FORTUNE Small Business

Forget the new PC, get a second monitor

Add a screen and you can get a big boost in productivity for less than $500. But be patient: The setup can be a pain.

By Jonathan Blum, FSB contributor

NEW YORK -- Looking for a New Year's productivity boost for less than $500? How about giving that tired excuse of a PC a second monitor? After testing a two-display business PC over the past few weeks, here's what I found: Toss on a second monitor and your productivity goes up while your job strain goes down.

Two-monitor desktop computers have been the industry standard for high-end, data intensive businesses for as long as there have been ... well, desktop computers. The Bloomberg financial-services data terminal, Avid video-editing system and ProTools audio software, to name a few, have all relied on two-monitor PCs.

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The ViewSonic VA903b monitors are easy on the wallet and your desk, too. The Matrox 'output doubler' splits your monitor feed into two signals.

"Job function has a lot to do with it," says Erik Willey, director of desktop displays for ViewSonic Corp, a display maker in Walnut, Calif. "We have seen productivity improvements in the 30 percent range for dual-monitor setups in certain applications."

And while multi-monitor computing used to be pricey, getting a decent flat LCD monitor now costs less than $300 and video cards run about half that. So a second display is a real option for even the most frugal business - that is, yours.

To get a sense of the power of going two-screen, I ordered up a pair of fresh 19-inch ViewSonic VA903b's ($250), and - in a bow to the popularity of laptops in the small enterprise - a sexy portable monitor output doubler (a device that splits the monitor feed into two signals, one for each monitor) from Matrox, the DualHead2Go ($170).

Now I must warn you: Setting up dual-monitor PCs can be a pain. Not only are you routing two monitor feeds from one computer - which by itself can devolve into a cabling linguini house party - you must master the "Display Setting" panel inside the "Appearance and Personalization" window found in the Control Panel of your PC. (You Apple users face a similar setup, but hey, Macs are supposed to be so easy to use you don't need my help, right?) It's not that big a deal - really, it's not - but many otherwise intelligent people have gotten pretty darn cranky getting multi-monitors to work. So be patient.

And know your patience will be rewarded.

The effect of multi-monitors on your computing life is immediate and stunning: The second monitor extends the desktop across both screens. So your mouse - and all things controlled by it - simply flies from one monitor to other. No clicks needed.

Every task was faster and easier: While writing, I put my columns, reviews and stories on the left monitor, my research and Web links on my right. While doing my chores, Outlook was on one side and my contacts were on another. While "testing" video games like "Call of Duty" the battle was ... everywhere. I mean, talk about a "New Year/New You." How great is that?

Now, can I honestly say I captured something like a 30 percent improvement in efficiency from using two monitors? Absolutely not. But - and this is a big "but" - I was less tired at the end of the day and my aging eyes and wrists appreciated the greater real estate and lower click load.

Considering the blurry value of supposed "upgrades" such as the new Microsoft (Charts, Fortune 500) Office, increased RAM or yet another tech thingie, a second monitor is looking like a pretty darn good deal.

Microsoft's four-letter #&!? Word

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.