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Displaying Wallpaper on One Monitor Only


I got annoyed the other day (finally!) after being annoyed off and on since, well, almost forever. The problem was this: I was following a Web tutorial explaining how to do something in InDesign. I had InDesign up and maximized (as I always use it) and the Web tutorial in a Firefox window. Firefox wasn’t maximized, but that didn’t matter: Each time I selected a menu item in InDesign to tweak a setting, Firefox vanished under InDesign. That’s just the way Windows has always worked, and for a long time (ten years? more?) I was wondering if there were a better way. Tiling is not an option, not if I want to work on spreads in InDesign. So I just kept on keeping on, with Firefox appearing and vanishing as I ticked off steps on the tutorial.

Until this morning, when shadows on the wall told me that the light bulb had appeared over my head. Yes!

I ran downstairs and got an old monitor off the shelf. It’s a 15″ Samsung SyncMaster 570B, bought for Carol in 2003. She used it until I got her a 20″ display a couple of years ago. It has a mount pivot, and can be used in either portrait or landscape mode. I plugged it into the idle VGA video connector on my desktop, and without any fuss I had dual displays.

I’ve done that before to see how it was done, but never had the desk space for two identical (big) monitors. It wasn’t until today that I hit upon the refinement of putting the second monitor in portrait mode, which takes some space but not as much as anything in landscape mode. Now I can put a Firefox window on the secondary display while working on something full-screen on the primary display, without having to rescue the tutorial window from behind the app window each time I do something in the app window. Victory is sweet–and contains no fructose.

One peculiarity: My desktop wallpaper was partially duplicated on the second, lower-resolution display. The wallpaper image is a desktop blotter (complete with stains) and it just looked wrong having only part of it on the smaller monitor. I wanted the wallpaper on the primary display only, with just a blank color field on the secondary. Remarkably, there is no obvious way to do this. I dug around for most of an hour, trying things in both Control Panel’s Display applet and the NVidia control applet, without success. Then I hit upon this article. The gist is this:

  1. Return the wallpaper image setting in Display | Desktop to None; that is, turn off your current wallpaper. Both screens will now have the same blank color field for background.
  2. Select Desktop | Customize Desktop | Web. What you’re going to do is add a static image (the wallpaper of your choice) for Active Desktop, instead of a Web page.
  3. Click New. In the New Desktop Item dialog, click Browse, and select your wallpaper image from wherever it lives. Open it. Click OK on New Desktop Item. Click OK on the Web tab. Click OK on the Display applet as a whole to close it.
  4. The image you selected will be displayed, probably spanning both monitors. (It did on mine.) Hover over the top edge until the Active Desktop title bar pops up. Click and drag the image to whichever minotor you want to have it as wallpaper. When it’s moved completely onto one display, click the maximize button in the title bar. Bang! There’s your wallpaper, on one display only.

Now, as best I know Active Desktop was eliminated from Windows Vista, so this mechanism applies only to XP and (I presume) earlier versions. (Let me know if I’m wrong about that; I have no Vista or 7 instances here.) Active Desktop used a lot of CPU time and memory, but I think that was due to continuous refresh of the Active Desktop HTML and inane things like Pointcast that people have long forgotten. I don’t see any resource hit for having a static image in place of a Web page.

If I see any system flakiness in coming days I’ll reverse the change and let you know, but so far I haven’t seen a downside. I may try other uses of the secondary display, but I also think I may just turn it off unless I need to read a Web page while doing something else on the primary display. We’ll see.


  1. Larry N says:

    Two monitors have been standard issue in my office for years.

    Anybody who pays people to do anything more than basic keypunch-style transaction entry is crazy not to give people dual monitors. They are essential in a world where manuals are on-line and Google searches are routine.

    Mental context switching is much easier if it is just an eye shift to the other screen. Tiling windows just isn’t the same.

    Shoehorning a complex job into one monitor is penny wise and pound foolish.

    1. Erbo says:

      You got that right. I have a dual-monitor setup here, and it’s not only useful for “real” work, it comes in handy for gaming as well, particularly in complicated games like EVE Online, where you may have the game itself full-screen, or nearly so, on one display, and any number of applications on the other screen related to what you do in the game (both general ones like Web browsers, spreadsheets, and Evernote, and EVE-specific applications like EVEmon and EVE Fitting Tool).

  2. Bob Alvarez says:

    I am curious how Linux works with your two monitors. One of the main reasons I do not use Linux is its poor support of multiple monitor systems. I use a dual monitor system with two Samsung 213T monitors in portrait mode and I cannot get Linux to work with them. The problem seems to be that I have an Nvidia display card and Nvidia does not provide open source Linux drivers. But I need Nvidia because I use CUDA GPU processing code. So I am stuck with Windows.

    So, does Linux work support your two monitors?

    1. Funny you should ask…I was fooling with this day before yesterday. The answer is, No, not well at all. I too have NVidia hardware, albeit for integrated graphics on the mobo, and can’t change graphics cards like we once did without half-thinking.

      As best I can tell, you need to install the proprietary NVidia 3D drivers for X, and then configure them to enable the NVidia TwinView feature. People online have gotten it to work, but it takes manual editing of xconf and a certain amount of fussy terminal work. I thought I had followed instructions, but then when I rebooted I had landscape video only on the seconday (VGA) display, with the primary display confused and unable to decide whether to be in digital or analog mode. That’s where I left it to do other things, and will get back to it when time allows.

      Even if it’s possible on a general basis, it’s certainly a lot more fooling around than it needs to be, and for someone like you with very specific graphics requirements, it may not be possible to set it up to do what you have to do. Good luck with it, and let us know if you come up with something.

  3. […] people have asked me where I got the Windows blotter wallpaper discussed and shown in the photo on my January 19, 2011 entry. I stumbled across it while looking for art depicting steampunk airships. Jim Strickland and I have […]

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