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What Your Second Monitor Shows: Several Modes

Generally, when you connect a second monitor to a computer, it duplicates what’s showing on the primary screen. Fn+F7 (your notebook’s function key plus the F7 key) should toggle between display 1, display 2 ,and both displays.

Aside from simply having the other monitor(s) duplicate what’s on the main monitor—useful only for doing demos—some (but not all) of the multiple monitor solutions offered below will support additional, more useful configurations:

  • Extended mode, also called single multi-monitor mode or extended desktop mode, dual-view, or independent displays mode. In this mode, according to the Realtime Soft’s Multi-Monitor Resources FAQ, "all monitors connected to the installed video cards form a single desktop, you can move the mouse and applications to any monitor. Each monitor can use different settings (resolution, color depth and refresh rate)."
  • Use span (or stretched) mode, in which Windows thinks you’re just using one wider monitor. According to Realtime FAQ, span mode "is mainly useful for forcing applications which have no native multi-monitor support to use all available monitors. For example, most games will only run on the primary monitor."

The following sections take a look at options, what you’ll need, and some debugging tricks. Disclaimer: I’ve only been trying out the two-port video card solution; everything else I’m simply reporting as a possibility.

Fishing for Windows: A Useful Trick To Know

Based on my experiences so far, there’s a good chance that something may go awry when you reconfigure. Before you do any tinkering or tweaking, I suggest you spend a minute to determine one piece of information and try using one Windows feature. (Remember, this tip is for Windows users; Linux/Mac OS users are on their own.)

The reason for this advice: After booting, suppose your secondary screen displays, but the primary one is blank. How can you get to Control Panel to reconfigure your video settings? You could try "fishing for windows"; that is, trying to "cast" your cursor to the dark screen to grab a window and drag it to the secondary monitor. Fortunately, it turns out that you can select and move a window by using the keyboard—but you’ll have to know what keys to press because the primary monitor is blank, remember?

So, before setting up the second monitor, perform the following procedure and write down (on paper) what keys you had to press to get to Control Panel, which is the window you’ll need to drag over to the working display so that you can reconfigure the video settings.

  1. Open the Start menu by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard (the key has a picture of the Windows logo). If your keyboard doesn’t have this key, press Ctrl+Esc.
  2. If you could see the Start menu, you would be able to use the arrow keys to select Control Panel on the Start menu and press Enter. (If you don’t have a Control Panel option on your menu, you probably have a Settings option or equivalent, which can get you to Control Panel.) But you won’t be able to see the Start menu if you’re working blind, so instead press the accelerator key (the key matching the underlined letter on the menu item you want) or the first letter of the menu option. Depending on your settings, you’ll probably press the C key for Control Panel; for Settings, the S key.
  3. You may need to press the key multiple times as Windows cycles through all the options on the Start menu that respond to that key. Remember to write down how many times you had to press the key.

Once you get Control Panel open—writing down any additional keys you had to press to get there—you’re ready to start moving the window. Here’s the procedure:

  1. Press Alt+Spacebar to open the control menu in the window’s upper-left corner.
  2. Press the M key (for Move).
  3. Using the arrow keys, move the Control Panel window, "dragging" it from the dark primary screen to the working secondary one. (You’ll probably need to drag it to the right.)

Adding to or Replacing Your Desktop’s Video Card

Okay, now let’s discuss your surgical ("open the box") options.

For desktop computers, assuming that you don’t already have two simultaneously usable video outputs (your second output might be good only for displaying TV output), you’ll need to add a second video card or replace the existing one with a two-port video card.

Adding a card is likely to be the best option because it uses dedicated hardware, attaching the video card directly to the motherboard. Alternatively, you try some of the approaches in the later section "Half a Dozen or So Ways To Connect Additional Monitors."

Adding or replacing a video card relies on several key assumptions:

  • You can open your desktop computer—it’s not a sealed unit.
  • Adding/replacing components doesn’t void the warranty, or you don’t care that it does.
  • Your desktop PC uses standard (enough) parts that you can swap/add a new video card.
  • There’s room on the motherboard for another video card. You may be able to use a PCI-to-PCI expander to provide additional outboard slots for another video card, but this may not be the most cost-effective solution. A new twin-head–capable computer would probably be less expensive (and clunky).
  • Your current video/graphics processor isn’t part of an integrated motherboard, or if it is you know how to work around this situation relatively easily.

