Windows has supported multiple monitors for a long time. Windows 98, Windows XP and Windows 8 made big strides in multi-monitor productivity however recent releases have caused a lot of pain. Let’s see how to set up the best Windows multi monitor experience.
Steady improvements over various releases of Windows
Windows 98 was the first release to support multiple monitors. However it only supported cloning or duplication of displays. Windows XP finally added an extended desktop or DualView as the feature was called.
Windows 8 added a multi-monitor taskbar and per-display desktop backgrounds. The taskbar remains very half-baked to this day because the notification/status area (system tray) is missing on secondary taskbars. Windows 8.1 added per monitor DPI-scaling for displays with different resolution. However even in Windows 10, the relative position and size of windows is not maintained proportionally when you move app windows across monitors that use different resolutions and different DPI scaling.
Built-in Windows settings to set up best multi monitor experience
Install the display drivers
I have already explained how to install or update device drivers in Windows. Installing the graphics drivers will immediately enable the extra monitors connected to your laptop or PC. With the Microsoft Basic Display Adapter driver, only a single monitor can be driven.
Set display to extended mode
When multiple displays are first enabled, Windows sets them to Duplicate mode. This is useful if you are using the display to clone whatever you want to see on the main display. e.g. when doing color-accurate / color management work or when watching a movie on the big display. However, extending the display is far more useful.
By extending the display, you get extra desktops and an extra workspace to work with. You can multitask more efficiently. You can start a video call or live streaming on one of the displays while you work on the other. The possibilities are endless.
Press Win + P until the white box appears around Extend. Win + P works like Alt + Tab. You must keep holding down the Win key and not let go and press P multiple times till you find the mode you want. Alternatively, you can press Win + A in Windows 10 or the Action Center icon in the status (notification) area and then click Project, then choose Extend.
Set the properties for each display from Settings
Once you have extended the Desktop, you need to set its right resolution. Press Win + i to open the Settings app. Then go to System -> Display or type Display into the search box of the Settings app or Start to open the page.
Rearrange your monitors
Rearrange the displays by left click and drag to move the monitor icons as per the actual physical monitor arrangement on your desk. That is, if your extra monitor is located on the left of your main display, drag to move it there accordingly and click Apply. If you have 3 or more, set their positions correctly because that’s how Windows decides where to take the mouse cursor beyond the edge of the primary monitor.
Set the display resolution and DPI scaling
The sections on this page are haphazardly arranged with the most important ones being at the bottom. So scroll down first to the Scale and layout section and set the Display resolution and DPI scaling.
Generally the recommended (native) resolution is what you should set the resolution to and then use a DPI scaling value (125%, 150%, 175%, 200%). The user interface elements should look large enough to comfortably read and click on the screen, but without requiring too much scrolling because of overscaling. So make sure you choose a balanced scaling factor, not too large, not too small.
I recommend setting the same resolution and same DPI scaling for both monitors because that’s the only way Windows maintains proportional sizes and positions of app windows when you move them across displays. If you set different resolutions or DPI scaling per monitor, you will end up getting frustrated as app windows get resized or relocated.
Finally, if you are facing the wrong window activated or closed bug (there is a bug in Windows 10 with multimon and >100% DPI where the wrong maximized window is closed), you have no choice but to set the resolution to a lower one where this bug does not occur. Pick a resolution where you do not have to use DPI scaling beyond 100%, as only that eliminates that bug.
Set the correct refresh rate
Next, scroll down all the way down on the Display page and click Advanced display settings. Since in most cases, any external monitors such as for gaming or creative uses will be externally powered, set it to the highest refresh rate.
High refresh rate displays are becoming very popular these days. They also support technologies like NVIDIA G-Sync or AMD FreeSync, so make sure these are enabled in your display drivers.
Set any HDR options as you want
Back on the Display page, click the Windows HD Color settings link. This can be accessed from the Display page in Settings as of Windows 10 Version 21H1. For earlier releases if it’s not listed, you can type hdr into the Settings search box to open that page.
HDR is a per-display technology with only some newer monitors supporting it as of 2021, so choose the display and configure settings as you want for HDR video. You should also calibrate the display for HDR video.
Set multi-monitor taskbar options
Right click the Taskbar and open Taskbar settings. With more than 1 monitor connected, there will be a section called Multiple displays near the bottom of the page. There you can choose where to show taskbar buttons on. The setting I find ideal is Main taskbar and taskbar where window is open. This minimizes the need to move the mouse cursor to the other monitors just to close their windows. You can close them, minimize or maximize them from the primary monitor itself. With this setting, their jumplists are also accessible from any monitor.
Third party apps to set up best multi monitor experience
Actual Multiple Monitors for multi-monitor window management
Actual Multiple Monitors is actually a fully-featured multi-monitor app but its integration with advanced Start menus like Open Shell does not work right. Nor does it have 7+ Taskbar Tweaker’s options or StartIsBack++’s fixes. So I suggest you don’t use the multi-monitor taskbar from it.
Its main killer feature is automatically moving the window to the monitor where the mouse cursor is. It also adds a handy “Move to monitor X” command to the window menu. It also supports a multi-monitor task switcher (Alt + Tab).
Open Shell is the absolute best and most advanced Start menu that has native multi-monitor support and integration with the Windows taskbar. When the Win key is pressed, it can open automatically on the monitor where the mouse cursor is. That’s outstanding.
7+ Taskbar Tweaker to fix the taskbar on all displays
7+ Taskbar Tweaker is the only app to allow the Taskbar to function like previous releases of Windows with more advanced options and control over everything. Make sure you also set up its advanced options. It will fix the taskbar for all displays.
StartIsBack++ to fix appearance of all taskbars
Dual Display Mouse Manager for improved mouse usability with multiple monitors
I explained how important mouse edges and corners are in Windows. Dual Display Mouse Manager locks the mouse cursor to the active monitor unless you press down a hotkey to allow it to move to another monitor. So you won’t accidentally touch the screen edge with the mouse causing it to move to another monitor. It also allows the mouse pointer to quickly jump by pressing a hotkey to another monitor in the same position as it was on the earlier monitor.
This fantastic app, ClickMonitorDDC allows turning off and back on any monitors that are connected via HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, VGA using software commands that you can add to the Start menu. It uses DDC (Display Data Channel) to change monitor settings.
If your display has multiple connections, you can directly turn on any monitor and switch to any of its connections. It also lets you adjust per-monitor brightness, contrast, saturation/vibrance, RGB values for colors, color temperature and audio volume.
VistaSwitcher for multi-monitor Alt+Tab switching
VistaSwitcher from NTWind Software is one of the all-time great Alt + Tab replacements which supports multiple displays. It lets you configure where and how the Alt+Tab switching UI will show – by active window or by cursor position. It also has a nifty option Show tasks only from the active monitor.
Battery Mode app
The Battery Mode app allows quick per-monitor brightness adjustment. It is also a must-have app for switching between Windows power plans and showing battery charge percentage directly in the Windows notification/status area (system tray).
Battery mode can also lock the monitor brightness to a fixed value and prevent it from changing when power plan changes.
JPEGSaver is one of the must-have fabulous multi-monitor-aware picture slideshow screensavers that is unmatched in terms of how versatile and configurable it is.
Other apps and tools
There are also apps to turn off both monitors at once or to turn off only the primary monitor. Covered in a separate article.
That’s it. With these settings and apps, you would have set up the best multi monitor experience.