The days of dual displays being for rich designers are behind us. Yet, today, many people still haven't given much thought to the possibility of using multiple monitors. Why not? Software used frequently by an average Web developer, such as Dreamweaver, Photoshop, etc, are introducing more and more palettes to clutter the screen, and everyone is working with multiple applications at once, right?

The answer isn't always to splurge on a 21" monitor. A very affordable and realistic possibility is to invest in a dual display setup. It's not just a Mac thing any more as it once was when Macs owned such a huge share of the design market, and it's not limited to Win98 or Win2K either. And it's not a difficult or scary thing to attempt.

I first tried dual monitors during my training in multimedia, and after that I couldn't go back. I blew some cash on new video cards and a couple thousand on some monitors, and from then on, my home setup was a dream to work with. Every day at work on a crusty 17" was torture - I'd be dying to get home. Anyway, in this article, I plan on explaining how my setup works, and why I like (ok, absolutely adore) it. First of all:

The details

Currently, my temporary development machine, which I use mostly with ColdFusion Studio and Photoshop, is a PII 233, 256MB RAM, etc. I have a 21" NEC MultiSync XE21, and a Samsung SyncMaster 15GLi side by side, and the displays are driven by an AGP Matrox Millennium G400 Dual Head with 32MB SGRAM, which has two monitor inputs. For my operating system, I use NT Workstation.

Both monitors are run at a resolution of 1280x1024, giving me a total resolution of 2560x1024. Matrox software accompanies the drivers, and allows me to do a number of interesting things, including using the second display as a clone of the first, or even as a zoomed view of the first that follows the mouse pointer. It sounds cool, but I have to admit that I'm just too busy to try it out. If it worked with Quake3Arena, giving me an ever-present zoomed view of my target, then I'd probably get over-excited and have a heart attack...

An old gripe of people using dual displays is that when a dialog pops up, it's right in the middle - and thus split over two screens. The Matrox software solves this - I can choose whether I want to centre dialog boxes in the parent program window, in the parent program display, on either display 1 or 2, or(my current setting) whichever display my mouse pointer is sitting in. Very cool.

The costs

The initial costs of buying a larger monitor, or setting up dual displays, will be absorbed by greater productivity once you have the screen real estate. No more digging around palettes just to get to the area of image you want to airbrush. Far less window shuffling when you want to compare your Web page in Internet Explorer and Netscape. Hell, I can have Netscape 3, Netscape 4, Netscape 6, and IE5, all showing the same page at 640x1024 if I want, without *any* overlap.

You'll need two displays, and some kind of video hardware to support it. In the past, I've used two Matrox Millennium II 4MB cards, one to run each monitor, and the performance was excellent. Friends have run a Matrox card alongside something else - there are a number of solutions, and I'll leave it up to members to post their comments at the end of the article, detailing their setups.

However, now the G400, amongst other benefits, gives me 3D support for Quake, and is very affordable. Currently, this card, from my preferred wholesaler, is AU$370. North Americans will probably get it significantly cheaper. A version with even faster RAMDAC is available for about AU$90 extra, and there are 16MB versions that are cheaper.

As for the monitors, you've probably already got one. If it's a 15", then make this your new palettes monitor, and splurge on something big for your primary display. If your current monitor is already nice, then just buy a cheapy 15", or 17" (they'll cost you AU$285 - AU$465 for a good brand). If you're loaded, then buy two 21"ers and fall in love.

So, if you have the 15" already, to upgrade to dual displays with your primary monitor as a 17" or 19" Viewsonic, and a G400 32MB, you'll be spending AU$700 - $1500. If you have the nice, big monitor already, to bang on a cheapy and the G400 will cost you AU$500-650. Once again, your prices will probably be a lot cheaper in the US or Canada.

The installation

This is not a hard process. You have a video card and a new monitor. You slap the video card into your box, and plug the displays into the back. Turn on the computer. Install the drivers and software. That's it.

The results

The result is a huge resolution, spread across two monitors. When you move your mouse towards the right, it'll jump across to the other monitor. It's just one of those things you have to see and try for yourself. For someone who uses a dual display setup every day of the year, it's hard to imagine how someone couldn't know what I was talking about (if that makes sense).

The advantages

I'm going to run through how I use my setup, and leave it to others to add comments on how they do the same with their applications. If there aren't screenshots included initially, then don't worry - I'll be adding some later.

First, the wonderful beast: Photoshop. I stretch the application window across both windows, but I leave a gap on the left showing just enough of my first column of desktop icons for them to be recognisable, and the same on the far right, leaving ICQ and MSN Messenger visible. I sit the tools palette towards the left, and throw everything else on the right. The king of all palettes - layers - sits on the left side of my palette monitor where it's most easily accessible. Everything else runs along the bottom - including the info palette so that I can see RGB values of colours, selection dimensions, etc.

Usually, I will have my main "view" of the image I'm working on, on my primary display. I keep a second view of it, on the other monitor, at 100%. That way, when I'm zoomed on my main display, and working in at 800-1600%, I can see the results, live, in the "real-world" without flicking in-and-out and worrying about the image having to redraw every time.

ColdFusion Studio is not so palette-happy by default, but you can "snap" off the menus and place them wherever you want on the screen. It can be handy, after validating, to place the results window on your palette monitor, while you work through the code at full screen.

All that aside, the strength of dual monitors when coding comes from being able to have your code up on screen, as well as a number of browser windows, side-by-side, to compare results. It's just one of those things you have to try for yourself.

Extra screen space is also great for everyday stuff, like shifting files around, dragging text from one window to another, reading/tracking the loading progress of multiple Web sites at once, etc. I like to keep my ICQ and MSN Messenger windows on the far right, so that they don't distract me when I'm focusing on the primary display, but a quick glance can still show me who's online, without having to waste space within my main work area, or click the taskbar to open the window.

What's next?

Well, I'm considering the possibility of running two G400's simultaneously, and adding some new monitors to give me four displays. I've read that Windows 98 at least will support nine monitors. If WinNT/Win2K can do four, and multiple G400's will run happily together, then my next freelance job might pay for this step.

Questions and other options

I encourage everyone who runs dual displays to post their comments below. What cards and setups do you recommend? Any tips and tricks?

And if you're interested in multiple monitors, and have a question, please feel free to post too - everyone (myself included) will be more than happy to help you out if we can.

isaac