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Build a three-screen workstation for $230 or less

Step-by-step instructions for expanding your laptop's visual horizons on the cheap

By Eric Lai
July 18, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - It's too bad the late George Carlin never updated his classic '70s comedy monologue "A place for my stuff" for the Digital Age. Here's how I imagine it would've gone:

That's all you need in life, a little place for your software ... Firefox, Word, Excel, Google Docs, Adobe Reader, Outlook, Halo 3, Trillian ...

That's all your monitor is: a place to keep your app windows and browser tabs open ...

Sometimes you gotta get another monitor. Why? No room for your apps anymore ...

I myself have three displays adorning my desktop. On the left: A 19-in. Dell CRT on which I keep open a minimum of a dozen Firefox tabs at any given time. In the middle: A 19-in. ViewSonic LCD on which I take notes and write articles in Word, read PDF and Excel attachments, and watch Windows Media files. On the right: The 15-in. LCD screen of my ThinkPad T42, on which I do e-mail and IM chat.

Unlike buying a McMansion, boosting your on-screen real estate is more than an exercise in wasteful vanity -- it boosts productivity. This theory (which I subscribe to) is prominently championed by blogger Jeff Atwood: When it comes to on-screen real estate, multiple smaller parcels are more efficient than a single large one.

"Instead of wasting time sizing, moving and z-ordering windows, users only need to deal with one maximized window at a time," Atwood wrote in an aptly named entry, The Large Display Paradox, last year. "They can flip between maximized applications in much the same way they change channels on the television."

Or to go back to Carlin: For holding your stuff, several smaller bags are better than one huge sack.

The clincher for me is that opting for several smaller monitors over a single monster one is significantly cheaper. A brand-name 28-in. LCD -- which, in my opinion, is the equivalent to a pair of 19-in. displays -- starts at $500. But you can replicate my dual 19-in. monitor setup (assuming you've already got the notebook) from scratch for about $230, and users willing to tolerate bulky CRTs may be able to assemble all this for about $100.

Here's my guide to boosting on-screen real estate on the cheap.

3 monitors
A recipe for efficiency: From left to right, a 19-in. Dell CRT, a 19-in. ViewSonic LCD, and the 15-in. LCD screen of a ThinkPad T42.

Step 1: Get your monitors.

LCD prices may not be plummeting like they were several years ago, but they are still dropping. As of early July, 19-in. LCDs from respected names such as ViewSonic and NEC went for less than $150 online.

My local Fry's had an even cheaper deal: a 19-in. widescreen LCD from the lesser-known Tyris for $120, after the $30 mail-in rebate (with a free Canon inkjet printer thrown in, too).

While LCD prices are falling, prices for used CRTs are falling off the cliff. In most large U.S. metropolitan areas, you should be able to find a 19-in. CRT in good condition on Craigslist for free.

In Seattle in the past year, I've found a 17-in. Sony Trinitron with a fairly bright, sharp picture; a 19-in. Sony Trinitron (which turned out, alas, to have a failing tube); and a 19-in. Dell flat-screen CRT, which offers a very sharp and pretty bright display. In each case, the owner was overjoyed not to have to haul the 60-pound sucker down to a recycling center and pay to junk it.

If you aren't having any luck, try extending your search to 17-in. CRTs or to 19-inchers going for $25 or less. With some bargaining, you might be able to get it for next to nothing. If you're still having problems, try checking with a recycling center. They often have a supply of tested, working monitors destined for reuse. Or check on Craigslist again after the school year begins and ends, or after Christmas, as these are popular times for consumers to upgrade.

Of course, you may not want to bother with CRTs at all. In his article Extreme energy makeover: Home office edition, my colleague Rob Mitchell dumped his 19-in. CRT for a same-sized LCD because the latter used one-third the electricity, thus reducing his ongoing carbon footprint.

Sounds good. But, as Mitchell also noted, that 60-watt difference only resulted in an annual dollar savings of $18. My view is that, by going with a free CRT, you save at least $120 right away, which would take almost seven years to make up with an LCD. And keeping a perfectly functional CRT out of the landfill for several more years has got to cut your carbon footprint more than buying a new LCD, however energy-efficient.

One gadget you might consider if you go with a CRT is Belkin's new $50 Conserve power strip, which lets you shut off plugged-in gadgets via remote control so that they don't drain power when in standby mode.

Cost for two monitors: between $0 (for two 19-in. CRTs obtained via Craigslist) and $120 (one free CRT, one 19-in. LCD)


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