Of course, you could buy a new computer that already includes multi-monitor video cards. This is an extreme solution, but has the advantage of being prebuilt to do this, so they dang well should work right!

Cards and Slots

Assuming that you can either replace or add a video card, your next step is to determine options/constraints:

  • Is your current video card PCI, AGP, or PCI Express?
  • What, if any, slots does your motherboard still have available?

If you aren’t sure what you’ve got, ask a more knowledgeable friend, an expert at the store where you bought the computer, etc. Scott Mueller, author of Que’s Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 16th Edition and several other upgrading and repairing books, describes the issues as follows:

PCI is a 1992 vintage interface designed for general-purpose add-on cards as well as video cards. AGP is a 1996 vintage interface that was based on PCI, but solely designed to support a single video card in a system, thus giving the video card an exclusive communications channel. Only a single AGP slot is supported in a system.

PCI Express (PCIe) is a completely new (2002 vintage) serial interface. PCIe is designed to eventually replace both PCI and AGP in newer systems. PCIe slots (and cards) are generally found in 1-lane (PCIe x1) or 16-lane (PCIe x16) versions, with most general-purpose add-on cards being of the x1 type and video cards being of the x16 type. Most motherboards featuring PCIe slots will have only a single x16 slot along with multiple x1 slots; however, some motherboards have two or three x16 slots, allowing for multiple video cards.

Newegg.com advises, "While the graphics card’s GPU determines the product’s application and performance, it is vital to pay attention to the interface utilized by the graphics card. Currently, these cover PCI, AGP, and the cutting-edge PCI Express (PCIe) specification, which are paired exclusively to the PCI, AGP, and PCI Express slots on the motherboard, respectively. The graphics card interface must match the motherboard slot for successful installation. Consult the computer or motherboard manufacturer before selecting your video card if you are uncertain of your motherboard’s slots."

My advice: If you have a computer friend or shop you trust, ask what type of slots—and how many—you have, and what will/won’t work with your motherboard. If you didn’t buy this computer there, you may have to bring it in so your friend or shop can take a look.

Buying a Video Card

Once you know what your options are in terms of video cards, it’s time to go shopping. Depending on what type of outputs your new video card has and what type(s) of monitors you have, you may need a DVI-M to VGA-F converter. (It’s a simple, small adapter.) Some video cards include one.

If you’re looking for a two-port card, rather than an additional video card, be sure the one you select really supports two simultaneous monitors, rather than just having two outputs. For example, according to the Realtime Soft FAQ, "Some cards advertised as supporting two monitors will only accept a TV as the secondary display, or won’t support use of both connectors at the same time."

Depending on your computing needs, a new video card will run anywhere from $50—good enough for standard office and Internet apps—to more than $1,000 for high-end gaming, video editing, graphic production, and so on. Well-known brands include Asus, ATI, Crucial, Diamond, eVGA, Matrox, MSI, nVidia, and PNY.

Don’t overlook clearance and remaindered video cards, if you feel comfortable with the store/site. Depending on how old your computer is, you may have to go the remainder pile anyway. I ended up getting an NVIDIA GeForce card on clearance for less than $50 from the local white-box shop I patronize. (See the section "Reasons To Consider a White Box Vendor" in my article "Buying a Non-Branded ’White Box’ PC.") For my needs, this option was recommended as better than one of the new $120-ish cards. I actually got two, since I plan to try twin-heading on two different desktops, desk space permitting.

I didn’t install my new video card; the computer store did it for me while adding some other components. (I’ll try doing the second one myself, though.) But the process of installing a new video card is straightforward enough:

  1. Unplug the computer.
  2. Don an anti-static glove.
  3. Open the CPU box.
  4. Remove the existing card.
  5. Install the new card.
  6. Close the CPU box.
  7. Power up.
  8. Get/install new drivers. Windows XP should recognize the card enough for it to work, but you’ll want the right drivers. Once your system has booted, go to Device Manager by opening Control Panel and going to System (Settings) and then Hardware.
  9. Configure as needed.
  10. Enjoy.

