Double Up With Dual Monitors

When people ask me what my top tip for improving productivity at work is invariably the subject of dual monitors comes up.Dual Monitors It's hard to imagine, if you haven't tried it, just how much more productive having two monitors can be.  I can honestly say in over 20 years in this business I have never once had somebody tell me (or even allow me) to take away their second monitor after they'd tried it for a week or so.

One attorney I work with liked the dual monitors so much, he added a THIRD monitor to his setup.

Why Is It Productive?

Unless you only run one application at a time (and only one window of that application) you're probably wrestling with screen space issues.  You have a document open and you have your web browser open because you're doing research and need to refer to it.  Maybe you're doing time entry in your practice management application and have Outlook open so you can refer to your calendar and/or e-mail to get the entries right.  Whatever it is you're doing in the modern office you probably have at least two or three windows open and you probably find yourself switching among them with some regularity.

With dual monitors you can have Word open on the right and Firefox on the left.  You can have Outlook open on the left and Excel open on the right.  You've got all kinds of options for how you want to work, but you can now see everything on the screen, at the same time, and you won't believe how much more productive that is.

The photo above is actually my desk.  You might notice that among the windows I have open is a window showing the Dodgers game in Windows Media Center.  Again, just a little perk made easier by multiple monitors. 

What Do You Need?

Well, first and rather obviously you'll need two monitors.  I recommend using LCD flat panels for a number of reasons the most significant of which is desk space. Even if you could still get your hands on a pair of old CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) monitors you wouldn't want two of those big ole things on your desk.

In selecting the monitors you're going to use there are a few considerations.

  1. If you're going to use an existing monitor it will be a little easier if you get a second one that is the same size.  That way you can run them both in the same resolution and it's a smoother experience.

  2. If you're getting all new monitors take into consideration your space. My desk has a great view (as you may have noticed) so I use 19" monitors.  If I used 24" monitors I'd have more screen space...but they'd block more of the view.  You may have cabinets or other space limiters you have to take into consideration.  Get the biggest monitors you can afford, that also fit your space.

  3. If you can get a monitor with built-in speakers that can be very handy.  Then you don't need to have separate speakers on your desk.  I also have an audio cable that runs from my monitor to my iPod, so I can play my iPod thru the speakers on the monitor if I want to.  Very handy.

Here's a nice 20" HP monitor with speakers.

A video card that supports dual monitors.  You can find an example of a basic one here.

Dual Monitor Video CardBut you can't just buy ANY video card.  You need a video card that is going to be supported in your computer and one that will support the monitors you're going to use.

In Your Computer

Computers have expansion slots where you plug in the cards.  Modern computers generally use slots called "PCI" slots but there are other kinds of slots such as "PCI Express", PCI-X or AGP.  Do you care what those mean?  No, you probably don't.  But you do need to know which of those you have so that you know which kind of card to get.

There are, generally speaking, two kinds of video ports in play:

  • VGA - these are the traditional video connectors. They're about 6/10ths of an inch wide and they have 15 holes in three rows. (the male connector on the cable has 15 pins that fit into those holes). Typically they are colored blue to make them easier to find. Nearly every PC will have at least one of these connectors on the back.  A VGA Cable Connector
  • DVI - DVI (Digital Visual Interface) is the new digital interface. It's longer and narrower than VGA and consists of two blocks of 9 holes with a long "slot" type hole on one end.

If your computer already has two video ports (and they don't have to be the same, one can be VGA and the other DVI) then score!  You're ready to go.  If not, you'll have to add a video card to your computer to provide the needed ports. That's not as hard as it sounds, I'll add some resources on that soon.

Note - you'll need to make sure the monitors you have support the ports you have. It's not going to work out if you have two monitors that only support VGA connectors and your computer has a VGA and a DVI.

What About Splitter Cables?

One option that people ask about a lot are these "Y-shaped" cables that plug into a single video port and go to two monitors. Do they work?  Sort of.  By default if you do that both of your monitors are going to have the same picture on them. Maybe that's what you want - could be you have a desk with a monitor that faces you and another that faces a customer and you want both screens to show the same. Like a cash register.

But most of you want your two monitors to have different stuff on them, and the Y cables can sometimes do that too, but they require special software to do it and in my experience the results aren't that great. Whenever possible just use dual video ports to get your dual monitors.

Now What?

Once you have two monitors and two ports and you've plugged them in and set them up on your desk you need to tell Windows what to do with them. When you first power on your computer it might not recognize the dual monitors.

Once Windows has fully booted it should recognize the dual ports and dual screens but it may initially show the screens as duplicates...instead of individual screens. To fix that depends a little upon your version of Windows.

In Windows 7 you need only press Windows Key + P and Windows will let you change from Duplicate to Extend.

In Vista you want to right-click on the desktop and choose Personalize. If you're not already in the Display Settings section you should choose that one. Here you select the 2nd monitor and check the box to "Extend my Windows Desktop...".

Chances are you're not quite done though. As you move your mouse left and right you may discover that if you move your mouse to the right that it disappears from the right-edge of your right-hand monitor and appears on the left edge of your left hand monitor. D'oh!  You could physically swap the monitors. Or you can just drag and drop the monitors to their correct position in the Display Options settings.