The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

February 25, 2012

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Filed under: Technology — Brian Lutz @ 12:50 am

Over the years, I’ve found occasion at least a couple of different times now to discuss and/or complain about the uncanny tendency of common electronic items like TVs and PC components to mysteriously get cheaper and/or come out with shiny new versions roughly three minutes after you finally stop waiting around and make a purchase.  If I recall correctly,  the first time I did this, I was prompted by seeing just how much LCD televisions had come down in price in the few years since I had purchased my first 32″ set, and then again after I replaced my $800 LCD TV with a much larger and much nicer model for $200 less than I paid the first time around.  I’m pretty sure I’m not going to need another TV anytime soon, but with a tax return and a new job starting shortly, I have decided to use this opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a while:  Move to a dual monitor setup on my desktop PC.

As has been the case with televisions over the past few years, the prices of larger and larger computer monitors have continued to drop.  Back when my parents got my family our first PC back in the ancient days of the early Nineties, the package deal 386sx based machine they purchased came with a 14-inch Super VGA CRT monitor, which was capable of displaying interlaced 1024×768 resolution.  In theory, that isn’t too far off from what you can get these days (and even now, thanks to some arcane restrictions on Netbook hardware imposed by Microsoft’s Windows licensing, a lot of netbooks can only manage a paltry 1024×600 screen resolution) with the video card churning out a then-impressive 256 colors, but at the higher resolutions and less-than-stellar refresh rates, those older monitors could be more than a little headache-inducing to stare at for any length of time at these higher resolutions.  Reliability was never all that great either, as I can recall a couple of occasions where this particular monitor broke down and had to be sent off to get repaired.  If I recall correctly, on one of these occasions I went looking through Computer Shopper Magazine (this was back in the pre-Internet days when each issue would be about half the size of a phonebook) to determine what a similar replacement would cost, and it came out to somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 for another 14″ monitor, with a similarly sized brand-name monitor like an NEC or a ViewSonic being quite a bit more than that.  And by the time you start getting into the then humungous 17 and 19-inch monitors, you were getting into some big-bucks territory.

Ultimately we kept that particular monitor going for a couple more years, and as technology marched on we replaced it with a 15″ monitor, which itself eventually gave way to a couple of different 17″ monitors, which lasted up until I got my first LCD, the 20-inch Dell 2001FP you see above.  Back when I bought that monitor, LCDs had pretty much taken their place in the market, but the 20″ screens were still up at the high end of the market (up until the first 24″ LCDs started showing up a few months later,) and as a result were quite expensive.  I don’t recall exactly what I paid for it, but I caught one of Dell’s famous coupon deals and got it somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-800.  And compared to the various CRTs I’ve used over the years, this thing was huge, clocking in at a whopping 1600×1200 pixels, which was just about as high as you could get at the time.  It also proved surprisingly reliable, with the only issue I encountered during the many years I’ve used it for being flaky front panel control buttons.  Sure, there are plenty of newer and bigger monitors that have appeared for a lot less money over the years, but with something that worked well, I never really saw the need to replace this with anything.  Then again, after seeing the advantages of a multi-monitor setup, I’ve wanted one for a while, but it’s been one of those “might be nice to have someday” items up until recently.

There are plenty of articles out there discussing the productivity gains that can be made by going from a single monitor to two or more monitors, and during the time I spent at Motricity, I had the opportunity to experience the benefits of a dual monitor setup firsthand.  It’s one of those things that’s hard to understand until you actually use it for yourself, but when you’re working on complex tasks that may involve having to deal with a number of different sources of data all at once, or if you have a task that you need to keep an eye on in the background while you’re working on other things (which is a frequent scenario I encounter while testing software)  you start to see where the benefits of having two or more monitors come into play.  Support for multiple monitors has actually been a feature in Windows since OEM Service Release 2 of Windows 95 (basically equivalent to what would now be a service pack,) but the cost of two monitors (and the extra video card you would need to run the second one, and whatever other hardware upgrades would be needed to make the whole thing not run like crud) made this more of a curiosity than a useful tool for most people.  Eventually, as monitors continued getting bigger and cheaper and as video cards became a lot better at supporting more than one screen, it became a lot more common to see multi-monitor setups, to the point where it has gone from being something that the boss’ boss’ boss might have to what has now become standard equipment in a lot of offices.

I once had a better picture for this, but then I took a cliché in the knee.

So with that in mind, and with first-hand knowledge of the productivity gains from multiple monitors, a portion of my tax return has gone into a pair of widescreen 23″ 1080p monitors, as you can see above.  With a video card that came with dual DVI ports as standard equipment the setup was a no-brainer (aside from needing to find HDMI-to-DVI cables to plug these in with,) and what was considered to be a ridiculously large monitor back when I got it has been dwarfed  by a pair of what would now be considered fairly middle-of-the road monitors (19-20 inches seems to be at the lower end of the spectrum these days, with 27 and 30 inch ultra-high-resolution monitors up at the top of the proverbial heap.)  To be honest, it’s taking a bit of getting used to, especially since these screens seem to be a lot brighter than my old one.  Almost immediately after setting these up I had to turn down the brightness on both of these to slightly less eye-searing levels than the maxed-out setting they come out of the box with.  Even so, I don’t think these screens are quite as high quality as the one they’re replacing, but finding a pair of 24-inch IPS panel screens would probably cost quite a bit more than these did, and I suspect the difference probably wouldn’t be significant enough to justify spending another $200+ on.

So by finally making the plunge into the land of multiple monitors I’ve found a great way to boost productivity, but I also managed to stumble on a great way to completely kill it.  But that’s a completely different post, which you’ll be seeing once I finally manage to sort my way through the whole mess I’ve had with my cable TV over the past couple of weeks.  More on that later.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to blankly stare at my desktop wallpaper for another hour or so…

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