Half a Dozen or So Other Ways To Connect Additional Monitors

If you can’t replace or add another video card inside your computer—you’ve got a notebook, a nonstandard desktop, or whatever—you still have a number of other options. In more or less increasing order of invasiveness—how much you have to open the box and play hardware wrangler—these are your choices:

  1. Notebook computer plus additional monitor
  2. Notebook as a second monitor
  3. PCMCIA video card for notebook
  4. Notebook docking station with video card
  5. External USB video cards for desktop or notebook
  6. PCMCIA-to-PCI expander for notebook
  7. Other "outboard" solutions for desktop or notebook

Remember that I haven’t tried any of these tricks yet; attempt at your own risk. I’ll explain each option briefly in the following sections.

Notebook Computer Plus Additional Monitor

If you have a notebook computer with a video port, you can plug in an external monitor. By pressing Fn+F7, you should be able to toggle among three options: 1) use the notebook monitor; 2) use the external monitor; and 3) display to both monitors. If you’re using an external keyboard that doesn’t have an Fn key, you’ll have to use the notebook’s keyboard.

Depending on your OS and the notebook hardware, you may be able to configure them in multiple-monitor mode. To do this in Windows XP, open Control Panel, open the Display applet, and find Display Properties and/or Settings. Once you get there, play with the "Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor" setting. Carefully.

If you can’t manage to get the additional monitor to work with your notebook, you’ll need a second video card, or a video card with two or more ports.

Notebook as a Second Monitor

If you have a desktop PC and monitor as well as a notebook, or two notebook computers, you may be able to use a notebook as a second monitor by networking the two computers together and using a special-purpose program such as Bartels Media’s MaxiVista. According to the vendor’s website, "MaxiVista installs a virtual video driver onto your primary PC which fools Windows into thinking that an additional monitor is installed." Note that you can use MaxiVista in addition to other multiple-monitor solutions.

The computers need to be connected via a network connection (Ethernet, Wireless LAN, FireWire, or USB-to-USB cables), and the primary machine (the "server") needs to be running Windows 2000 or XP.

Price for one license (one "server") are Standard, $29.95; Professional, $39.94; Mirror Pro, $49.94. A 14-day free trial is available for the Standard version. The Pro edition supports up to three secondary systems.

PCMCIA Video Card for Notebook

Notebook users can try using a PCMCIA video card, such as the VTBook DualHead, which runs about $80. I’m sure there are other vendors as well.

Notebook Docking Station with Video Card

Some notebook users may be able to buy a docking station that includes or accepts a video card. Realtime Soft cautions that not all laptops support this feature: "Some will turn off the built-in monitor when they detect a video card in the docking station."

External USB Video Cards for Desktop or Notebook

External USB video cards are another obvious approach for either desktop or notebook computers. There don’t seem to be a lot of these available. Googling turns up a couple of options:

PCMCIA-to-PCI Expander for Notebook

Notebook users may have another—albeit pricey—choice: a PCMCIA-to-PCI expander, such as Magma’s Slot CardBus to PCI Expansion.

Other "Outboard" Solutions for Desktop or Notebook

These options might really belong in the earlier PCMCIA or USB categories, but I thought I’d call them out as a separate group.

For somewhere in the $150–170 range, Matrox Graphics’ DualHead2Go expands a single-monitor output across multiple displays. For example, you could connect two outboard monitors to your notebook, for a total of up to three displays. Keep in mind that the monitors run in span mode; you can’t simply use the "extended" option. This looks like one of the simpler solutions.

Digital Tigers’ SideCar, $1,399 and up, can "drive up to four extra displays from a Windows XP/2000 notebook, or up to two extra displays from an Apple PowerBook," according to their web site. Not the cheapest solution, to be sure.

You may need new drivers to get your notebook to do this correctly—assuming that your notebook’s OS and video card will do it at all. See Realtime Soft’s Laptops guide for more details on multi-monitoring with notebook computers.

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