Working with Multiple Monitors



January 2001
Marcos Portnoi


Table of Contents

Installation and Configuration
    Activating the Secondary Display and Configuring its Options
    Screensavers and Wallpapers
Using the Power
    Positioning Items on the Desktop
    Opening the Windows Wide
Performance Issues and Final Comments





To give an overview of working with multiple monitors in Microsoft Windows 98, tips to improve productivity and circumvent some problems is the purposes of this article.

Keywords:  multiple displays monitors adapters Windows 98 98SE Me



Anyone who has worked with a 17” monitor will hardly accept to go back to a 14” one.  To use a 21” one, is to be in paradise.  Larger monitors allow more windows to be open at the same time and larger view span, which lets more material to be visible at the screen and lowers the need to operate scroll bars.  Particularly for large texts, design and drawing, large monitors are a must.

Working with more than one monitor is even better.  Two 17” or even two 15” monitors give far more viewing area than a single 20” monitor.  With Microsoft Windows 98 and later, this is a matter of simply installing a second video card and checking a box with the mouse.  It works incredibly well, easy and instinctive, for an operating system under $100.  There are video cards in the market that allow two monitors to be plugged to them (such as Matrox cards with DualHead), but this article will address a combination of two video cards.  Microsoft Windows 98 and later allows up to nine video adapters to be controlled.  The number is limited to the availability of free PCI slots in the computer and CPU performance.  The more monitors, the more overhead on the CPU.

Bought a new faster adapter?  Bought a new larger monitor?  Why not use the old adapter or monitor as a second one, instead of letting them rust in the garage or selling them for a few bucks?

Let’s see how to install a second video card, configure it and go through a few tips and advices to improve productivity with multiple monitors and also some problems related, and how to circumvent them.


Installation and Configuration

Any combination of video adapters is possible, although not all adapters support multiple monitor operation.  Examples of adapters that won’t work with multiple monitors are those based on S3 Aurora and Riva 128.  The drivers must also support multiple monitors.  This shouldn’t be a problem, since Windows 98 includes the proper drivers and practically all the new adapters support multiple monitors.  Brands or models do not matter.

An AGP adapter can be combined with a PCI adapter, or two PCI adapters can be combined.  Even two PCI adapters and a third PCI accelerator card (such as the old Voodoo 2) will work fine.  One adapter will be considered the primary card, and the other will be the secondary adapter.  The primary adapter is simply the first one to the initialized by the BIOS.  If a combination of AGP/PCI is used, new BIOS’es will allow the initialization order to be chosen.  Since the AGP adapter is usually faster and better than the PCI one, it is common to set the AGP slot to be initialized first by the BIOS.  If your BIOS does not allow the setting of the order, try a BIOS update.

If two PCI adapters are used, the BIOS will initialize them in the order they are physically installed.  Each PCI slot has a number:  PCI 1, PCI 2 and so on.  The lower numbers are initialized first.  If the slot number cannot be visualized on the motherboard, just install the two PCI video adapters in the computer, plug the monitors and turn the computer on.  The monitor that shows the boot messages is the primary one.  The secondary monitor will remain blank until Windows detects it.

Upon boot, on the first time, Windows’ plug-and-play will usually properly detect the second card and install the drivers, and will also detect the monitor attached to the secondary card, if it is plug-and-play compatible.  An article in Microsoft Knowledge Base recommends answering no to all messages asking the computer to be rebooted, until a message states that the computer must be rebooted (usually after the plug-and-play monitor is detected).  If the monitor is not properly detected, there is no problem.  Just select “plug-and-play monitor”; it can be changed afterwards.

When Windows initializes the secondary card, a message will be displayed on the secondary monitor, assuring it is working.

As for monitors, any combination of them is possible.  Different screen sizes, different brands, different models, dot-pitch, resolution, it doesn’t matter.  They will work just fine, and can be configured individually.


