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Monitor Madness
Of monitors and men...

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I need to see a lot of stuff at the same time -- I'm not the average user. As a geek, I've worked with multiple monitors and multiple computers on the Mac since 1987. Here are some experiences to help people learn and avoid pitfalls I have run into.

Big or Many

Monitors, and screen real-estate, is the most important peripheral you buy for your computer. You may be staring at t many hours per day, for many years. Many people keep their monitors longer than their computers (lasting a few generation of machines). Don't skimp when buying monitors, and having enough screen real-estate can make you far more productive (by requiring less scrolling or layering of information you are working with).

I used to recommend to many screen real-estate junkies, that were considering 19" or 21" color monitors, to instead consider buying two 17" monitors (and an extra video card). This gave them more screen space and more usable space for many things -- and it allowed them to have a backup monitor if one ever went dead. Publishing, Illustration and certain tasks really do require one megascreen over two smaller ones -- but most users can use dual monitors better.

What is more useful for you is based on what you use the computer for. If you keep a lot of different documents open, or write and browse and do research all at the same time, or you are a programmer that looks at many modules or needs lots of space for debugging -- then multiple monitors is very nice. You can spread your work among the monitors and can keep them all open for comparison. If you are working with huge documents, drawings, or one big thing, instead of doing lots of things, then the single large monitor is a better way to go.

I've used multiple monitors on a Mac since 1997 -- but I hear that Windows98 finally got support for multiple monitors, 11 years after the Mac -- and Windows only has a few quirks with using it -- but I've yet to see it working anywhere. Personally, I stuck with Win95 right up until the time I sold my PC (last week) -- I have enough problems with PCs without changing things. The experiments I did with WindowsNT and Multiple Monitors was a trial of patience -- but it was useful to learn how multiple monitor support should not be designed. Windows98 is far better than NT, from what I've read. Well, enough of the truth, also called Windows bashing, lets get back to the Mac.

Sadly, in computers there are no rules that can survive the test of time. In the olden days (the early 1990's) 19-21" color monitors costs $4,000 and up, a 4 fold premium over 17" monitors -- so it was cheaper to buy two 17" monitors (and a video card). And while monitors can still cost that much, that is for specialty monitors with professional level color matching. Now days 19" monitors have come down so far in costs that it is often harder to justify dual monitors on price alone -- but if you are considering increasing your screen real-estate, you should think of what you need that real-estate for. If you already have one 17" monitor, adding another is probably a better solution over replacing it with a 19". Of course adding a 19" monitor can work as well. So how much screen real-estate you need, and how you are going to get there, is up to you -- but many people fail to consider the option using more than one monitor at a time.

Many computers?

You know you're a real geek if you use more than one computer at a time. At home I've had as many as 8 machines -- though my wife keeps making me sell them (or usually I just donate them to schools). I usually only have 2 or 3 computers that I use regularly (the rest being historical machines or servers). At work it is often the same -- I use a primary development machine, and a secondary productivity, testing, or backup machine. This has made me an unwitting expert in using more than one computer at a time -- and taught me the intracasies in the war of deskspace.

There are three basic ways to work with multiple computers at the same time:

  1. Multiple systems -- where each computer has one (or more) monitors, keyboards, mice, and so on -- and the user physically moves to access the various computers.
  2. One primary computer that controls the others through remote control (Timbuktu, remote login, file sharing, and so on).
  3. One Keyboard, mouse, monitor, and a monitor switch that flips which computer you are controlling at a given time.

Each of these solutions has its strengths and weaknesses.

Multiple Systems

If you have lots of space -- then it is nice having complete systems everywhere. You just wheel around from computer to computer (or spin in place if you have a circular office). It is a little hard on the flooring -- but you can see what is happening on the other machines by just looking. The monitors create lots of heat and use power, but heck, power is cheap -- and nothing looks so cool and geeky as walking into a room with monitors and keyboards and computers stacked everywhere -- with no lights, just that cool monitor glow illuminating the place. Of course figuring out which keyboard and mouse I was supposed to be using for which monitor can get confusing (and annoying) -- and some of us like to have a workplace that doesn't look like an electronic repair palace. So multiple systems solution is fine for two or three computers -- and quickly becomes unusable after that. And even there it only works if you have a whole office dedicated to your computers. So you might want to consider one of the other two solutions.

Remote Control

There are a few ways to remote control other machines. On the Mac the more common way is using a program called Timbuktu. You install the program on the slave machine, and give others access to control is. Then from the other machine you can take control at any time -- you just run the program, login, and you are presented with a Window that represents the entire slave screen. You have to be on a network, but those can be very easy to setup and are often required for other benefits.

