Multiplying monitors -

Multiplying monitors

Last year researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London alarmed the world when they found that the human brain is less lucid “on e-mail” than it is on marijuana.

Subjects taking tests while responding to e-mail and instant messages averaged 10 points lower than those without the distractions. Individuals taking the same test with a pot buzz only dropped 8 points.1

We're awash in a sea of interruptions that rob productivity. The computer's insistent beep-beep signaling yet another e-mail is counterpointed by the ringing of your desk phone while the cell vibrates its need for attention. According to Gloria Mark, a UC Irvine professor, computer workers get interrupted every 11 minutes.

The interruption itself, like a nonmaskable interrupt, switches our context from the job at hand to something else, important or otherwise. It takes time to pop the original context off the stack, to reestablish our train of thought when we return to the preempted task.

But according to Microsoft researcher Mary Czerwinski most of us don't return to the original activity for 25 minutes. After we service the interrupt, 40% of the time we return to something other than the original task. We literally forget our place while switching from e-mail reader to word processor to compiler, with windows piling on top of windows. The original task lies buried and forgotten under a half-dozen other applications.

A whole industry tries to address the needs of people whose lives and desktops are drowning in too many tasks. David Allen's well-known “Getting Things Done” technique stresses, among other things, keeping all of our activities visible. Out of sight, out of mind.2

Enter the computer as an organizational tool, right? Maybe not. Despite years of being told we're working on a virtual desktop the computer screen is really not much more than a foot-square space with windows piled up like papers and books on a mad professor's floor. Contrast that with a physical desk, which holds the computer, dozens of books, notepads, paper notes, in-box, and more. A quick glance around presents a lot of information.

But on the typical PC an interrupt initiates an alt-tab to another application. There's no attention-grabbing signpost yanking us back to the original activity.

Are we using a desktop metaphor or is the screen more like a pad of paper one is constantly rifling through? Czerwinski found the average user has eight windows open at a time. And that's not enough. Many of us plaster Post-It notes around the screen as a constant visual cue about different activities.

A New York Times, article “Meet the Life Hackers” got me thinking about the desktop that's not quite on my PC.3 Why not add monitors–in other words, width–to better emulate a real desk and create a larger workspace? Applications can then keep mindshare as they're no longer buried in a mosh pit of windows competing for eye-time.

A report at by Jon Peddie Research estimates multiple monitors can boost productivity an average of 42%.4 Even if that's optimistic by an order of magnitude, the benefit to a typical company is around $5,000 per engineer per year.

Productivity claims always capture my attention, so six months ago I bought a Nvidia GeForce FX 5500 dual-monitor video card (about $100) and a second 17-inch LCD display. With just a couple of tweaks in Windows XP's control panel the two monitors came alive.

The results are stunning. My desktop is now 26 inches wide. Twice as many apps are in view all the time. A mere flicker of the eyes takes me from my to-do list to the e-mail reader to a document I'm editing.

And it's sort of freaky to drag a window between the two screens.

The mouse directs the cursor effortlessly over the bigger desktop. Microsoft did a surprisingly good job implementing multiple monitor support as everything works exactly how one would expect. I'm astonished at how painless the setup is and at how well things work.

Nvidia provides drivers plus a big bundle of software that does a whole lot of things, stuff I guess a gamer would love but that offers little for a normal user. I do like one of the icons that installs in each app's resizing bar. Click on the icon and the window pops between screens. That's a very handy feature which for some reason disappears after the computer runs for a while, coming back only after the standard Windows prophylactic reboot.

I run the monitors using 1,280 x 1,024 pixels of resolution. People with younger eyes might like a higher setting to cram even more open windows into view.

With all this screen space it's easy to open two, three, or even four browsers to compare products when shopping online or to evaluate competing components when designing a circuit. Need to do a lot of cutting and pasting between two documents? Open them side by side, with both always in view. When working inside an IDE debugging code the documentation can stay open–and visible–in another window.

My memory (the one in my head, not my computer) is a sieve so I make a practice of writing everything down. While some folks swear by a PDA, when I'm away from the computer I still use a paper wallet-sized organizer by Daytimer. For a long time I also used the company's companion software, but for some reason Daytimer abandoned the product a few years ago. Daytimer seems to have the same prescience exhibited by Keuffel & Esser, the biggest and best slide rule manufacturer that never anticipated the calculator. So today I use a simple scheduler and action item manager called Time & Chaos ( that is always open on the computer and never covered by another window. A quick glance at the to-do list keeps me on track.

