Thursday, January 11, 2007

Seeing the World in a New Way

The more I think about it – which isn’t much, by the way – the more I want a multiple monitor set-up for my computer.

I don’t do a lot of work at home. In fact, I do as little work from home as I possibly can. I have a supremely uncomfortable computer chair, and that’s a lot of the problem. I have a lame computer desk – it’s basically a flat table with 4 legs, and that’s it – and that doesn’t help matters. But I like the computer – so far, it’s been (mostly) trouble-free and does the things I want it to do when I want it to do them.

How do you define “work,” though? For me, work is what I do for a living; the things that I do to earn my wages. Long ago, I was a computer technician. I made my living, earned my wages and paid my bills, by fixing computer hardware- and software-related issues. I don’t do that anymore, and I haven’t for a couple of years, and that’s fine with me. When I came home from work, the last thing I wanted to do was computer repair work (just ask my poor wife, who couldn’t get me to do anything for her computer without a fight). Now that I don’t do that anymore, I still hate doing computer repair work, but I’m a bit more willing to roll up my sleeves and make it happen than I was a couple of years ago.

Right now, I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing for my living, but I’m certain I can’t do it at home, so that’s really a non-issue. So, what’s “doing work at home” mean to me now?

Again, I’m not sure, but based on the things I like to do with my computer at home, I suppose that it means doing the things I like to do with my computer. That’s doing “work” at home in this context. With that definition cleared up, here are some of the reasons that I have for wanting a multiple-monitor set-up for my workstation. These are as much justification tests for myself as they are reasons to convince my loving and not especially resistant spouse for the need; she may see some things here that apply to her too, and since she spends a lot more time on the computer at home than I do, she’s probably more deserving of the set-up than I am. So, before I digress even more from the topic, here are some of the things I do with my computer at home:

  1. Programming. I spend as much time programming and learning programming at home as I can, which means not very much at all. One of the great things about a multiple-monitor set-up is that it enables coding and debugging to take place side-by-side with the execution of the program. Very handy, and a huge increase in productivity (this has been confirmed in multiple studies wherein people not only increased their productivity with multiple monitors, but they preferred two smaller monitors over one huge one every time, with no exceptions). Since I’m a novice programmer and make a lot of mistakes, not having to toggle between the coding window and program execution for testing and debugging would be a boon.

  2. Gaming. Okay, I do less gaming than programming, so you have an idea of what that’s like there. But it would be nice not to have the game I’m playing commandeer the resolution setting of my computer so that the CPU fights to get back to the original settings when I switch back to my normal desktop. This way, the game can have one controller all to itself, and the PC can run the normal desktop on another, and that will fix the problem of toggling in and out of the game along with the delay in restoration of the desktop. For my beloved, she loves to play The Sims; it’s a graphic-intensive game, if you’ve been under a rock for the last decade and haven’t seen it yet. It’s her favorite pass-time and she’s constantly having to save, pause and ALT-TAB her way out of it do use the computer for anything else, so she only wants to launch the game when it’s going to be uninterrupted time for her to play. With two kids and a demanding husband (who is working on being less so), that’s really unlikely. Since she’s everything from my accountant to my research assistant, she’s switching in and out of the game a lot while playing. Multiple monitors would enable her not to have to do that, and with multiple video controllers, again, the game gets a dedicated controller so the machine won’t have to fight with resolution adjustments.

  3. Email. Yes, I check email, and I’d like to have my email open along with having my search engine of choice open and maybe my favorite team’s homepage too. I’d like to have eBay and Amazon both up simultaneously. While I can do that to some degree now, particularly with tabbed browsing-enabled browsers like Mozilla Firefox or IE 7, it’s more convenient still to have separate windows open under certain circumstances, and not have to toggle amongst them to view. With only 19” worth of real estate on our monitors, cascading or tiling windows only goes so far. The solution? Multiple monitors, of course! Again, my beloved would put me to shame on this one; she can have Outlook express checking all her email accounts open while also having her web-based email accounts which won’t download to OE open too, and never have to toggle. Toggling is annoying.

  4. Writing. I like to have the option of opening many different documents to peruse them, copy and paste from them, and have an Internet page or two open at the same time. This is a lot, and I mean a LOT, easier in a multiple-monitor situation. I can also have a spreadsheet or two open, along with the coding window behind that spreadsheet showing my VBA macros code. That’s kind of like programming, though, so I won’t beat that dead horse. I like to journal, too, and this way, I can have the journal open all the time with other applications running and never have issues with the two of them crashing into each other. In this, I have my sweetie beat. I journal, I blog (duh), and sometimes I even write fiction.

  5. Drawing/graphics. It would be nice to have a web tutorial on Photoshop drawing available without it hiding behind Photoshop so that I can walk through the tutorial and actually DO the steps I’m reading about without having to switch back and forth between the two programs. Again, tiling the windows or cascading them only goes so far with limited visual real estate, and I feel that for making artwork on the computer, a multiple-monitor situation solves all the problems that come with it … and the ones that come from learning it. I’m the only one in the house that draws on the computer, so my lovely has nothing to relate to here.

  6. Instant Messaging. It would be nice to communicate with friends and acquaintances without having to shut down this or get out of that to do so. Multiple monitors would enable having IM programs out of the way without being invisible, or being left closed because they annoy me while I’m trying to work.

I can probably think of more, if I spend enough time doing so, but that’s really the bulk of it for me. My wife can add her own reasons to the list, but before she does, she’ll have to rethink her computer desk. She bought one that isn’t really conducive to multiple monitors and until recently didn’t understand why I don’t want one that’s anything like hers. For me, I’d probably have to design and build my own. I can’t think of another way to get all the features I want in a practical design. Out-of-the-box or off-the-shelf desks just don’t seem to work for what I want.

