Wednesday, May 18, 2005

On Multiple Monitors (And Other Ramblings)

So regarding multiple monitors. I bought my first PC that was my very own to ruin if I chose back in 1999 when Crystal and I were newly marrieds. And actually, it was our very own to ruin, but it's a fine distinction.

I knew some basic PC terminology and a little computer theory at the time, but not much else. The sorely-lacking Compaq that I had bought at Staples was a stern teacher, and I was a tenacious student.

Along with the sorely lamented Compaq PC (The very one, in fact, that has been spoken of in demonic terms in the early life of this blog. I'm pretty sure Eric still has the poor thing.), we bought a 19" CRT monitor. LCD monitors were only just barely a consumer product at the time, and you'd pay something like $650 for a muddy, ghosting 15" model. Buying an LCD simply wasn't an option.

The Compaq taught me many important lessons. This is an important note, but I want to get to multiple monitors so I'll be brief. Here are some of the lessons I was roughly handed down from a PC that was born garbage:

  1. Completely wiping the hard drive and restoring the OS image is not the only way to fix a computer, no matter what the $5/hr Compaq techs tell you.
  2. Just because no one understands what you want (like dual audio cards) doesn't mean it's not possible. You'll just have to work out how on your own.
  3. The copy of Windows that you get from Compaq is not the same copy of Windows that comes from a real live Windows install disc.
  4. Properly building a computer and putting the right parts together is art. Compaq knows nothing of art.
  5. Almost all computer problems (>95%) are the fault of the person at the keyboard. If a reboot doesn't fix it and it isn't a hardware failure (which is probably your fault as well), you've screwed it up good.
About a year after buying the Compaq, I felt experienced enough and stupidly daring enough to talk my wife into letting me buy parts and build my own PC. I sold the Compaq to Eric, bought parts at an OEM parts place that is now dead to me, and brashly started turning screws and plugging in cables.

Miraculously, my first self-built PC worked, and all since have worked also, with varying degrees of strife. It would be nice if I had it in my nature to give up from time to time. But I fight and fight until it works. And that's how my brother-in-law burned me a while back. I love him. It's in the past. But if I had given up at the appropriate time, oh, how much happier I would have been. Not his fault.

Shortly after I built this PC, my big 19" CRT monitor simply didn't turn on one day. The PC seemed to be booting, but had nothing to show for it. Or the mechanism by which it was trying to show wasn't working. I troubleshot down to the monitor itself and called the manufacturer for an RMA. It was going to take three weeks to get my monitor back.

I had recently learned about dual monitor setups, and I had seen them in use in movies. I saw an opportunity to learn more about it. I had an extra PCI video card sitting around and no monitor. Smells like opportunity.

"Crystal, I need to use the computer but I won't have a monitor for three weeks. If we buy a new monitor now, then I'll be able to use the computer until the old one comes back, and then I can learn about multiple monitor setups and if I build you your own computer, then we'll already have a monitor for it and ...."

My wife is so cool. She lets me try stupid things and they usually turn out pretty good.

So we went back to Staples (yes, I did learn, eventually...I haven't shopped there for a long time now) and bought another monitor. In fact, the exact same monitor. When the old one came back, I was to have dual, identical, 19" CRTs. In 2000, that was a helluva lot of desktop.

It was a good thing that we bought the new monitor, because the old one went back to the depot twice more without working, and I didn't get to use it for something like two months rather than three weeks. In fact, I haven't seen it since. The manager of the depot felt so badly for screwing up my monitor twice instead of fixing it once that she sent me a brand-new flat screen version of the same model.

This is how I ended up with two nearly identical monitors after having been through monitor hell and got a free upgrade. But it wasn't really free. I had to pay about $40 (each time) to ship the old monitor to California three times. Shipping a 19" CRT monitor is a lot like shipping a really fragile boulder in a flimsy box. It should be avoided if at all possible.

Once I had two working monitors, it took a little experimentation to get things working just right, and then some more experimentation to find a setup that I liked. But boy, did I like it.

It's hard for me not to feel confined on a single monitor system. I've experimented with different configurations in the years since, and once I even configured quintuple monitors, just to see if I could. Turns out I could, but it was a devilish mess. I really didn't want to use five monitors. It's way more trouble than it's worth. Maybe with LCDs though...

Then in late 2003, the University of Utah released this study, and here as a news blurb. It's about PC users with multiple displays being a lot more productive, accurate, charming, and better looking than other computer users. Or something like that.

Now for productivity theory. I manage a lot of user files on my computer. Thousands, in fact. I do so much file management that opening Windows Explorer is essentially a part of me logging on to the PC. Explorer auto launches on all of my own computers.

So imagine that you're sitting in front of my computer at home. There are now two identical 17" LCD monitors. Nice, right? They're Princeton Senergy LCDs with 16ms response times, narrow bezels (charcoal grey), and swiveling/angling base stands. They sit side-by-side, bezels touching, so that they really look like one horizontally long LCD monitor with a 1" split of plastic right in the middle.

First, your brain quickly learns to ignore the separation between the monitors. Windows moves applications seamlessly between the displays and it really becomes second nature to look and mouse between the two displays.

Windows requires that one of the monitors is the primary monitor. It gets preferential treatment from the processor, which shouldn't really matter because you're probably using a vid card with a pretty hefty GPU that will automatically split the work between the two very efficiently. The primary monitor gets the Start button and task bar, which will not extend to other monitors, no matter how much you try. Some applications will refuse to run on any but the primary monitor...mostly games.

Windows likes to put the primary monitor on the left and the secondary on the right, but the opposite works best for me. All you have to do is click and drag the monitors around in the settings panel to arrange where they appear.

This is where Explorer comes in. I set up the left-hand monitor (secondary) for moving things around, and the right-hand monitor for primary work. The left-hand monitor has two Explorer windows automatically open on it at boot. One is in the upper left-hand corner, and the other is in the lower right-hand corner. They're just large enough that the corners meet in the middle of the monitor and overlap a bit. Windows Task Manager opens at boot and lives in the upper right-hand corner of the display.

That's all on the left-hand, secondary monitor. The right-hand monitor gets Word, FireFox, Excel, WinAmp, and so forth. These don't open at boot...I pull them up as needed. But I do have one Explorer window open on this monitor, so that's three total Explorer windows open at any given time.

The Explorer windows on the secondary monitor usually show local folders, and the one on the primary monitor usually displays my personal folder on the server. They don't always have to be set up that way, but that's the default, and it's nice to know which window points where when I need to move files around.

It is because of multiple monitors that I am so very efficient at my computer. I don't like mousing down to the task bar or Alt+Tabbing whenever I need to see a particular app. It should be showing and ready to work at any given time, right in front of me.

There are times, though, that I willingly give up a monitor. Well, not really. When I remotely manage my server, I open the Remote Desktop window on the secondary display. So it's like I'm sitting in front of two PCs, my desktop and my server, and they share a keyboard and mouse. This alone is extremely handy.

But I also use a real KVM switch so that I can put another PC next to my own and work on it without leaving my desk or hefting over more hardware. This makes patching a new Windows install only just bearable. That and the update files already waiting on the server. Downloading Service Pack 2 every time I work on a different PC would truly be, as they say, a bitch.

In short, my desktop is ultra-versatile and it's because of dual monitors. Actually, I didn't get into this before now, but my desktop is running TV-Out via S-Vid to my Harman Kardon receiver, which then routes the signal to my TV. So make that triple monitors.

But you should start dual and work up. Really, just doing that much is complex enough.