Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Raising the Monitor

September 2002

By Mike Gould

So I got 3 monitors. I decided that 2 weren't enough and 4 were just too gosh-darn many. Monitor 1, monitor 2, monitor 3, across my desk, next to each other. The left one is a 15 inch LCD el cheapo made by Envision, the middle one is a gorgeous Apple 17" LCD jobbie, and the one on the right is a mundane Sony 15" CRT, just like most folks have.

Glossary: LCD: Liquid Crystal Display, like what is in your Palm Pilot CRT: Cathode Ray Tube, like what is in your TV set.

Why would anyone need 3 monitors? Well, what I really need is a 23" LCD Apple Cinema Display, but I am short a few thousand dollars, so I'm doing the next best thing. I need a lot of visual real estate because I build Web sites, and this process requires having a lot of windows open at the same time. And this is a good way to recycle old equipment; when you get that cool, bigger monitor you've always wanted, you set up the old, smaller one next to it as a complement.

Macs have supported multiple monitors for decades, and newer PCs can also support them, so if you got 'em, use 'em. The new Mac G4 that I got in February supports 2 monitors out of the box. The video card supports my new LCD monitor and my Sony. The LCD is a digital device requiring a special connector, and the suitably-equipped card that came with the G4 has an additional conventional RGB connector for the Sony. Usually you need 2 cards for this.

The Sony on the right displays the Web page I am building. If a page fits comfortably on this monitor, I know I can address the most basic user out there, and he or she won't have to scroll the page sideways (a WWW design no-no). Ideally, my page will also accommodate a user with a 17" monitor, so I test it on my big middle monitor as well.

The monitor in the middle is my main screen - a super-sharp, high-resolution bit of eye candy that is as good as it gets for less than a grand. On this monitor I do all my coding. All the fincky bits and bytes of HTML that make up a Web page are precisely depicted, making trouble shooting easier and causing a lot less eyestrain than the 17" CRT my new monitor replaced. Being an LCD, my new monitor is about an inch deep, instead of the 2 feet my old monitor inhabited. This saves a considerable amount of desk space and makes grubbing about behind the monitors easier, when I have to play around with the wiring back there. And it's nice to think I no longer have an electron gun spraying who-knows-what atomic particles in my face all day, as with a conventional CRT.

One thing to be aware of when selecting an LCD monitor: the monitor looks best at its maximum resolution. The resolution of a monitor has to do with a number of issues I'm too lazy to go into here, but the upshot is: more resolution=sharper images BUT SMALLER (especially type).

With a conventional monitor, you can kick up the size of the lettering by lowering the resolution, and everything looks OK. With an LCD, when you lower the resolution, the letters get bigger but they are not as sharp. I had a client that complained about this, and I told him to try the high resolution for a day. He called back to say that, yep, the letters are smaller, but they are so sharp that it is not a problem. I also recommend that users of a certain age get specialized reading glasses that are pre-focused for computer use (i.e., an arms-length away). Ordinary reading glasses are OK, but they are focused for a shorter distance.

Now about that third monitor Now as much joy as the two above monitors brought me, I was still not satisfied. I frequently have to have a Word document open, as I cut and paste text from it to my Web page coding. I found I still had to have overlapping windows open, which became annoying when juggling several documents simultaneously. So off I went to CompUSA and bought the cheapest 15" LCD monitor I could find (around $290 at the time). Having a spare video card, left over from my previous system, I popped that into the G4, hooked up the third monitor, fired it up, and Blammo (a technical term), a computer desktop that spans around 3 feet. Running the Mac OS, the three monitors act as one big virtual monitor. I can amaze clients by dragging a window from the left monitor clear to the right one. The image spans the monitor edges, disappearing from one and appearing on the next seamlessly, except for the seams at the actual edges of the monitors. (You buy an expensive, 23" LCD monitor, you get to do this with one monitor, and no seams.)

So who needs this, anyway? This sort of setup lends itself best to those of us in the graphic arts or publishing fields - art on one monitor, tool palettes on the other, etc. But if you are a heavy Excel user, think of the humonguous spreadsheets that you don't have to scroll through sideways. You could put a blank column where the seams are and spread your sheets like crazy. Or if you do a lot of editing in Word, you could have big windows open side-by-side for copying and pasting.

And woo hoo, it sure does impress the clients. One was later heard to remark: "I've just been to the Bat Cave".

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