Build a three-screen workstation

Step-by-step instructions for expanding your laptop's visual horizons on the cheap

It's too bad the late George Carlin never updated his classic '70s comedy monologue "A place for my stuff" for the Digital Age. Here's how I imagine it would've gone:

That's all you need in life, a little place for your software ... Firefox, Word, Excel, Google Docs, Adobe Reader, Outlook, Halo 3, Trillian ...

That's all your monitor is: a place to keep your app windows and browser tabs open ...

Sometimes you gotta get another monitor. Why? No room for your apps anymore ...

I myself have three displays adorning my desktop. On the left: A 19-in. Dell CRT on which I keep open a minimum of a dozen Firefox tabs at any given time. In the middle: A 19-in. ViewSonic LCD on which I take notes and write articles in Word, read PDF and Excel attachments, and watch Windows Media files. On the right: The 15-in. LCD screen of my ThinkPad T42, on which I do e-mail and IM chat.

Unlike buying a McMansion, boosting your on-screen real estate is more than an exercise in wasteful vanity -- it boosts productivity. This theory (which I subscribe to) is prominently championed by blogger Jeff Atwood: When it comes to on-screen real estate, multiple smaller parcels are more efficient than a single large one.

"Instead of wasting time sizing, moving and z-ordering windows, users only need to deal with one maximized window at a time," Atwood wrote in an aptly named entry, The Large Display Paradox, last year. "They can flip between maximized applications in much the same way they change channels on the television."

Or to go back to Carlin: For holding your stuff, several smaller bags are better than one huge sack.

The clincher for me is that opting for several smaller monitors over a single monster one is significantly cheaper. A brand-name 28-in. LCD -- which, in my opinion, is the equivalent to a pair of 19-in. displays -- starts at US$500. But you can replicate my dual 19-in. monitor setup (assuming you've already got the notebook) from scratch for about US$230, and users willing to tolerate bulky CRTs may be able to assemble all this for about US$100.

Here's my guide to boosting on-screen real estate on the cheap.

Step 1: Get your monitors

LCD prices may not be plummeting like they were several years ago, but they are still dropping. As of early July, 19-in. LCDs from respected names such as ViewSonic and NEC went for less than US$150 online.

My local Fry's had an even cheaper deal: a 19-in. widescreen LCD from the lesser-known Tyris for US$120, after the $30 mail-in rebate (with a free Canon inkjet printer thrown in, too).

While LCD prices are falling, prices for used CRTs are falling off the cliff. In most large US metropolitan areas, you should be able to find a 19-in. CRT in good condition on Craigslist for free.

In Seattle in the past year, I've found a 17-in. Sony Trinitron with a fairly bright, sharp picture; a 19-in. Sony Trinitron (which turned out, alas, to have a failing tube); and a 19-in. Dell flat-screen CRT, which offers a very sharp and pretty bright display. In each case, the owner was overjoyed not to have to haul the 60-pound sucker down to a recycling center and pay to junk it.

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