Six screens, one desk

— 6:32 PM on March 8, 2012

When I sit down at my desk in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, it feels like maybe I could tap into the Matrix. I've slowly added monitors and other hardware over the years, and my most recent upgrade left me with no fewer than six displays; 137 inches of liquid-crystal goodness is wrapped around the seat I occupy for all too many hours each day. Along with the LCDs, there are three keyboard-and-mouse combos and a KVM switch within my reach, plus stereo speakers all perched on a single desk.

Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

My work space wasn't always this well-equipped, but amazingly, I've been using the same basic desk for nearly a decade now. This monstrosity started as an Ikea Jerker, which sounds like someone who should be on a national registry. Instead, it's one of the most beloved pieces of furniture to be produced by the Swedish manufacturer. This modular desk hasn't been sold for years, but the Internet is littered with fan sites dedicated to its memory and even petitions calling for its return to Ikea's lineup.

Although the Jerker was available with all kinds of shelving and PC-specific accessories in its heyday, I opted for the basic desk to start. My needs were simple and, to be honest, I was broke. All I needed was a giant surface on which to place a massive CRT monitor, a couple of small LCDs, and speakers old enough to be beige.

That single flat surface proved sufficient until just a few years ago, when I moved into my current home office and was forced to rearrange some furniture to make everything fit. The room isn't wide enough to accommodate the Ikea Ivar shelving unit that used to serve as a makeshift extension to the Jerker, leaving nowhere for my speakers to sit. At the time, the desk's generous surface was completely consumed by a pair of 24" Dell 2408WFP LCDs and a hulking Mitsubishi 19" CRT. The surrounding walls aren't terribly conducive to hanging anything heavier than a picture, so I tried my hand at crafting a custom solution.

After wandering the local hardware store for inspiration, I struck gold with banister spindles and the double-sided screws used to anchor them in place. Scrap wood was trimmed to make platforms for the end of each spindle, and within minutes, I had a pair of Abit iDome speakers perched perfectly above my then-modest monitor array. Total cost? Less than $20.

My next desk mod was prompted by a monitor upgrade. The CRT tied to test systems was being replaced by a cheap 24" LCD to give me an HDCP-compliant HDMI input for integrated graphics testing. I was also spending an awful lot of time benching hard drives, and I wanted to resurrect an older 17" LCD to keep an eye on my dedicated storage rig. For that, I needed to add another keyboard and mouse alongside the combo already connected to my KVM. Once again, the Jerker was out of real estate.

This time, my girlfriend served as muse. As an occupational therapist, she was appalled by the ergonomics of my work space. The monitors were too low, she said, so I built up—and out. Go big or go home, right?

After another trip to the hardware store, my desk gained an expansive—if slightly ghetto—second floor. Atop supports chopped from a 2x8, I laid down a shaped slab of 3/4" plywood, adding just the right amount of height for my monitors while effectively widening the desk by a foot. The extra width provided plenty of room for all four LCDs, but I didn't have a good angle on all of them from my usual seat. The solution: mounting the 17-incher on a strut cut from some leftover 2x8. I found an adjustable-tilt VESA bracket for less than $30, which suited the desk's budget roots and cost way less than a full monitor arm.

The extra keyboard and mouse still needed a home, and Ikea delivered in the form of an inexpensive sliding tray to hang under the Jerker's new shelf. Although the tray hung a little too low at first, tweaking its metal frame in a vice gave me just enough clearance to stack two peripheral combos. Phase two was complete, if a little ugly.

I'm a fairly handy guy, having spent a good chunk of my youth helping my dad with construction projects around the house, but I have little patience for finishing work. Sanding, staining, and painting aren't nearly as fun as building, which is why my desk upgrades have done little to improve the overall aesthetics. Utility reigns supreme in the Benchmarking Sweatshop.

As with phase two, a monitor upgrade spurred my most recent modification. After years of flawless service, the 2408WFPs attached to my primary desktop began displaying vertical lines a few pixels wide. The screens were replaced by a trio of Asus PA246Q IPS panels: two for my desktop and a third attached to the KVM switch that manages most of my test systems. I wanted a surround gaming setup for graphics testing, and I was sick of the lackluster colors produced by the TN panel dedicated to test rigs.

Swapping in the Asus LCDs didn't require any desk hacking. It did get me thinking about what to do with the old Dells, though. Vertical artifacts were only annoying on my primary displays and would only be a mild distraction while benchmarking.

With no room to widen my desk further, I was forced to think vertically—and a little bit about weight. The venerable Jerker had started to sag, something I noticed when using a level to align the three Asus displays. (OCD? Yeah, maybe just a little.) Wall-mounting the extra screens seemed like the best option, but since the space behind my desk is mostly window, I had to put up studs of my own. The scrap wood pile in the garage provided a pair of 2x4s, which are now anchored to a 4x4 on the floor and tied into the desk with shelving brackets. A 2x8 spanning the studs serves as my wall, suspending the Dell LCDs at just the right height.

Getting the screens dialed in took more effort than building the entire structure. Articulated monitor arms would've saved me some time, but I again went the budget route, using two more tilting brackets and spare wood as a spacer. The top two screens will rarely be connected to the same system, so they're split and angled in to give me a perfect view with minimal head movement.

Although I've yet to take full advantage of the six-screen setup, I can already foresee the payoff for the next benchmarking crunch. There have been times I've had four test systems running in parallel, and I can now monitor all of them simultaneously—and without sharing the monitors hooked up to my dual-screen desktop PC. I'll be able to migrate that dually display upstairs when I need to test surround gaming setups, too. That capability alone is worth the hours it took to get everything just right. Seeing blondes, brunettes, and redheads spread across six screens is just a bonus.

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