Multi-Monitor for Cheapskates

The Kensington Universal Multi-Display (USB) Adapter is a good alternative to getting a whole new graphics card, but my installation of it wasn’t without peril.

When I arrived last month, Northwest Cadence provided me with a Dell pLatitude and a very nice ViewSonic widescreen HD LED monitor.  My officemate brought in his own Dell dock and a second (huge) external monitor for a total of three displays.  I hate to be outdone, and it just so happened that a surplus monitor found its way onto my desk, so I set about trying to get it configured for a wraparound display experience.

At first, because I’m completely dumb, I assumed I could just pick up a splitter cable, plug both monitors in, and call it good, because that’s how all the workstations at my former employer have worked for as long as I can remember (desktop machine, 2 monitors, splitter cable, magic).  Steven pointed out that this would only duplicate the same display on both external monitors, not extend it as I obviously wanted.  I didn’t believe him, so checked with Google/Amazon.  Ugh.  I don’t mind when other people are right… as long as I agreed with them to begin with.

$3 splitter cable option == fail.

Next, Steven offered me a couple of different Matrox adapters, a TripleHead2Go and a DualHead2Go, that we had sitting around the office already.  These are very fine products and do what they say on the tin.  However, and a hearty thank-you to Matrox for documenting this so well on their site and saving me a bunch of time, they require that both external monitors have identical screen resolution/ratio.  Otherwise they default to the worser one.  (It’s because they simulate an extended display by tricking Windows into thinking the two monitors are just one really really wide screen.)  My scrounged extra monitor wasn’t nearly as nice as my new official monitor, and it’s just morally wrong to display 1680×1050 on a monitor that’ll do 1920×1080.

Already-paid-for Matrox adapters, for my purposes == fail.

My laptop has a variety of ports out, including an HDMI, so Steven ordered me an HDMI-to-DVI cable and I plugged it in (alongside the other monitor using VGA) with high hopes.  No worky.  When I finally located and dug into the nVidia control panel, it was pleasant and clear in its documentation that my laptop’s graphics card would support either VGA out to an external monitor or TV out via HDMI port, but not both at the same time.  One external display out, not two.

$12 HDMI-to-DVI cable == fail.

At this point, most sensible geeks just install another graphics card.  But I haven’t been a consultant very long, so I haven’t yet learned to think of my time as money, so I was determined to find a “less-expensive”/less-invasive option.  (I’m perfectly capable of taking a laptop apart and reassembling it, but this is my only work machine and that’s a whole ‘nother kind of downtime, that I can’t afford.)  Also, it felt like giving up.

New graphics card in laptop == deferred.

My colleague Martin has, on his laptop, a super-cool 1G graphics card and a DisplayPort. We argued for a while about whether my DisplayPort would work along with the VGA without a new graphics card (he was certain it would) or whether it would go the way of the HDMI (my position).  I conclusively won this argument when we discovered I don’t have a DisplayPort. (The thing on my laptop that I thought was it is actually an eSATA port.)

DisplayPort, for my purposes == fail.

Steven offered to order me a Dell dock like my officemate’s, which I don’t even know how much those cost, but by this time I was on the hunt for a cleverer solution.  I hope docks are expensive.

Dell dock == deferred.

On Amazon, I discovered an intriguing gadget.  SPOILER ALERT: the word “gadget” should make it clear to you how this story will end.

The Kensington Universal Multi-Display Adapter seemed like the perfect solution. Relatively cheap ($56), USB, and more than 100 reviewers almost unanimously agreed it was quick and painless to install.  I read the description lots of times to be sure it met my two acceptance criteria: extends the display to an additional monitor regardless of graphics card capability, and supports monitors of differing resolutions.  Additional coolness included ability to hub up to 6 of them (!) and a general consensus that the video quality doesn’t degrade through the adapter.  Sold!  Santa Steven kindly ordered me one.

And then, it arrived!

And then, I attempted the install.

OK, let’s be honest here.  When an installer tells you to shut down all other running programs, who really does that?  Right?  It’s 2011 and besides, I’ve ignored that warning lots of times before and it’s been fine.  Until this time, when I forgot about DisplayFusion (a multi-monitor wallpaper and windowing utility) and left it running while attempting to install display drivers.

Pro tip: don’t do that.

For my trouble I got a Blue Screen of Death and a bunch of missing/corrupted graphics drivers when the machine came back up.

Since I’ve already gone on long enough and I think I’ve been cute and funny enough for one blog post, I’ll skip the entertaining saga of the entire next week and go directly to the end where, just as I promised my colleagues I would do, I finally got everything working!

Windows 7 boot, after things went badly wrong:

  • Uninstalled the failed DisplayLink drivers
  • Uninstalled DisplayFusion entirely just to be safe
  • Reinstalled nVidia drivers
  • Rebooted a bunch of times
  • Installed latest DisplayLink driver from DisplayLink website per Kensington support person’s recommendation
  • Skipped the Kensington install CD and just plugged in the USB adapter which promptly installed its own proper drivers
  • Rebooted more
  • Success!
  • P.S. Reinstalled DisplayFusion, which works fine

Windows Server 2008 R2 boot:

  • Uninstalled DisplayFusion entirely just to be safe
  • Attempted the Kensington install CD, which failed saying DisplayLink couldn’t be installed on Server and referring me to DisplayLink website; DisplayLink website gives no indication that Server is supported
  • Downloaded latest DisplayLink driver anyway, what could go wrong?
  • With trepidation, rebooted after apparently-successful DisplayLink install
  • Plugged in the USB display adapter which promptly installed its own proper drivers
  • Success!
  • P.S. Reinstalled DisplayFusion, which works fine
My three monitors

Victory looks like this: panoramic, with a single image spanned as wallpaper (photo by me)

Update, November 2011: Occasionally—not every time, but often enough to be irritating—when I try to view a video on the Windows 7 boot, it bluescreens.  Doesn’t matter which monitor the video is on, doesn’t matter if any external monitors are even in use.  Investigation forthcoming.


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