Digital Focus: Add a Second Monitor

Feature: Add a Second Monitor to Your PC

Just like real estate, screen estate--the amount of space available on your monitor for manipulating digital photos and other projects--is always a good investment.

For a long time, experts have advised you to buy the biggest monitor you could afford. Indeed, I've seen some folks with ludicrously large displays on their desks. But there's a practical limit to how useful a 21- or 22-inch monitor can be for working with digital photos--and if like me, you prefer CRT monitors for photo editing, you know that big CRTs take up a ton of space. In my opinion, it's far better to use a pair of 19-inch monitors. In fact, that's what I've done for years now.

Why Two Is Better Than One

A pair of monitors positioned side-by-side can be far superior than one much larger display. For example, you end up with a lot more usable viewable area. Windows is smart enough to be able to "snap" programs to each monitor; so you can run one program on the left display and a different program on the right.

If you've never tried using dual monitors, you simply can't appreciate how liberating it is to have two large desktops with which to work. I commonly run a photo organizer on my right screen (such as the one included with Adobe Photoshop Elements), and Corel Paint Shop Pro on the left. When I want to edit a photo, I just drag it from the right screen to the left, where it automatically opens in my image editor. Take a look at a screen shot of my desktop.

People frequently ask if the monitors need to be identical. Absolutely not: I often see people running dual monitors with different-size displays (such as one 17-inch and one 19-inch) or one LCD and one CRT. You'll get the best results with two monitors that are the same size and type, or at least that can comfortably run at the same resolution, but that's not a hard-and-fast requirement. The biggest problem with running two different-size monitors is that it can look strange when you move the mouse from one display to the next, since the resolution or screen height might vary.

What You Need

If you want to try some dual-monitor goodness, your PC needs a graphics card that can accommodate two displays. The good news is that the majority of graphics cards made today are up to the task. You'll need to take a look at the back of your PC to check on your situation.

If your computer has only a single VGA connection (that's the 15-pin port that your monitor is plugged into) then you need to upgrade your graphics card. Look for a card that has either two VGA connections or one VGA and one DVI connection. DVI is a video port that has both digital and analog functionality and allows you to connect to all-digital LCD monitors and high-definition televisions. To connect a VGA monitor to the DVI port, you'll need a DVI-to-VGA adapter. These inexpensive adapters almost always come in the box with video cards or are available from computer supply outlets.

VGA and DVI ports
Here is what VGA and DVI ports look like; VGA is on the left, DVI on the right:

Making the Connection

Once you have two monitors and a graphics card that can handle them, it's time to plug it all in. Connect the monitors to the graphics card and turn on the computer. By default, one monitor will probably be blank at startup. Right-click on the desktop of the working monitor and choose Properties. Click the Settings tab and you'll see two monitor icons marked 1 and 2. Right-click the icon that's not active and choose Attached. Click Apply and it should spring to life.

If the monitors are reversed--the right monitor is displaying the left desktop and vice-versa, then drag the number-two monitor icon to the left of the number-one monitor, like this.

Finally, you can adjust the resolution of each display independently. Click a monitor icon, then use the slider to set the screen resolution. Then click the other monitor and set its resolution. When you're happy with the results, click OK.

Now that you have a pair of monitors, you can enjoy all that extra screen estate for managing and editing your photos. After a while, you'll wonder how you ever got along with just one.

For more on this topic, read "Two Monitors Are Way Better Than One" and "Double Your Fun With a Second Monitor."

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