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Three Screens, No Waiting

For ideas so great, they will not fit on one monitor.

One of the most productive people I know in an office setting is the man we call Mr. Two Screens. He earned this affectionate nickname when a second enormous LCD screen appeared on his desk and he began operating two virtual desktops from his one overpowered computer. Now he has different work zones for the network administration, database programming, scheduling, and sundry other tasks he shuffles in the day.

It’s no secret that for the past year, I have been a bit jealous of his setup.

Now, however, I have adopted a multiscreen system that works better for me. I’ve got three screens that I introduce to my desk at will. I can swing my mouse pointer from the center screen to one of two smaller screens to its left or right. There, I can type messages or articles, edit audio tracks, process video streams, and do all kinds of system-intensive tasks. And I don’t need to worry about slowing down whatever I’m doing in my main screen, either, unlike people with traditional one-computer-multiple-screen setups. That’s because each of the other screens happen to be attached to its own computer.

Many computers; one keyboard

I’m using’s Multiplicity Pro 1.0 to make my desktop computer work with my own notebook and a loaner notebook from work. The two portable computers are networked with a standard home wireless router, nothing fancy at all. But when I place either of them next to my desktop monitor, I can slide the mouse to the edge of the screen and it pops up on the notebook screen. Better yet, the two computers share a clipboard, so I can cut and paste between them, and even copy whole files and folders using Copy and Paste commands.

It’s a little mind-boggling to consider how the software performs this feat (it uses TCP/IP networking through the virtual port 30564, sending data and commands through the network router), but unless you feel geeky, you don’t need to think about that. You just install the software and run a configuration program that designates one computer as primary and others as secondary (the primary one has the mouse and keyboard you use for the others). You establish which side of the main monitor your secondary computer or computers will be, and reboot all the computers involved.

In my tests, the secondary notebooks’ names appeared in a list on the primary desktop computer’s configuration program. They had automatically been assigned an IP address on the network (which is just as well, because I’m not about to start messing with such details in my home network). And after that…they just worked.

Parallel processing

The benefits of the Multiplicity Pro setup are hard to grasp at first, but they soon become plain, and huge in number. I have several expensive programs spread across various computers, and juggling them becomes confusing on occasion. One of my notebooks (not one I own, sadly), has a $900 piece of software, QuarkXPress, and Adobe Acrobat 7 on it. I can’t legally install these programs on my desktop computer, but I can now use them, and copy the documents over to my desktop when they’re done. While I’m editing large publishing documents, I can do processor-intensive video mastering on my desktop computer. And unlike Mr. Two Screens, I don’t notice any system slowdown, because they are two separate systems.

Multiplicity comes in two different skews, both available as downloads . The $40 basic version handles two computers, one primary and one secondary, and features a shared clipboard but no copying of whole files or folders between systems. That’s the province of the $70 Pro version, which connects up to six computers.

DVD to goThe real bonus I found to this system is an unexpected one: I can now get around to scrunching DVDs onto my hard disk. I’ve had Intervideo’s $50 DVD Copy for a while, and liked what it can do. On DVDs that aren’t copy protected, you can back up the discs to DVD-R media (very handy for kids’ videos that kids themselves handle-and mishandle-and for taking with you on vacation where you might lose them). Better yet, you can rip-and-compress videos into smaller format MPEG files to watch on your notebook or reformat into VideoCD format. As an inveterate movie watcher, I find this approach great for motel room entertainment.

The trouble with this (except for the fact that many commercial titles are copy protected and won’t work with DVD Copy) is that the process takes time-upwards of half an hour to rip DVDs and two hours to burn them with a USB external DVD burner.

With Multiplicity installed, I can see when each process is finished and quickly get started on the next one. This may not qualify as productivity in the classic workplace sense of the word, but when you’re juggling several tasks at once (even if some of them are more frivolous than others), it counts as productivity in my dictionary. This is especially true when it’s taking place on the third screen on your desktop. Anybody with two video cards and monitors can be a Mr. Two Screens. It takes Multiplicity (and two notebooks) to be Mr. Three Screens.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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