10 Essential Tips for Optimizing Your Dual Display Setup

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Since multiheaded graphics cards have become commonplace, it's no longer technically difficult to attach a second (or third, or fourth) display to your PC. However, whether you're looking for a way to fly through your work so you can have some fun or are wanting to immerse yourself in 3D surround gaming, we've lined up ten ways to make your multiple displays work harder and play even harder. Here's how:

1. Discover how to control your desktop layout

Setting up two or more displays requires more than connecting an additional monitor to your video card and turning it on. You must then make sure that Windows knows the additional display is present.

To enable an additional display, right-click on an empty part of the desktop and follow the appropriate steps:

Windows 7: Select Screen Resolution . Click Detect , and Windows will locate additional displays if they're connected and turned on.

Windows Vista and XP: Select Personalization, Display settings (Vista); select Properties, Settings (XP). Click the inactive monitor and select the correct mode (extended desktop, primary monitor, or both.

By default, Windows 7 chooses an extended desktop configuration, which enables you to run programs separately on each display. To clone the desktop, select Duplicate these displays . To enable only one display, select Show desktop only on 1 , 2 , and so on. If you choose the last option, other display icons are grayed out. Click Apply, Keep Changes to save your changes.

By default, Windows places the display icons side by side, with #1 to the left of #2. If your actual display layout varies, you can avoid frustration when dragging programs between windows or losing the mouse pointer by dragging the #2 display to the correct location relative to the #1 display.

If you have two identical displays, you might lose track of which is which. Click Identify to determine the numbering sequence.

If you want to have even more monitors, check out the available slots on your motherboard. If you have an open PCI Express x8 or x16 slot, you can use it for another graphics card.  Thanks to unified driver builds from both nVidia and AMD (ATI's sugar daddy), it's easy to use the same drivers for two or more video cards: just make sure you buy a video card that's compatible with the original card's GPU and will work with your power supply. If you've filled up all of your PCI Express x8 or x16 slots, keep in mind that you can still get PCI-based video cards that use recent nVIDIA or ATI GPUs.

If you need additional control over your display, such as options to span your displays or adjust color settings, open the proprietary graphics setup program provided with most graphics cards. nVidia's Control Panel or ATI's Catalyst are usually available from the desktop right-click menu, or can be run from the Start menu or from Control Panel.

2. Optimizing display resolution

Windows 7 makes optimizing display resolutions with LCD displays simple: just adjust the resolution slider to the recommended resolution. With Windows Vista and XP, you can generally select the optimal (aka "native") LCD resolution by moving the resolution slider to the rightmost point. Assuming that Windows has correctly identified your display as either a PnP display or by name and model, that's all you need to do to avoid fuzzy text or graphics.

Note: Iif you're still clinging to a CRT monitor, keep in mind that the best image quality is usually a setting or two below the display's maximum resolution, and you'll need to work with vertical refresh rate settings on the Advanced or Advanced settings submenus and with the display's own on-screen controls to get the best picture at a given resolution.

However, if your display is identified as a "Default monitor," Windows won't let you adjust the resolution very high or adjust the vertical refresh rate (which is over on the Advanced Settings) tab. Why? An old-school CRT can be fried (quite literally) if you feed it out-of-range video signals. LCD displays won't fail, but in either case, you won't be able to see your desktop.

If Windows doesn't know what display you're using, check the following:

  • Make sure your display cable is plugged in tightly, and doesn't have any bent or broken pins
  • Update your graphics card drivers
  • Download and install vendor-supplied drivers for your display; even if your display is identified as PnP, this is still a good idea – and if Windows is baffled by your display, it's vital
Keep reading for more dual-monitor tips!

3. Selecting your main (primary) display

If you've paired up a high-performance 24-inch widescreen display for video playback and photo editing with a cast-off 17-inch 4:3 display you want to use primarily for email and web browsing, but Windows insists on making the old display the one where the desktop is located, here's how to solve the problem.

To change which display is your preferred display, select the display you want to make the main (primary) display from the Display pull-down menu, click the Make this my main display (Windows 7), main monitor (Vista) or primary monitor (XP) checkbox. Then, click Apply , then OK to close the dialog.

Note that it doesn't matter whether the main (primary) display is display number one, number two, or any other number.

Not sure which display to make your "'franchise player?" If your displays are similar in size, look at issues such as color quality and refresh rate to choose the main (primary) display you'll use for gaming, productivity, and social media.

By default, Windows uses a safe 60Hz vertical refresh rate for all types of displays, but many recent LCD displays and HDTVs support higher refresh rates. The faster the refresh rate, the better the display quality for 3D gaming and fast action on TV or in movies. To adjust the refresh rate, click the Advanced or Advanced settings button or link, select the Monitor tab, and choose the refresh rate desired. Click Apply, then OK, to use and save settings.

4. Getting the best picture to your SDTV or HDTV for media playback

If you have a big-screen TV or projector near your PC, why not use it for media playback and give your computer's relatively small screen the evening off? If you're connecting to an HDTV or projector, make sure you the best HD-compatible connection possible (HDMI, DVI, or component). If you're getting a little more mileage out of a behemoth CRT standard TV by using it as your media star and have S-video connections available on your PC and TV, use it instead of composite for (slightly) better image quality. You'll hate how the Windows desktop looks on a standard TV, but photos and standard TV or DVDs look good.

