Build a three-screen workstation

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

It's too bad the late George Carlin never updated his classic '70s comedy monologue "A place for my stuff" for the Digital Age. Here's how I imagine it would've gone:

That's all you need in life, a little place for your software ... Firefox, Word, Excel, Google Docs, Adobe Reader, Outlook, Halo 3, Trillian ...

That's all your monitor is: a place to keep your app windows and browser tabs open ...

Sometimes you gotta get another monitor. Why? No room for your apps anymore ...

I myself have three displays adorning my desktop. On the left: A 19-in. Dell CRT on which I keep open a minimum of a dozen Firefox tabs at any given time. In the middle: A 19-in. ViewSonic LCD on which I take notes and write articles in Word, read PDF and Excel attachments, and watch Windows Media files. On the right: The 15-in. LCD screen of my ThinkPad T42, on which I do e-mail and IM chat.

Unlike buying a McMansion, boosting your on-screen real estate is more than an exercise in wasteful vanity -- it boosts productivity. This theory (which I subscribe to) is prominently championed by blogger Jeff Atwood: When it comes to on-screen real estate, multiple smaller parcels are more efficient than a single large one.

"Instead of wasting time sizing, moving and z-ordering windows, users only need to deal with one maximized window at a time," Atwood wrote in an aptly named entry, The Large Display Paradox, last year. "They can flip between maximized applications in much the same way they change channels on the television."

Or to go back to Carlin: For holding your stuff, several smaller bags are better than one huge sack.

The clincher for me is that opting for several smaller monitors over a single monster one is significantly cheaper. A brand-name 28-in. LCD -- which, in my opinion, is the equivalent to a pair of 19-in. displays -- starts at US$500. But you can replicate my dual 19-in. monitor setup (assuming you've already got the notebook) from scratch for about US$230, and users willing to tolerate bulky CRTs may be able to assemble all this for about US$100.

Here's my guide to boosting on-screen real estate on the cheap.

Step 1: Get your monitors

LCD prices may not be plummeting like they were several years ago, but they are still dropping. As of early July, 19-in. LCDs from respected names such as ViewSonic and NEC went for less than US$150 online.

My local Fry's had an even cheaper deal: a 19-in. widescreen LCD from the lesser-known Tyris for US$120, after the $30 mail-in rebate (with a free Canon inkjet printer thrown in, too).

While LCD prices are falling, prices for used CRTs are falling off the cliff. In most large US metropolitan areas, you should be able to find a 19-in. CRT in good condition on Craigslist for free.

In Seattle in the past year, I've found a 17-in. Sony Trinitron with a fairly bright, sharp picture; a 19-in. Sony Trinitron (which turned out, alas, to have a failing tube); and a 19-in. Dell flat-screen CRT, which offers a very sharp and pretty bright display. In each case, the owner was overjoyed not to have to haul the 60-pound sucker down to a recycling center and pay to junk it.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Eric Lai

Computerworld
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?