September 03, 2008, 2:53 PM — Admit it: You've lusted after the giant 30-inch desktop monitors you've seen in stores. Imagine what you could do with all that screen real estate, and all those pixels! But hold on a minute--those giant displays aren't necessarily all they're cracked up to be.
First, they're expensive. You'll spend about $1300 to $2500 for a single 30-inch monitor. (For instance, the NEC MultiSync LCD3090WQXi pictured here sells for more than $2000.)
Sure, they're high resolution (typically 2560 by 1600 pixels), which gives you plenty of detail. But they're also so wide that the distance from your eyes to the screen varies. If you're sitting 24 inches from the center of the screen, then you're 28 inches or more from the corners. That may not seem like much; but after working in front of the monitor all day, you may develop eye fatigue from constantly having to adjust your focus closer or farther as you look around the screen. The ideal shape for a large screen would be a curve, keeping your eyes at a consistent distance from the display as you work.
The other problem with a gigantic screen is that it's a single, vast, unstructured area. That may be okay if you're editing huge, high-resolution images, but most folks who depend on PCs work with lots of information. That means that you probably use a Web browser, a word processor, a spreadsheet, and e-mail, all at the same time. Use all of those applications at once on a giant monitor, and you run the risk of having a cluttered desktop where you have to drag and adjust windows constantly.
Now here's an alternative to consider: Instead of one big screen, use four smaller ones. You can get four 19-inch wide-screen monitors for significantly less than $800 total. Add $300 for an extra graphics board and a desktop monitor stand, and the cost is still lower than that of one 30-inch display. In this case, however, you end up with the equivalent of a 38-inch-diagonal monitor, an area of 2880 by 1800 pixels--over 25 percent more pixels than a 30-inch monitor offers.
This setup may not be as slick as a curved display, but you can angle the panels to make them more ergonomic to view. And by dividing the display into four sections, you can park different applications on different panels. Just as you might keep your phone on the left side of your desk and your pencil cup on the right, you can organize your work in multiple applications if you position your e-mail on the upper-left screen, your word processor on the lower right, and so forth. And you can easily drag and drop information from one program to another, while keeping all of your windows in view.
What You Need
Assuming you already have a monitor for your system, you need three more. In general, I recommend buying four monitors of the same make and model, which helps eliminate annoying differences in color balance or brightness. At the very least, they should all be of the same size and resolution. To give yourself the most flexibility in making connections, choose displays that accept both DVI and VGA (though you likely can get cables or adapters that will allow you to work out any combination of interfaces).
You'll also need a stand for the monitors. You can find models that string out four panels in a single line (which fans of flight-simulator games tend to love because of the wide, panoramic view). I prefer a two-by-two matrix; with such an arrangement, I don't have to turn my head as much to see any part of the combined display. For my setup, I chose the Ergotron DS100, which lets you easily angle the monitors for better ergonomics.
One key point: Ensure that your monitors match the mounting holes for the stand. Most stands use the VESA standard mount patterns, but you can't just assume that a given mount-and-monitor combination will pair correctly, so be sure to read the specs of displays and stands carefully before you buy anything.
Most graphics boards these days come with two DVI display connectors. If that's what you have in your system, you'll need to buy just one more dual-headed card to support four monitors in all. If your system has only one display connector, you'll have to pull out that board and install two dual-head boards. Make sure that you have sufficient expansion slots available in your PC, and that you buy a board or boards that match that type of slot. (If you don't have available slots, or you don't want to bother opening your computer's case, you still can have a multiple-monitor installation; see page 4.)
Set It Up
Once you have all of your hardware in hand, start by mounting the monitors to your stand. Generally you must remove the stock desktop stand from the back of the LCD panel; check the monitor's documentation for details on how to do that. Afterward, attach the new stand's mount. Some mounts are angled, so be careful to orient your display panels in the correct direction.
Attach the power cable and signal cable to each monitor before you mount them. I recommend that you use the retaining screws on the cable connectors to make sure that the cable remains firmly attached to the panel. Reaching the panels once the monitors are all mounted on the stand will be difficult at best, so you should take care of the cable connections once and for all at this point.
After you have connected the monitors, install the second graphics board in your computer, if necessary. Follow the instructions that come with the board and your PC, but first be sure to turn off your computer and unplug the power cord--even if the PC is turned off, the motherboard can still have power, which can permanently damage the graphics card when you try to install it. Also, confirm that your new board will not impede the flow of cooling air to the existing graphics card or any other expansion cards. Many have small fans on one side; don't block the fan's air.
Once you've installed your extra graphics hardware, connect the monitors. Attach the lower-left monitor to the primary connector on your first graphics board, and the lower-right one to the secondary connector on that card. Link the upper-left monitor to the primary connector on your second graphics board, and the upper-right screen to the remaining connector. This setup will make configuring the screens correctly in Windows' display manager easier.
Now turn on your computer. After it completes the boot process, you should have the Windows desktop on the lower-left monitor. In Windows Vista, right-click the Desktop and choose Personalization, then select Display Settings to open the Display Settings window.
Click the Identify Monitors button in the upper-right corner. Large numbers will appear on each of the monitors. In the window, click on the numbered icon that appears at the lower left; in most cases, this will be Monitor 1. (Some graphics boards will have their own utilities to manage multiple monitors. Check your card's documentation for this feature; alternatively, you can just use the Windows utility.)
Two items--'This is my main monitor' and 'Extend the desktop onto this monitor--should have check marks and be grayed out for this monitor. If that isn't the case, put check marks in both boxes. Make sure that the Resolution slider is at the panel's native resolution; consult the specifications in the monitor documentation to verify the native resolution. Click the Apply button.
Next, select each of the remaining monitors in turn. Set them to their native resolution using the Resolution slider, and then check Extend the desktop to this monitor. Click Apply after adjusting the settings for each monitor.
Finally, drag the icons of the monitors around so that they correspond with their physical location on the monitor stand. Once all the settings are as you want them, click the OK button to close the window.
You should now be able to open applications and put their windows on the different monitors. If the window is maximized, it will fill one monitor and you won't be able to move it. If you adjust the window to a size smaller than full screen, you can then drag the window to another monitor. Maximize the window there, and it will snap to fill the screen.
If You Don't Have Four Ports
If your system lacks enough expansion slots to hold two graphics boards (for instance, because it's a laptop) or you simply would rather not open your PC's case, you can still enjoy the benefits of a quad-head display.
Display Link makes adapters that allow you to connect a monitor to a computer through a USB port. It works by emulating a graphics adapter in the computer's CPU and then sending out a compressed data stream to an attached adapter that decodes the data and transforms it back into an image signal. Some companies have built the decoding circuitry right into a monitor, such as the 22-inch LG Electronics L226WU-PX, so all you have to do is plug your secondary monitor directly into a USB port.
You can also get adapters that use DisplayLink technology to turn your USB port into a DVI port for use with any DVI-equipped display. Following the instructions, install the DisplayLink software before connecting the adapters. After the drivers are installed, you can plug the monitor into the adapter and insert the adapter into a USB port, and you'll then see the Windows desktop on the screen. Follow the same steps to extend the Windows desktop across the extra screens and to set the resolution to match each panel's native resolution. No expansion cards, no muss, no fuss.
Whether you use adapters with a laptop or work with installed graphics boards in your PC, you can quickly and easily set up a quad-monitor system for your computer. Assuming that you already have one 19-inch monitor and a dual-head graphics card installed, you can build up to a 38-inch diagonal display for under $1000 total, and get the big picture for all your Windows work (and play).
Alfred Poor is a freelance writer who is fascinated by all things digital. He is the author of the daily HDTV Almanac.