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Double the Fun with Multiple Monitors

When Tonya and I were visiting family a few months back, we learned that Geoff Duncan was in a panic after experiencing a catastrophic hardware failure back at TidBITS Headquarters. The dead hardware was not a computer or a hard disk, but one of his two monitors, which had gone out with a puff of smoke. Understanding the urgency of the situation, we immediately told Geoff to borrow a monitor from one of our machines while we were away; luckily, he already had a line on borrowing a 17-inch monitor from another friend.

By now you’re thinking, "Surely you only need a single monitor!" After all, that’s what most people have, want, or think they can use. However, I’d argue that adding a second monitor to your Macintosh is possibly the single most important thing you can do to improve your productivity (assuming you have a relatively fast Mac with enough RAM).

Why Two? Here’s the basic argument for why anyone who does serious work on the Mac needs two monitors. For most users, the Macintosh interface is graphical. The important information in the interface is what you see on the screen, and you constantly interact with what you see, generally via an external pointing device. If we assume a monitor is necessary for a graphical interface, it’s a small step to agree that a larger monitor is better than a smaller monitor. Almost no one would choose the small built-in screen of an SE/30 over a 13-inch monitor with 640 by 480 pixels. Similarly, given sufficient desk space, a 13-inch monitor would be rejected instantly in favor of a 17-inch monitor that could provide 832 by 624 pixels. Most 17-inch monitors can run at different resolutions, so 1,024 by 768 pixels is usable if your eyes are good. In fact, most people immediately set their monitors to the highest possible resolution for the simple reason that they can see more onscreen.

In short, the more pixels, the better. A 640 by 480 resolution provides 307,200 pixels; an 832 by 624 resolution comes in at 519,168 pixels; and 1024 by 768 increases the total to 786,432. Obviously, one way to get more pixels is to buy a bigger monitor or to run your existing monitor at a higher resolution (check the Monitors & Sound control panel for the possibilities – not all will work, but it’s worth playing with). That’s exactly what PC users do.

But we’re not PC users, and we’re not using PCs.

If you install a video card in your Mac (most Macs have internal video for the first monitor) and connect another monitor to that video card, the Macintosh will Do the Right Thing and treat the two monitors as a single, big desktop space. This is nothing new – with the right system software and monitor adapters, I believe even the Mac Plus and SE can support multiple monitors (though you’ll have a tough time finding the necessary hardware and software now). Add a cheap 13-inch monitor running at 640 by 480 to your 17-inch monitor running at 1,024 by 768, and suddenly you jump from 786,432 pixels to a whopping 1,075,632 pixels.

Expansion Strategies — So far, my platform has been based on the single plank that more pixels are better. Although this seems self-explanatory, most people don’t realize how to take advantage of extra screen real estate. Desktop publishing folks were the first to adopt larger monitors because they wanted to see a full page – or even a two-page spread – without scrolling. That rationale is still the most common: people want to see more of a word processing document, more of a Web page, more of a spreadsheet, or whatever. When I wrote my Eudora book, I had to write in QuarkXPress using an existing template file. The font sizes were too small to read comfortably on screen unless I zoomed to 150 percent, but then I couldn’t fit a two-page spread on one screen, even on my large monitors. So, every time I opened one of my documents, I sized its window across both my screens (QuarkXPress remembered window size and position, but only on a single monitor) so that I could see one page on each monitor. Decadent, perhaps, but being able to avoid constant scrolling left and right saved me a good deal of time and frustration.


In fact, working with a single window spanning both my monitors is extremely unusual. Normally, when I write a book, I position my Nisus Writer document on one monitor and keep the program about which I’m writing on the other. Some publishers require full-screen screenshots, so it’s handy to take screenshots without hiding and showing different applications. When I’ve had to write cross-platform Internet books, I open a Timbuktu Pro window to the PC and position that on my secondary monitor so I can write without jumping back and forth between machines.

Even with the utility of two monitors while writing books, it’s the day-to-day usage that makes the difference for me. I work in essentially four applications all the time, a Web browser (currently Internet Explorer 4.0), an email program (Eudora Pro 4.0), a word processor (Nisus Writer 5.1), and a calendar program (Now Up-to-Date 3.5). Those four programs – plus a few others like The Tilery (an application launcher), the FTP client Anarchie, and Webster’s Electronic dictionary – launch at startup. Those programs which open windows place their windows in precisely predefined positions each time, and I almost never move those windows. The final piece of the puzzle is Binary Software’s KeyQuencer, which I use to switch between applications using the function keys at the top of the keyboard.