Remote control works pretty well, and you can eliminate the monitor of the slave (if you install a little monitor block/adapter that makes the computer think that a monitor is plugged in). It is a good idea to have the slave computers' monitor block set to a lower resolution than the master computers monitor, or else you find yourself scrolling all the time when controlling the other machine. Since you are controlling the machine across a network, there is some delay, especially in updating the screen - and there can be a few compatibility quirks with a few programs -- so you can't really run action games on the slave (board games and strategy games can be OK). A neat capability is you may be able to control that slave from anywhere (any machine that is running the same remote control program) -- so you can control your home machine from work (or vise versa), assuming that you have internet access at both places. But if you start doing internet based control, you need to be concerned with security issues -- so make sure to use passwords.

Monitor Switches

The last space saving solution is using a monitor switch. These are just what they sound like -- a switch that can allow you to share one monitor with multiple computers. Some models of switches have the keyboard/mouse switch at the same time as the monitor (these are called KVM switches -- Keyboard Video Mouse). Since I have have 3 keyboards and mice stacked up (and trying to figure out which one is which) I highly recommend getting a KVM switch. Switches cost anywhere from $50 for low end ones, to $1,000+ for really high end models.

One trouble with monitor switches is centered around buying cheap switches or bad cables which cause noise and interference. I stare at my monitor for many hours -- and my previous monitor switch was blurry and I regretted buying a cheap version switch, with cheaper cables.

The other trouble is that usually you want them to switch your keyboard/mice at the same time. If you want to connect Macs and PCs this can be tricky, because they are different protocols (the Macs used ADB for keyboard and mice, and the PCs used a far nastier PS/2 connectors for mouse and keyboard). You could buy separate converters, or some of the highest end switches have built in converters.

My early Monitor/ADB switch (for older Macs) worked -- but it had interference because it was a very low end model (with cheap cables). It was also what I call a "pure" switch for the ADB -- each time you switched to a new device it was like unplugging and replugging in the keyboard and mouse to that machine. Macs don't handle that very well with ADB, and so the machine would very rarely freeze up, or it would lose certain mouse or keyboard settings (and settings go back to defaults each time you switch). Apple threatens that you could even burn out your machine hot-swapping (swithcing) ADB devices, but what do they know? (I've never actually heard of this happening). The most expensive switches not only supported more devices, and conversion between device types (ADB to PC's PS/2), but they also supported keeping devices powered and spoofing things so the computer and keyboards/mouse thought the other was always connected.

The newest switches support USB switching as well as monitor switching. Since USB is cross platform (Macs and PCs both use USB) this is a much more elegant solution for modern Macs. I got a Dr. Bott MoniSwitch USB, to allow me to share four computers with a monitor and a USB bus, and I saved a lot of desk space in the process. I'm sure there are other good switches out there as well -- this is just the brand I tried.

The MoniSwitch came with nice cables and was a good switch -- so the view quality is great. But there are still a few USB issues that may need to be worked out. (This is likely for all USB devices -- not just this model of switch).

Problem #1, PCs don't support USB (well), only Windows98 does -- I was running WindowsNT or Windows95. So the first thing I had to do was upgrade the OS, grumble. I installed Windows2000 beta, because it is supposed to support USB... but I quickly decided that Windows2000 was too annoying to actually use (even more annoying than Windows in general) -- so I solved the PC to USB problem by selling my PC really cheap. Not the path everyone would take -- but it worked for me. My life is much happier now that I don't have to deal with my PC. I did have USB working before I sold the machine, so I know it is feasible to do cross platform switching at some level, and my multibutton third party mouse worked on both.

Selling the PC left me with only three Macs. Now, I flip back and forth, and gleefully work away. There seems to be a minor problem with Apple's USB right now -- about one out of every thousand times I switch, the Finder will restart, and then my mouse won't work. A few games (Quake) doesn't like being switched away (or back) in the middle -- and so they won't work right until you quit and restart them. And Microsoft Office on my machine just crashes the whole computer when switching. (Leave it to Microsoft to create a word processor so complex that it that has to talk to a keyboard/mouse directly and can't use the normal OS routines). I've also never had OS X Server crash because of USB. So these minor problems appears to be a USB driver issues with Mac OS. I expect this to get better (be revised) over time -- and these problems are rare enough that it doesn't bother me, and is worth the tradeoff for deskspace.

If you want to get fancy, you can get special switches (expensive ones) that allow for switching multiple monitors among multiple computers at the same time -- so then you can have multiple monitors shared on multiple computers, all at once. Just what the world needs!


There is no such thing as too many electronics or computers. Different solutions will work for different people -- and it will really vary on what you are doing, and how you like to work. Hopefully, this article gives people some new ideas on how to do more on their computers, or different ways that you can work with your machines. Not everyone will need these options -- in fact most people will not -- but everyone can rest securing in the knowledge that there are options for growth if they need them.

Created: 12/21/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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