Dual Monitors:Wallpaper Techniques

Categories Design

You’ve just gotten your computer set up with dual monitors. You’re sporting the true sea of information, baby! Only problem is, you don’t want to see the same crappy image on both:

Double your wallpaper, halve your coolness.

Double your wallpaper, halve your coolness.

…and you definitely don’t want to stretch a wallpaper intended for a single monitor onto two.

Stretching the desktop image is for losers, not designers.

Stretching the desktop image is for losers, not designers.

I’ll present a few different ways of getting your monitors to show independent pictures on each desktop, and as a bonus, you will learn how to span a single dual monitor wallpaper onto dual monitors.

Active Desktop

Originally created for Windows 98 (actually, IE4, which almost converted Win95 to Win98), this gem allows you to have any item that Internet Explorer is capable of rendering directly on your desktop, and offers slightly more customization of monitor content.

Active Desktop was originally intended for Microsoft advertising trolls partners to push crap useful targeted product notifications onto Microsoft customers, but works for putting strange items on our desktop. You can even set entire web pages as your desktop.

In the Display Properties, under the Desktop tab, click the Customize Desktop button. In the window that appears, click the Web tab, then the New… button. A dialog will appear that allows you to select a web page or image. After you pick your image, you should see a bar above your new image. Drag this bar to the appropriate monitor, click the maximize button, and your wallpaper should be covering the monitor. Right-click the desktop and select Lock Web Items on Desktop to keep it from moving around.

Merged Files

This method simply involves stitching two wallpapers together, side-by-side, so they form one continuous image that matches the vertical dimension of my monitors, and double the horizontal dimension.

For example: my monitors run at 1600×1200, so I create an image sized 3200×1200, and paste the two wallpapers I’d like to use next to each other. Photoshop, by default, has snapping enabled, so I don’t even have to pixel-align them. I save out this new file, and set it as my wallpaper with the Position to Tile. Setting it to Tile forces the wallpaper to begin at the top left and span as far as it can before tiling. In our case, the tiling happens offscreen, giving us the appearance of two separate wallpapers on each monitor.

This is the method I use, because I always have Photoshop open, and don’t use Active Desktop. I also use this method to merge two wallpapers into one continuous image, or create a new wallpaper from scratch. All my original dual-monitor wallpapers were created this way, as shown below:

Dual-monitor continuous image set to Tile.

Dual-monitor continuous image set to Tile.

Third Party Application

If you’re not the do-it-yourself type, you may just want to download an application to handle all of this for you. A third party application has the benefit of sometimes offering additional functionality, such as dual-monitor window management.

As far as management applications go, I’d have to say Ultramon is, by far, the highest recommended application out there. It supports more than 10 monitors, and provides window management along with a host of other features. Unfortunately, it is $40, but from what I’ve read it’s well worth the cost, especially with more than two monitors. I have not used it myself, so can’t make a recommendation for or against it.

The software that came with your graphics card may provide this functionality as well. nVidia’s nView Control Panel applet supports separate wallpapers, and I’d think ATI’s CATALYST software does too.

John’s Background Switcher not only switches your desktop automatically with images from Flickr, Picasa Web Albums, Facebook, DeviantArt, and almost any other source, it will switch your monitors independently, saving you from the bother of messing with them at all.

I use WallPapa to switch my desktop backgrounds. It only supports dual monitor wallpapers as a side effect of the “Tile” technique above. Your wallpapers must be stitched together beforehand. It also has…other issues, but that’s an entirely different discussion.

Edit: I now use Ultramon to set my wallpapers. I highly recommend the program as it has many dual-monitor features, including the ability to set the wallpaper for each monitor independently.


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