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Build a three-screen workstation for $230 or less

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

Step 2: Hook up the monitors.

Until several years ago, running multiple monitors usually required a desktop PC equipped with a video card for each additional monitor. If you had a notebook, the best you could do is connect it to a single external monitor.

That changed in 2005 when graphics card maker Matrox Corp. released its DualHead2Go. Essentially an external video card in a fist-sized plastic case, the DualHead2Go connects two monitors to a laptop via a USB port. The VGA version supports up to 1280 x 1024 resolution for each screen, while the digital DVI version supports up to 1920 x 1200 per monitor.

The big caveat with the DualHead2Go (which costs between $160 and $210 online, depending on whether you get the analog or digital version), and the even more ambitious TripleHead2Go (which costs between $250 and $300, minimum), is that both products actually create one ultrawide desktop that spans two or three monitors. Users can split up the desktop into smaller windows using Matrox's PowerDesk software. But it appeared to me to be a somewhat kludgy solution that adds extra steps.

These days, most people can make do with external USB video cards, such as Tritton Technologies' See2 adapter, Kensington's Dual Monitor Adapter and Iogear's USB 2.0 External VGA Video Card. All cost $100 or less and let you add a single monitor each. Many use chip technology and software from DisplayLink, which is rapidly emerging as the standard for this technology on the Windows side. DisplayLink has also released a beta driver that should enable any of its partners' products to work with Intel Macs running Mac OS X.

As for me -- while Iogear's product is not the cheapest of the three listed above (at a list price of $99.95), I was so impressed with the demo version that I went out and bought my own online for $70.

3 monitors
Smaller than the proverbial pack of cards, the Iogear nevertheless does a flicker-free job of powering the Dell CRT.
Smaller than the proverbial pack of cards, the Iogear nevertheless does a flicker-free job of powering my Dell CRT at 1280 x 1024 resolution and 32-bit color. Watching YouTube videos or DVD movies is rarely a problem, either. The only hiccups I encounter are ones I can also find on a single-screen setup, such as when I've got half-a-dozen apps open or the ThinkPad's fan is running full blast.

Iogear also offers a digital DVI version for large LCD monitors that can support up to 1600 x 1200 resolution. It lists for $149.99.

Cost for Iogear External USB Video Card: $70 (street)

Step 3: Take control of your monitors.

Most of the video adapters you choose will come with their own window management software. For example, DisplayLink Manager, which ships with the Iogear and many others, is competent at adjusting the settings of your various windows, and even has some rudimentary shortcuts.

But power users looking for more features will want to look elsewhere.

Realtime Soft's UltraMon, the crème de la crème of multimonitor software, has two unique features: the ability to set hot keys for common commands and the ability to "remember" how big and where you like your application windows to open. UltraMon also lets you easily move windows from screen to screen, adjusting to changes in dimension, e.g., from a wide-screen monitor to a conventional 4:3 one.

UltraMon also lets you create different wallpapers and screensavers for each monitor. For power users, this $40 Swiss-made Windows utility is worth every penny. Note: It's compatible with most video adapters with the glaring exception of the Matrox Dual/TripleHead2Go products.

MediaChance's free MultiMonitor task bar is for users who don't want to pay $40 and mainly want the ability to quickly send app windows from one monitor to the next.

DisplayFusion, from Binary Fortress, claims to offer nearly all of UltraMon's features, apart from letting users preset how and where app windows open. It does allow users to search for and download images from Flickr for wallpaper purposes. DisplayFusion costs $10 for the full version and requires Microsoft's .Net Framework 2.0.

Cost: $40 for UltraMon, $10 or free for other utilities

More choices

There are other alternatives. You could consider a video-enabled laptop docking port, such as Lenovo's Enhanced USB Port Replicator (prices ranging from $109 to $163), or Toshiba's Dynadock (which runs around $135). These let you add an extra monitor along with half a dozen USB ports to any brand of laptop.

Or if you go by the theory that today's 19-in. LCD is yesterday's obsolete 15-incher, then you could opt for a single larger LCD today and plan to add a similar-sized one in the future. Of course, you'll pay more: 28-in. LCDs start at $500, while Apple's 30-in. Cinema Display, the Lexus of LCDs, costs about $1,800. With something that big, you can use utilities such as Microsoft's Virtual Desktop Manager, which let you simulate multiple desktops on a single screen.

Still, I prefer my thriftily assembled trio of monitors. Am I always three times more productive than when I am working in a café on my lone laptop screen? No, sometimes it just means I am procrastinating three times as much. But when deadlines rear their ugly head, there's no place I'd rather be than in front of my triple-headed home office.

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