Monday, May 24, 2010

Three Monitors are Better Than One

Well, that'll teach me to procrastinate. Jeff Atwood has recently posted a blog posting that pretty much echoes everything I'm about to say. If you need more convincing then go check it out.

I'd like to talk to you today about computer monitors. The computer monitor is one of the most important things to consider when buying a computer. Most parts on a computer make the computer faster or able to load bigger programs but a computer screen actually goes beyond that. A computer screen actually dictates how you interact with your computer. If you have a very large screen you can see more information at the same time so there's less scrolling. If you've ever had a large, wide screen and work with spreadsheets you know how positively awesome this can be. It can also allow you to track multiple things at the same time. As a programmer I often have to have my editor, the program I'm working on and the log file that program all open at one time. Big screens let you get more work done.

With modern PCs and their modern graphics cards you can usually attach at least two monitors to your machine. Two monitors really are double the fun. What tends to happen is one of these screens becomes the main screen and the other becomes the auxiliary screen. Two screen can often be even better than 1 large screen because the two screens natural segment your workspace. You put your e-mail, tool palettes, log files, desktop widgets, Skype and all that sort of thing on a second monitor and keep the first one for working with. Two, monitors works great but you know what works better than two monitors? Three monitors.

Three monitors have recently become a real possibility thanks to the new series of ATI cards which all out you to attach three monitors. Here's the list that I know have three monitor output.

* Radeon 5670 (~$120)
* Radeon 5770 (~$180)
* Radeon 5830 (~$230)
* Radeon 5850 (~$310)
* Radeon 5870 (~$410)

I personally have the Radeon 5770. It has a respectable 3-D performance while drawing only moderate amounts of power and at a good price too. If you're only going for three monitors though you can use the cheapest since the cheapest card in a modern series will handily beat whatever graphics card you have when it comes to 3-D performance unless you're one of these guys who upgrades their video card every year.

Currently I'm using three old 19 inch CRT screens with my card. The Radeon 5770 has two DVI outputs and one display port output. It also has an HDMI output but in order to use three screens you need to use the display port output. Since my old CRTs are all VGA I needed to get a few DVI converters. It was surprisingly easy because every video card I card I every motherboard I bought as come with a DVI to VGA converter. The display port is more of a problem. Display port seems to be more complicated than DVI and so converting between its VGA or DVI requires a pretty fancy converter. Even with one of these fancy converters it's not guaranteed to work. ATI has published a list of dongles that it knows work.

http://support.amd.com/us/eyefinity/Pages/eyefinity-dongles.aspx

I didn't know about that list at the time and bought an adapter by StarTech. It works in the sense that it will display a picture on third screen but it doesn't work in the sense that the picture will wobble about once a minute and every once in a while I'll have to unplug and re-plug adapter to get the video card to recognize it. It also won't drop into the special eyefinity gaming mode most of the time.

The CRTs are starting to get a bit old. No, scratch that the CRTs are very old and in desperate need of being replaced. I've been trying to find a monitor with a display port that I could buy three of. Annoyingly every manufacturer seems to be selling the exact same monitor in the exact same configurations. They are all 20 to 24 inch and come in wide screen format of 1980X1080 and 1600X900. The only exception is that there's a 24 inch screen with a resolution of 1980X1200.

I've never tried three widescreen displays. I would expect that it's probably a bit too wide. Three normal aspect ratio screens arranged horizontally work quite well because they fill in your peripheral vision. With three wide screens I suspect it would just be overkill. The only alternative is to get an older screen that doesn't have a display port on it and then get an expensive, hard to find adapter. This is what Jeff Atwood did. If I was to do this I already know which one I would get. It would probably be an UltraSharp 2007FP 20-inch. This is the kind of monitor I use at work where I have two of them. I have found them to be quite good. The high-resolution, small physical size and ability to set them up in portrait mode make them ideal for programming.

I think that most manufacturers have stopped designing new 4:3 aspect ratio monitors. They work very nicely in three monitor configurations but they also work very nicely in portrait mode too. As someone who works on long documents all the time viewing them in absolutely fantastic. Widescreen monitors used in portrait mode are, I suspect, a bit ridiculous.

Oh well, I'm going to actually go out and buy three monitors some point soon. One of my CRTs has just broken. If I leave it on too long the image would grow really large and turn purple. I've been keeping it turned off because at this point I'm scared it will catch fire or explode or something. Another monitor makes a buzzing noise whenever I display certain webpages. I'll be sure to tell you what I eventually bought and how it's worked out for me. Until then see you. Bye.

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