The result is that with a single mouse click or keypress, I’ve switched to an application. At the same time, my gaze moves to the appropriate spot on my desktop. For instance, if I’m reading email from a friend suggesting lunch, I can check for possible dates with a press of F15 and a glance into the upper left corner of my secondary monitor, where Now Up-to-Date’s month view and to-do list windows always live. A click back to the email message on my primary monitor and I can reply to the message while still viewing my calendar. Similarly, if I’m writing an article and I need to verify a URL, F12 brings Internet Explorer to the front on my secondary monitor, I enter the appropriate URL, and while the page loads, I switch back to the Nisus Writer document on my primary screen and keep typing. Once I notice there’s no more motion from the Web browser window on the secondary monitor, I glance back to see if the information I need is visible, or work back and forth between the Web and my document.

Few people work the way I do, but I bet many people use multiple applications and have felt frustrated by the window clutter on a too-small desktop.

Multiple Monitor Theory — Here are some thoughts on using multiple monitors effectively. I’ve tested these theories on Tonya – who hates being told how to do things – and even she admits these techniques work.

First, make one monitor your primary and the other your secondary. If your monitors are different sizes, make the bigger one your primary monitor. Do this by opening the Monitors & Sounds control panel, clicking the Arrange button at the top, and then dragging the menu bar on the little representative monitors to the larger screen. Choose resolutions and rearrange the monitors as you want as well before closing the Monitors & Sound Control panel. Under System 7.5 and earlier, you can do similar things using the Monitors control panel.

You can arrange the monitors any way you like, but I always make the primary monitor my right-hand monitor because then the default position for drives, the Trash, and new files on the desktop is at the right margin of the right-hand screen, which is almost always visible. If you make your left-hand monitor the primary screen, those icons will still appear on the right-hand side, but that’s now in the middle of your working space and they’re more likely to be covered while you’re working. The goal here is maximum visibility, since moving windows and hiding applications wastes time. In addition, since most applications create new windows on the left-hand side of the primary monitor, I find it’s better to have your primary work window be toward the middle of your virtual desktop than at the left-hand side of the left-hand monitor.

Once you’ve decided on your monitor arrangement, think for a moment about the applications you use most often and classify them as "active" or "passive." Active applications are those into which you type, draw, or generally work. Passive applications are those in which you mostly just read. For me, Eudora and Nisus Writer are active applications: I focus on them constantly while dealing with email and or composing text. In contrast, Internet Explorer and Now Up-to-Date are passive applications. Though I may type a URL into Internet Explorer or create an event in Now Up-to-Date, I mostly look at them for reference while working in Eudora or Nisus Writer. You might also categorize a few windows in the Finder the same way, depending on how frequently you manipulate files.

If you have the RAM for it, launch commonly used applications at startup by placing aliases to them in the Startup Items folder. (Tonya uses a shareware utility called Delayed Startup Items to launch her frequently used programs shortly but not immediately after startup. This saves her from waiting for everything to launch before getting to work.) Most programs have only one or two main windows or palettes (which could be considered a subset of passive applications, depending on how you use them), so take some time to arrange those windows on your desktop, putting active applications on your primary monitor and passive applications on your secondary monitor. Remember that the goal is maximum visibility, so, for instance, I ensure that Internet Explorer’s window on my secondary monitor doesn’t quite reach the bottom of the screen, where I have four docked Finder windows (a feature of Mac OS 8). Although those docked windows are available from the Finder, they also open from another application with a single click.

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Speaking of the Finder, if you like to use drag & drop, consider positioning copies of StuffIt Expander, DropStuff, and maybe your desktop printers on your secondary monitor near the bottom right, which isn’t likely to be covered. I like using Rick Holzgrafe’s The Tilery to provide tiles for active applications and a few others – I generally have it draw tiles vertically down the right edge of the secondary monitor, which puts a visual interface to my active applications in the middle of my work space. If something covers it, it’s not a big deal since I have multiple ways of switching between applications.


