With most modern graphics cards offering two monitor connections, and LCD displays getting cheaper and cheaper, dual-monitor setups are moving out of the realm of the computer elite and into the mainstream.
However, Windows’ built-in multi-monitor support is a little lacking. You get some extra screen space, sure, but that’s about it. If you want any more out of your two screens, you need dual-monitor software. For years, UltraMon has been the app-of-choice for enhancing your multi-monitor experience, but is it all the software that’s out there? It’s not, and in this article, we’ll explore the free alternatives to UltraMon, and see how they measure up.
Oscar’s MultiMon Taskbar is a free app that focuses on adding taskbar functionality to multi-monitor setups. The free version of MultiMon includes pretty much all of the taskbar features of UltraMon, most importantly the ability to extend the taskbar to additional desktops, with each window appearing on the taskbar you would logically expect it to. It also adds a move-to-monitor button to the top right of most Windows applications, although as you can see from the screenshot, the button doesn’t match the Windows XP style as nicely as UltraMon’s, and it doesn’t include the button to stretch a window across both monitors.
The free version of MultiMon lacks the visual polish of Ultramon, as it doesn’t have any support for Windows XP or Vista themes, making its taskbar and buttons look a bit ugly. There is a pro version of MultiMon available for $28 which adds themes and the extra window-stretching button, and just generally makes the second taskbar behave a little more like you’d want it to. However, if you’re going to be spending nearly $30 on a dual monitor app, you really ought to drop the extra $10 to pick up a copy of the much more full-featured UltraMon.
Binary Fortress Software’s DisplayFusion is another dual monitor app that comes in “free” and “not so free” flavors. DisplayFusion’s feature set is centered on allowing you to customize the look of your two desktops.
Most importantly, DisplayFusion allows you full control over the wallpaper on each screen. By default, Windows only allows you to use the same wallpaper on both monitors, but with DisplayFusion you can assign a different background image to each monitor or display one wallpaper that spans across both screens.
DisplayFusion also includes a few miscellaneous features, including hotkey support for standard multi monitor functions, and the (appreciated) ability to drag maximized windows from one screen to another.
One feature DisplayFusion boasts that isn’t present in UltraMon is Flickr integration, allowing you to search the site for wallpapers from within the app. If you upgrade to the Pro license for $15, you unlock the ability to set your wallpapers to change on a timer, either from a pre-selected list, or randomly from the results of a Flickr search. This function is sort of fun, but it’s also a bit on the gimmicky side, and we noticed the occasional system hiccup when updating with a random wallpaper, sometimes causing the cursor to warp around the page while typing.
ATI and NVIDIA each maintain their own multi monitor software, available for free to anyone with a Radeon or GeForce, respectively. The software might already be installed on your system with your card’s driver suite, but if it’s not you can get the ATI Hydravision software at
and the GeForce nView at
Hydravision’s feature list is a little on the short side, but it’s got a few bullet points that sound good on paper. For instance, it supports up to 9 virtual multi-monitor desktops, allowing you as much desktop real estate as you need. It also offers a few of the features we’ve seen before, such as the ability to quickly send windows from one screen to another, and an “expand across all monitors” button in the top right of windows apps, which only works if each monitor is set to identical resolutions, unlike the same feature in Ultramon.
Of all the software tested for this article, the only program that was difficult to work with was Hydravision, the “MultiDesk” virtual desktop feature in particular. While we were able to get it working eventually, it was not until after spending a not-insignificant amount of time wrangling with unresponsive taskbar icons, an options menu that crashed the Catalyst Control Center, and super-helpful error messages like the following:
Can any of these programs do everything that UltraMon can? Not quite, and really, if you can afford to pay the $40, it’s still your best choice. But if you’re broke or you just have a thing for supporting the underdog, the other apps can do a pretty decent job.
The MultiMon taskbar replicates most of UltraMon’s efficiency-boosting features, if you just want the extra taskbar and window controls. Meanwhile, DisplayFusion gives you access to most of the same customization options you would get with the $40 software package. We had no problem running both at once, which provided a reasonable facsimile of UltraMon’s full functionality, all without costing a dime.