Screen real estate is one of those things that you can't usually get enough of. I hear from readers who run all sorts of multiple-monitor setups in which they've invested some serious money, and I've never heard a complaint about the cost. I've been considering going to a dual-display setup myself, but the aggravation of getting a new video card with support for dual monitors and the cash outlay for a pair of 20" 1600x1200 LCD panels keeps me from jumping on that bandwagon.

But as I write this column, I'm working with a display area 3600 pixels wide and no less the 1050 pixels tall--and I didn't even buy any new hardware to do it. Instead, I'm using a $49.95 software application called MaxiVista that lets me extend my desktop onto any available Windows computer screen. In my case, I'm extending my typical 1920x1440 desktop (which runs on a 22" NEC monitor) onto my notebook computer's 1680x1050 screen.

MaxiVista lets me do this by installing a virtual video adapter in my desktop system. When you install the application and look at the Settings tab of the Control Panel Display Properties applet, you see that there is now a second video adapter installed. The primary computer runs the MaxiVista server application, and the target computers, which can be any networked computer running Windows 98 or later, installs and runs a tiny MaxiViewer application. When you launch the server application, it finds all viewer applications and extends the desktop as configured to those other screens.

I'll be the first to point out that not every application will work like this; I've noticed that certain video playback applications don't like to run on the virtualized screen, while other applications will work when windowed on the virtual screen but revert to the primary screen when you maximize their window. But all Microsoft Office applications that I've tried work on the virtualized screen as if it were actually attached to the primary computer.

The really trick thing about this software is that it lets you use your notebook computer as a secondary screen--it even lets you use that old notebook that you've stuffed in the closet because it's too much of an antique to do any real work. You can use up to three additional displays (though I've tried it only with two virtual displays) to further extend your desktop.

Although especially useful to people who need to have lots of open applications, more screen space to examine spreadsheets, or simply the space to organize their workflow, I've also found MaxiViewer very useful for network management. I manage my servers using RDP connections to the headless servers in my office. I usually just need to check on running tests or system/application status, so I launch the RDP client, take a look at what I need, then do the same with the next server. With MaxiVista, I opened two 800x600 RDP windows side-by-side on the virtual display and was able to monitor the tests I was running in real time while having my primary display available to work on the Microsoft Office Visio 2003 network diagram I was developing.

For people doing presentation work, a Mirror Image setting mirrors your screen to the target computer. This feature is very useful when you have a dedicated presentation system--you can simply hook up an old notebook to the system and network and be able to drive presentations from your desktop or current notebook system without needing to reattach cables or reconfigure video.

Although MaxiVista isn't a replacement for a dedicated dual-display system, most people simply don't have a real need for such a setup or can't justify the cost. If you ever need a multimonitor setup and you have an old notebook or two lying around unused (or even a new notebook that you only use while traveling), the MaxiVista software is too useful and inexpensive to overlook and can maximize your existing investment in notebook computers. I've shown the software in action to a couple of IT friends, and the universal reaction has been "That's really cool!"