Activating the Secondary Display and Configuring its Options

Upon the first time after installation, the secondary display is not yet active.  Windows boots and shows the desktop on the primary display, and the secondary remains blank.  To activate it, go to Display Properties.  Click on the Settings tab.  You will see the picture of two monitors, side by side, one of them grayed out.  Click on number 2; immediately, Windows shows a message box, suggesting that the Desktop be extended onto this monitor.  Click “yes” and voilá; the secondary display will come to life, showing the same background as the primary one.  Check Figure 1, where the primary monitor is selected.

Figure 1:  Primary adapter selected


Notice that the box "extend my windows desktop...", at the bottom, is grayed out.  This happens because the primary display is selected, and this option does not apply to it.  When clicking on the picture of the second monitor, it is selected and the box is now accessible.

First, let’s specify color depth and screen resolution for the second monitor.  Windows treats them independently.  The resolution, color depth and Advanced button on the Settings tab apply to each adapter individually.  First, you select the adapter, and then work the controls.

On the Settings tab, click and hold on the secondary or monitor number 2.  A big “2” will appear on the secondary display.  If you do the same on monitor number one, a big “1” will appear on the primary display.  This helps locate the position of monitors, and Windows is seeing them, in a multiple-monitor environment.  Also, when you click on the picture of a display, it will be highlighted.  In order words, it is selected.  You can now drag the resolution control or select the desired color depth for this adapter.  Click “apply” for the changes to be saved.  If you select different screen resolutions for each monitor, the pictures will resemble that:  one will be bigger than the other.  These pictures represent the desktop size (800x600, 1024x768, etc.), and not the actual screen size (14”, 15”, 17”, etc.), which does not mean much to Windows.  If you have monitors of different sizes, for example, a 17” and a 15”, setting a smaller desktop or resolution for the narrower monitor might make it easier when positioning them in relation to each other, as shown below.

Next, let’s have Windows know where the secondary monitor is physically located.  In default configuration, the second display shows up at the right side of the primary one.  Of course, it doesn’t have to be there physically.  It can be located on the right side, left side, above, below, right and above, left and below, just like the figures above, where the second monitor is on the left and a bit higher.  (It can obviously not be located in front of or behind the primary display.)

To position the secondary display, click and drag its figure on the Settings tab.  If both monitors are of the same type and model, drag the second monitor to the right position, making sure it is aligned with the primary one.  Click “apply”.  Move the mouse pointer towards the second monitor.  The pointer will “cross” the desktop, disappearing from one monitor and appearing on the second, on the same horizontal alignment.  It can’t be simpler than that. :)

If the second monitor is from a different brand, or model, or size, the screens will usually not be at the same height.  When you move the mouse pointer to the other monitor, it might show up a bit below or higher then it should on the target display.  No problem.  Click and drag any monitor to the position above or below as related to the other one as it appears in reality.  Click “apply” and move the mouse pointer between displays.  If the pointer doesn’t show up in the exact horizontal alignment, repeat the procedure, dragging the monitor a bit up or a bit down, and clicking “apply” each time.  The final horizontal alignment might not be 100% perfect, but it will sure be close enough.

If you disable the secondary monitor by clearing the box that says, “extend my desktop…” in the Settings tab and click “yes”, the position settings will be lost.  You will have to virtually position the second monitor again, when enabling it.

By selecting the display and clicking the “advanced” button on the Settings tab, you will have access to settings such as adapter frequency, display type, and color scheme for each adapter.  Modify at will.


Screensavers and Wallpapers

Screensavers and wallpapers are defined to the whole desktop, and not to individual displays.  Hence, only one screensaver and wallpaper can be selected to operate on all displays.

Not all screensavers support multiple monitors.  Those that don’t will work on the primary display, while the secondary display remains blank.  Wallpapers will show on both displays.  If the wallpaper depends on Active Desktop to be properly shown, however, the active content will appear only on the primary display (usually figures or hot areas to click).  The secondary display will show the background image.


