Max Out the Multi-Monitor Magic Under Windows 7

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No prior version of Windows has supported multiple monitors so well and offered so many options. Read on as we show you how to set things up, use the native and third party tools, and get the kind of eye candy only multiple monitors can support.

Photo by A.D. Wheeler (Flickr/HTG Comment).

Multiple monitors are a great way to maximize your screen real estate, spread out your work, divide your work space, and otherwise break free from the constrains of single monitor computing. In the following guide we’ll show you how to setup your multiple monitors, take advantage of the native tools in Windows 7, highlight some useful third-party tools that go beyond the scope of what’s offered in Windows 7, and (of course) drop some great resources for making your bank of monitors look awesome.

Setting Up and Configuring Your Multiple Monitors

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If your monitors are already up and running, you can skip this step and hop right down to next section. If you’re waiting for your monitors to be delivered or seriously contemplating upgrading, this section is worth a read.

You’ll need a few things: extra monitors, extra cables (which likely came with the extra monitors you purchased), and enough video ports to go around. If you want to run dual monitors the most common solution is to buy a video card with dual ports on it—if you’re not trying to play cutting edge games you can score great dual-head video cards for cheap. When running 3-4 monitors most people just buy two inexpensive dual-port video cards. In my particular case I kept the onboard video GPU that came with the motherboard active and managed to squeeze by with a dual-port video card and the one onboard port. Pulling that stunt is highly dependent on the combination of motherboard and graphics card you use as some motherboards will not allow you to use the onboard video if an add-on video card is detected. If you’ve never installed any add-on cards or even cracked open the case of your PC, now would be a great time to check out the second section of our Building a New Computer Guide to get the basics.

More and more people are using multiple monitors and both Microsoft and the monitor/graphics card companies have noticed. As a result multi-monitor users enjoy better native OS support, better hardware, and better driver support than they ever have before.

How much better? Setting up multiple monitors under Windows 98 was possible but driver support was spotty, there wasn’t much demand, and thus nobody really cared about it enough to make it easy. Windows XP made it a little easier but it was still largely a wing and a prayer kind of thing. I ran multiple monitors under Windows XP and I couldn’t even tell you how I got it to work. There was so much swearing, driver uninstalling and reinstalling, cable switching, and animal sacrifice involved that which thing actually caused it to miraculously start working has been lost in all that.

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Compare that experience with the experience of multiple monitors under Windows 7. I installed Windows 7, I was braced for the pain that is setting up multiple monitors and despite the fact I was, at that time, running mismatched monitors with different native resolutions on two different video cards (Nvidia and ATI-based even!) Windows 7 detected everything on my Frankenbuild and lit up all the monitors right after the first boot. Amazing.

Photo by Aldo Gonzalez.

In fact the only thing you’ll likely have to mess around with is the order the monitors are in. I, for example, have three monitors and keep the center monitor as the primary monitor. Some people like to start the start menu on the farthest left monitor instead of the center. Click the start menu and type “screen resolution” in the run box. You’ll see a screen similar to the one in the screenshot at the start of this section. There you can detect new displays if they didn’t auto-detect and identify your monitors (each monitor will temporarily have a huge white number on the display to help you match up the physical monitors with the display setup), set the orientation, and shuffle the placement of the monitors around. On important setting to double check before leaving the display menu: make sure that all monitors say “extend these displays” and not “duplicate” or “show desktop only”. You want Windows to treat all your monitors like a giant extension of the desktop.

If the last time you attempted setting up multiple monitors was in the 90s, you’ll probably be incredulous at how simple it is these days. It wasn’t all for naught though! You can always throw the old driver disks at those kids on your lawn.

Taking Advantage of Window 7’s Native Multiple Monitor Support

2011-04-26_142622Windows 7 has a slew of features specifically designed for multiple monitor situations. Before we get into the specific native tools for multi-monitor setups, let’s cover a few things you’re going to want to tweak right away.

Crank up the mouse sensitivity. The first thing you’ll notice once you’ve got your monitors active is how freaking big they are and how tiny the mouse pointer is. If it took you two swipes of the mouse to move from one side of the monitor to the other now it will take you four, six, or eight swipes depending on how many monitors you added. Cranking up the mouse speed and sensitivity goes a long way towards making mousing around a 3,000+ pixel span bearable. Hit the start menu and type “mouse” to open up the mouse settings menu. Under the pointer options you’ll find a spot for the speed and the “enhance pointer precision” option.