If you normally run your media player program on your primary display in full-screen, restore it to a window, drag it over to the other display, and maximize it.

Be sure to tweak the display for best image quality. You might need to adjust the resolution for better picture quality, and be sure to tweak video playback settings such as deinterlacing, pulldown, color dynamic range, and aspect ratio for best playback quality.

5. Creating multimonitor-friendly wallpaper

Once you've tweaked your additional monitors, you'll want to create multi-monitor friendly wallpaper. Be sure to see Will Smith's 2007 article for details . Keep in mind that if you stack your monitors, use them in portrait mode, or have them arranged at different heights that you might need to adjust the layout instructions accordingly. If you're feeling seriously graphic-designed challenged or want separate wallpaper on each display, there's an easier way : give DisplayFusion a try. Upgrade to the Pro version to unlock advanced features .

6. Tweaking color, gamma, and 3D settings

To adjust color, gamma, and 3D settings for your displays, use the utilities provided by your GPU vendor. Color and gamma settings can be set separately for each display, but 3D settings apply to all displays connected to a particular GPU.

Keep reading for more dual-monitor tips!

7. Using Ultramon and other programs for better desktop control

Programs such as UltraMon , DisplayFusion , Actual Multiple Monitors , and MurGeeMon enable you to control your multiple-display desktop far beyond what's possible with the standard display drivers provided by ATI and NVIDIA. We covered some of these a couple of years ago , but with Windows 7 and new players in the game, it's time for another look.

UltraMon

UltraMon can be tried free for 30 days (after that, you'll need to pony up $39.95 for a single license; quantity discounts start at two or more licenses). UltraMon isn't as smart as DisplayFusion when you need multiple-display wallpaper, but it provides strong window management features such as additional buttons for switching windows between displays, your choice of mirrored taskbars or smart taskbars that showonly the tasks running on each display, instant horizontal or vertical tiling of program windows, and custom settings for troublesome programs.

DisplayFusion

The free version of DisplayFusion makes correct sizing of multiple-display wallpaper very easy. You can span a single image across all displays, have separate wallpaper on each display, control how the wallpaper fits the display, and even apply grayscale or sepia-tone effects. If you want to move a maximized program between displays, it's no longer necessary to restore the window, drag the window to the other display, and maximize it. You can also move program windows by middle-clicking the top edge of the program window and use hotkeys to move and resize windows. For additional features , such as the ability to put your desktop toolbar on each display, you'll need to buy the Pro version.

Actual Multiple Monitors

Actual Multiple Monitors version 2.0 now supports Windows 7, and provides intelligent wallpaper creation, customized screen saver settings for each display, automatic window positioning, various ways to switch windows between displays, customizable rules for specific programs, window snapping options, command prompt window support, and customizable mouse actions. You can try it for 30 days, and a license costs $29.95.

MurGeeMon

MurGeeMon isn't quite free, and only supports up to two displays, but registration is only $5, and it provides a lot of power for the money. Although it's billed as supporting Windows 7, its right-click menu winds up partially hiding behind the popup notification area control. MurGeeMon might be a bit rough around the edges, but it offers some unique features, such as the ability to create desktop shortcuts to switch a display into any supported resolution and color depth, set up hotkeys for selected actions, and create custom login wallpaper (Windows 7 and Vista only).

8. Multimonitor gaming

PCI Express x16, SLI, and CrossFire provide plenty of graphics firepower for today's systems, but if you're looking to spread your virtual world across multiple displays, you might need extra hardware or software to do the trick.

If you want to add three-display gaming to your existing computer hardware, you can add more hardware or use software. Matrox's TripleHead2Go hardware supports three-display surround gaming on desktops or laptops with over 325 titles , and you can add support for many more by installing the free Matrox TripleHead2Go Surround Gaming Utility .

To add triple head support to existing games for free, try SoftTH . It enables many DirectX 9-compatible games to be played on three displays using two graphics cards. For tips on setting up some popular games with SoftTH, see the FuryTech SoftTH web page.

If you're in the market for brand new graphics cards, ATI's new HD 5000-series GPUs support Eyefinity technology , which supports gaming and productivity on up to three displays per card - we tried a six-display rig last fall.

image courtesy AMD

9. Multiple monitors, multiple systems, one keyboard and mouse

Maybe your "secondary display" is actually connected (or built into) a different computer.  You can use a single keyboard and mouse to work with both of them by installing Synergy or Input Director. See our own David Murphy's impressions of both programs here .

10. When - and when not - to use USB adapters for additional displays

If you have a system that lacks support for multiple displays, the easiest way to add support is with a USB display adapter. Depending upon the device, it might include VGA out, DVI out, or DVI-I out along with a DVI-VGA converter.

image courtesy Diamond Multimedia

Because these devices piggyback on the existing GPU, they're not designed for 3D gaming. However, if you're looking mainly for a way to add a display to your system for web browsing, social media, or productivity, it's a low-cost, no-teardown way to do it. You can add multiple displays to your system by using multiple adapters; each adapter uses its own USB 2.0 port (USB 1.1 ports need not apply).

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