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Get more windows on the Web with a three-monitor setup

DisplayLink lets you add monitors over USB, and two download apps make manging the windows easy.

I wrote about the benefits of using multiple monitors in 2004 (see Secrets to My Excess), and I haven't wavered from my position: If you use a single monitor--unless it's a giant 30-inch model--you are missing out on one of the easiest ways to increase your productivity. Yes, I know this isn't really a Webware story, but the tools I'm about to describe have made using Web apps (all apps, really) much easier for me.

It's dead easy to add a second monitor to either a desktop or a laptop computer. The operating systems handle it natively, and current the hardware does, too: Laptops can push video to an external display and to their built-in LCD at the same time, and almost all new video cards have two outputs.

But what if you want more control than the OS gives you, or if you want to move beyond two monitors? Let's look at a few products that make the multimonitor user's life even better.

The cheapskate's mega-monitor: Two low-cost old displays and a laptop. Rafe Needleman / CNET

First up: DisplayLink. This is a new technology (and product) that routes a video signal over USB, allowing you to connect more monitors to your computer than you have actual video ports. Samsung actually makes a DisplayLink-enabled monitor, but you can slap any old screen onto your PC using a DisplayLink adaptor like this one from IOGear. I can vouch for the technology on Windows XP. I'm using it now and I love it. I did have problems displaying a high-resolution QuickTime movie on the USB-connected monitor, but everything else, including YouTube videos, has displayed perfectly. DisplayLink is also available for the Mac.

But actually managing apps on three monitors can be a bit of a drag. Literally. There's a lot of real estate to drag windows around on. So on my XP setup, I've been using a free download called DisplayFusion to help out. Although it's primarily pitched as a tool to mange multimonitor wallpapers (which it does well), I like it because it gives me very cool keyboard shortcuts for moving windows around. Ctrl-Windows-X sends the active window to the next monitor, Crtl-Windows-left arrow resizes a window to take up exactly the left half of the monitor it's on, and so forth. I even recommend this tool for unimonitor users, especially those with large displays.

Finally, if you're using a laptop and often switch between traveling mode (using the laptop's own display) and desktop mode (using two or three displays), you might find that keeping your icons where you want them becomes tiresome, as they often jump around when you switch display setups. I use Enterra Icon Keeper, a simple Windows add-on that lets you save icon positions for each setup. When you move from single- to multiple-monitor configurations, you just select "Restore Icon Positions," and it pops everything back to where it was the last time you saved icon positions.

Related: Tom Merritt and I discussed these products on our latest Real Deal Podcast.