The Virtues of a Second Screen

Illustration by The New York Times

Published: April 20, 2006

Fervent computer gamers and the detectives on "N.C.I.S." do it, but I had no plans to add a second monitor to my computer system — not until I bought an upgraded video card for my PC and noted it had output connections for two monitors. Once I saw that, I could not resist dusting off my old 14-inch monitor and plugging it in along with my new 19-inch L.C.D.

Recent Windows and Mac computers (and some Linux systems) can operate with multiple monitors; with my computer's Windows XP operating system, it took only a few keystrokes and mouse movements to set things up. Once I saw how it improved my productivity, I was an instant convert.

I should not have been surprised. Survey after survey shows that whether you measure your productivity in facts researched, alien spaceships vaporized, or articles written, adding an extra monitor will give your output a considerable boost — 20 percent to 30 percent, according to a survey by Jon Peddie Research.

So now, while I am editing this article on my main screen, the screen beside it shows the outline or earlier draft I am working from — and, sometimes, Web sites or other documents I keep referring to.

When I edit photos, the second screen lets me compare the copy I am working on with the original, or shows tool palettes and thumbnails of other images, and I can blow up panoramic shots for closer viewing (though with a bar down the middle, like the central pillar of an old car's windshield). When I am shopping on the Web, my two screens let me compare products. When I work on tables or spreadsheets, I can see all the columns at once. When I expect important messages, I keep my e-mail program open on the side monitor while I work on something else.

With a single monitor, I could jump between applications with a mouse click or a keyboard command (Alt-Tab, in Windows), but not nearly as fast — and small delays add up when you repeat them dozens or even hundreds of times a day. With my dual displays, I simply sweep my mouse from one screen to the other.

Speed is one reason computer game players use multiple monitors. "If you're trying to take over the world, it's rather helpful," says Bill Blomgren, a computer consultant in Charlotte, N.C.

Video game enthusiasts use as many monitors as they can find the money and the desk space for. "Some of my hard-core gamer buddies rock three, even four, monitors for really immersive 3-D shooters," says John Walsh, a writer and reporter for the cable channel G4TV in Los Angeles.

Many games, especially those that offer a choice of camera views (including Quake and Doom), are explicitly designed for multiple screens, but the option seems most popular for Microsoft Flight Simulator. Users of that program may use separate screens for the instrument panel, maps, panoramic views ahead, views to the side, and exterior views of their virtual aircraft. (A sampling is at

Adding monitors is just one way to gain added screen space, of course. A monitor with a 24-inch screen would offer about 50 percent more screen area than a single 19-inch model and would take up less desk space than two 19-inchers (less than two feet from side to side, versus about 33 inches for a pair of 19-inchers).

But for my applications, at least, the extra width of a two-screen array seems more useful than the extra height of a larger single screen. And where more height would be useful — reading Web pages, for example — some 19-inch and smaller screens can pivot from the normal "landscape" position to the more upright "portrait" mode.

Further, a pair of smaller screens will usually cost less than a single big one. While a 24-inch Dell "wide aspect" screen is now about $1,000, a pair of 19-inch Dells could cost as little as $550 — about half that if you already had one 19-inch monitor, and even less if you found one of the many bargains available in displays that size. If you are willing to use a smaller monitor for your second display, you can save even more; 17-inch flat-panel monitors, for example, are often less than $200 each.

A pair of independent monitors just sitting side by side look functional but hardly stylish, and their separate bases occupy a lot of desk space. For about $200, you can attach two flat-panel monitors to a stand with a single pedestal, like those made by Ergotron, Mass Engineered Design, Zenview, 9X Media, Ladybug and DoubleSight. Stands that stack two monitors instead of placing them side by side are also available, as are models holding three or four displays.

Adding more monitor outputs to a computer is usually not difficult. For desktop PC's, you can either add a second graphics card (the board that links your computer to your monitor) or replace your single-output graphics card with a dual-output model (about $80 and up) — and probably get other improvements (like faster screen response for games) in the bargain.

You can add more video cards if two screens are not enough and your computer has the slots to hold them, or buy triple and quad cards from Matrox and Nvidia. (Just make sure you get a card that fits your computer's graphics slot: PCI, AGP or PCI Express. Your computer's manual should tell you this, or you can run the system scanner software at

If you have a laptop computer, or are reluctant to delve into your computer or hire a technician, you can use the Matrox DualHead2Go, or Tritton SEE2 adapters. The DualHead2Go ($169, plugs into the VGA monitor output of laptops and some desktop computers; the SEE2 ($99, retailers listed at plugs into a U.S.B. 2.0 socket.

And that gives me an idea: Adding a second monitor turned out to be the easiest, most cost-effective and significant improvement in my work since I replaced my modem with high-speed cable. Now if I can just rig my laptop as a third screen ... hmmm.