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Multi-Monitor Displays: An Introduction

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 6:47am
John R. Joyce, Ph.D.

Part 1 of 3

 

Example of a five monitor system from Advanced Micro Devices' 'AMD Eyefinity FAQs'

Illustration 1: Example of a five monitor system from Advanced Micro Devices' 'AMD Eyefinity FAQs'

With the advent of large, relatively inexpensive, flat screen computer displays, many people have decreed that there is no longer any point to connecting multiple monitors to a computer. I see where these people are coming from, but I disagree with them. Yes, the additional real estate that these monitors provide lessens the pressure that drove some users to setup dual displays, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

Based on my experience, there are several reasons why people use both wide screen and multiple monitors. Other than the basic one of “that’s what my system came with,” which we’ll ignore, common reasons include the following:
• make it easier to read my display
• allow me to have multiple windows visible at once
• allow me to display more information than will fit in an existing display at the desired magnification
• a combination of the above reasons

Tradeoffs
I personally prefer to set my display to a high-resolution mode, as it both makes things appear sharper and allows me to display more information on the screen, whether the information is in one window or many. However, for fixed-size images, where the number of pixels making up an image, whether a picture or letter, is fixed, this has the potential drawback of making everything appear smaller. I commonly have people ask how I can read ‘that.’ While generally not stated, the obverse implication is that they need to have the image larger to easily read it.

I’ve encountered a number of applications, including LIMS systems, where many of the component sizes, be it menus or windows, are either fixed in size or have a preset minimum size. The significance of this is that these applications are unusable below a given screen resolution. The fact that a significant fraction of the people I’ve encountered still persist in trying to enlarge the image by lowering the resolution suggests that, if provided with additional real estate in the form of a high resolution wide-screen monitor, they would simply reset the display resolution to enlarge their application window, so that they would still only have room to display a single window on the monitor.

Not everyone wants, or needs, to have multiple application windows open at once. So, for them, a single wide-screen monitor might be a good choice. If you are working on data entry and have a system designed to fill the screen or are even just performing creative writing and don’t need to refer to anything else, you might be quite comfortable with this setup. However, most people I know don’t work this way — I definitly don’t. Generally, I tend to multitask and have multiple windows open at once. By itself, this is no big deal, as there are several ways to switch focus between active windows and bring them to the front of the display, but this is probably my least common method of working. Whether I am troubleshooting a database, programming or documenting an application, or simply writing a column, I generally have multiple windows open, whether in one application or several, that I am switching focus between and need to have visible at the same time. This can be done with a single monitor, though generally at the expense of only having part of each application visible at once. Wide-screen monitors do improve this situation, but having dual monitors (or more) makes this work even easier and makes me more productive.1

I can readily see where both of these justifications would apply. There’s been many a time that I’ve wanted to enlarge an image to improve readability, while still keeping as much of the image as possible visible, to use as input into another application. While I know you can obtain displays that would allow you to do all of this with a single display, one combining that size and resolution would probably be prohibitively expensive to the average user. The capability built into many desktop and laptop computers to support multiple displays, whether flat-screen, CRT, or other, provides a cost-effective way of obtaining the necessary real estate.

Where to begin
So, having set the stage here, we get to the tricky part — how do you go about setting up such a system? Well, it depends (doesn’t it always?). With Microsoft Windows, it depends in part on the version of Windows you are using and in-part on the hardware you are using. For example, some systems are designed with multiple video ports and, when they detect that more than one monitor has been connected, they automatically switch to dual monitor mode. Other times, you are lucky if the machine even recognizes all of your video hardware, otherwise you are first stuck tracking down the necessary video drivers and configuration utilities before you can even start worrying about configuring Windows to use your multiple monitors.

Most laptops include an external video port that allows you to drive an external monitor as well. In older systems, and many current ones, this was a VGA2 port, but new systems will frequently have a DisplayPort3,4 or HDMI5,6 video port instead. In many instances, these computers are inserted into docking stations with an external keyboard and the external monitor is the only one used, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It is normally very straightforward to flip up the laptop display and drive both displays in a dual monitor mode. Depending on your particular system, it may automatically recognize that you have dual displays connected and automatically switch to that display mode, but most systems I’ve seen require a little nudge to switch their display configuration.

Desktop systems also can be set up to use multiple monitors, but their setup can be a bit more problematic. The majority of desktop systems that I’ve encountered have included just a single video port. Some of these systems actually run a dual video feed to the connector, but you need a special cable to split it out to two connectors. Other systems come with only a single video feed, so you would normally need to purchase and install a second video card before you could set it up to use dual monitors. To a degree, this is a simplistic explanation, as there are additional caveats regarding connecting additional video displays to both types of systems. For example, you can now purchase USB devices to allow you to connect a variety of monitors, including VGA, DVI and HDMI, but that’s a topic for another set of columns.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll walk you through the general process involved in switching this display mode, using laptops as the primary example. Keep in mind though that the exact details will depend on the version of Windows you are running and the hardware on which you are running it, which includes not only the BIOS and video chip set used, but the video drivers as well.

References
1. IDC_Whitepaper_Eyefinity.pdf. www.amd.com/us/Documents/IDC_Whitepaper_Eyefinity.pdf
2. Video Graphics Array (VGA) - Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2012). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VGA
3. DisplayPort- High Performance Digital Technology. DisplayPort (2012). www.displayport.org
4. DisplayPort - Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2012). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DisplayPort
5. HDMI. HDMI (2012). www.hdmi.org
6. High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) - Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2012). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HDMI

John Joyce is a laboratory informatics specialist based in Richmond, VA. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.

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