No. of Recommendations: 4

You wrote, Back in the old days (when motherboards typically offered multiple PCI slots), it was easy to create a multi-monitor work station. Just add a video card to free slot, let Windows find the new hardware, and then tell Windows the left-to-right order in which the monitors were to interact with each other. Even with the cheapest and most low-end of cards, it was easy to create a four-monitor setup.

These days, however, because of how motherboards come configured, dual cards or quad cards are needed. That means upgrading isn’t going to be as cheap. But, also, it hasn’t gotten any harder. Likely, even if your computer has onboard video, the motherboard comes with a slot for a PCI Express card. That’s where the new dual or quad card will go. You might have to go into the BIOS to point the bootup toward that card, rather than the manufacturer’s default. But that’s no biggie, and my experience is that Win7 will get it right without your having to do anything, just as it will also recognize and install the new video card without having to use the manufacturer’s drivers (typically supplied on a CD).

What might be a disappointment to you is having to abandon your old VGA monitors, because the new video cards are ported for DVI. But even for that there are workarounds, such as using VGA to DVI adapters. Recently, I created a three-monitor setup using the Sapphire Radeon HD 6770 Flex Edition 1GB DX11 Video Card. At $130 or so, the card is affordable, and the installation is straight-forward *provided* you’re trying to attach no more than one of your old VGA monitors and two of the newer DVI ones (LCD or LED).

Ah. Graphics. And multimon. Something I know a thing or two about.

First, most graphics chips these days support two display outputs / DACs natively, so almost any graphics expansion card you buy should support two ports. If it doesn't, either the card is based on really old tech or the manufacturer was just being really cheap and didn't want to include the cost of the extra connector in their BOM. (BTW, formats such as DVI and HDMI don't need to convert to an analog format, so the term DAC is a misnomer; but we still tend to use it anyway.)

Also most machines today come with a cheap integrated graphics controller. More expensive machines will tend to use a separate controller because the discrete controllers give better performance in part because they can dedicate more of the die to the graphics function and in part because they can use dedicated graphics memory. (BTW, either might support dual monitor directly.) Regardless which you have, you can almost always keep using the system's original graphics card along with the new one. So adding a single small card will often give you a total of three or even four outputs you can use.

I'm using a dual monitor set-up using just the card that came with this system - no integrated graphics here. It's driving a 23" and a 21" LCD display. The 21" monitor is off an older system that I occasionally still use; but I remote into it from this machine. (The other monitor I used with that old system is now in another home-office and gets used by our laptops when one of works from home.) Several times I've thought it would be nice to switch to a 4-panel display; but I know I probably don't need it and it would involve setting up the monitors on articulated wall mounts - and spending some $$$ I don't want to part with. But then I don't invest full-time or look at much of it in real-time.

If you're only doing stock or bond investing, any graphics adapter will do as update speed isn't really that critical. If any of you readers own a laptop or a desktop with little or no expansion capability - or are reluctant to open your machines - try a USB-based graphics adapter. Most work pretty well - especially those based on the DisplayLink chipset. They use a driver that limits what it updates on the screen and compresses what it can to make the most of the 480Mb/s available on a USB 2.0 connection.

If you just bought a machine that has limited expansion capability, but it has USB 3.0 connectors, look into the latest USB 3.0 graphics adapters. USB 3.0 has a 5Gb/s link - that is the same speed as PCIe Gen-2. That means the latest USB 3.0 graphics adapters should be about as fast as anything you can plug into a PC's innards. I'm not sure if these are on the market yet, but I've seen prototypes of monitors that have the USB graphics adapter and a USB 3.0 hub integrated into a great big LCD monitor. With those, you just plug the display into a USB 3.0 port and it just comes up as a display. Then you can plug in things like mice, keyboard and backup storage into the monitor. Really nice for a USB 3.0-capable laptop.

Do I use these things? Not normally, no. But I've had a lot of this type of stuff pass through my hands at work. About a decade ago, I worked on Win9x, WinNT, Win2K & Win XP graphics drivers. In fact part of my specialization was multi-monitor support - it wasn't native to WinNT and there were special things you had to do to make it work in Win9x & Win2K. More recently I've been working with USB 3.0 (and less recently Wireless USB) hardware and drivers. As I have mentioned, I've been particularly impressed by the products based the DisplayLink chipsets - which are USB-based graphics adapters. It's kind of niche product; but if your current laptop or desktop is good enough otherwise and you're wanting to increase your screen real estate, something like that might be worth a look.

- Joel
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