Sometimes people walk into our offices and ask, "Why do you have so many computer screens?" Some studies show that multiple monitors increase productivity by 20-30%. Others disagree and say that they increase distractions and may actually reduce productivity.
Our own experience is that multiple monitors help immensely. They save us time and make us more productive. This article will show you how you can do it too.
Every employee has at least two monitors. Most of us have three, and four have four monitors. (!!)
I have three screens myself. Usually I have my email open on the right and my Outlook task list on the far left so I can always focus on the things I need to get done. I do most of my work on the middle screen.
And this extra screen real-estate does save us time. You can have your management system up and running on one screen while working on a carrier's site on the other one. Copying and pasting data from one program to another is also a breeze. Once you get used to multiple monitors, it almost drives you crazy to be on a single monitor. You keep having to switch screens to do anything.
You don't have to be a computer expert to create this kind of setup for yourself. Here's how we did it, and what you could consider for your own work space:
1) Choose your monitors
If you're like us, you may have collected a few monitors over the years. When we moved our office, we must have had over a dozen of them! You can simply add two 19-inch widescreen monitors that have been gathering dust somewhere, and you'll be amazed how much more space you feel like you have!
But there are other options. For instance, I've taken a 19-inch 4x3 aspect screen and tilted it 90-degrees. The resulting screen shape is perfect for viewing a Word or PDF document, maximized in the screen. You can see the entire document, top to bottom and side-to-side. That's what I do for my left-most monitor.
I once tried rotating a widescreen monitor like this, but it felt way too tall and thin. You know how it feels when you're looking at photos on your screen and one comes up that was taken in portrait mode? The photo looks so tall and skinny. That's what a rotated widescreen monitor felt like to me. A document that filled the screen side-to-side had lots of room below it, and the type wasn't as large it is on a rotated 4X3.
Monitors are so affordable right now that you can buy the 24-inch LED monitors that many of our staff uses for about $110. That's an excellent one-time investment that you'll use every day for years! To us it's worth it to go large.
My main screen is a 27-inch LED, and I just love it. It makes even a 24-inch screen seem a little small, and 19-inch screens seem positively tiny. But don't worry. As I said before, even adding two 19-inch screens will expand your world and make a big difference.
Multiple monitors with a laptop computer
Of course, if your main computer is a laptop, then your first monitor is built-in. My last laptop had relatively large, 15-inch screen. I wanted something smaller, lighter, and easier to travel with. So right now I have a Lenovo Yoga 700 with a 13- inch monitor. It's perfect for working from home or while traveling, but it would be too small to use all day long at the office.
That's why I think it's perfect for a multiple monitor setup. My laptop "runs the show" but my main screen is 27-inches. I have plenty of space to work on at the office, but can be compact and efficient while I'm away.
As you can see, I boosted my laptop with a stand, to put its screen at the most comfortable height. (And, yes, those are phone books underneath the stand, to make it just right.)
2) Pay attention to your monitor video input types
Whether you use monitors you already have or purchase new ones, pay close attention to the input types that they have. This will be super-important when you connect them to your computer.
For many years a VGA or D-Sub connections were the only thing available. This is an analog - not digital - connection method. If this is all you have, you'll be fine. But you'll get higher resolution and brighter, better images with other types.
DVI connections seem to be most common on computer screens. They give you a true, digital signal, which gives you the best picture possible.
A few monitors have HDMI connections. They have the same resolution as DVI. The only difference I'm aware of is that they include an audio-signal and DVI does not. That's why you probably use HDMI at home to connect stuff to your TV.
We haven't had any monitors with Display Port connections except for our Microsoft Surface Pro computers.
In the end, all that really matters is that you know what your monitor connection types are so you can successfully connect them to your computer.
3) Connect the monitors to your computer
This step used to be a lot more complicated than it is now. Many years ago when we first did dual-monitor setups we had to open up the computer towers and install a graphics card like you see on the right.
This card added one or two connections - usually VGA or DVI. But it took extra time and a little bit of skill to do, and could not be done on laptops, which clearly don’t have space for such a modification.
The good news is that it's much easier to do now. So how do you connect?
First, look at your laptop or tower and see what connections it already has. For example, my laptop includes one built-in video-output. It happens to be a micro-HDMI port. So I use that port to connect my largest screen. The only thing I had to do was buy the right cable.