But I found myself continuing to scribble notes on random pieces of paper scattered over my real desk, and using Post-It notes plastered on every inanimate object as reminders. Turns out that 3M makes a $20 digital version ( that works extremely well.5 Instead of peeling a bit of sticky paper off a pad you just click on the icon in the system tray and a note appears. Resize it, plop it in a convenient spot on the screen, and type in free-form data, paste pictures, and no doubt do a lot of other things. Two clicks delete a note when you're done with it. I find these an extremely convenient way of keeping unorganized data in view, and they even stay in place through reboots.

How apps perform
Though Windows XP seamlessly handles multiple monitors, most software doesn't. Here are some examples.

No one here is allowed to use Outlook or Internet Explorer because they're the prime attack targets for the evil cyber-perps, so I can't report on those. However, Eudora (, Qualcomm's wonderful e-mail reader is clueless about multiple monitors. It always opens on the main screen, so each morning I drag it over to the other. After that it behaves perfectly.

Mozilla (, the free web browser, remembers where it was last opened. But selecting File:Open pops up a dialog on the main screen. Perversely, File:OpenWebLocation's dialog correctly appears on the screen where Mozilla resides.

Visual C++ works perfectly. It remembers what screen it was last opened in and performs all operations in that screen. Designworks (, an inexpensive schematic capture program, is also multi-monitor smart, as is Time & Chaos and my favorite text editor, Ultraedit (

Though Microsoft's operating system provides great support for more than one screen, its Office products don't, at least for the 2003 SP3 suite. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint handle all dialogs on the main screen. When working on two documents on two screens it's annoying and counterintuitive when the dialog box from the right screen pops up over the document on the left monitor. PowerPoint is the worst of the bunch; opening more than one file doesn't create multiple windows. A single window contains all of the files so it's tedious to cut and paste between them.

Adobe Acrobat's search box opens on a random screen. I haven't been able to figure out the algorithm, so one must hunt between monitors to find the thing.My favorite screen capture program is the very versatile yet easy-to-use SnagIt ( It's totally multi-monitor compliant, so much so that it'll capture images spanning all of the screens (SnagIt captured Figure 1).

View full-size image

Auto backups
How do you manage backups? The thought of losing data scares me so I have a multipronged approach, starting with nightly backups of all changed files to a big external hard disk using the $30 Second Copy ( from Centered Systems. This program starts itself at various times throughout the night to roll out changed files from a variety of directories. It saves as many backups of changed files as you like, preserving a chain of earlier versions. A great application, and version 7 works correctly with more than one monitor.

Do note that all of the programs described work just fine with multiple monitors; it's just odd and a tad confusing when something appears in the wrong place.

The second screen
The second screen comes with some downsides. The extra power required in these resource-starved times does no one any good. According to the handy clamp-on ammeter my Samsung 730 17-inch LCD units consume 600mA each.

I generally turn both monitors off when I'm away from my desk. To quickly check anything usually means I have to power both units up.

Do two screens increase productivity? That's hard to measure quantitatively, especially when engaged in many different activities and projects every day. But I feel more productive and less bogged down by alt-tabbing between applications. Has it gone up the 42% observed in JPR's Special Report?4 Absolutely not.

Bill Gates seems to buy into the multiple monitor idea–this picture (are-those-three-dell-2405-monitors-on-billgs-desk) shows three on his desk.

But I do like this new, bigger, environment. When working on a single-monitor computer now I feel like I'm staring down a narrow well.

Jack Ganssle () is a lecturer and consultant specializing in embedded systems' development issues. For more information about Jack .


1. Johnson, Steve Berlin. “E-mail Making You Crazy? How to cut through the info blitz and actually get some work done,” DISCOVER , Vol. 26 No. 11, November 2005:

2. Allen, David. Getting Things Done . Book and audio CD.

3. Thompson, Clive. “Meet the Life Hackers,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine , October 16, 2005: Note: You'll need to log on and purchase the article for about $4 to read it.

4. JPR Special Report. “The Multiple Display Market and Consumer Attitudes,” Jon Peddie Research, Tiburon, California.

5. Editor's note: the Apple Macintosh has included a similar product, called Stickies, in its operating system since the early 1990s.

Multiple monitors are really useful. Just implemented that few months ago. And if you look at the power side, it is not so bad. A bigger monitor instead may require replacing the UPS (backup mains supply) because a bigger CRT monitor has a disproportionately higher starting current. But dual monitors, you can switch on one by one.

– Kalpak Dabir
Polar Systems and Devices
Pune, India

I was reading your excellent article on Multiplying Monitors in this month's ESD. I too use TechSmith's SnagIt and I find SnagIt runs great on a multiple monitor setup.