Turn on visibility features. In the same menu you’ll find the visibility options. At minimum you’ll want to turn on the CTRL location function. You’ll often find yourself wondering just where the mouse cursor went. Click CTRL, when this option is enabled, and several large concentric rings will flicker around the cursor and hone in on it. Some people like the pointer trails feature, it’s a 50/50 thing. Many people hate it and many people find it invaluable. Try it out to see if its for you.

Master keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts always speed up your workflow but on a single monitor you can get by ignoring a lot of them since so much of the interface is immediately accessible with only short mouse gestures. On a multi-monitor setup the space is so spread out that it becomes increasingly important to learn the keyboard shortcuts unless you enjoy dragging the mouse for miles and lugging windows manually from place to place. Most of the following keyboard shortcuts work on any Windows 7 machine but are especially useful for multi-monitor setups as they save you tons of shuffling, dragging, and other mouse maneuvering.

  • Win + Space: Temporarily enables Aero desktop peek, just like the little peek button beside system tray in the taskbar.
  • Win + Home: Minimizes every window except for the active one.
  • Win + Up/Down Arrow: Maximizes and minimizes the active window.
  • Win + Left/Right Arrow: This combination activates the docking feature in Windows 7. Let’s say that you have a Window that is sitting in the center of your left monitor and you want to move it to the right. The first Win + Right Arrow click will move it to the right edge of the left monitor, the second to the left edge of the right monitor, and so on, pushing it section by section across the screens.
  • Shift + Win + Left/Right Arrows: This is the speedy version of the above shortcut. Rather than stop at each docking station along the way this short cut simply shuttles the window from one monitor right to the next monitor in either direction.
  • Win + P: If you frequently need to shift between display modes this is a very handy shortcut that allows you to easily switch between computer only (turns off the secondary display), duplicate (mirrors the displays, handy if you have a second monitor for clients to look at), extends (the default most of us will stick with), and projector only (handy for laptops, shifts the display entirely to the secondary source like a projector).

For more useful Windows shortcuts, check out our guide to useful but lesser known Windows 7 shortcuts here.

Super Charging with Third Party Multiple Monitor Tools

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As awesome as it is that Windows 7 makes it so simple to install and configure multiple monitors there are still some features that are head-scratchingly absent from the roster. There is, as the most glaring example, no native support for spanning task bars in Windows 7. If you install more than one monitor all the applications stay clustered together on the primary monitor’s taskbar with no taskbar to speak of on the other monitors. This is confusing and counter intuitive, we have come to expect that the monitor we’re looking at will have a taskbar with icons for the programs we’re using there. Fortunately there are quite a few robust solutions on the market.

One thing to note about the following solutions: none of them are free. We love free and open-source software but currently there just aren’t any serious contenders in the multi-monitor enhancement market in the free-as-in-beer category. You dropped some cash for the extra video card and the extra monitors (and perhaps multiples of both); you’re just going to have to bite the bullet and drop a little more cash if you want the best experience possible.

There are three major players in this arena, Display Fusion, UltraMon, and Actual Multiple Monitors. Here’s a quick overview of each.

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Display Fusion Pro ($25): Display Fusion started off as a powerful package for managing multi-monitor wallpaper and screen savers. Over time the program evolved and now has specialized keyboard shortcuts for moving windows between monitors (including spanning, snapping, and resizing to a set percentage of the monitor/work area) in addition to the great wallpaper and screen saver support. Display Fusion was late to the multi-monitor taskbar game but they made up for it by surpassing UltraMon’s taskbar by a mile with additional features, Aero peak, and a more polished look. It’s the most economical of the all-in-one multi-monitor enhancers and you definitely get your twenty five bucks worth. Comes with a 30-day trial as well as a free version. You can compare the two versions here.

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UltraMon ($40): UltraMon has been around for quite some time and as a result of that has a large fan base. It hasn’t been as fast to adopt new features as Display Fusion (its multi-monitor taskbar, for example, lacks any sort of Aero peek functionality) but it still rocks a solid feature set including a spanning taskbar, display profiles, specialized title bar buttons for easily moving and stretching windows, support for multi-monitor wallpaper and screen savers, and a pile of shortcuts for interacting with your multi-monitor setup.