After you set window positions, work with them for a day or two, noting when it seems awkward to use an application on the secondary monitor or when you must hide applications to switch back and forth easily. Once you find the best positions for your standard windows, don’t move them! Much of the productivity gain of multiple monitors is that you can be assured your calendar window, for instance, will always be in the same place. Think of how annoying it would be if the keyhole for your car door moved every few days rather than staying put.

Negatives — I won’t pretend that there aren’t problems created by working with two monitors. There’s the expense. You must purchase a video card (although a few Mac models, including some of the first NuBus Power Macs, came with a video card in addition to the internal video port). New cards start at about $200 and go up to about $500. Similarly, you’ll need another monitor, and new monitors can range from $200 to $2,000. If you’re not independently wealthy, I recommend scavenging for a video card and monitor. If you know anyone who uses two monitors and has upgraded to a new computer, they probably have an extra video card. My previous desktop Mac, a Centris 660AV, is doing backup work now and doesn’t need two monitors, so I lent its NuBus video card – which I couldn’t use in my PCI-based Power Mac 8500 – to a friend with a Power Mac 7100. Monitors can be easy to come by, since many people start with a relatively small monitor and are happy to sell it when they upgrade to a larger one. The best place to look for used equipment like this is your local user group.

If you have two monitors of different sizes, your Mac’s desktop won’t be rectangular, but you can arrange the screens so they work. I like the top edges of the monitors to be at the same level, and I’ll put blocks under the smaller monitor so that both screens line up. Two identical monitors are ideal, though.

If you want to join the multiple monitor crowd, you need a desk that can support the weight. For years, my desk was a hollow-core door that wasn’t strong in the middle, and I couldn’t use my first 21-inch monitor for several months because my desk couldn’t support it. When shopping for a new desk at IKEA (see "You Move Me" and "Keep on Moving" in TidBITS-301 and TidBITS-302), I surreptitiously sat on one before buying to test for strength.



Physical position is important. Position your primary monitor so you can look straight at it – cranking your neck constantly is guaranteed to cause health problems. I have my monitors positioned so the gap created by where the cases meet is directly in front of me, and both monitors are rotated in towards each other slightly, giving me an almost direct view of both with minimal motion of my head.

The final problem caused by multiple monitors is that moving around that much desktop space can be difficult. I tend to set the speed settings on my Kensington TurboMouse trackball fairly high so I can zip around quickly. I’ve never gotten the hang of the TurboMouse feature that sets "sticky" spots on the screen and jumps to them quickly. It’s possible that trackballs work better with large desktops; however, both Tonya and Geoff prefer to use a mouse. Finally, before Mac OS 8 came out with its Command-Delete keyboard shortcut for deleting selected files, I used to make an alias to the Trash and place it on the second monitor, to shorten the distance to the Trash.

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Maximize Productivity — Apple has never sufficiently promoted the capabilities of most Macs with regard to multiple monitors. I say "most Macs" because recent PowerBooks can only do "video mirroring," a confusing term that means the image on one screen is duplicated on the second. When I raised that as a significant issue with the PowerBook product managers, they blamed the limitation on companies that took advantage of their PC development to cut costs on the PowerBook video controllers. They claimed to be working with these companies to bring complete video support back to the PowerBook video controllers, but those folks left Apple shortly thereafter to start another company.

That whining aside, support for multiple monitors has long been a great differentiator for the Macintosh, and one that both the Mac community and Apple would do well to encourage and explain. For years, PCs were incapable of using multiple monitors to create a larger desktop. Now, at least Matrox offers a video card that can support multiple monitors when used with Windows NT, and Windows 98 is supposed to offer multiple monitor support as well. Will Apple expand and enhance this fabulous existing capability, or will it gradually become yet another feature that Macs had and PCs popularize?


Reportedly, multiple monitor support is considered a "must have" feature for Rhapsody, and it should even work on Intel-based machines with the proper video cards. In addition, Rhapsody DR1 is supposed to support multiple monitors already. I’d be unlikely to switch to Rhapsody when it comes out if it won’t support my monitors. Protected memory, preemptive multitasking, and a fully functional Blue Box wouldn’t make up for the loss.

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