On recommendation from a friend at work (where many of us in the software team were using multiple monitors) I tried out this spiffy utility called UltraMon (

UltraMon provides support for moving windows and maximize windows across the desktop, and eases application positioning with shortcuts. In addition, it helps if you want to exchange primary and secondary monitors in combination with the Fn-LCD key (if you use a laptop with an external monitor). Personally, I like to have my Start menu and System tray icons on my 20-inch monitor rather than my laptop when I am docked. Ultramon also has a cool feature to create a separate Task bar for minimizing tasks on each secondary monitor. You can configure this to show all tasks on all monitor task bars if you want. UltraMon also solves some of the issues you mention with single instance programs like Powerpoint. It can mirror your main monitor to secondary monitors for a presentation. And I can maximize Powerpoint to the extended desktop width, and then do Window/Arrange All to tile multiple Powerpoint windows (to ease copy/paste between monitors). My favorite feature are the added icons on the Window title bar.

– Gordon Finlay

Multiple monitors are a real productivity boost for programmers. Not so much in the increasing the amount of their output, but rather in increasing the quality of their output.

Having the input documentation visible alongside your spec document helps you to write more accurate and complete specification documents. Switching back and forth between windows makes it is easier to miss minor details.

The same thing is true when coding. Having the requirements and design specs on screen alongside your source editor makes it easier to notice mistakes or missing functionality in your code.

Debugging is also enhanced by multiple monitors. I often implement communication protocols so I usually need at least 3 different apps running at the same time. A debugger, my app and the app that I am trying to communicate with (plus I often have a protocol snooper program of some kind running as well). Being able to observe all of these windows at the same time makes it easier to spot problems when they occur.

– Phil Ouellette
Senior Engineer
Mettler-Toledo, Inc.
Worthington, OH

Fascinating! I had multiple monitors (with multiple video cards) running on my Mac II fourteen years ago!

– John Teller
Middletown, MD

Regarding the Auto Backups. Certainly an exact copy of the whole hard drive is the best way to go. Ever had a hard disk crash and tired to restore from an archive? Too much trouble! Just swap out the disk. My personal preference is RAID1 — mirror the drives 24/7. You can get RAID for IDE, SCSI, SATA, SAS, etc. Many motherboards even have RAID on them now, though I've never gone that route (yet).

– Grant Beattie

I discovered multiple monitors about three years ago. I upgraded to an Inspiron 4150 laptop. I had a program or two that had to be node locked to the serial # embedded in the hard drive. Occasionally I needed these on location, which led me to decide to use the laptop, with a docking station and real keyboard and mouse, as my primary computer. When installed in my docking station it attached to my 19″ CRT monitor (similar viewable area as a 17″ LCD). The laptop in its docking station sit just to the left of this.

I keep the utility stuff (start menu, task bar, OE, WE, and the desktop icons) on the laptops screen, which is display 1. I generally keep one or more project currently being worked on on the CRT, display 2. I have found it very helpful, and like you get frustrated when I undock it and use it in the field with only its build in display. The built in one is 1024×768, and like you I use 1280×1024 for the CRT, citing the same eyesight limitations (what can I say, I'm 52). When docked, the two displays don't have the same resolution, but that only presents a minor problem in that a quick left mouse move from near the bottom of display 2 will hit a brick wall unless I raise it a bit along the way before it gets to display 1. The biggest limitation of my setup is that the LCD screen is about a foot further from my eyes than the CRT. It helps a bit that the pixel size of the LCD is a little larger.

When everything is working correctly (no MS bugs asserted) the computer will automatically change video modes (single/dual) upon docking and undocking, even without re-booting, which is cool. One undocked problem is that applications can be left off-screen where display 2 used to be. The fix is to right click on the icon on the system tray and select move. Start the movement with the arrows (left). Once the application becomes visible, you can take over with the mouse and put it where you want it quickly.

Another anomaly to add to your list is that several programs, including Excel 97 will open dialog boxes in the proper place (at least some of the time) but if the dialog opens on display 2, you won't see any drop downs, and/or will be unable to select an item from a drop down list. An example would be changing directories for a file save. It is necessary to move the dialog window to display 1 somewhere and then it will start to work properly. I suspect that this is because Excel 97 was made before dual display support was, and doesn't do certain things the proper way.

By the way, the reason Power Point doesn't handle dual displays as exacted is because it has its own use for them. You can run it in display 1 and do the show on display 2. It allows you to see what's going on and do a certain amount of editing, changing, selecting, etc. while the show is running. It creates very professional presentations, because you never have Windows Explorer or a bunch of desktop ICONs on the projection screen. We use it that way at our church. When nothing is supposed to be on the screen, or a program change is needed, the screen is either black or has wallpaper.

In spite of a few annoyances, I definitely like dual displays. I don't know how much it saves, probably less because of my weird non-symmetrical arrangement, but if nothing else it lowers my stress level when task switching, and that's worth quite a bit, especially in this field.

– Wilton Helm

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