Anyway, so what do I need to accomplish what I want?

As far as I can find, there are at least two different ways I can do what I want to do. For me, the best situation is probably going to be a mid-level graphics card, say in the 256MB or 512MB range, which will support two more monitors. The first, my on-board graphics chipset, may work with the triple-monitor situation, but if not, at least dual monitors will be possible. One additional controller will enable me to add another VGA monitor, which means I’ll likely have the option of deciding which controller I want to be my primary controller. This way, if games are an issue when they launch (and they choose their own monitor upon which to launch), I can set the higher-performance card to be the primary and the on-board to be the secondary. Once I’ve established where the applications open, they will always open there. Since I don’t need wicked-speed graphics for doing spreadsheet or database programming, it’s no big deal for me to have them open on the lower-end integrated controller. And, the two screens can have different resolutions then (I think), so that the game’s alteration of the screen resolution on one controller won’t mess up the graphics on the other one.

The second situation involves getting a lower-end PCI card along with the higher-end PCIe card. Since my computer doesn’t support AGP interfaces, I have only PCI and PCIe to work with, and there’s only ONE PCIe slot available. So, that’s where the higher-end card will go. The lower-end, PCI card, will occupy one of the open PCI slots and permit me to run standard, non-graphics intensive items on it … and on the integrated controller. Are you counting? That’s up to 4 monitors being supported now. Since Windows XP Pro and Home both support up to 10 monitors on a single computer, why the heck not?? I’m only limited, at this point, by money.

Now, there is another way. The second way is to buy a device called “TripleHead2Go” from Matrox. It’s a hand-sized device that allows you to plug in up to four monitors, and will enable you to have a single desktop that spans over the entire array. I think, if I recall correctly, the device will also allow you to have individual programs, like games, running on only one of the monitors, too. That way, you don’t have a game character working on the border between 2 monitors, which would be really distracting. I’d have to re-read their webpage to be sure, though. At any rate, this bugger is only about $180USD, or less, and is portable, since it’s so small. The only difference I see in the two methodologies is price. As far as I can tell, they may be equally versatile.

If you’re going to have multiple monitors, however, you want them to be as intuitive and easy to use as possible. With multiple controllers, you’re going to need a program to make moving among them as simple and easy as possible, so that dragging everything around doesn’t become as tedious as toggling back and forth in a single-monitor set-up. For that, it would be nice to have a task bar at the bottom of EACH screen, rather than just one. And to accomplish that, you can use “Ultramon.” It’s a nifty little program for about $40USD that does just what I’ve described, and a whole lot more, including enabling a different screen saver on each monitor, and if I understood correctly, a different background/wallpaper on each one, too. I’d have to check that, though. Or you can; just Google for “Ultramon.” It’s a very, very cool program.

As for the things I want in the graphics controller(s) of choice, well, there’s a lot to consider. One of the first things I’ll have to do is beef up the RAM in my computer from 1GB to 2GB (the maximum), just to make sure I’ve got plenty available. 4GB would be better, but I think the maximum allowed on this model is 2GB. (My wife, when she reads this, will look it up and correct me if I'm wrong, so I'm not going to bother doing that now.) Anyway, that’s probably all I can afford right now … remember, what I do to my computer I must, out of guilt, also do to my wife’s computer.

The card itself should be no less than 256MB, and preferably 512MB or greater. The on-board controller is 256MB, and I want something superior to that; I also do NOT want the card sharing memory (RAM) to assist it. I want that bad boy to be a fully-stand-alone GPU, and I want all the memory my computer has available to the computer, and not being leeched for video support. There’s no point in stepping up the graphics capability if I’m going to degrade the PC’s performance at the same time. That just doesn’t make sense.

I should also consider carefully the manufacturer. Since there could be a problem with compatibility between my on-board controller and anything else I stick in it, I should look into needing to stay with the same manufacturer, and how that might interfere with the features I want from the card. I’ll cross that minefield when I get to it, though.

The card should also have dual-monitor support. There’s no point in not having multiple-monitor support on each and every card I put in; you never know. Maybe I’ll end up like one of those computer geeks on TV, sitting in a darkened room illuminated only by the soft glow of my LCDs, drawn and reclusive. Okay, more drawn and reclusive. On the surface, this doesn’t sound so hard, but I have to be very careful how I do this in selecting the card. For one, some of them come with a TV tuner, and I can’t use that in my system for some reason. Rather than risk the card not working at all because of that, I’d rather have one that doesn’t include a tuner. I don’t drive my entertainment system with the PC either, so I don’t need an S-Video connector. And since my on-board controller might have a problem with playing nice with other VGA controllers, maybe going with just DVI outputs would be best. After all, I don’t think I’m ever going back to CRTs again, so DVI connections to additional LCDs work just fine.

As for cost, I think I can keep the cost down on this gig by using 19” LCDs. For one, the price on those has come down dramatically from what they were even a year or two ago. I’ve seen some really great prices on monitors that have fairly good specs. Only the most hard-core gamers might have an issue with the “ghosting” and after-image matters; for me, that typically doesn’t present a problem on email and spreadsheets. I’ve never seen Word burn a hole in a monitor’s performance either. So I’m good. Since they’re so much cheaper than they used to be, I can afford to stock up and have a few lying around.

Okay, not really, but I can probably swing a couple of them. Remember, what I do to my computer I must, out of guilt, also do to my wife’s computer.

For her, I think two monitors will suffice, but I bet if I can talk her into three, she’d never go back. For me, the goal is three for now, and I’ll be bucking hard for four of them before too long. By then, though, I’ll already have the bulk of the setup ready for additional screens. All I’ll need to do is add screens.

I’ll keep you all posted.