Monitors, efficiency and Microsoft Office

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Are you a more efficient Office user with larger or more screens?

A few years ago, having several monitors on one computer was the preserve of financial screen jockeys and extreme techies, but not any more. Low cost LCD screens have brought it to people on a relatively modest budget.

But are you more efficient working off two monitors or is it an indulgence?

Farhad Manjoo has a useful article in the New York Times on the use of larger and multiple monitors.

We’ve used dual monitors at Office Watch comedy central for many years (yes we’re extreme techies) and find them invaluable.


How to do it

Before you buy a second monitor, make sure your computer can drive two screens.

Dual video outputs have become common on video cards, so common that makers don’t even bother to mention it as a ‘headline’ feature any more.

So look on the back of your computer – see where the current screen is connected and look for another socket next to it. Sometimes you’ll see two different sockets (a digital DVI and the older VGA socket). If there’s two video sockets then you’ll almost certainly be able to plug in two monitors.

If you do have to buy a video card make sure your computer has a second suitable slot available. Modern computers might have a single PCI Express slot for a video card. Instead of buying a video card for the second monitor you might need to get a replacement video card that can drive both screens.

It’s a good idea to have either a single video card or two identical video cards because some features are only available when there’s matching hardware.


Laptops

Most laptop computers have an external video socket. You might be able use that socket to drive either a larger replacement screen when on a desk or a dual screen with some windows displayed on the laptop and others on the large screen.


Same, same or different?

An important question to think about is whether you want two identical monitors or can accept different screens side-by-side.

Personally I find having different screens difficult to work with. Your eyes have to adjust to the two displays as you switch back and forth. Eventually you tend to move all your work onto one monitor which rather defeats the purpose of the exercise.

You might try buying a new monitor to work with your current screen. If you like that setup, good. If not you can buy a matching monitor for an ‘identical twins’ setup.

As Mr Manoo says, with two monitors you can get the choice of traditional landscape monitors or twisting one around into portrait (short end on top). Of course, the monitor ability needs to have the ability to twist. Beyond that you need to reconfigure Windows. Sadly Windows usually doesn’t allow natively portrait displays – ie switching 1680×1050 to 1050×1680 so you have to rely on software from the monitor maker. That software can be dependent on the type of video card you have.

22″ monitors are large enough for most people without the price spike you’ll pay for larger screens.


Useful software

If you move to dual monitors then it’s worth investing US$40 to register UltraMon. Ultramon adds numerous tricks essential for multi-monitor setups.

You can switch a window from one monitor to the other without dragging. Maximise a window to the current monitor (not across all screens). Duplicate the taskbar onto each monitor (instead of only the primary screen allowed by Windows). Powerpoint users can mirror their display onto different monitors of differing resolutions. You can run two screen savers – one on each monitor.

Speaking of screen savers, we’ve switched from the Windows Photos screen saver to Random Photo Screensaver. It gives you some nice options not available in the Windows version like a clock, calendar and file name display, support for different images on each monitor and various animations. A really clever feature is support for wide panorama photos – when a wide photo is detected it is displayed across both monitors automatically.


Is it more efficient?

According to the University of Utah people working on text editing (ie MS Word) on two 20″ monitors are 44% more efficient than someone on a single 18″ screen. The study was sponsored by NEC monitors but even allowing for that, we agree with the general conclusion that larger or twin monitors are worth it for regular users of Office suite software.

(If you’d like to see the study referred to by the NYT check out the NECDisplay site)

Larger or twin screens let you work on a single document (Word, Excel or Powerpoint) while referring to other documents, web sites, emails just by moving your eyes. No need to switch between Windows.

With more screen real estate you’ll find yourself doing more drag and drop between visible windows.

The problem with more screen space is distraction – with a single smaller monitor you can focus on a single window at a time instead of seeing new email arriving, the latest web page updates, stock tickers etc.

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