I’ve used two video cards at a time for years to have three monitors – at least one card always being a dual head card. The productivity boost from multiple monitors is well-documented; by comparison, working with one monitor is like trying to drive with both side windows blocked, and only the front windshield clear. That productivity is the only reason my office is not a laptop. Ever since I ‘upgraded’ from Win XP to Windows 7, though, using dual video cards has been a sublime torture.
I never went through the debacle of Vista. In Vista, they blocked using dual video cards unless they were the exact same brand, revision, interface, everything – no variations – they had to be homogenous. That made no sense, since most motherboards only came with one regular video card (AGP) slot. Also, at the rate new video cards were coming out, you just couldn’t keep up with the revisions – if one of your cards died, you had to buy two new ones. Windows 7 promised to bring back use of multiple “heterogenous” video cards.
It hasn’t worked out that way, though, for most of us, because the two big card manufacturers have created a new type of driver to be compatible with Windows 7 and, while Microsoft may technically allow heterogenous cards again, those new drivers don’t. Try putting two entirely different ATI cards in a box, and it’s a fistfight between the two.
Combine that with the stupid practice of bios/motherboard manufacturers not allowing onboard video to work simultaneously with a standalone card, and there’s not much in the way of a solution. I’ve gotten two different manufacturer’s cards (NVIDIA and ATI card) to work beside each other, sort of, but the secondary card always crashes with too much video, and it’s too slow to be of practical use. I even tried the same model of ATI card but with a different interface, with worse results. Practically speaking, for most people, two video cards in Windows7 is hopeless. If I weren’t getting the benefits of 64-bit, I’d be back to XP.
Enter Plugable. Plugable makes a line of USB adapters that allow a third monitor to run off of the primary video card. That’s right, one card and I’m running three monitors now. It’s stable and fast. That could not be said for doing it the way Microsoft says will work. There are other USB/VGA adapters (Best Buy has one on the shelf that’s utter garbage), but they’re often slow or won’t even let you boot. The Plugable device uses the best-in-class DisplayLink chip, powered by the DisplayLink driver. They make different models – some support DVI, some different maximum resolutions – I’m happy enough with the lowest resolution one for VGA at 1440×900. Windows 7 located the latest driver automatically via Windows Update – no need to use the CD.
The nice thing about this is that I’m not worried if I give my third monitor something to do, it could crash what I’m doing in the other two – always a problem, before. I hope Plugable and DisplayLink will keep improving these devices, so we’re not at the mercy of video card makers, motherboard/bios makers and, most of all, Microsoft, to simply get some work done.
Update 12/5/10: If you want Netflix and full screen Youtube on the monitor connected to Plugable, set to 32-but instead of 16-bit in display settings. Works great! They even have an “optimize for video” setting.
Update 12/6/10: Get the latest driver directly from the DisplayLink web site – they’re constantly improving. Minor issue with the monitor not waking when power saving mode turned it off was resolved by simply getting the latest driver.