My 27-inch monitor doesn't have an HDMI input. It has DVI, and that's okay. Remember that the only real difference between an HDMI connection and DVI is the audio. And I don't want the audio to go to my computer screen anyway. So I bought a micro-HDMI to DVI cable that's three feet long. And just like that, I've gone from one screen to two.
Most laptops include at least one video-out port. But how do you connect if your laptop or tower only has one port? This is easily done with a USB adapter.
You can buy USB-to-DVI, USB-to-VGA, and USB-to-HDMI adapters. So you can attach pretty much any monitor to any computer with USB ports. Faster ports (USB 2.0 or 3.0) will give you better results. But for most office work - which is mostly static screens showing documents, or doing data entry - you can hardly go wrong.
Usually you can just plug the USB adapter into your computer and it will download the correct drivers from the Internet. Some adapters also include an installation disc in case the download doesn't kick in for you.
If you are low on USB ports
If you're like me, you may already be using most or all of your computer's USB ports to attach a mouse, keyboard, or a flash drive. If you are low on USB ports, you can still add monitors. Simply buy a USB hub like mine. You can plug multiple devices - even monitors - into it and they only use one USB port from your computer. Problem solved!
USB ports vs your computer's own ports
One advantage of using your computer's included video ports instead of USB adapters is that your computer's processing power is used most efficiently. When you use a USB adapter, your computer uses part of its processing power and RAM to feed and refresh the additional monitor. With a built-in port, your computer may be able to use its own graphics processing unit.
I'm not an expert in the particulars of how it works. But I have seen that you'll get the best (fastest refreshing) screen performance by connecting your best monitor directly to a built-in port. Put your smaller or less important monitors on the USB adapters.
One caution about USB adapters
When I was setting up my brother's Surface Pro with multiple monitors, one USB adapter was working, but the second one wouldn't work. I tried everything I could think of to make it work, without success. I was really frustrated. I wondered if, for some reason, a Surface Pro couldn't run two monitors through USB adapters.
I searched online and finally found the problem and solution. I mention it here to save you the difficulty I experienced!
Our problem was that the drivers for the two USB adapters had a conflict. Specifically, the first was a j5create adapter, which blocked the DisplayLink adapter from working. Almost everyone else in our office was already using DispayLink adapters, so we made a decision to ensure compatibility by using only DisplayLink-driven adapters.
After I uninstalled the other adapter's driver and connected and installed the DisplayLink ones, the Surface worked just fine. In fact, it's now a four-monitor setup!
Just be aware that mixing USB adapters might not work. It may be worth committing to one system, so you don’t' have this problem.
3) Monitor stands
Now that your monitors work, how do you want them arranged at your workspace? Ultimately, this is probably a matter of personal preference. If people sit across from you at your desk, you might just use place your monitors on your desk, using their included legs.
But with only a little bit of additional work and cost, you can position your monitors to minimize strain on your back and neck.
I've found that having my monitors at the same height as my eyes helps a lot. You'll probably need a stand to get your monitors in that position. You'll sit more comfortably, and you'll also free up precious desk space.
As you can see in these photos, we've used both methods. Some of us have double-monitor stands. Others have triple-monitor arms. They allow for adjustments to screen rotation, height, and tilt.
Most of these stands were between $40 and $60. Again, it's a one-time cost that you'll benefit from every hour of every day you're at work.
You might have noticed the little webcam above my large monitor in the middle photo. I use it for video conference meetings when I'm at my desk. (You can read about that in a previous article on our blog.)
However you physically connect your monitors, the last step is to right-click on your desktop, choose "display settings" and tell Windows what order and position your screens are in.
Choose to "Extend desktop" to each display, and your mouse will easily and naturally move between screens.
4) Tip: Make the most of your widescreen monitor
If you get a large widescreen monitor, you can use windows shortcut keys to run two programs side-by-side. You may have noticed that many websites are optimized for narrower screens. The content is right in the middle, and there are wide margins in either side. That's wasted space.
But if you put two windows next to each other, you're getting more practical use out of your screen real-estate. A Word document also usually fits very well in half of a screen.
To easily snap your programs to half of the screen, hold down the Windows key (the one with the four-square Windows logo) and then click the right or left arrow key. The active program will snap to the right or left of the screen. You can even press the arrow key repeatedly to move the window across all of your screens.
This saves you having to manually drag the edges of the program window, to get it to line up. I use this keyboard shortcut every day.
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Do you use a dual-monitor or multiple-monitor setup? How does it work for you?
IHT is a multi-state insurance agency with dozens of branches across the eastern and central United States.