Discworld Creator's secret technique could make you more productive

Terry Prachett uses it and Microsoft's founder Bill Gates swears by it.

'It' refers to the concept of a multi monitor setup.

(Photo by RobinTwomey, Courtesy of CNN, How I Work: Bill Gates)

Terry Prachett, the creator of the popular Discworld series of books, has one impressive monitor setup with what looks like six 24-inch widescreen monitors.

(courtesy BBC)

Bigger monitors and multi screen monitors have always been favourite add-ons for workers and employers looking to improve the productivity of their workers and this has been demonstrated in a recent survey (see Official : Bigger computer monitors make you more productive).

If, like most employees, your computer comes with a single monitor, there are chances that you won't be able to upgrade your video card without getting the IT department involved (with all the stress and the due pain involved).

Fortunately, there are a number of things that you can do to bring multi-monitor heaven to your desks.

First, you have to make some space on your desk; get rid of your existing CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) monitor if you still have one - either by selling it at a profit or by giving it away.

Then, get one one of those nifty little USB 2.0 Video Card VGA Adapters

At $52.93 including free delivery from Hong-Kong, it is not that expensive, given what it does.

- Instantly extends your screen real estate without opening up your PC

- Double the usual work space you've got by adding another display.

- Tri-modes: 1. Primary Display Mode, 2. Extended Display Mode (Multi-Screen), 3. Mirror (Clones Primary Screen)

- Supports resolutions of up to 1280 x 1024, 16-bit Color

- Plug and Plug and Hot-Swappable

You will need a full speed USB 2.0 Interface and the item does come with Drivers for Windows 2000 / XP / Vista - sorry folks, no MAC or Linux version.

Note that since it is a USB device, there's nothing preventing you from using it on your laptop provided that it is plugged in the mains

If you don't want to buy from Hongkong, the cheapest comparable product will cost you a cool £46.88 + P&P at Microdirect.

Installation should be deceptively easy although you won't be able to play games or any similar applications;

Another shortfall is that there's no DVI version available - only Analog DSub connectivity will be allowed.

This means that you will have to get an adaptor if you want to connect it to a DVI equipped monitor.

Now what if you want to connect more than two monitors to your computer... What about three?

Well, Matrox, a Canadian Graphic card company, has the perfect answer - the Matrox Graphics Expansion Module TripleHead2Go Analog Edition - video converter which costs £180.46 at IT247.com.

Here's the product description

"Building on the award-winning DualHead2Go technology, Matrox is proud to present TripleHead2Go, a palm-sized box that uniquely allows you to add three monitors with a combined resolution of up to 3840 x 1024 to your workstation, gaming system or laptop, even if that system only supports a single display output. For example, connecting three 19" monitors would give your desktop an incredible 45" of total diagonal."

Expensive, but once you experience it, you won't go back to single screen.

This solution is compatible with a limited number of games although it should support most business applications.

A good monitor for a multi screen setup will need to have rather thin bezels.

Because of its design and its affordability, the Hanns-G CY199DP on sale at Ebuyer.com for only £99.99 delivered could be a candidate.

It is a superb 19-inch Widescreen flat panel monitor capable of displaying 1280x1024 pixels and should be more than adequate for most uses.

"G Series LCD monitors are made to be as pleasurable to behold as they are to work with. Wonderfully clean minimalist design complemented with great features. With high resolutionwidescreen viewing, you can maximise the full features of Microsoft Vista and with a great refresh rate, your games & videos will look good."

It weighs only 3.7Kg and its dimensions (406 x 218 x 407mm) should make it easy to move around and to fit even on a modest office table.

It is EPA Energy Star compliant and consumes only 36.7w when in use.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find any reviews for the Hanns-G CY199DP although there were a lot of positive feedback notes on e-tailers' sites.

Now what do you do when, like Terry Prachett, you want more than three monitors? Well, there are several ways of doing it, depending on your level of technical expertise.

The simplest one would be to add a new video card like the Matrox QID Quad Head Card which you can find at Dabs for £332.

This card is particularly interesting as it goes on the almost-universal PCI slot, which means that it will be compatible with all recent computers.

The card supports up to four 1600x1200 monitors giving you the possibility to have a mind-boggling 6400x1200 pixel virtual desktop.

Unfortunately, because it is an old card, you won't be able to play games on this and the price it quite prohibitive.The second way would be to swap your computer for something else using technologies like AMD's Crossfire or Nvidia's SLI to couple two video cards, each with two video outputs to achieve something like that (image courtesy of Tomshardware)

A new Dell computer complete with SLI technology allowing you to zap through four monitors should cost you no more than £749+VAT and allow you to use 24-inch and larger monitors.

Unfortunately, you won't be able to use four 30-inch monitors like the £1400 Dell 3008WFP, certainly, the most desirable computer screen around with an eye-watering 2560x1600 native resolution; at least not until the Crossfire X platform becomes more commonplace.

The last method that you can use to get more than one screen connected to your computer is to use a multi-monitor software like Maxivista or Ultramon which can be used even with a tablet PC.

The concept is deceptively simple; think of it as a virtual monitor creator.

It allows you to extend your current desktop on other computers within your wired or wireless network vicinity.

You only need to download a client file on the computer(s) whose screen(s) you want to use and manually execute the file.

The only disadvantage is that you will need to have computers for all those screens with cables running around; although nothing prevents you from building a headless computer with two video outputs.

Maxivista supports up to four PCs with dual monitors offering more than 15 million pixels worth of virtual desktop estate.

You can view some testimonials on Maxivista's website and download a trial version here.

Maxivista price is surprisingly low at $29.99 (around £15) and is compatible with Vista.

Photos courtesy of Maxivista

Going Multimonitor might not be an easy task but it is well worth it.

Going from one monitor to two monitors is a life changing experience and one of those things you don't recover from.

For many, it will be the start of a new quest where more real screen estate will become a necessity rather than a want.

For more screen surface increases the productivity and that has been proven.

(Added 17.03.2008) There's still another way of adding monitors cheaply to your computer... Buy USB Monitors rather than normal monitors.