How to set up a multiple-monitor workstation

By Paul Mah, CIO |  Career, displays

Using more than one monitor with your computer offers productivity advantages. Despite the benefits, dual or multi-monitor workstations are not widely deployed in businesses. This is often attributed to uncertainty about how to do it, as well as the historically high cost of external monitors.

Now, though, you can purchase a good LCD monitor for less than $100, and setup isn't as difficult as you might think. With that in mind, here are some common issues and considerations for businesses looking into multi-monitor workstations.

Laptops and Desktops Require Different Configurations

This is one of the first questions that businesses face when setting up a multi-monitor workstation. Wiring up additional monitors is generally easy on a desktop and involves installing graphics adapters to increase the number of video outputs. Some desktops already ship with two video outputs that can be used to simultaneously drive two separate monitors. However, the Mac Mini and other small form factor machines, including those based on the Pico ITX motherboard, don't support installation of additional video cards.

Laptops, though, are more popular desktop PCs. Luckily, since almost all laptops come with a built-in VGA output, setting up a dual-screen workstation is a trivial matter-and some laptop models, including the new MacBook Pro with Retina display, even come with onboard support for two external monitors.

Keep in mind that complexity does increase as you throw additional external monitors nto the mix. Read 6 Ways to Use Multiple Displays With Your Laptop to find out how.

Power Consumption Adds Up

Most people don't give power consumption much thought these days, given the popularity of energy-efficient laptops and the availability of ultra-low-powered processors. But start deploying two, three or even four monitors to a few dozen workers and the increase becomes clearly noticeable on the utility bill.

Fortunately, modern LCD monitors uses significantly less energy than the CRT monitors of yesteryear, though they still consume anywhere from 40 watts for a 24-inch monitor to more than 100 watts for a 27-inch or larger display.

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You can take steps to limit the impact of so many new monitors. For one, you should configure computers so monitors go into standby mode when the computer is inactive. This takes advantage of the 1- to 2-watt energy saving mode of LCD monitors to save electricity. It's crucial, too, considering that most users aren't in front of their computers for more than 10 hours a day.

One alternative is to make use of a motion sensor, such as the Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion, to completely cut power to the monitors when no motion is detected near them. At $99, though, the sensors aren't cheap.

Finally, of course, there's the option of encouraging users diligently switch off unused monitors manually.

Size, Model of Monitors Will Vary

The pace of technology means that it may not be possible to acquire the same monitor model for a subsequent user, as vendors phase out older displays on a regular basis. Acquiring monitors in a piecemeal fashion, meanwhile, will likely result in different-sized monitors for different workstations.

There are practical and physical limits to the number of monitors you can deploy, too. This is closely tied to the display resolution of the monitors, the capabilities of the graphics card, and the processing capabilities of the CPU for graphics adapters using DisplayLink technology. In addition, as discussed below, it may be impossible to arrange multiple large-screen monitors on a small desk.

Note Monitor Specifications Carefully

While choosing the appropriate monitor may seem like a no-brainer, a few factors are of particular importance to a multi-monitor rig. In general, monitors equipped with in-plane switching (IPS) technology should be used for the best viewing angles. Lesser panels tend to offer smaller viewing angles on either the vertical or horizontal viewing position, or both. This results in less flexibility for optimal deployment-you may not be able to use these monitors in the portrait orientation, for example.

Another often-overlooked factor is the type of input ports on the monitor. While a VGA input offers the most flexibility, monitor and laptop makers are moving toward the DisplayPort standard. On this front, support for the new DisplayPort v1.2 standard is preferred, since it lets you daisy chain compatible monitors. (This assumes the presence of a DisplayPort out port and v1.2 support on the attached laptop or desktop.) High-end monitor models generally offer support for multiple input ports, including VGA, DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort.

Though most laptops are available with only highly reflective gloss displays, business monitors are generally available in matte. The former looks impressive visually, though it's the non-reflective properties of the latter that are easier on the eye.

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Other considerations include the thickness of the bezel, the availability of built-in USB ports and the presence of an external power brick. Bricks can be a hassle to tidy up, while a thick bezel can be a showstopper for the occasional gamer or the user who spans their complex spreadsheets across multiple monitors. On the other hand, a USB port can be handy for hooking up additional peripherals.

Finally, an adjustable stand or VESA mount compliant mounting brackets may be crucial additions for users with small work spaces.

Consider Space Constraints

LCD monitors are much smaller than their cathode ray tube predecessors, but setting up multiple large-screen monitors at a workstation still takes up a considerable amount of space. On a practical note, a medium-sized desk can probably accommodate three 24-inch or two 27-inch displays when using vendor-supplied stands. This leaves slightly more than half of the desk for peripherals such as the keyboard and mouse.

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Monitor arms offer one way to increase the amount of available work space. These attach to the back of a monitor and let you clip the screen to the edge of a desk, over the grommet holes found at the side of desks or onto walls in front of or beside a desk. Whatever the option, you reclaim valuable inches of desktop space-and, because monitor arms typically come with the capability to rotate, pan, tilt or lift the screen to an optimal viewing angle, they improve ergonomics a well. For example, Ergotron monitor arms extend up to 25 inches (64cm) forward and can push screens out of the way when they're not in use.

Using monitor arms means using monitors that comply with VESA mounting standard. It's important to note that many newer LCD monitors forego the VESA adapter in favor of slimness or come with nondetachable or proprietary mounting brackets. Others, including the Apple Thunderbolt Display, need an optional VESA Mounting Kit in order to be used with monitor arms.

Some Assembly Required

Once you've acquired all the hardware, allocate at least a few hours to putting everything together. You'll need to unpack the various LCD displays and monitor arms, mount and screw everything in place, wire the various components together, install applicable software drivers, test the connections, and tie the physical cables together. It's far more time-consuming than setting up a standalone display. As a rough guideline, you may want to allocate an hour for each monitor.

When it's time to manage the disparate signal and power cables, have a big bag of cable ties ready. Aside from neatness, bunching them together goes prevents them from becoming unseated while making them easier to clean. Don't assume that the lengths of the included cables will be adequate, though, so purchase the appropriate types and lengths of cables ahead of time. Don't forget a power strip to support the brand new monitors, too. Finally, since heavy equipment and electrical appliances are involved, make sure someone else is around for both assistance and safety.

Setting up a multi-monitor workstation does take some effort, but it's hardly rocket science. By judiciously working through the various points outlined above, you should be able to tap into the benefits of multiple monitors in short order.

Paul Mah is a freelance writer and blogger who lives in Singapore. Paul has worked a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul also enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones and networking devices. You can reach Paul at paul@mah.sg and follow him on Twitter at @paulmah.

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Read more about time management/productivity in CIO's Time Management/Productivity Drilldown.

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