How to Utilise Multiple Displays in Windows 8

One of Windows 8's improvements over its predecessors, for both the new Metro user interface and the traditional Windows desktop view of the operating system, is how flexibly it now supports multiple monitor configurations. And for the very likely Windows 8 scenario in which a tablet is used at home and on the road for pleasure, and then docked with a desktop setup including a larger monitor and standard keyboard for serious work at the office, robust multi-monitor support is a must.

Key new features for multiple monitor setups in Windows 8 include the ability to have the Taskbar on each monitor in an extended display, and to stretch a single wallpaper across several monitors, or use different wallpaper on each. Perhaps most importantly, it’s possible to run Metro apps in one screen and full Windows desktop apps in another, side by side. Microsoft has also put some effort into making multiple monitor setups usable with the mouse and keyboard, via elements such as hot corners. Let's take a look at all this in more detail below.

Setting up multiple monitors

You can get started with multiple monitors either from the Metro or Desktop interface. With the first, you invoke the Windows Charms by swiping in from the right or moving the mouse cursor to one of the right-hand side corners, choose Devices, and then Second Screen. After this, you'll get four choices: PC screen only, Duplicate, Extend, and Second screen only. The only choice of real interest here is Extend, since the others all result in a single display or multiple identical displays.

Taskbar choices

Not all of Windows 8's multiple monitor configuration options appear in the Display control panel. For instance, the possible selections for how the Taskbar is displayed on each screen aren’t here. To get to these new settings, right-click the Taskbar on the Desktop and choose Properties from the context menu. In the resulting dialogue box's Taskbar tab (the default one), you'll see a new checkbox choice: Show taskbar on all displays. Further refinements let you show all taskbars on all displays, the main taskbar and buttons only for apps running on the current display, or only the taskbar for what's running on the display at hand.

One thing you won't ever see on secondary monitors, however, is the system tray, with its indicators of Wi-Fi signal, time and date, battery charge, and volume level. The ability to move or duplicate these among multiple displays would make Windows 8 multi-monitor support that much more powerful and useful.

Span wallpaper across monitors

There are other choices for multiple monitor setups which don’t appear in the Display control panel under Windows 8, such as how wallpaper (or “desktop background”) is displayed over multiple screens. You can access these options from either Metro or Desktop. In the former case, start typing "wallpaper" or "background" at the Metro Start screen, select Settings, and choose "Change desktop background" from the results.

From the Desktop, just right-click anywhere on the background and choose Personalise to get to the same options. The key to what's new here is the Span picture position choice at the bottom of the dialogue. This lets you extend a single image across multiple screens, rather than duplicating the same background on each. Of course, you can still choose the repeated background if you wish, and whether to stretch, fit, fill, tile, or centre the wallpaper image.

Use the hot corners

When using the traditional keyboard and mouse setup on a Windows 8 PC, the corners of the screen are of paramount importance when it comes to working with the new OS' interface. Moving the mouse to the top left corner reveals thumbnails of other running apps, the top and bottom right corners bring up the "Charms" (or basic icons for Search, Share, Start, Devices, Settings), and the lower left corner opens the Metro Start menu. But what happens when your display spans across multiple screens? Where are the corners?

Microsoft has introduced “hot corners” to solve this problem. Essentially, MS has padded the target area in the corners under a multi-monitor setup. This means you don’t have to land the mouse cursor in the exact corner pixel in order to invoke the start screen, charms, or other action the corner triggers. In practice, the larger six-pixel target area made it easy for me to get to these hot corners.

Swapping metro monitors

So, while the hot corners give you access to the Metro start screen at any time (which, remember, can also fire up Desktop apps), what if you have a Metro app running on one screen, say a smaller one, and want to move its display over to your bigger monitor? A new shortcut makes this a snap: Windows key-Page Up or Windows key-Page Down does the trick. It even reconfigures the Metro start screen tiles to better fit the new monitor's size.

But there is one capability which I’d find extremely useful that’s missing here. There’s no way to use one (likely smaller) monitor to house the start screen, and have it launch apps to the other screen. This way, I could just leave a smaller screen, say that of a tablet, for program launching, while doing the real work on the larger monitor.

Extra screens for every Windows 8 PC

As is the case with many professionals, I use a laptop as a primary work PC, and it usually remains docked to a desktop setup including a large monitor and full-size keyboard. With Windows 8's push towards being a hybrid tablet/desktop operating system, this scenario takes on greater levels of importance. And because the tablet’s even more portable, there's a far better chance that I'd actually pack the device into my backpack on the way home, using it for personal pursuits like consuming entertainment, news, sports, as well as playing games and communicating with friends and family.

While it's not completely lacking in limitations, the greater flexibility and power of Windows 8's built-in multi-monitor support is unmatched by other tablet operating systems, and could be one of the keys to its success.