Power users the world over will know what I mean – you sit in front of your laptop and get frustrated at all the stuff you have to fit into one screen – so, many of us at home or work use multiple-monitor setups, spreading the work over 2 or more screens.
2 screens is easy, any modern computer worth it’s salt will have a second output – you simply plug in a second screen, a little instruction to Windows 7 to spread stuff across the screens and off you go.
But what if you want more than two? You can fit another video card of course and that’s GREAT for the likes of games such as Crysis 2 where you want one screen for the main action and one on either side to keep an eye out for your enemies.. but for regular use there are some disadvantages to this approach.
The first is speed – all that extra pixel-processing power doesn’t come for free and you’re going to need a fairly hefty system to handle the extra load – also having more screens means you generally run more programs and need more memory etc. Finally, you or someone else has to go in there and fit the second card. What if your main card is a top-of-the-line gaming video card… you’re going to need to spend the same again so as to keep up performance.
So, a great simple solution for technical bods, not so much for others.
So what are the alternatives? Well, another way to get lots of screens is to share one keyboard and mouse over two or more PCs. There are hardware switches for this but that soon gets tired when you can’t exchange clipboard between the machines…
Another way and the method I’ve adopted has been to use software to link machines on a network and share the same keyboard and mouse. A freebie called Synergy has done this for years and I wrote about it some 2 years ago. A COPY operation on one machine would let you transport text from one machine to another, but sadly that was about it, no graphics, no files etc – also Synergy, a cross-platform open-source package was great but it frankly crashed with more regularity than one would like – and no-one was doing anything about it. I was told that there’s an update for Synergy and was about to go looking when I thought I’d Google “better than Synergy” and sure enough in some obscure chat group I say a message that said something like “Input Director only works with Windows but is more stable and lets you copy files” – quick as a flash I was over to their website and downloaded the files… well, it generally worked but file copy didn’t – and I got a message griping about my Windows 64 keyboard. In desperation I tried their latest beta and…. BINGO.
Input Director (I’ve used the latest BETA 1.3 on three computers up to now without issue) is free for personal use (you can make a donation by Paypal if you’re so inclined) and sits in my case on my main computer set to MASTER. On my laptop and second PC, the package is also installed, set to Slave. To get from one PC to the other, I simply move the mouse off the edge of one screen and to the next. It appears as if by magic on the slave machine (the term is misleading – the other computer or computers work like normal but your master mouse and keyboard can simply take over as you slide the mouse over to them) – you can determine if your slaves work to the left, right or above or below your main computer and like the master they may or may not have multiple screens.
Where it gets magical is the clipboard. On any of the machines I may grab some text or a partial screenshot – or even copy a file – drag the mouse over to another machine and hey presto – PASTE works. To all intents and purposes you’ve simply added screens to your main PC – but in reality you also have the added power of the extra computers!
For copying partial screens I don’t use the Windows 7 clipboard utility, I’ve always used the (for me superior) free screengrabber MWSnap from Mirec Wojtowicz. I have that installed on all three machines – and it works by hitting CTRL-SHIFT-A (by default) and selecting the screen area you want to copy. I can even direct that to work on one slave – and PASTE the resulting screen-grab to the other slave… it really does work just like magic. It says it works on any 32-bit system but in practice works just as well on 64-bit systems, the only gripe I have it it won’t screen-grab from a second screen (on the same PC). This package works well with the new Input Director and is recommended.
But now I have something new! PicPick works in a similar way to MWSnap, is free for personal use (something like £15 otherwise) AND it works on multiple monitors – so if your main PC has 2 monitors you can grab screen bits from either. Believe me if you do this a lot it’s a pain keep moving windows over to the first screen to copy something. If you install PickPick on multiple machines, you can freely grab materials from any screen and paste into an application in any other screen – absolutely amazing. Just make sure you DON’T tick the first box or you’ll have BING added to your browser! The program even has a decent image editor which will let you annotate images, blur, resize etc. VERY handy.
Now, this THIRD item is entirely optional and actually a bit off the point but it works so well I thought I’d put it in here – I often have the need to type the same things over an over or repeat a sequence of keyboard or mouse actions. Microsoft WORD used to let you do some of this but since the latest version it’s far from easy to use. A great and again free-to-use option is PhraseExpress. This allows you to easily paste in any combination of keystrokes into any of your applications or indeed control Windows itself from the right-tray on your desktop. This is is a seriously good piece of software and works a treat.
Between the various tools I’ve described above, you can put together your PC and laptop or older PCs to great effect and enhance productivity while having a bit of fun. None of the above need a brain surgeon to install and up to now appear to work utterly reliably. If installing these programs burns your computer to the ground, I take no responsibility.
Someday when I’m rich and famous, instead of a hodge-podge of monitors of different sizes (which work perfectly well but don’t look like they’re on a NASA set), I’m having a set of 22”. For now I can dream..
When moving to Windows 7 64-bit, I took some convincing… what about compatibility? What of all the utilities I use – will they still work? What are the benefits?
Well, here’s the thing, if like me you have a half-decent video card, you may well find the funniest thing with your 4Gig of Ram Windows 7 32-bit all-singing computer… I usually seem to get around 2.6Gig of it! My machines are all the same, no matter how much memory I put in – I never get more than perhaps 3Gig of it – 32-bit software can only handle 4Gig at best and parts of that get stolen by the system and the video.