Using the Power


Positioning Items on the Desktop

Now it is time to use the magic.  The secondary display acts as an extension of the desktop.  Anything you can do on the primary display, you can do on the secondary, but 3D acceleration (more on this further in this article).

The taskbar, for instance.  It is positioned, by default, on the bottom of the primary display.  You can drag it to any corner of either display.

The icons can also be positioned anywhere, even part on one display, part on another.  However, with multiple monitors, desktop icons are more subject to problems that will alter their position against the user’s wish.  Sometimes after a reboot, the user will find all icons scrambled.  Or if the secondary monitor is disabled and the computer is rebooted, or sometimes after a crash, the last position of the desktop icons might be lost.  What the user will see, when this happens, will be a line of icons on the left side of the primary display, and another line of icons on the right side.  Don’t waste your time readjusting the icons now.  Every time you reboot Windows, now, the icons will be scrambled again.  You just cannot save their position anymore.

Microsoft Knowledge Base Article #Q232798 titled “Desktop Icons May Not Appear on a Secondary Monitor“ ( offers the only known solution for this, and as the article states, it is not a permanent solution either.  The problem might arise again, and the fix offered must be done each time.  For some reason, Windows creates a Registry key named ‘HKEY_USERS\DEFAULT\Software\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Desktop\Old WorkAreas’ on some occasions as described above, and if this key is present, the desktop icons will be scrambled.  The solution is to run the Registry Editor and remove the key manually.

If the icons’ position is very important to you, as it is to me, and you don’t simply want to select “arrange icons” every time they are scrambled, then you need an utility to save your desktop setup, so you can restore it in case of problems.  One option is the free, excellent PC Magazine WinTidy 95 (


Opening the Windows Wide

But the real power doesn’t come from desktop icons.  The flexibility for positioning program windows is what gives multiple monitors the charm.  A program window can be dragged to any display and this position will be saved and restored the next time the program is opened.

If you hit “maximize”, the window will maximize to the display where the window has most of its portion.  And this state will also be saved and restored, being restored next time the program is opened.  This allows you to properly select the best setup for your most used programs, and have that setup every time you call the programs.

Drag and drop works flawlessly between displays.  And you can also stretch a program window across the displays.  You can view several columns of a large spreadsheet or a large drawing (excellent for AutoCAD or CorelDraw).  This is done by resizing the window to fit both displays.  A window cannot be maximized to two displays, only one at a time.

Several instances of the same program can be opened, depending on the program.  This is true for Microsoft Word 2000 and most directory managers.  They open individual windows for each instance, instead of nested windows, or parent/children windows, such as Microsoft Excel 2000.  With Microsoft Word 2000, you can have two documents opened at the same time, one in each separate display, and perform drag and drop between them.  Or have a spreadsheet in one display and a text document on another, and drag a table from the spreadsheet to the text document.

In Microsoft PowerPoint 2000, one display may show the edit window and the other display may be in presentation mode.  You can edit the presentation in one window, and it will be updated real-time on the other display.  Or, you can view the presentation notes in one display, while the other delivers the actual presentation.  Why Microsoft Excel 2000 does not allow several instances of itself, while other programs of the same suite can, it is unknown (and frustrating).  But at least an Excel window can be stretched across the two displays, and the user can let each display show a different worksheet.

A problem that might arise is when the secondary display is disabled, and the user opens a program that was set up to open on the secondary display.  In this situation, the program will open, but its window will be hidden and inaccessible, concealed in the place where the second monitor should be.  The application can only be seen by its button in the Taskbar.  This can be considered a bug in Windows 98, but, on the other hand, this behavior avoids that the position of the program window be lost unnecessarily.  For example, if the user only disabled the secondary display temporarily.

Enabling the secondary display reestablishes access to the hidden window, but if the user does not wish, or cannot, enable the secondary display, here is a fix.  Click onto the application’s button on the Taskbar with the right mouse button.  Select “move” in the menu that opens.  With the keyboard arrow keys, and only with the keyboard arrow keys, move the window until it is visible on the primary display.  Press Enter when satisfied.  If the “move” option is not available, select “restore” first, and then select “move”.

