SolutionBase: Get more productive with a multiple-monitor configuration in WinXP

Take a look at how to set up multiple monitors on PC, and then have Windows XP recognize them and put them to use in a highly-productive configuration.

As you may know, Windows XP includes built-in support for multiple monitors. Unfortunately, many IT professionals consider a multiple-monitor configuration more suitable for graphics work or gaming than for IT work. However, you can apply a multiple monitor configuration to almost any type of work that you do with a computer, and gain productivity advantages from it.

The multiple monitor advantage
I’ve been using a multiple-monitor configuration since the feature first became available in Windows 98, so of course, I may be a little biased. Even so, one of the biggest advantages I find to a multiple-monitor configuration is the amount of time and effort I save when doing any type of multitasking (i.e., running multiple applications). Rather than maximizing and minimizing windows to switch between applications, I simply turn my head from one monitor to the other.

For example, my multiple-monitor configuration consists of three monitors: one 19-inch monitor flanked by two 17-inch monitors. When I’m researching a technical issue, I have Internet Explorer running on the left monitor and Word running on the center monitor. As I track down relevant information, I can easily jot down notes in my Word document. If I need to double-check anything on the Web page, I just glance over. The right monitor is running Outlook, so while I’m doing my research, I can glance over at my Inbox when new e-mail arrives and quickly determine if it’s important enough to interrupt what I'm doing.

Of course this is just one example, and I normally have more than one application running on each monitor. But the point is that a multiple monitor configuration can really help you increase your efficiency when multitasking.

So, if you have a spare monitor and video card at your disposal, you might want to experiment with a multiple-monitor configuration.

I’m going to give you a detailed look at what you need to set up a multiple-monitor configuration. As I do, I’ll show you how to configure Windows XP to recognize and use multiple monitors.

Looking at video cards
While you can track down and purchase dual port video cards pretty easily these days, you really don’t have to go that route for a multiple-monitor setup. Instead, you can simply add a second video card to your system and configure it to work in tandem with your existing video card as long as both cards come with drivers that support a multiple-monitor configuration.

Since AGP is the standard video adapter in most computers these days, chances are good that your system currently has an AGP card. And, since there is typically only one AGP slot on most motherboards, the second video adapter that you’ll add will be a PCI card. In fact, for a multiple-monitor configuration, Windows XP requires that the primary and secondary video cards be either PCI or AGP video cards.

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that while the majority of the more popular video cards (both AGP and PCI) come with drivers that support multiple-monitor configurations, not all do. For an official listing of the supported video cards, you should investigate the Microsoft Knowledge Base article “Hardware Requirements for Multiple-Display Support in Windows XP.” As you do, keep in mind that this document lists those video cards whose multiple-monitor-capable drivers are included on the Windows XP CD. Other video cards that have been released since Windows XP shipped may also come with drivers that support multiple-monitor configurations, so you’ll need to check with the video card manufacturer (you can probably download the drivers from the company's Web site).

How many monitors can you use?
As I mentioned, my multiple-monitor configuration consists of three monitors, but the most typical configuration is for two monitors. However, I’ve seen working configurations that consisted of four and six monitors, and in fact, Windows XP can actually support up to ten monitors.

Installing the secondary video card
Installing a secondary PCI video card is a pretty straightforward procedure. Just open the box and install the card as you would any PCI card. While it shouldn’t really matter these days, just to be on the safe side, I recommend that you install the video card to the first PCI slot on your motherboard. Check your system documentation or contact your system manufacturer to find out which PCI slot on the motherboard is designated as number 1.

The reason that I recommend using PCI slot number 1 for the secondary video card, goes back to the Windows 98 days when configuring a multiple-monitor setup on the early AGP-enabled motherboards was a bit more complicated due to problems with the primary and secondary video settings in the BIOS when using both AGP and PCI video cards in the same system. Putting the secondary video card to the first PCI slot was a common workaround. Anyway, old habits die hard and I’ve never had any problems setting up a multiple monitor configuration when putting the secondary PCI video card to the first PCI slot, so I prefer to stick to that method.

Setting up the secondary video card
After you install the secondary video card and connect it to a second monitor then you’re ready to configure Windows XP to use the video card. When you turn on your system, Windows XP will recognize the new video card and the attached monitor and install drivers for both.

At this point, you’ll want to make sure the hardware is installed correctly. To do so, access Device Manager and double-click the Display Adapters icon. When you do, you’ll see two video cards listed.

