GeekTech: Double Your Fun With a Second Monitor

I love to upgrade PCs. Add a little RAM, put in an extra hard drive, or install a new graphics card, and you can breathe new life into an aging system. But if there's anything I've learned over the years, it's not to expect any one new component to dramatically change my computing experience.

Okay, so it turns out I was wrong.

I recently added a second LCD monitor to my desktop, and the impact was immediate and dramatic. I would have to say that this second display has changed the way I compute more profoundly than any single upgrade since, oh, maybe Microsoft Windows 95.

And no, I am not kidding.

The dual-monitor setup has changed the way I do a large percentage of my job. Not only does it make doing many tasks more pleasant, but it also lets me do them more efficiently. I can't think of a single desktop hardware upgrade that could pay for itself faster than adding a second monitor.

Feel free to show that last line to the boss if it helps.

Get More Done

The editors here at PC World wear lots of hats. For example, you'd think that creating this fine piece of GeekTech literature each month would be enough to earn me a steady paycheck. But no, I'm also tasked with writing and editing magazine articles, producing product reviews and charts, and scheduling elements of our Web site's home page. I even make the coffee.

True, having two monitors hasn't increased my java brewing speed, but it has helped in all of the other areas I mentioned. For example, when programming elements of the home page using a single monitor, I had to click constantly between two open browser windows. With two monitors I can have them both open at once. That sounds like a minor improvement, but it most assuredly is not.

Another good example is how it impacts my work with spreadsheets. Here at PC World many of the editors spend a fair amount of time wrangling ridiculously large and scary spreadsheets. Before hooking up my second monitor, I occasionally had to print out parts of these gigantic spreadsheets in order to compare them with results in another spreadsheet. Now that I have a second monitor, I can see everything at once.

And, of course, there's the whole aspect of working in multiple programs at the same time. For example, with my dual-monitor setup I can now maintain 14 riveting instant-messaging chats on one screen while browsing through Rhapsody's latest audio additions and playing Bejeweled 2 on the other. But you might just want to tell the boss that it lets you work in several office apps at once.

Easy Setup, Relative Affordability

Beyond the stellar productivity rewards and the obvious geek cred, there's yet another cool thing about a dual-monitor setup: It's easy to put together.

Here's what you need: a dual-head graphics card and two monitors.

Did you get all that?

I was lucky: When the clever IT folks here at PC World replaced my desktop computer a little while back, they included ATI's capable Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card in my new Dell. The 9800 Pro just happens to have dual-head capabilities (one digital video interface, and one analog). Many of today's midrange to high-end graphics cards offer dual-monitor support.

If you're not lucky enough to have a dual-monitor graphics card already, you can easily pick up a good card for less than $200. My current midrange favorites use NVidia's GeForce 6600GT chip (PCI Express or AGP flavors). Whichever card you buy, be sure its outputs match the inputs for your two monitors.

Speaking of monitors, if you're reading this column I'll assume you have at least one--so you're halfway there. Obviously, if you have a second monitor (perhaps boxed up in the garage), just hooking that one up is the cheapest way to go dual. Be warned, however: Sliding a burnt-out 14-inch CRT alongside your current 19-inch LCD may not yield the sort of productivity improvement you seek. Plus, chances are you're going to have to make room for the bulky relic by moving something less useful off your desk, like the phone.

How About Two LCDs?

Fortunately, since the price of LCD monitors has come down, many of us can afford to consider buying one--maybe even two. I recently stopped by Dell.com to check the price of the company's 19-inch UltraSharp 1905FP, a PC World Best Buy. It was on sale for just $375. (Mind you, that was when I checked it out in Dell.com's "small business" section, which anyone can access; the "consumer" section's price for the same monitor was $499. In general, I've found you're more likely to get a deal in the "small business" section.) A 19-inch LCD for less than $400--is this a great time to buy, or what?

Before you grab your credit card, I should note that there's yet another display option out there to consider. Dell recently began selling a huge 24-inch UltraSharp 2405FPW for a groundbreaking price of just $1199 (watch for a PC World review soon). That's a cool $400 less than the lowest-priced 24-inch LCD in our last gigantic-screen roundup--and one heck of a lot of real estate. So is it better to buy one giant-size monitor or two merely large monitors?

The answer, of course, depends upon what you plan to do. If you're going to watch movies, play games, or edit poster-size family photos, a 24-inch display is the way to go. For my money (or at least about $800 of it), I'd rather have two 19-inch beauties lined up side by side. But it's safe to say that either way you're going to be a happy camper.

At least, you'll be happy until the next time you're forced to compute on a single-monitor system. These days when I work on my notebook, usually on the train, I find myself chafing at the single-screen limitation. I guess that means I need a notebook with a much larger display.

Or maybe I just need to stop working on the train.

Tom Mainelli's next PC will have two of everything (processor cores, hard drives, monitors), which will allow him to complete a week's worth of work by noon on Wednesday. Drop him a line.

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