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Building Your Own Multiple-Monitor Trading Station

A lot of readers of this column have asked for advice on how to connect multiple monitors to their PCs. Here's a long overdue explanation. Long overdue, because every serious trader gets to a point where one monitor just isn't enough.

Traders use multiple monitors in different ways. Some might put up several Level II screens at once in order to see all the bid bid and ask ask prices for each stock. Then they may place charts for those same stocks on still more monitors. And they might keep another monitor in reserve for chat and yet another for news.

Still other traders find they need more monitors as their experience grows, says John Chittenden, CEO of TriKinetic Technologies. Chittenden's Austin, Texas-based firm designs and builds trading computers. "If someone's trading and he's using CyBerTrader on two screens and that trader says 'I want to try out eSignal [a quote service] and I want to try out Preferred Trade [an online broker] for options; then, I want to load up an Excel spreadsheet,' that's not going to fit on a third monitor," he explains. "That person's going to need four monitors."

PCs and Graphics Cards

Veritable data Dirt Devils that they are, some traders find they can't live without eight or more monitors. To keep that many screens lit continuously, you need a fairly powerful, crash-resistant computer. At the very least we're talking about an 800 megahertz Pentium III with 256 megs of RAM. Ideally that system should come with Microsoft's industrial-strength version of Windows -- that is, Windows 2000 Professional -- factory installed. Resist the temptation to add other programs beyond what you absolutely need for trading. No games or online encyclopedias, in other words. Keeping your system lean and mean will minimize software conflicts that might lead to crashes.

Windows 2000 Pro supports up to 10 monitors. However, each of those monitors will require its own graphics processor, which is located on a separate graphics card. Graphics cards speed up the process of building the images you see on your computer screen -- everything from Windows dialog boxes to Web-based images to five-minute bar charts on the Nasdaq 100. The calculations needed to put up these images on your screen are done by the processors affixed to the cards. If a graphics card didn't handle all that grunt work, your computer's CPU would get the job. So you can see why a really speedy graphics card can accelerate your system by allowing the CPU to handle other tasks.

Store-bought computers aimed at gamers and multimedia enthusiasts often come bundled with high-end graphics cards capable of processing 3D information. But 3D capabilities are a waste on a trading computer, I'm told, because trading software packages are for the most part rendered in 2D.

Don't get me wrong. It's still a good idea to have a truly buff graphics card if you're running multiple monitors. You could opt for a separate graphics card for each monitor, or install one of several cards that let you plug in anywhere from two to four monitors each. Appian Graphics has a line of graphics cards that support four monitors each (cost: about $900). Another manufacturer, Matrox Graphics, sells cards that support two monitors for $500 to $800.

A multimonitor card is probably a better choice than a series of single cards because the latter can cause some configuration problems, particularly if they're all different brands and port out to different brands of monitors. Even if you're running two multimonitor cards in a system that contains, say, eight monitors, it's probably best to make them both the same brand.

A final note about graphics cards: In addition to a video processor, multimonitor cards let you specify the amount of video RAM you want. This is RAM that's dedicated to the task of putting up images on your computer screen. As with a graphics processor, it allows your computer's main memory to focus on other tasks. Some graphics cards manufacturers like to load up their cards with unneeded video RAM, though. "A video card with 64MB of Ram is just obscene overkill," says Faithe Wempen, a computer consultant and author of the book Upgrade Your PC in a Weekend (Prima, $19.99). Rule of thumb: Allow yourself four megs of dedicated video RAM per monitor. So, for example, if you were running eight monitors, two cards with 16 megs of RAM each should work out fine, even if you were running all eight monitors at a high resolution.

Monitors

The higher the resolution, the higher the price, of course. Yet, there's an excellent reason why traders should invest in quality high-resolution monitors, says Chittenden at TriKinetic. "If not, you're going to get headaches and eye aches, which is going to [make it hard for you to focus]," he says. That's a good point. Mess up on a trade just once because your vision's blurred, and you'll wish you'd paid an extra $500 for a decent screen.

Monitors come in two basic flavors, as you might know. CRT displays (that is, cathode ray tubes) are big and bulky, but plenty bright and relatively cheap. Flat screens are definitely more chic. They take up less space -- an issue if you're using four to six monitors -- although as a rule they're not as bright.

Let's talk CRTs first. First of all, size matters. So maybe go with 19-inch displays if you plan to use just two or three monitors. That will allow you to put up several windows at once on each monitor: maybe one window showing a graph of a stock, another showing a Level II quote display, with yet another window devoted to monitoring your entire portfolio moment to moment.

