Build a three-screen workstation

Step-by-step instructions for expanding your laptop's visual horizons on the cheap

If you aren't having any luck, try extending your search to 17-in. CRTs or to 19-inchers going for $25 or less. With some bargaining, you might be able to get it for next to nothing. If you're still having problems, try checking with a recycling center. They often have a supply of tested, working monitors destined for reuse. Or check on Craigslist again after the school year begins and ends, or after Christmas, as these are popular times for consumers to upgrade.

Of course, you may not want to bother with CRTs at all. In his article Extreme energy makeover: Home office edition, my colleague Rob Mitchell dumped his 19-in. CRT for a same-sized LCD because the latter used one-third the electricity, thus reducing his ongoing carbon footprint.

Sounds good. But, as Mitchell also noted, that 60-watt difference only resulted in an annual dollar savings of $18. My view is that, by going with a free CRT, you save at least $120 right away, which would take almost seven years to make up with an LCD. And keeping a perfectly functional CRT out of the landfill for several more years has got to cut your carbon footprint more than buying a new LCD, however energy-efficient.

One gadget you might consider if you go with a CRT is Belkin's new US$50 Conserve power strip, which lets you shut off plugged-in gadgets via remote control so that they don't drain power when in standby mode.

Cost for two monitors: between $0 (for two 19-in. CRTs obtained via Craigslist) and $120 (one free CRT, one 19-in. LCD)

Step 2: Hook up the monitors

Until several years ago, running multiple monitors usually required a desktop PC equipped with a video card for each additional monitor. If you had a notebook, the best you could do is connect it to a single external monitor.

That changed in 2005 when graphics card maker Matrox released its DualHead2Go. Essentially an external video card in a fist-sized plastic case, the DualHead2Go connects two monitors to a laptop via a USB port. The VGA version supports up to 1280 x 1024 resolution for each screen, while the digital DVI version supports up to 1920 x 1200 per monitor.

The big caveat with the DualHead2Go (which costs between US$160 and $210 online, depending on whether you get the analog or digital version), and the even more ambitious TripleHead2Go (which costs between US$250 and $300, minimum), is that both products actually create one ultrawide desktop that spans two or three monitors. Users can split up the desktop into smaller windows using Matrox's PowerDesk software. But it appeared to me to be a somewhat kludgy solution that adds extra steps.

These days, most people can make do with external USB video cards, such as Tritton Technologies' See2 adapter, Kensington's Dual Monitor Adapter and Iogear's USB 2.0 External VGA Video Card. All cost US$100 or less and let you add a single monitor each. Many use chip technology and software from DisplayLink, which is rapidly emerging as the standard for this technology on the Windows side. DisplayLink has also released a beta driver that should enable any of its partners' products to work with Intel Macs running Mac OS X.

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Eric Lai

Computerworld

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