The price of extra monitors has fallen steadily over the years, quality has risen, and Windows 7 is more multi-monitor friendly than any previous edition of Windows. Here's how to make the most of your multi-monitor setup in Windows 7.
Back in 2007 we showed you how to make the most of your dual monitors. Since the publication of that guide Windows XP has begun its trip across the river Styx, more people than ever before are rocking multiple monitors, and Windows 7 treats a multi-screen setups like they're downright commonplace and routine (which is good).
How routine? Setting up multiple monitors in Windows 7 is minimal and usually completely hiccup-free, assuming you've got a video card that supports multiple monitors. For example, I'm running three monitors: One is connected to the motherboard, and two are connected to a dual-head video card. The on-board graphics are Nvidia-chipset based and the expansion card is ATI-based. This arrangement caused Windows XP to completely lose its mind, requiring multiple hours of therapy and intervention to bring the GPU split personalities back together. (Truly, I can't begin to describe the enormous headache trying to run triple monitors, let alone off two video cards, was under Windows XP.) By contrast, the process under Windows 7 was so simple I actually had to look up the official setup steps to make sure I wasn't recalling the setup process with rose-coloured glasses.
Set Up Your Multiple Monitors In Windows 7
If you haven't already purchased your extra monitor(s), you're in for a treat when it comes to installation. Some computers will support multiple monitors out of the box (if you've got two DVI or VGA ports on the back of your machine, your computer likely already can handle dual monitors). If not, you'd need to install a new video card.
If you already have a computer that can handle multiple monitors, just plug in the power cord for your monitor, and hook it up to the extra VGA or DVI port. Now it's time to really get started.
Access Windows 7's screen settings by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting "Screen resolution", or typing "adjust screen resolution" in the Start menu search box. Click the "Identify" button to throw up numbers on each screen to identify them and then drag and drop them to match your current arrangement — see the screenshot below to see "Identify" in action, numbers coloured green for emphasis.
Check "Make this my main display" on the monitor you want to be your main display — the main taskbar and Start menu will appear here, as well as the initial run of most application windows. All of your monitors should have "Extend desktop to this display" selected in the "Multiple displays" drop down menu. The only time you'll have to really spend any significant time fiddling in the display settings is if you have multiple but mismatched monitors — when I first started with multiple monitors I had a 17-inch and 15-inch and the mismatched sizes and resolutions was awkward at best.
If you never attempted multiple monitors prior to Windows 7, be thankful you're coming aboard at a time when multiple monitors are well supported and the voodoo necessary to animate them is minimal. Now that you've got your monitors hooked up and you've extended the desktop across all of them it's time to start learning the multi-monitor tricks in Windows 7 and supplementing them with software when necessary.
Take Advantage Of Built-in Tools
The benefits of multiple monitors are obvious; you can spread out your work, compare documents, and live a life virtually free from furiously Alt+Tabbing your way back and forth between windows. None the less life with multiple monitors, especially modern monitors that sport monstrous resolutions, comes with its own set of challenges compared to life on a small and singular screen.
Speed Up Cursor Location:Take the simple mouse cursor as an example. It's easy to lose a tiny 16x16 pixel cursor on a bank of monitors, my current setup is 4800x900 pixels that spans a roughly 60-inch physical arc in front of my eyes. You can only focus on so much monitor real estate directly and at least a few times a day the part I'm focusing on and the mouse cursor get out of sync. Fortunately Windows has a built-in tool for helping you find a wayward cursor with minimal fuss. It's definitely not new to Windows 7 but it's worth highlighting for its time-saving powers.
Open the mouse settings in the control panel and navigate to the "Pointer Options" tab. Down at the bottom — seen in the screenshot above — you'll see a checkbox that says "Show location of pointer when I press the CTRL key", check it. Now when you press the CTRL key — but not when it's part of a keyboard combo — a roughly 200-pixel wide circle forms around the cursor and sweeps in towards it. It's a small tweak, but it's oh-so-handy when you're staring at one corner of your monitor array wondering where the cursor went and it's all the way on the other side of your farthest monitor.
Hone Your Shortcut-Fu: If you weren't a big fan of keyboard shortcuts before you're going to rapidly become one. Dragging the cursor from one end of your monitor array all the way to the other end just to execute a command that would take two key strokes will get real old, real fast. Photo by john_a_howard.
These handy shortcuts from Windows 7 work for single monitors, too, but they make working with multiple monitors and lots of open windows easier and have a few special tricks for multi-monitor users:
- Win+Home: Clear all but the active window.
- Win+Space: All windows become transparent so you can see through to the desktop.
- Win+Up arrow: Maximise the active window.
- Shift+Win+Up arrow: Maximise the active window vertically.
- Win+Down arrow: Minimise the window/Restore the window if it's maximised.
- Win+Left/Right arrows: Dock the window to the side of the current monitor, additional presses will push the application to the next monitor edge, then centre, then opposite edge continuing in this pattern across all available monitors.
- Shift+Win+Left/Right arrows: Move the window to the monitor on the left or right.
- Win+G: Display/Hide your Windows Sidebar Gadgets
For more Windows 7 shortcuts check out The Master List Of New Windows 7 Shortcuts.
