Increase Productivity With Multiple Monitors

How and why to make them work for you

CPAs who use dual monitors are finding that the addition of a third or fourth monitor also pays dividends. As the number of applications CPAs depend on expands, so does the need for more screen real estate. While a CPA’s two primary monitors are typically used to manage core applications such as word processing and spreadsheets, a third or fourth monitor is often used to view prior-year working papers or tax returns in electronic format, access remote computers or communicate via video conferencing. This article addresses the growing trend among CPAs to implement a third or fourth monitor, and provides practical advice on how to add multiple monitors to your computer system.



Reasons for using a third or fourth monitor vary, but the emergence of the paperless office appears to be a key driving force. In a paperless work environment, a third monitor frequently displays electronic documents, while the first two monitors display the user’s primary applications. For example, a CPA preparing a tax return might display tax preparation software and spreadsheet applications on the first two monitors. The third monitor would display the prior-year tax return for reference, since that tax return is maintained in an electronic format, and not on paper. A fourth monitor might display tax research, e-mail correspondence from the client, or Internet-based information such as a tax rate schedule. In this example, the ability to organize information at a glance can increase the CPA’s productivity when preparing a tax return.


Paperless technology is not the only reason for embracing a third or fourth monitor. For CPAs who have not yet tried using multiple monitors, the benefits might not be so obvious. A key advantage is that using multiple monitors makes it easier to prepare documents on one monitor while referring to, and copying information from, other monitors. In September 2010, I polled more than 400 CPAs attending technology CPE courses in six states and found that 58% used at least two monitors, and 12% of the group used three or more monitors. Other feedback I’ve received from CPAs in CPE courses suggests the following potential benefits of using a third or fourth monitor:


1. A CPA preparing a professional report in a word processing application on one monitor might refer to accounting system financial reports on another monitor, while using the third monitor to create charts or tables using a spreadsheet application.


2. Some CPAs who frequently use remote access applications to log in to remote computer systems, such as satellite offices or client computers, said a third monitor is useful for this purpose.


3. Some CPAs who manage large companies and communicate frequently said it is convenient to keep their e-mail application displayed on their third monitor at all times to monitor and respond quickly to important e-mail messages. For those highly technical CPAs, a fourth monitor might also be used for video calls or for video conferences.


4. Some executive CPAs in industry said a third monitor is useful for displaying “digital dashboards” or “Web portals” that continuously summarize key figures and critical information from the company’s accounting system, such as sales results, cash balances, backorders, or products that have reached their reorder point. This allows the executive to keep a watchful eye on the company’s day-to-day operations.


Other factors leading to the adoption of a third or fourth monitor include lower prices for monitors and graphics cards, and improved graphics card technology.



1. Ideal candidates for multiple monitors. Multiple monitors work best for CPAs who like to multitask. For example, if you are a CPA who responds to e-mail throughout the day, reads financial reports, manages inventory levels, checks the Internet for the latest news and stock prices, prepares or reviews time sheets, and prepares summary information for executives, it is likely you are a good candidate for multiple monitors. Likewise, a staff accountant who prepares work papers and financial statements, while referring to prior-year work papers and accounting data, may also benefit from using multiple monitors.


However, if you are a CPA who seldom uses a computer or conducts just a single task with a computer, then the time and cost of implementing additional monitors may not be justified. For example, if you only use your computer to read and respond to e-mail, then having additional screens will be less beneficial. If you seldom access the Internet, seldom log in to your accounting system, or have an assistant type your letters, then the benefits of adding monitors to your computer may be minimal. Further, some CPAs said that using additional monitors to continuously display e-mail and Web browsers can be distracting.


Before adding monitors to your computer, consider your computer habits. If you spend less than 20% of your time on the computer, multiple monitors may not be warranted.


You should consider whether your computer system has adequate system resources to support multiple monitors. The addition of a second monitor does not usually overburden a computer’s system resources, but the addition of a third or fourth monitor might, especially if you have an older computer. You should check with your computer’s manufacturer to determine if it contains enough RAM and a strong enough power supply to support the number of monitors you plan to add. Because some computer systems are not designed to handle the additional power needed to support multiple monitors, it is possible for the additional energy demands to cause the power supply, video card or motherboard to overheat and fail.