What about PrintScreen?  If you press the PrintScreen key, an instant picture of the whole, extended desktop, will be placed into the clipboard.  Exactly as it is set up in the Settings tab of Display Properties.



“Okay!  So I can now grab those action games of mine and spread them across two monitors, or have multiple views opened at the same time!  Front, back, radar!  I will rock!!”  Unfortunately, this is not that simple.

Games usually use 3D acceleration.  And only the primary card can be accelerated, either in DirectX or OpenGL.  Furthermore, acceleration requires full screen mode.  This means a 3D-accelerated game can only be run on the primary display and in full screen mode.  You cannot access the secondary display from the game, unless the game specifically supports multiple monitors (such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 98/2000).  But there are more limitations and problems.

OpenGL drivers do not support multiple monitors at all and cannot even run when a second monitor is enabled.  If you run an OpenGL-accelerated game when you have all monitors enabled, such as Quake 2 or Quake 3, the game will post an error message or simply default to software emulation.  The OpenGL driver will refuse to engage.  The only way to engage OpenGL is to disable the second monitor in Display Properties, Settings tab, by clearing the box “extend my desktop…”.  If the box is grayed out, make sure you select the secondary display by clicking on its picture.  Now the trick:  if you hit “ok”, the position settings for the displays will be lost.  You will have to position them all over again.  So, just hit “apply” and the second monitor will go blank.  Leave the Display Properties window open and run the game.  OpenGL will work normally.  When done playing, re-enable the second monitor by checking the “extend my desktop” box and hitting “ok”.  You can perform this action every time you want to momentarily disable the second display, without losing the settings.  The advanced settings regarding the adapter are never lost, however, unless the adapter is removed from Device Manager.

DirectX is not so problematic.  A DirectX-accelerated game can be run full screen on the primary display while the secondary is enabled without problems.  Sometimes you can even drag the mouse pointer out of the game and into the secondary display.  If you click something there, the game will immediately go out of full screen mode or will minimize.  Depending on the game, that might lead to very interesting misbehaviors.  So, just do some experimentation and find out what can be done.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 98/2000 is one example of game that supports multiple monitors.  You can open other windows within the game, undock them and drag them to the secondary display.  You can have, for instance, a cockpit view on the primary display and an instrument panel on the secondary, or a map view.  The catch is that if the undocked window requires acceleration, it will not work on the secondary display.  When you drag this window to the secondary display, it will show nothing.

This happens as long as the primary display is running accelerated.  If you put the game into window mode, disabling acceleration, then all windows will work.  But performance will decrease significantly.  The game will generally run so slow that it will not be worth it, unless for brief moments or if the secondary adapter is very fast in 2D.  If the undocked window does not required acceleration, it will work fine on the secondary display, while the first remains accelerated.  Performance decrease won’t be very high.


Performance Issues and Final Comments

Operating multiple monitors puts more overhead on the CPU, which must now control two or more video adapters.  Having two applications running at the same time in independent displays represent more overhead than running them at the same time in one display.  The reason is that both programs must be shown simultaneously when in multiple monitors.  In a one-monitor configuration, one program is on top of the other one, or they occupy less desktop space.  Hence, a reduction in performance is expected when having windows in multiple monitors.  This is hardly noticeable, though, unless the applications are heavily display-active (showing many 2D animations), or the adapters have poor 2D performance.  And the slight decrease in performance is greatly overcome by the enormous gain in productivity that working with multiple monitors represent.

Since the second adapter does not use hardware acceleration, it does not have to be a state-of-the-art or top-performance video adapter.  Just any average performance card will do, even an old or replaced card.  Save the top-performance to the primary card.  If an application requires fast video, relocate it to the primary display, and leave still-display applications to the secondary card.

The only problem might be:  when used to working with multiple monitors, users faced with single-monitor computers will feel as though having to ride bicycles instead of driving V8 cars.