Supplement Windows 7's Multi-Monitor Handling with Third-Party Tools
While Windows 7 does a fantastic job with initial monitor setup and basics like shortcuts, you'll find no shortage of what are nothing short of glaring oversights. The most glaring of these is the lack of multi-monitor taskbar. The Windows 7 taskbar is such a great improvement over the prior versions of the taskbar setup, why neglect to extend it across all that awesome screen real estate? While not as detrimental to your work flow as missing GUI elements, Windows 7 also lacks any sort of multi-monitor theme customisation like specialised wallpaper or screensaver tweaking.
You can address the shortcomings of Windows 7's multi-monitor handling one of two ways. You can a dozen odd programs, some free and some not, that add in little tweaks incrementally — a taskbar extension here, a move-window button there, etc — or you can opt to go with one of the major multi-monitor application suites. While we like free-as-in-beer as much as anyone, sometimes it's just not worth the hassle of trying to patch together a bunch of little apps and tweaks to achieve what a program that costs 1/20th what you spent on your monitors can do in one swoop and hassle-free.
The two big players are UltraMon and DisplayFusion. UltraMon is older, but DisplayFusion was the first to radically update for Windows 7 and updates more frequently. Both are very solid products but for the dollar-to-feature value we went with DisplayFusion for this guide — DisplayFusion Pro is $US25 and the full UltraMon package is $US40.
Here's a look at some of our favourite features in DisplayFusion:
Multi-monitor Taskbar: The multiple-monitor taskbar blends smoothly with the existing Windows 7 taskbar. You can set it to display full text buttons or collapsed icon-only just like your main bar.
Aero Peek works across multiple monitors: DisplayFusion has its own version of Aero peek — it's not a perfect clone of the native Aero peek but it's quite polished and no other multi-monitor taskbar tool currently supports Aero peek functionality.
Stretch your wallpaper across monitors with ease: The wallpaper system is sophisticated from the fine-tuning to the automatic rotation.
Keyboard shortcuts for moving windows around: DisplayFusion has hotkey support for window movement, snapping to the sides of the monitors, maximisation to span all monitors and the ability to size windows to a percentage of the work area. If the default hotkeys don't cover a function you want, you can build you own with the very thorough hotkey creation tool:
Again, both UltraMon and DisplayFusion are solid products and our focus on DisplayFusion over UltraMon is based entirely on a most-features-per-dollar-spent assessment. The free trials offered by both are worth your while if you really want to put their premium features head to head.
Control Multiple Computers Across Monitors With One Keyboard And Mouse
For those of you rocking multiple-monitors and multiple computers — be they test boxes all running the same operating system or development boxes running different operating system — you're missing out if you're not using Synergy.
Synergy is a fantastic program that allows you to control multiple computers with the same keyboard and mouse. If you have more than one machine hooked up to your monitor bank you really need to give Synergy a test run. Take a look at recently mentioned QSynergy for a more user-friendly version of the desktop utility.
Bring on the Eye Candy
The real benefit of multiple monitors is that sweet, sweet productivity boost but let's be honest. Practical reasons aside for covering your desk with monitors it's impossible to resist customising that expanse of pixels. Even if you only see your desktop wallpaper a few times a day, it's a crime to leave a 4000+ pixel span unadorned. Photo by yomi955.
Multi-Monitor Wallpaper: It used to be your only option for multi-monitor wallpaper was to find large images and crop them down or render your own. Now that multiple monitors are more mainstream more and more sites have cropped up that carry wallpaper in multi-monitor sizes or outright cater to multi-monitor setups exclusively. You can check out our guide to the best places to find multi-monitor wallpaper or hop right in with this quick list:
- Mandolux - Some people find browsing his Flickr stream easier.
- Vlad Studios
- Social Wallpapering
- Digital Blasphemy
- Dual and Triple Monitor Wallpapers @ MintyWhite
- Smashing Magazine - Frequently runs multi-monitor wallpaper roundups.
When you're having trouble finding a wallpaper image you really love through the usual sources, it never hurts to hit up Google Images. Crank the "Larger than..." setting up in the left-hand column and then crop the large images you find down to fit your monitors — or just throw them in Display Fusion's wallpaper tool and tweak them to fit.
Multi-monitor Screensavers: When it comes to screensavers and multiple-monitors things can be a bit limited and kind of sketchy in application depending on your setup — the on-board video and dual-head video card setup I use doesn't like to play nice with most screensavers, for example — but it's not a total wash. You can use the basic Windows screensavers, as plain as they are, and they'll span work their way across all your monitors. Alternately if you're really into screensavers you could shell out for UltraMon to enable custom screensavers on each monitor.
For the real wow-factor however you're going to want to turn to screensavers meant to be run on multi-monitors — and with maximum impact. The screenshot above is of the Hypersace screensaver, which is part of the package of free Open GL screensavers available at Really Slick.
If you're interested in geeking out even harder, don't neglect to take a look at Electric Sheep, a collaborative abstract art project that uses thousands of idle computers all over the world to generate "flocks" of trippy abstract images. The images are shared as screensavers and archived online.
Between the shortcuts, the multi-monitor customisation suites and the eye-candy galore, you should be in command of a productive — and pretty! — array of monitors.
Have a tip, trick, application or customisation resource we didn't cover? Let's hear about it in the comments.