Does this matter? Well, it all depends what you want to do… in my case, run the odd VM, process the odd movie, do lots of image processing and some SQL work, maybe all at once… all of which can eat up the memory in no time.
So having taken the plunge and with 8Gig available, I fitted Windows 7 64-bit.
Quite gratifying to see the available memory limits disappear as you see in the image to the right. Despite running defrag and other utilities while writing this blog entry, I’m using up a mere 2.1Gig leaving nearly 6Gig free. I use VMware a lot and I’ve just upgraded to VMWare Workstation 7. There’s a reason for this.
One of the packages I wanted to run for testing was Microsoft SQL Server and no matter how I tried, I could not get this to install under Windows 7 64-bit… so I took the easy route, running Windows 7 32-bit as a VM – and I have to say it runs well given 2Gig to play with.
Of course, SQL COULD have been the start of a series of programs that would make me wish I’d not gone 64-bit – thankfully not.
Here’s a list of programs I’ve installed and which work a treat. These are my favourites anyway but it’s important to note that these ARE working under Windows 7 64-bit without any hassles – clearly they also work under the 32-bit version and unless noted, on Windows XP (I really didn’t bother much with Vista as it rapidly became apparent that it was not going to be a nice operating system). All the software below is free unless otherwise noted.
RocketDock: Why use this when Windows 7 has a launch bar? Because said bar rapidly fills up and ends up on 2 lines – not nice. I’m running a 2-screen operation here and RocketDock works just fine on the second screen!
Camtasia Studio 6: (not free) I use this to record screen motion and the mic – works no problem at all over 2 screens (even straddling screens!) – with audio.
Google Earth: Runs no problem at all – I could not imagine NOT having this superb tool on my computers.
Gimp 2: As an alternative to Photoshop it’s not quite there yet, but Gimp 2 is free and that counts for a lot – so I fit this to all of my machines. It works well under Windows 7 both 64-bit and 32 bit.
Inkscape: If you’re looking to handle vectors, then perhaps Gimp is not for you. I use Inkscape for logos and similar vector-type drawing – again out of the box this runs a treat on 64-bit.
Radiosure: Am I going mad? What’s wrong with VLC? Nothing – but Radiosure is ideal for playing back Internet radio – AND it has a built-in recording function. Straight out of the box this excellent free Internet radio player performs.
PSPAD Editor: As far as free text editors go I thought I had it licked with Notepad++ but only recently stumbled upon this little number. PSPAD is – well, just nice. It handles all kinds of programming languages as well as general use – and I simply can’t think why I’d ever want to use Notepad (or Notepad++ again).
Magix Movie Edit Pro 15 Plus: (not free, but cheap) – One of the big drivers for moving to 64-bit was to get more space for running VMs and making movies etc. I’ve tried most of the PC movie programs and stuck with Ulead MediaStudio Pro for the longest time, however Ulead stopped supporting this and some other products and now I see they’ve been bought out – so they’re dead for my money. Some time ago I stumbled across this winner of a program and I’ve been dying to see how it performs given plenty of memory. Well, I’m glad to say, WONDERFULLY. Ideal for editing video, the program does just about everything in real time on a fast 64 bit PC.
Auslogics Disk Defragmenter: Why this as against for example Defraggler? Well, for starters the latter seems to only want to defrag one disk at a time. Auslogics defragmenter handles multiple drives at once and can be scheduled. What can I say, it just works.
VLC Media Player: Not much to say really, VLC just gets better and better, playing all kinds of media from Apple MOV files to raw DVD video… on my little Dell laptop it was the ONLY media player that would run full-screen, full-speed without some kind of issues – it’s a fast, simple but powerful media player, blows MS Media player out of the water. Checkout the format and de-interlacing controls.
FastStone Image Viewer: As it says – FAST. This remains my all time favourite image viewer (and you can do some image correcting as well).
Other stuff that also works includes the Microsoft Office suite, GotoMeeting, Google Chrome, Firefox, VMWare Workstation, Windows Live Writer (used to pen this blog), DropBox, Balsamiq Mockups…
Am I glad I moved to Windows 7 64-bit? Most definitely yes.
Yesterday morning as the MSDN notification came through, I started the download of the official release of Windows 7, having previously had the BETA on my 094HD laptop. I’m up in the wilds of Andalucia at the moment so it took all day to download!
Once the download was complete, I put the files onto a memory stick and had several attempts to make this stick bootable on the 904 – all without success, so eventually decided to just try the SETUP file. As expected, UPGRADE was not allowed from the BETA and so I elected to do a new installation.
The installation went without a hitch. When Windows 7 finally came up – the only thing that was not working was the screen driver, so the EE found itself running at 800*600. Sleep mode seemed to be missing – so I went to START-PROGRAMS and ran the WINDOWS UPDATE. This immediately pulled in the right screen driver and after a couple of resets the screen was fine – and the SLEEP mode was working.
I then installed SKYPE and AVG. Skype went without a hitch including video and audio – but AVG free installer kept failing – eventually I just downloaded the EXE file and ran that – AVG installed no problem.
To do? Well, I need to install Office 2007 and my favourite screen-grabber MWSNAP – and Life Writer so I can continue this with some screen-grabs – will continue this article as I progress – but first impressions- it just works – but there’s a long way to go – more later.