Further, be aware that even when a computer can adequately handle additional monitors, the increased heat generated within the computer often causes the computer’s fans to run more frequently or, in some cases, nonstop.


2. Monitor size. My 2010 survey revealed that of CPAs using multiple monitors, 77% use square monitors compared with 23% who use widescreen monitors. By far the most popular size monitor is 19-by-19 inches. A summary of the different sizes of monitors used by the survey group is summarized in Exhibit 1.


3. Consistent size and height. Whatever size monitors you choose, feedback suggests that it is important to make sure that all of your monitors are the same size and positioned at the same height, otherwise your eyes will have to work harder to adjust from one monitor to the next as you glance back and forth. ( Note: CPAs adding a second monitor to a laptop will most likely have to contend with different size monitors and uneven positioning.)


4. Standard vs. widescreen monitors. Historically, CPAs have preferred standard (square) monitors over widescreen monitors, primarily because they cost less. However, beginning in late 2010, the prices of widescreen monitors dropped significantly and the availability of square monitors declined. As a result, we now see many more CPAs adopting widescreen monitors 24 inches wide or larger. One benefit of some widescreen monitors is the ability to rotate the screen vertically to view a complete page without scrolling, as shown in the picture below.



Following are specific instructions for those comfortable with installing computer components; however, if these procedures seem daunting, you can always hire a computer technician to assist you.


The specific steps required to connect additional monitors to your computer vary depending upon your computer, operating system, graphics card and the number of monitors you plan to connect. The sections below describe these steps in more detail for several common situations.



VGA Port

Almost all laptops (and many netbooks) provide an extra video graphics array (VGA) port for connecting a second monitor. You can confirm that your laptop or netbook supports a second monitor by examining it for a VGA port, an example of which is pictured at right.


If your laptop or netbook has a VGA port, connect your second monitor using a standard VGA video cable, and skip to the setup and configuration steps discussed below.



Most desktop computers provide connections for two monitors. You can confirm that your desktop computer supports a second monitor by examining the graphics card (also referred to as a graphics adapter or video card), which is accessible from the back of your computer. If you are unsure where the graphics card is located, simply follow your monitor’s video cable to your computer—your video cable will be plugged into your computer’s graphics card. An example graphics card is shown below. Note that this graphics card has two video ports (circled) that can be used to connect monitors.


Most of today’s graphics cards provide both a digital video interactive (DVI) and a VGA port, both of which can be used to connect your monitors. The DVI port is based on newer digital technology whereas the VGA port is based on older analog technology. While there are technical differences between these two types of ports, there is practically no noticeable difference between a VGA and DVI connection.


Note: A third S-Video port may also be present (shown in the picture above between the VGA and DVI ports). The S-Video port is typically used to connect your computer to a television; it is seldom used to connect your computer to a monitor because most monitors do not support an S-Video connection, among other reasons.


Graphics Cards

Some graphics cards provide only two VGA ports. If this is the case, simply connect your second monitor to the available VGA port and continue to the setup and configuration discussion below. However, if your computer’s graphics card has both a VGA and DVI port (like the one pictured), and only the DVI port is available, connect your second monitor to the available DVI port using a DVI cable. If your second monitor does not have or support a DVI cable (as is often the case), then you will need to purchase a DVI-to-VGA adapter like the one pictured at left. The adapter typically costs about $10 and will convert your existing DVI port into a VGA port, allowing you to plug in your second monitor using a VGA cable.


Note: There are a half-dozen types of DVI ports with slightly different pin configurations, therefore, it may be helpful to take a close-up digital picture of your computer’s DVI port and bring it to the computer store to ensure that you purchase an adapter that fits your computer.



The process of connecting a third monitor to your computer is more complicated. The specific procedures will vary greatly from one computer system to the next, depending upon the availability of slots, type of slots, type of motherboard, operating system version and other factors. In general, you must either add a second graphics card to your computer or replace your current graphics card with a new quad graphics card that supports four monitors. The picture below shows an example of a quad graphics card that supports up to four monitors.


It is usually less expensive to add a second dual monitor graphics card to your computer than to upgrade to a quad graphics card. ( Note: If you are using either Windows XP or Windows Vista, the second graphics card will need to be identical to the first graphics card because those operating systems only support a single graphics card device driver. Windows 7 users can mix and match graphics cards because Windows 7 supports multiple graphics card drivers—a feature referred to as “heterogeneous multi-adapter” (a term you might see in the instructions for adding a third monitor).) The approximate price ranges for dual and quad graphics cards and their cables are summarized in Exhibit 2.


