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Double Vision
Posted May 1, 2003 - November 2004 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 3 next »

Some video pros insist that if you aren't seeing double, you aren't seeing at all. Multiple monitors are essential to pro DV work, they say, to free the preview and other windows from their tiny boxes. But few PCs ship equipped for dual-display driving. How can you get yours up to speed?

May 2003|Who would want double vision? I've wanted it, lots of times. For example, if you run out of pixels on one monitor, why not migrate some of those open windows to another monitor? I've used this technique when processing high-resolution digital images: put the camera's output image on one large high-resolution monitor and leave the camera controls or various PhotoShop palettes on another, smaller one. That also leaves space for an open Instant Message window on the "main" desktop so that when one of my friends makes a call, I'll see it immediately without scrambling to find the "answer" button. The same goes for editing in a program like Premiere, where in single-monitor settings you're confined to that tiny 4"x3" preview window. And that's why video production workstations like those from Media 100 invariably ship with two monitors. Video pros insist it's the only real way to see what you're doing.

Building my multiple-monitor dream system, I like to use one of NEC's cool, SXGA resolution 20-inch LCD panels such as the LCD2010X ($1499 on the Web) as the main screen and either another LCD for the second screen or one of Sony's ultra-high resolution (max, 2340x1440) 24-inch CRT monitors like the GDM-FW900 ($1999.99 at www. sony.com). If the application demands an even bigger screen, I'll grab a little projector and then…But hold on, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Doubling Down
If you're like most people, you probably have only one video output in your computer. And if you're a notebook power user, you certainly only have one video output—but depending upon your operating system, you can use that video output in conjunction with your laptop's screen to expand your view of your work. But back to the desktop world—like I said, most of these computers have only one video output and with that output plugged into a single monitor, their view is limited to what can be shown on that one monitor.

If you want to get a quick dose of double vision, grab a video distribution amp (DA) like the Extron ADA6 ($795 list). I've used one of these for years. It lies on the floor under my desk, constantly connected to one of my computer's video outputs, and whenever I have a need to see the same image on my 20-inch monitor blown up to 100 inches or more, I plug one of the ADA6's six outputs into a projector. The projector zoom lens can easily expand what's on my screen on a nearby, conveniently blank wall or a handy screen that gives me two views: the small one on my desktop monitor, and larger one on the wall. However, both of those images have essentially the same content.

Sometimes I need to show a different image on two separate monitors, and a simple video distribution amp can't do that since it only takes what the computer's graphics card gives it. In that case, I need to use a different RGB graphics output. Leaving the main graphics card plugged into the Extron ADA6, I can plug another display device into another RGB output and then let the OS divide the work on to multiple, separate screens. That's the key to success— divide and conquer—but it takes a special card and lots of cooperation between the card and the OS. Most of the time, if you replace the standard graphics card in your computer with another one that can provide more resolution, faster updates for games or video processing and more grayscales, or even one with 3D graphics capabilities, you're still left with only one video output.

Mac in the Mirror
This is one case where the many users of Apple Power Macs have a real advantage over PC users. Some of the older PCI (peripheral component interconnect) PowerMacs had their graphics controller built into the motherboard, controlling one of the quirky Mac video connectors. Just about any time you inserted an add-on, third-party video card into a free PCI slot, you were all ready to drive multiple monitors. I still use a couple of PCI-equipped Power Macs with the old Mac-only video output going into a Mac monitor while using, at the same time, one of the other video outputs from the add-on PCI graphics card, to drive an additional standard 15-pin RGB monitor or projector.

The Mac OS—dating back to 8.x—can easily support multiple monitors as long as you have the right graphics cards installed. That's right, you can even add PCI graphics cards to the newer Power Macs— leaving the factory-installed card in place. When Apple's OS senses (and sensing means having all the display devices powered on and connected to graphics cards before booting the Mac) multiple monitors, it shows an "Arrangement" tab in the monitor Control Panel or System Preference window. You can then use that arrangement feature to determine what resolution your multiple monitors will display and whether or not they will "mirror" each other or reside next to each other in the overall expanded display space.

"Mirroring" doesn't do any more than provide an additional monitor or a projector showing the same thing on both screens—something that a simple DA can also do. However, being able to "arrange" the monitors side by side is a great workspace-organizing tool—especially when one of those monitors is a super high-resolution device like Sony's FW900 CRT monitor or Apple's HD Cinema display. (See Bohannon's "LCD versus CRT for the DV Studio," www.emedialive.com/r13/2002/bohannon8_02.html.)

I have successfully installed ATI's current Radeon 7000 series "Mac Edition" graphics cards in both the older and in the newest Power Macs. The only requirements for this installation are that the Mac's PCI bus be a 33 or 66mHz standard PCI 2.1 bus and that the OS be at least OS9. There doesn't seem to be any restriction as to how many cards you can install, either; as long as you have empty PCI slots, it appears that you can keep installing graphics cards and driving more monitors. But so far I've only done it with two cards and two monitors in one machine.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any way to add multiple monitor capability to Apple's iMac, and that's where you really need it, given how small those screens tend to be, especially in the one-piece consumer boxes. My iMac has a separate 15-pin RGB output port on the back, but it can only be used for mirroring the iMac's little CRT image onto a large screen driven by a projector or plasma. The iMac's built-in graphics card will not support multiple monitors and the OS will not let the "Arrangement" tab appear. I know of no way to upgrade the iMac's graphics abilities to support multiple monitors—but I'm hoping someone clever will come up with something.

Driving the View, PC-Style
So Macs can easily support multiple monitors, but how about PCs? My PC testbed is a heavily upgraded older desktop tower system made by San Diego-based systems integrator Datel Systems. That's Datel, not Dell, and whether or not anyone has heard of them outside of San Diego, they're locally well-known, and the system I've used (based on a AMD K6 processor) has worked fine over the years. Anyway, the old Datel has three extra PCI slots besides the PCI graphics card plugged into its motherboard. All of which makes it a perfect system for a graphics card upgrade, especially since the current graphics card is practically the only original piece still in the machine.

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