Now that you've added another monitor to your computer setup, you've got double the screen real estate to get things done—but are you putting all that space to good use? Whether you want to stretch your desktop wallpaper or taskbar across two monitors or perfectly snap all your windows into place every time, there are a few utilities that can help you make the most of every last pixel of your dual monitors. Let's take a look.
If you haven't taken the plunge into doubling up on monitors, you have a few options for doing so, from adding a second video card to your computer, to replacing the old one with a dual card, or just plugging a monitor into your laptop and using its screen as a second monitor. Here's a primer on how to set up dual monitors. If your boss won't approve the purchase order for your second monitor at work? Tell her studies show it will increase your productivity.
Once you've got the two screens hooked up, go to your system's display settings to configure their arrangement. One of the screens will be your "primary" monitor (numbered 1) and then the secondary. Hit the "Identify" button to throw up numbers on each screen letting you know which is which. If one of your monitors is smaller than the other, drag and drop it to align to the top or bottom of its comrade in the same way the screens are physically aligned on your desk, to ensure the smoothest window and mouse movement between the two. In my case, my MacBook Pro is the primary monitor to the bottom right of my widescreen, as pictured (click to enlarge).
Get Your Dual Monitor Wallpaper On
Out of the box, Mac OS X handles dual monitors better than Windows: you can set screen-specific wallpaper images by default without any extra software. Just choose "Set Desktop Background," and a panel appears on each screen to configure them separately.
Windows can't set different wallpaper images on a per-screen basis by default; when you choose your wallpaper it appears on both screens. That wouldn't be so bad, except for Windows' inability to deal with different sized monitors. If you choose the "stretch" option and you've got two monitors of different sizes, Windows can't stretch the image properly to fill in each screen. (This was true on my test XP setup, not sure how Vista handles this.) If you've installed a dual-monitor video card, its drivers may give you the ability to configure each screen individually, but that leaves us laptop second monitor types out of luck—without the right software, that is.
One free utility which sets per-monitor wallpaper OR stretches one panoramic image across two screens is the previously posted DisplayFusion, pictured to the right (click to enlarge). DisplayFusion has a nice perk: the ability to search Flickr for wallpaper images built right in. DisplayFusion requires the free .NET runtime, and it works on both XP and Vista. For more on DisplayFusion, check out The How-to Geek's tutorial.
(Speaking of wallpaper, if you're looking for some new good images, check out our Top 10 free wallpaper, fonts and icon sources. A few great suggestions in the comments, especially on our Dual Screen Wallpapers listing.)
If you're willing to plunk down some cash for superior wallpaper management—along with per monitor screensavers, taskbar stretching and lots more dual monitor control—you want UltraMon. A single licence will set you back $US40, but UltraMon includes all the multi-monitor features you want in one package.
Extend the Taskbar Across Monitors
It's easy to move your Windows taskbar from one monitor to the other: make sure it's not locked (right-click and uncheck "Lock the Taskbar") and then just click and drag it to any side of either monitor to make it stick. The problem is you don't want to have to scoot your mouse over to the place where the taskbar lives every time you need it. (Especially now that it's got all that way to travel.) Instead, a couple of utilities can extend your taskbar across screens.
From the free downloads department, you can grab previously posted MultiMon taskbar. This little utility adds a taskbar to your secondary monitor (including a clock), and lists only the programs that are open on each screen in their respective taskbars. MultiMon also adds buttons to each window near the minimise button to move windows between monitors, and handy keyboard shortcuts that do the same. (Try it: Ctrl+Alt+Right Arrow and Ctrl+Alt+Left Arrow.) The taskbar MultiMon adds doesn't necessarily match your Windows theme, so it can look out of place, and I also had trouble with its taskbar floating above the bottom of my screen instead of sitting flush. MultiMon gets the job done, but a better taskbar extension's offered in UltraMon, the $40 utility mentioned above which also handles wallpaper and screensavers. Take a look at the smooth taskbar extension across two screens with UltraMon, courtesy of Adam (click to enlarge):
Now that you've got your wallpaper and taskbar sussed out, it's time to start taking advantage of all that screen real estate with the apps you're actually using all day. The biggest productivity gain you'll get from multiple monitors is the ability to have several windows open and visible across that wide expanse of space, without the need to switch windows, Alt-Tab or click.
On Windows you can tile windows without any extra software. Just select as many open windows as you want by Ctrl+clicking them on the taskbar, right-click and choose "Tile Horizontally" (or Vertically).
If Windows built-in tiling doesn't cut it, there are a few utilities that do more. Easily resize and move windows into screen halves or quadrants with freeware WinSplit Revolution, which offers handy hotkeys for moving windows between screens as well as to quadrants of the current monitor. Here's a sampling of WinSplit's customisable keyboard shortcuts:
Alternately, a mature AutoHotkey script called WindowPad achieves the same goal. Using the Windows key and your keyboard's number pad (similar to WinSplit's default), you can move and arrange windows across monitors with WindowPad. Here's the AHK code which you can modify yourself; or just download the WindowPad.exe file, which I compiled. Thanks, LukeHolder!
To define custom screen areas and snap windows into them, check out the free GridMove.
Desktop Pinups and Overlays
Of course, you don't have to fill your entire desktop with active windows. Multiple monitors are also a nice way to keep "ambient" information in your visual field without it being right in your face all day. My laptop monitor is off to the side so I use it for secondary applications (like IM, email, music player), but it also comes in handy for to-do lists, system monitoring graphs, and even a calendar. My favourite desktop overlay utilities are Samurize for Windows and GeekTool for Mac. I use both to list my todo.txt and remind calendar on my desktop, though both also support embedding images. You can also do things like embed Outlook's calendar on your secondary monitor, as shown, or even use Windows Active Desktop to embed your Google Cal, too.
How do you make the most of your dual—or even triple—monitors? Tell us about it in the comments.