The manufacturers of graphics cards typically provide websites that allow you to specify a computer model and operating system to identify the graphics card that will work with your computer. Follow the manufacturer’s procedures for turning off your computer, opening the case, plugging in the new graphics card, rebooting the computer, and installing the new device driver. Use either VGA or DVI cables to connect your monitors to the graphics card and position the monitors on your desktop according to your preference.


Because the cost and effort of adding a third video port also results in a fourth video port, many CPAs use the fourth port to add a fourth monitor.



Once your additional monitors are connected, set up and configure the new monitors by adjusting your operating system’s display properties as follows:


a. Windows XP users. Right-click on the Desktop and select Properties to view Display Properties. Click on the Settings tab and click the image of the monitor labeled 2 as shown in the screenshot on the next page. Check the box labeled Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor. Click OK. Repeat the process for each additional monitor.


b. Windows Vista users. Right-click on the Desktop and select Personalize, Display Settings. Click on the Settings tab and click the image of the monitor labeled 2 as shown in the screenshot below. Check the box labeled Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor. Click OK. Repeat the process for each additional monitor.


c. Windows 7 users. Right-click on the Desktop and select Personalize, Display, Change Display Settings. Click on the Settings tab and click the image of the monitor labeled 2 as shown in the screenshot below. Check the box labeled Extend the desktop onto this monitor. Click OK. Repeat the process for each additional monitor.


Additionally, Windows needs to know the physical arrangement of your monitors for your mouse cursor to move correctly from one monitor to the next as you roll your mouse across the mouse pad. To accomplish this task, click the Identify Monitors button in the top-right corner of the Display Settings dialog box. This will cause large numbers to display briefly on each monitor that correspond to the order in which they are attached to your graphics card as shown below. Make a note of the numbers displayed.


Next, use your mouse pointer to click, drag and rearrange the monitor’s icon position in the Display Settings dialog box to match the physical arrangement, an example of which is shown in the next column. In the example, the No. 4 monitor is in the process of being positioned to the far right of the other three monitors. ( Note: The numbering does not need to be sequential; the numbers merely identify the order of the cables as they are connected from the graphics card to each monitor.)


Next, click on the monitor icon you would like to use as your primary monitor, and click the box in the Display Settings dialog box labeled This is my main monitor. This will designate the monitor where your Windows Start button will be displayed, and will also determine the initial location for the applications you launch.


As the final step, launch the various applications that you use and reposition them on the various monitors where you would like them to open in the future. For example, you might prefer Outlook to open on the left-most monitor; Word on the second monitor; Excel on the third monitor; and your Web browser on the fourth monitor. Use the following steps to change the default monitor on which a specific application opens:

a. Launch an application.

b. Click the application’s Restore Down/Maximize button in the window’s upper-right corner as shown below (or as a shortcut, double-click the title bar).

c. Click and drag the application window by its title bar (located at the top of the application window) to reposition the window on the monitor where you want the application to open by default, that is, drag the Outlook application to your left-most monitor.

d. Click the application’s Restore Down/Maximize button in the window’s upper-right corner to maximize the application (or double-click the title bar).

e. Close the application.

f. Repeat this process for each application you intend to use. Thereafter, by default, your applications will open on the monitors where they were last positioned, helping to organize your work.


Just as a carpenter needs a hammer and a farmer needs a tractor, the tool of the CPA is the personal computer. CPAs use computers to manage accounting systems, prepare tax returns, view archived documents, prepare reports and letters, communicate, and to conduct many other activities. The computer has emerged as the leading tool for CPAs, and accordingly CPAs want to ensure that their computer systems make them as productive as possible.


Adding a second monitor to your computer is fairly easy and inexpensive, but adding a third or fourth monitor can be a little more complicated and costly. In the end, the objective is to work smoothly and efficiently, and the addition of a third or fourth monitor appears to help many CPAs achieve this goal.



J. Carlton Collins ( ) is a technology and accounting systems consultant, and a public speaker and CPE instructor.


To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexandra DeFelice, senior editor, at or 212-596-6122.





JofA article

The Tech-Savvy CPA,” June 2009, page 50


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