In my test configuration, I added a 3DFX Voodoo3 PCI video card to my testing system, which already had an ATI Rage 128 Pro AGP video card. As you can see in Figure A, the Device Manager shows both video cards and both monitors.

Figure A
Once Windows XP installs the drivers for the secondary video card, you’ll find both your cards in the Device Manager.

Of course, you can verify that the secondary video card is functioning correctly by double-clicking its icon to bring up the properties dialog box. As you can see in Figure B, the Device Status panel indicates that the 3DFX Voodoo3 PCI video card is working properly and that the card is indeed in PCI slot number 1.

Figure B
You can see that the 3DFX Voodoo3 PCI video card is in PCI slot number 1 and is working properly.

Enabling the secondary video card
Once you verify that card is installed correctly, you are ready to enable it. To do so, right-click on the desktop and select Properties. When the Display Properties dialog box appears, select the Settings tab. When you do, you’ll see two monitors in the middle of the page, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
The Settings tab of the Display Properties dialog box will show two monitors.

To enable the secondary monitor, click its icon, and then select the Extend My Windows Desktop Onto This Monitor check box. Then it becomes active, as shown in Figure D. You can set the screen resolution and color quality and click Apply. When you adjust the resolution of the second monitor, its icon will change size accordingly.

Figure D
Once you select the secondary monitor icon, you can select the Extend My Windows Desktop Onto This Monitor check box.

You’ll then be prompted to confirm the changes. As soon as you do, you’ll see the second monitor come to life.

UltraMon: An essential multiple monitor companion
While it’s great that Windows XP provides you with built-in support for multiple monitors, it’s too bad that it didn’t take the next step and provide you with some additional functionality. Fortunately, Realtime Soft stepped up to the plate and created UltraMon. This handy utility allows you to really take advantage of multiple monitors by providing such features as the Smart Taskbar, which allows you to put a taskbar on your additional monitors. Other features allow you to easily move windows from monitor to monitor with the click of a button and control which windows your applications appear on when you launch them. For more details on these and UltraMon’s other features, see Deb Shinder’s article, “Three great add-on utility applications for Microsoft Windows XP.” In addition to creating UltraMon, Realtime Soft provides a vast list of resources for multiple-monitor users including a forum, a huge database and gallery of multiple-monitor configurations, and links to all sorts of multiple-monitor products and reviews.

Configuring the monitors’ virtual positions
Once you’ve brought your second monitor online, you can click the Identify button, which displays a number on each monitor that corresponds to the icons on the Settings tab. These numbers represent what I call the monitors’ virtual positions. In other words, the positions of the monitor icons and the corresponding numbers control how you drag icons and windows from one monitor to the other. For instance, in my example configuration with monitor 1 on the left and monitor 2 on the right, you’ll drag icons and windows to the left from 1 to 2 and vice versa.

If you want to experiment with other configurations, simply click and drag one of the monitor icons to a different position and click Apply. When you do, you’ll discover that you’ll need to drag icons and windows in a different direction to go back and forth.

Configuring the monitors’ physical positions
If you want to change the monitors’ physical positions, you’ll of course need to lift and move each one—just a little multiple-monitor humor there.

But seriously, you can actually change which monitor acts as your primary monitor and thus essentially change the monitors’ positions. To do so, click on the monitor icon identified as number 2 and select the Use This Device As The Primary Monitor check box and click Apply.

When you do, the change won’t be immediately apparent until you reboot your system. When you do, you’ll see the Turn Off Computer dialog box and subsequently the Windows Is Shutting Down screen appear on your second monitor.

When the system restarts, you’ll see the standard BIOS messages appear as well as the initial Windows XP startup screen appear on the first monitor. This is because the AGP video card is still listed as the primary in the BIOS.

However, the login dialog box will appear on the second monitor and as soon as you log in, you’ll see all your desktop icons appear on the second monitor. The Taskbar will still appear on the first monitor, but you can easily move it with a drag and drop operation. Of course, if the Taskbar is locked, you’ll need to unlock it first. Once you move the Taskbar, it will remain on the second monitor, which at this point is now the primary monitor for all practical purposes.

End sum
Using multiple monitors definitely has the potential for making your work easier and more efficient. For an IT department, a multiple monitor-configuration can also be useful in a server room for setting up several different monitoring programs across different monitors.

By Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.