Talking tech since 2003

Multi-monitor configurations allow a user to “stretch” their desktop workspace across multiple screens, all while working off of the same computer.  Dual monitors can be productive in the sense that they allow one to have multiple windows displayed on their screen, and can be greatly beneficial in making comparisons and multi-tasking.  In the same sense, dual monitors can be anti-productive by making it that much easier for a person to keep a web browser running constantly, and always having Facebook, Twitter, etc open whilst still doing work.  In any case, dual monitors are simply awesome either way, as they allow you to truly take advantage  of your computer’s hardware in order to multi-task.

Windows has a built-in mechanism for configuring multiple monitors, and in all honesty, it does its job fairly well.  In Windows XP, this can be accessed by right-clicking on the desktop and selecting “Properties”, then moving over to the “Preferences” tab.  From this window, you can drag the screens in order to best simulate your layout.  Additionally, you can configure the respective resolutions for each of your monitors.

However, while some people like the simplicity behind the built-in monitor configuration tool in Windows, the fact of the matter is that said simplicity comes at a price; you cannot configure the fine details of your multi-monitor setup.  For example, you cannot configure separate desktop backgrounds for each monitor, and you cannot do a “stretch” background either.  Additionally, your Windows taskbar will be limited to one screen.

So what do you do if you want a more fine-tuned multi-monitor configuration?  In some cases, the manufacturer of your video card will have a piece of software that allows you to configure small details in order to make your configuration as productive as possible.  If your manufacture has this software available, you should be able to find it either on the downloads section of their website or on the software CD that accompanied your graphics card or OEM computer.

For the purposes of this article, however, we will assume that your graphics card manufacturer does not have a software solution available, or that the software provided by the manufacturer does not allow for the levels of customization that you need.

The first solution that we are going to look at is called UltraMon, and is available from their website for $39.95.

After installing UltraMon, I was overwhelmed by what seemed to be a large and confusing set of configuration options.  However, as I began to use the software, I found that it wasn’t confusing at all, but rather offered a user-friendly interface for managing the multi-monitor configuration from the ground up.

One of the first aspects that I decided to poke around with was the “mirroring” section of the program.  Having used the native Windows configuration, I simply expected this section to contain two options; the ability to mirror a screen (show the same image on both screens), and the ability to “stretch” the desktop among multiple screens.  Boy, was I wrong.  Through UltraMon’s mirroring, one can configure mirroring based on a region of the screen or application.  Additionally, one can make the mirroring dynamic by only showing the region in which the mouse was located.  While these options are not aspects that the everyday user is likely to take advantage of, I can easily see where someone could use this feature to better conduct presentations on a projector.

The configuration of screen-saver and desktop options through UltraMon also allows the end-user to display entirely separate screen-savers and backgrounds on each of your respective monitors.  This is vastly better than the desktop/screen-saver options built into Windows, simply because you have the option to configure these aspects.

Having used Windows for several years, I personally know the importance of the taskbar.  And having used a dual-screen configuration for a while a couple of years back, I know how difficult it can be to span the taskbar across more than one monitor.  When I had my setup, I simply used the configuration manager that was provided with my graphics card, and thus found myself with a boring spanned taskbar.  While this as somewhat useful, it became a pain when I wanted to open a program that I had on my left screen, only to find that I had to move over to my first screen to open it from the taskbar.

UltraMon solves this problem by implementing the “smart taskbar”, where each screen has its own taskbar that “only shows tasks for the monitor it is on.”  This means that if you have a window open on your second screen, the task bar entry for that window is on the second screen, and that you do not have to go back and forth between monitors.

While UltraMon has a boatload of different options, they are far too extensive to list in a single blog post.  However, as a laptop user who occasionally plugs into full-screen monitors at work, I am impressed with UltraMon’s preserving, saving, and re-applying desktop icons, which allows a user to have desktop icons configured for multiple screens when the screen is attached and to put all of the icons on a single screen when it is not.

The second application that I looked at is called DisplayFusion Pro, and is available from the developer’s website for just under $25.  While it has many of the same features that UltraMon has, I found that it is far less user friendly in my opinion.

However, DisplayFusion allows the end-user to configure aspects such at the scaling for their desktop backgrounds, as well as the ability to fine-tune the position.  While these could be potentially powerful features, I simply do not see a use for them because Windows “stretches” (which includes shrinking) the desktop background as needed.

DisplayFusion also has the option to rotate desktop backgrounds, which can be a convenient feature if you have a vast collection of backgrounds.

Additionally, DisplayFusion allows an end-user to add “titlebar” buttons which allow for the simplistic moving of windows between monitors and other tasks such as changing the desktop wallpaper.

Like the “smart taskbar” in UltraMon, DisplayFusion allows for individual taskbars to be created and configured for each individual screen, and although I could not get it to work (I believe it’s only available in Vista/Win7), DisplayFusion allows for the transparency of the taskbar to be set.  Had I been able to get this working, I would have seen great potential for it to eliminate the “eyesore” of the taskbar (for desktop backgrounds, etc) while maintaining the functionality behind it.

At the end of the day, there isn’t a product that is definitelygoing to be right for you.  However, both UltraMon and DisplayFusion have trial downloads available, so there is no risk in determining which one best suits your needs.

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