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The floppy disk is dead—we all know that. Yet so many modern computer cases still sport 3.5-inch drive bays that are just begging to be used. Enter the internal media reader. The device not only spruces up your front panel but also gives you a convenient way to deal with today’s plethora of flash memory formats.
We chose Sabrent’s 52-in-1 Multi-Card Reader ($14, www.newegg.com) because of its wide range of supported formats and easy installation. Sporting four memory-card slots along with an extra USB port, this minimalist-looking USB 2.0 reader will let you transfer your digital photos, music, and data at a blazing 480Mb/s.
Installing the media reader is simple. First, remove the front panel from a free 3.5-inch drive bay on your system chassis. Open up your case’s side door and slide the reader into the bay until it’s completely flush with the entire front panel (image A).
Next, take the internal USB adapter and plug the head into an available nine-pin USB port on your motherboard (image B). Don’t plug the head into a similar-looking FireWire port, which could damage both your motherboard and drive. USB and FireWire ports are usually color-coded, but refer to your motherboard manual to be sure. The media reader is powered by USB, so it doesn’t need an external power source.
Windows XP and Vista will automatically detect the media reader upon restart and assign drive letters to its ports. If you’re building a system from scratch, connect the media reader after you’ve booted into Windows to avoid accidentally assigning the “C” drive letter to a flash reader.
Most videocards these days have multiple outputs offering support for running two monitors simultaneously, but no more than that. And while doubling up on desktop space is great for productivity, it’s insufficient for “surround-screen” gaming, which requires stretching games to three monitors.
There are a couple different options for running a triple-monitor setup. Some new monitors, such as Samsung’s 940UX, actually have USB input support, nixing the need for a traditional videocard completely. A special display chip inside these monitors compresses high-resolution video (up to 1600x1200) to fit through USB 2.0’s 480Mb/s bandwidth spec. However, high latency and a lack of 3D support (video acceleration is emulated via software) make this route untenable for gaming, not to mention most other power-user practices.
Another option is Matrox’s TripleHead2Go, an external video adapter that allows three monitors to be connected to one videocard output (either VGA or DVI) for a maximum resolution of 3840x1024. Since your graphics card is fooled into thinking that it’s connected to one really wide monitor, gaming across three screens is seamless. The downside to this $330 solution is that your start menu will always be on the leftmost monitor and maximizing a window will stretch it across all three displays. You’ll also need a beefy videocard to single-handedly render games at ultra-high resolutions.
The most practical way to run three monitors at once is to just install a second videocard. If you have a modern motherboard, we recommend that you use two PCI Express videocards, since the limited bandwidth of PCI lanes will prohibit triple-monitor gaming. We also recommend that both videocards be of the same brand to avoid compatibility issues, although ATI and Nvidia accelerators will likely play nice with each other if you use the most recent display drivers.
With three monitors plugged into two videocards, Windows will automatically treat each monitor as an independent controllable desktop. Via Display Properties, you can manipulate each screen’s resolution, orientation, and position without having to worry about which port the monitor is connected to (image B). Many games will recognize a triple-monitor setup and natively accommodate wide resolutions, but one trick to running any game across three screens is to play it in a stretched window. This helps avoid pixel alignment problems when you’re using different-size monitors—you’ll want to adjust “field of vision” settings in first-person shooters if possible to give you the right perspective (we suggest setting the FOV value to 180).
If your monitors use different resolutions, getting a cohesive background across all three screens is a little bit tricky. Windows only lets you either stretch one large wallpaper across your screens or clone an image across all desktops, neither of which produces a satisfying result. To create a tri-monitor-friendly wallpaper, you’ll need to create a test image to help you unscramble your monitor arrangement. Using an image editor, mock up a template that matches the combined resolution of all three displays, color-coding the left, middle, and right sections of the image for reference (image C). Save and set this template as your background and note any alignment problems—for example, the wallpaper starting at your center monitor as opposed to the leftmost one. In the image editor, tweak the template until it displays all three monitor sections correctly as your wallpaper. After working out the alignment kinks, drop your desired images over the template to create your three-screen background.
The following games natively support three screens: