I'm a big fan of screen real estate. I believe that few things can make computer users more productive than enough screen space to easily switch between the applications and information sources that help them do their jobs. Granted, that statement applies only to people who need to use multiple applications or windows in their work, but that's quite a few users who can benefit from having the right display system.

Although many large monitors are available, many users can't deal with working on high-resolution screens. I receive comments all the time from readers who come across columns I've written about working in 1920 x 1440 x 32 resolution on a 22" monitor. Many complain that they've tried to work with a similar setup but find that the font is too small for comfort. Fortunately, Windows XP makes it very easy to use multiple monitors, which means that you can use a larger font and still have a lot of screen space.

I decided to put this XP functionality to the test when I recently upgraded my primary desktop. I went with a video card with a lot of memory and support for two Digital Visual Interface (DVI) connections so that I could use two flat-panel LCD monitors. Prices have dropped to the point that, with judicious shopping, I found two name-brand 20.5" LCD panels that cost about the same as one 21" tube monitor. My older system is still in daily use, so I can compare the usability side by side between a single 22" monitor running at 1920 x 1440 and a pair of 20.5" flat panels, each running at 1680 x 1050.

The first step was configuring the dual display. The NVIDIA video card software offers several additional dual-monitor support features beyond what the OS offers and can extend the desktop across two monitors so that the OS sees one large monitor, rather than two discrete monitors. I tried working with that extended desktop setup for a bit, and although I liked being able to open certain types of applications on a 3360 x 1050 display, the downside was that most dialog boxes open in the center of the screen, which means that the boxes were split down the middle by the LCD panel bevels. The annoying black stripe breaking dialog boxes in half was distracting enough to outweigh any advantages I got with the extended screen size, so I switched to the standard XP dual-monitor support, which extends the desktop across both monitors but treats them as individual displays for the purpose of opening windows.

After a few months of working with the XP dual-monitor setup, I've found that my productivity has significantly improved. It's simple to have multiple reference documents open while I'm writing or to have a detailed spreadsheet on one display while I work on a report on the other. XP makes the dual-monitor support invisible to the user, so I spend no time at all dealing with display-oriented concerns. Applications open where I expect them to, once I place them on the appropriate display, and I've developed specific work habits that make use of both displays and let me run multiple applications in parallel that would have previously been serial tasks that took longer.

As network administrators know, system administration has become much simpler. For years, I've used RDP to manage my servers, but now I use it with my secondary desktop computer as well. I simply leave the RDP connection attached and click the taskbar on the primary desktop computer to open the second computer's remote display, which appears on its own monitor. This setup lets me remotely monitor my servers via the secondary computer, while letting me treat it as if it were the local console. And I still have a full screen available for the computer at which I'm physically present.

If your users can benefit from additional display space, I recommend they make use of this XP functionality. Given the price of LCD panels and video cards that support multiple monitors, it can be a great productivity-boosting solution.