Work and play better with multiple monitors

By John Swenson

If you're looking for easy ways to improve your computing experience, one item that belongs near the top of any list is a second monitor. When you hook two monitors up to a computer, an interesting thing happens.

Suddenly you'll spend a lot less time flipping through open files, programs, and e‑mails, hunting for what you want. With all of that screen real estate spread out before you, you'll soon realize how much time you used to waste switching windows and looking for things. You'll then ask yourself, "How did I ever get by with just one monitor?"

So many ways to use two monitors

Everyone I've met who has tried "going dual screen" with two monitors can't imagine going back to one screen. Some people think it's extravagant to buy a pair of monitors for one computer, but if it's been awhile since you've checked prices on flat-panel monitors, you might be surprised how affordable they've become.

My wife didn't want me to buy her a second monitor until she learned it would cost less than $200 to add a second 22-inch flat-panel monitor to her new computer. Then she thought a second monitor was something she'd rarely use. I encouraged her to give it a try. Now I see her using both monitors all the time, keeping an eye on her e‑mail on one screen, while she works on a document or checks a website on the other screen.

As a writer, I often keep two documents open on different monitors, copying information between them or checking a website on one monitor while writing on the other. I'm so used to this that it slows me way down now to use a PC with just one monitor.

How you use two monitors depends on what you do with your PC and how you like to work. The most common use I see here at Microsoft is people who keep their e‑mail open on one monitor, while they work on documents or files on another monitor. I also see a lot of programmers who rotate one widescreen monitor vertical so they can see as much code as possible at one time without scrolling, while they keep their other monitor in the normal horizontal position to work on e‑mail and everything else.

The possibilities are almost endless. Here are just a few ways to use two monitors:

  • View a different document or spreadsheet on each monitor. Refer to one while you're working on the other or drag information between them.

  • Look up information in a web browser on one monitor while composing an e‑mail message or document on the other.

  • Edit photos or videos on one monitor, while you keep a folder of your photos or video clips open on the other.

Some programs are designed to spread their menus over a second monitor if you have one. These tend to be programs with a lot of options and controls that are easier to use with more screen space, such as photo-editing or video-editing software. Some photo programs, for example, let you put the editing controls on one monitor, while you view the photo at full-screen size on the other monitor.

More fun to play

A dual-monitor setup doesn't just make you more productive and efficient at work. It can also help you have more fun. For example, you might keep your music collection open on one monitor, while you surf the web on the other. Or play a game on one monitor, while you check your e‑mail or send instant messages to your friends on the other.

Many games let you take advantage of two or even three monitors. One of the coolest uses for this is in games where you can use your center monitor as the front window of your race car or plane, with monitors on either side acting as your side windows.

One big monitor or two smaller ones?

Some people wonder if it's better to use one really big monitor—a 24-inch or larger flat-panel monitor—or two smaller monitors. This comes down to cost, personal preference, and how you use your monitors. For most people, two smaller monitors are a better choice than one large monitor.

If you work with giant spreadsheets, you might prefer one large monitor that can display more rows and columns at once. Professional photographers also love huge monitors for their ability to display photos as large as possible. Most people don't want to view a spreadsheet or a photo split in half between two monitors.

If I could afford a 30-inch behemoth, I might just use that single vast display. Instead I use a pair of 22-inch monitors because they're a lot less expensive and still provide me with a big desktop workspace.

Be careful what monitors you pair. I tried using one 22-inch monitor with a 23-inch monitor of slightly higher resolution. The minor differences in size and resolution annoyed me so much after awhile that I returned the 23-inch monitor and went back to using two identical 22-inch monitors. I prefer to have everything appear exactly the same size on both monitors. You might not care, but this is something to consider when you pick your monitors.

Check your video ports

Some people think it must be hard to connect two monitors and get them both working properly. It's not if you have the correct type of video card in a PC running Windows 7. Most desktop PCs today come with a video card with two DVI video ports, and most flat-panel monitors sold today have a matching DVI port. Some video cards and monitors also have a VGA port.

Illustration of VGA and DVI ports
VGA and DVI ports

If you have a video card with two ports, you can usually just plug two monitors into the matching ports. Look on the back of your desktop PC for the video ports, and match the cable from each monitor to the corresponding port. These ports connect directly to your video card.

You might need an adapter to plug a DVI cable into a VGA port or vice versa. These inexpensive adapters are easy to find and often come with a new computer or video card.

In the unlikely event that your desktop PC only has only one video port, consider replacing the video card with a new card with two DVI ports. (A new video card is one of the best hardware upgrades you can make for most PCs, so you're likely to gain more than just another port—especially if your PC came with integrated graphics, which are usually inferior to a dedicated video card.)

Even if your computer has only one video port, some PC makers include custom monitor cables that split the signal from one port to two monitors. So you might not need two ports on your video card after all.

Add an extra monitor for a laptop

Because every laptop comes with an integrated screen, you only have to connect one monitor to create a dual screen. That's easy because most laptops have a video port. (Unlike desktop PCs, two video ports are rare on a laptop.) Just plug a monitor into the DVI or VGA port and Windows 7 will automatically detect the monitor. As explained above, you might need an adapter to plug a DVI cable into a VGA port or vice versa.

I plug a monitor into my laptop when I'm at my desk and unplug it when I take my laptop on the go. You don't have to change any settings in Windows when you do this.

Picture of drop-down list of options for Multiple displays
The Multiple displays drop-down list appears when Windows detects more than one monitor connected to your PC.

Windows 7 makes it easy

When you plug two monitors into a desktop PC or one monitor into a laptop, Windows 7 should automatically detect each new monitor and provide you with multiple display options. You can choose to:

  • Extend your displays. This spreads your desktop over both monitors and lets you drag items between the two screens. This is how most people use two monitors, and it's the default setting.

  • Duplicate your displays. This displays the same desktop on both monitors. For a laptop, this is the default setting. This is useful if you're giving a presentation with your laptop connected to a projector or large monitor.

  • Show your desktop on only one monitor. This is most commonly used with a laptop if you might want to keep your laptop screen blank after you connect to a large desktop monitor.

To find these options, click the Start button Picture of the Start button, click Control Panel, type display in the search box, and then, under Display, click Connect to an external display. For more information, see Move windows between multiple monitors.

See it with your own eyes

Now you know how to connect two monitors to your PC, so you can start working more efficiently and start having more fun with your computer. No matter how much you read about using two monitors, this is something you have to see for yourself. So grab an extra monitor and plug it in.

About the author

Picture of columnist John Swenson

John Swenson is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. In his 12 years at Microsoft, he's done everything from interviewing technical leaders around the company to helping computer novices understand Windows. He previously worked as a business and technology reporter for newspapers and magazines.

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