If you see your setup growing to include eight monitors, it's better to go with smaller screens. You'll save desktop space, for one thing. Also, because larger monitors are usually more expensive, a cluster of smaller -- say 15-inch screens -- will give you more onscreen real estate for the buck.

When you're poring over the product literature on monitors, pay attention to something called dot pitch. That's the distance that lies between those tiny dots on the monitor screen that glow and thus create the images you see. The smaller the distance between the dots, the sharper the image. Go with a dot pitch of 0.25 millimeters or less.

Also important is resolution. Monitors list resolution by lines -- 1,280 x 1,024, for example. This refers to the number of pixels or dots laid out horizontally and vertically. The higher the number, the sharper the image. Higher-res images will also appear smaller. Which means, if you want to run in high res mode, you're going to need a bigger monitor or else the images on your screen will appear microscopic. Rule of thumb: Go with as high a resolution as you can afford. "I have a 21-inch GDM-500R monitor [with a resolution of 2048 pixels x 1536 pixels] from Sony that cost $1,800," says Wempen. "And it was worth every penny."

No matter how high the resolution, though, image quality will remain poor unless the monitor possesses a high refresh rate. The refresh rate refers to the number of times each second the image gets thrown up anew on your screen. And it's expressed in hertz. A refresh rate of 75 hertz will produce a noticeable flicker on larger monitors. Ideally, you should look for refresh rates of 85 hertz or better.

Flatter Is Cooler

The above is certainly true, but you'll pay for a flat-screen display, especially if you want a high-res, 18-inch screen. Compaq's 18-inch TFT8020 costs around $2,500. The company's cheapest 15-inch display costs $600. You could buy four of the latter and have more than three times the screen real estate per dollar spent than you'd get with a single 18-inch display.

Whichever flat-panel monitor you choose, pay attention to resolution and dot pitch just as you would with CRTs. But because flat screens only work optimally when you're positioned directly in front of them, also consider the monitor's viewing angle, which is the furthest angle away from the monitor's center point that you can move your head before the image fades into a blur. Quality flat screens have viewing angles of 140 degrees or more.

Flat screens come in two varieties, analog and digital. The analog monitors simply pipe the video information to your screen. The more costly digital monitors encode the information in digital format. The actual encoding takes place on the graphics card. Many people say that the extra cost of a digital monitor and the digital video card that accompanies it simply aren't worth it. The image quality is roughly the same for analog and digital. Furthermore, the added processing power needed to put up a digital signal can lead to problems, especially if you're in resource-hogging high-res mode. Sometimes you get ghosting images. Sometimes the system simply crashes.

This is an especially critical issue if you're running multiple monitors and using a graphics card capable of outputting to several monitors. These all-digital cards tend to be expensive, and I've heard their technology isn't quite there yet. Someday that'll change. So an option for now would be to go for a monitor such as the $1,000 NEC MultiSync LCD1525X, which accepts analog and digital inputs.

Getting Up and Running

Once the monitors are set up, a utility program within Windows 2000 Professional allows you to arrange the layout of your displays in a manner that suits your work style. (For installation instructions go to this link.)

For example, you'll want to designate one monitor as your primary monitor and place it directly in front of you. Use this monitor for your most critical functions such as trade execution. The monitors on either side or atop one another might be set up to display charts and news that'll play out automatically so you won't have to cursor to them. Additionally, some traders set their first row of monitors on high-res mode. The images can be small because they're just inches from your eyes. The top row of monitors can be set to a lower resolution, creating larger images that you'll be better able to see from farther away.

Easier Alternatives

If setting up a multimonitor system sounds like a lot of work, an easier alternative would be to buy a trading computer direct from the manufacturer. Then just plug in the monitors, and you're hot to go. The aforementioned TriKinetic Technologies has multiple-monitor systems that start at around $4,000 (including two 15-inch flat-panel displays). Workstations from Compaq and Dell can be factory ordered to accommodate multiple monitors.

One last solution that could save you a few hundred dollars: Assuming you own a computer that roughly meets the specs outlined above, take it to a Best Buy or CompUSA. Have their technicians wipe the hard drive clean, then reload it with Windows 2000 Pro and also install the cards you require. Then you can sign up for the maintenance agreement and let the store deal with any hardware issues that come up.

Mark Ingebretsen has written for a wide variety of business and financial publications. Currently he holds no positions in the stocks of companies mentioned in this column. While Ingebretsen cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback and invites you to send it to mingebretsen@yahoo.com.

TheStreet.com has a revenue-sharing relationship with Amazon.com under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon purchases by customers directed there from TheStreet.com.

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