MultiMonitorTaskbar

Actual Multiple Monitors ($40): Actual Multiple Monitors (AMM) is lesser known that UltraMon and Display Fusion but it is absolutely packed with features. Although like the previous two examples Actual Multiple Monitors supports multi-monitor screensavers and wallpaper the real gem in the Actual Multiple Monitors arsenal is the spanning taskbar. The AMM taskbar is absolutely loaded with features. You can duplicate the start button on all monitors, pin to non-primary task bars, group similar taskbar icons, see download progress on the taskbar, and more. Essentially AMM has duplicated all the things that make the Windows 7 taskbar unique and awesome on the non-primary monitors; this is a feat that no other multiple-monitor software has yet duplicated.

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Before we leave the topic of third-party software there is a special set of apps for those of you who aren’t just using Windows 7 across all the monitors but want to also hook up other computers and control them (your Linux box, your Mac, or any other computer) using your primary mouse and keyboard. There are two main applications you’ll want to take a look at if this is a situation that applies to you. The first is Synergy, a popular open source application that allows you to link one keyboard to multiple Windows, Linux, and Mac machines. The second is Input Director, another free option but one that is limited to only Windows machines.

Customizing Your Spread of Sweet Sweet Pixels

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Your monitors are hooked up, Windows is configured, you’ve got your taskbar spanned, and everything is running smoothly. Now what? We’ll tell you what. You customize the hell out of it. You’ve got more pixels at your disposal than most people can dream of. Somewhere there is a guy sitting in a cubicle thinking “I wish I could fit this entire awesome panoramic photo in full resolution as my desktop wallpaper” and sighing dejectedly. Guess what? You’re not that guy. You can enjoy sweet wallpaper in all its high-res glory. Check out the following resources to score piles of high-res wallpaper and multi-monitor screen savers.

Image available as wallpaper here.

Multi-Monitor Wallpaper: Most wallpaper sites now include a multi-monitor section, although visiting specialized sites or sub-sections is the way to go. Hit up the following links to find some.

In addition to the above resources you’ll likely find that you end up custom making your wallpaper most of the time. Deviant Art, Flickr, and other social media web sites are great places to get high resolution images you can custom crop down to your monitor size. In addition Google Images is a treasure trove of wallpaper pictures. Set your search parameters for images at least as large as your monitor bank and then crop away.

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Multi-Monitor Screensavers: Multiple monitor screensavers either work really well or not at all. Screensavers designed to work with a bank of monitors generally rely on certain types of hardware acceleration and GPU setups. If you’re only use a single video card with a dual head then you shouldn’t have any problems. If you’ve mixed and matched video cards, you’ll probably run into all sorts of issues.

The easiest thing you can do is use one of the applications mentioned in the previous section such as Display Fusion, that supports taking single-monitor screen savers and mirroring/spanning them across your multiple monitors. This is much less GPU intensive, less prone to hardware issues, and still looks pretty sweet. If you want to go beyond that however and use screen savers that were intended to be run in full spanned multiple-monitor and hardware-accelerated glory, then you’ll want to check out the following resources:

ReallySlick: Really Slick has some, well, really slick OpenGL screen savers. If your combination of video cards can handle them and not crap the bed, then you’re in for a let’s-go-play-in-the-wormhole good time.

Flurry: If you’re a fan of the OS X screensaver Flurry, this is a stable Windows port.

Matrix Screensaver: Don’t deny it. The second you set up all those monitors you said to yourself “And now… it needs some Matrix code cascading down the front”.

Particle Fire: Particle Fire is a physics-based particle simulator for your multi-monitor setup that’s, if we had to liken it to anything you’d see in the real world, looks like a roman candle fight in a racquetball court.

Unfortunately multi-monitor wallpapers come and go fairly rapidly so it’s tough to keep track of them. If you’ve found any that work well for your setup we’d love to hear about it.


At this point you’ve set everything up, learned some new shortcuts, and personalized your monitor spread with sweet wallpaper and screensavers. Have a question on an aspect of multiple monitors we didn’t cover? Ask us in the comments. Have a resource you think other readers would benefit from? Let’s hear about that too.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 04/26/11
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