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Hardware

Forget tablets! Four ways to enhance your desktop computer

While the talk of the computer world in 2010 has centered around tablets, the silent majority remain chained to desktops. Here are four ways to enhance the desktop experience.

It's quite possible that 2010 will be remembered as the year that the tablet revolution began. After Apple's unveiling of the iPad in January, I frankly would never have predicted that the company would sell over 7 million during the product's first six months on the market. It has clearly touched a nerve and a slew of multi-touch tablet copycats are lining up to compete with it.

I also think it's fair to say that the tech world has been a bit over-infatuated with tablets this year — myself included, at times. While tablets are starting to make a lot of sense for workers who spend their days on-the-go, in conference rooms, and on-site with clients, there are still plenty of employees who remain tied to their desks for most of the day and are under a lot of pressure to produce.

For these workers, the desktop computer remains the best tool for the job. And, so we don't forget that this is still the silent majority of computer users, here are four ways to optimize the desktop experience and maximize productivity using some of the latest technologies.

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Photos: Tools to optimize your desktop experience

1. Increase your display size

One of the best ways to kick up your productivity on the desktop is to expand the size of your display so that you can multi-task more quickly, have more room to work with your most-used applications, interact between two applications more easily, and have more room to view large graphs, charts, and reports. With more display space, you to do these tasks with fewer clicks and less scrolling, and that translates into more efficient use of your time.

Fortunately there are more ways than ever to expand your screen space, and at prices that would have boggled our minds just 5-10 years ago. You can add a second monitor to your current setup by purchasing a 20-inch display for $150 or less. If your computer doesn't have a port to run a second monitor, don't run out and buy a new video card or computer, just get a DisplayLink dongle that will let you add a second (or even or third or fourth) monitor via USB.

Or, if you have more resources at your disposal and want a simpler setup then replace your current monitor with the Dell UltraSharp 30-inch U3011 or the Apple 27-inch LED Cinema Display. Both of these displays support a screen resolution of 2560 pixels wide, which makes it easy to have two full applications running side-by-side on one screen. Also, don't overlook the option of using an LCD TV as your primary or secondary computer display. You can get a 26-inch or 32-inch TV for less than the huge Dell or Apple displays and most support up to 1920 pixels wide for lots of viewing space.

2. Switch to a programmable mouse

Mice with extra buttons that you can program have been around for over a decade, but are often under-appreciated and under-utilized by workers. The one demographic that has latched on to programmable mice is gamers, because they can customize the extra buttons to perform better than their competitors. But, everyday workers don't need an expensive gaming mouse to take advantage of the same kind of performance-enhancing customizations.

Almost a decade ago, I started using the Microsoft Intellimouse Optical (which is still available today). It's a mouse that can be used by lefties or righties and it has a customizable button on each side that you can access with the ring finger on one side and the thumb on the other. I used it to set up the right button for Copy and the left button for Paste. Because I do a ton of copy-and-paste everyday in moving text and photos between content management systems, this saves me a lot of time and hassle. I once estimated that this probably saves me 20-30 minutes per day. I'd bet you probably have repetitive tasks that you could assign to these mouse buttons to help shave some time off your routine work. Also, keep in mind that you can customize these buttons on an application-by-application basis.

After the Intellimouse Optical, I later moved on to the Intellimouse Explorer 3.0 and then the Logitech Wireless M510. Both of these are limited to righties because they place the two programmable buttons on left side of the mouse so that a righty can use the thumb to access both of them. This setup is a little faster to operate, if you're a right-hander.

3. Use virtual workspaces

Multi-tasking is a critical part of running an efficient desktop. As mentioned above, you can make multi-tasking easier by giving yourself more screen space with a larger monitor or a multi-monitor setup. However, another way to enhance multi-tasking is to use virtual workspaces (which can be doubly effective if you have multiple monitors).

Virtual workspaces allow you to have what feels like group of different desktop arrangements for your open windows. For example, you could have four workspaces in a grid, and in one you could arrange the windows for your email and instant messaging software, in another you could set up your web browser, and in another you could have your business application(s). You could save the last one for programs that you only need to open temporarily and then close. Then could flip between them with a simple keystroke — typically something like Ctrl+Alt+Arrow Key or Command+Arrow Key (Mac). That way, instead of trying to Alt-Tab through a bunch of windows or trying finding the window your looking for on the Taskbar or Dock, you can use one or two keystrokes to move between several window setups optimized for the way you work.

On both Ubuntu Linux and Mac OS X, virtual workspaces are part of the default installation. It's called "Workspaces" in Ubuntu and "Spaces" on the Mac. Microsoft Windows does not have virtual workspaces installed by default but there are several add-ons that provide the functionality, including Sysinternals Desktops, Dexpot, and VirtuaWin.

4. Add multitouch and/or pen input

Who says multi-touch has to be limited to smartphones and tablets? There are ways to bring multi-touch to the desktop that do not involve turning your computer monitor into a touchscreen. That's an ergonomic nightmare, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs correctly noted recently. A better way to integrate multi-touch is with a touchpad such as Apple's Magic Trackpad or Wacom's Bamboo Touch for Windows. These can be used along side your mouse to use multi-touch gestures for quickly manipulating photos and navigating pages and documents, for example.

The other thing that you can add to your desktop experience to potentially increase capability and productivity is pen-based input. Wacom offers a number of devices that can make this possible such as the Bamboo Pen, but the most interesting options are the Bamboo Pen & Touch and the Bamboo Fun, which both add multi-touch and digital pen input and work on both PC and Mac.

The digital pen input can obviously allow you to digitize hand-drawn notes, diagrams, and sketches, but can also have additional value in things such as photo-editing, where it can provide more granular control over the editing process.

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About

Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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