusting your style of play, but there are times that I've had to disable my auxiliary monitors as a last resort. Most modern games aptly accommodate multi-monitor configs, so this issue seem to be an exception rather than the rule.

Some thoughts on productivity
Multiple displays really shine when you put down the games and focus on productivity. The ability to have your main task open on one monitor and any number of ancillary windows open on the others can dramatically speed up research and data entry. If you are serious about web programming or content creation, running multiple monitors almost becomes a requirement. While writing research papers in college, I would often have a Red Bull in hand, a Word document open on my primary monitor, and the other three loaded up with two-abreast browser windows or PDF documents as I gathered information and cited sources at the last minute.

My favorite thing about living with so much screen real-estate is having a place for everything, with everything in its place. Outlook and Winamp (I kick it old school) go side by side on one monitor, while another is occupied by Skype, Pandora One, and various other widgets that display stock quotes, calendars, and vital system information. This arrangement frees up the bottom two displays for the main course—whatever I happen to be working on at the time.

If you use your computer for more than email and Minesweeper, you'd do well to assess the potential for improved productivity versus the cost of additional displays. (Pro tip: Windows 7's "snap" feature is a godsend for multi-monitor users. For a good time, try holding down the Windows key and pressing the left or right arrow keys.)

I’ve got 27 monitors in my Newegg cart now... should I check out?
Whoa there, killer. Take a deep breath (sans face-mask). Before you pull the trigger on some extra liquid crystal goodness, there are a few more things to think about. Consider the cost of failure. Just like hard drives in RAID, the more of LCDs you have, the more likely you are to have one fail. When part of your monitor grid goes dark, you realize just how much you used that space and divert all available resources to sourcing a replacement. If the old model is no longer available and you want to maintain a pristine array of identical displays, you might end up shopping for a set of replacements.

Be aware of ergonomics. Having more monitors isn't necessarily better if staring at the one in the upper-right-hand corner for any length of time puts unnecessary strain on your neck.

More pixels also means more responsibility. Running auxiliary monitors provides additional desktop area for distractions that can diminish overall productivity, so be mindful of what you're putting on those extra displays.

Finally, be mindful of my feelings. If you run more than four monitors, you might make this author feel jealous and inadequate. You wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you?

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