How I set up this MacBook Pro 3-monitor desktop using Ultra Wideband wireless


desk setup

Setup magic: That HDTV on the left is extending my desktop, wirelessly.


That photo you see is a three-monitor setup I’ve been using in my office for the past month. It’s rather amazing for one reason: The HDTV monitor on the left is connected to my MacBook Pro wirelessly using a technology called Ultra Wideband (UWB) that’s used in the $134 Imation Link Wireless Audio/Video Extender* — period. And by period, I mean that I didn’t have to hack together all the connective wires, adapters and other gizmos typically associated with adding more than one external monitor to a MacBook Pro.

imation link

There are some limitations to what I’ve been able to do on that HDTV monitor, but for the types of work-related desktop “extension” (I’ll explain that term in a moment) needs I have, the wireless link is providing me with a third screen that requires no (or little) geekiness to set up and none of the type of problems you’d expect with a monitor connected with a wireless device — most notably, it’s lack of latency (delay).

This is not a magic device, however, and I’ll get to its limitations (it’s not going to be the solution to turning your HDTV into a monitor for all the videos on your laptop, for example). But for most work-related needs, it’s fairly amazing.

But first, some background.

I’ve been coveting a multi-monitor setup ever since seeing Danny Sullivan’s post about his a couple of years ago. In that post, he shared his multiple monitor desk arrangement that used a MacBook Pro and two other monitors. And then last year, he added yet another monitor to the setup. (Later, however, I believe Danny switched back to a Windows laptop.)

I say “coveting” because I’ve never actually been able to replicate Danny’s configuration. If you read Danny’s posts and comments, you’ll understand why. First, despite the MacBook Pro having the ability to power multiple monitors, there’s a long list of pieces, parts, wires and connections necessary to accomplish such a feat. Perhaps if there were a Frys in my neighborhood, I could spend a Saturday afternoon running back and forth trying out different dongles. But after attempting to set up Danny’s configuration via a few weeks of phone calls and email with our company’s CDW representative, I became convinced that it wasn’t worth the hassle (although, I appreciate CDW’s willingness to keep trying to solve my dilemma, and in the end, to take back and refund me for everything that didn’t work).

I guess I need to pause here and answer what a lot of my less-geekish friends (most of you reading this somewhere other than my blog) are asking, “Why do you want more than one monitor?” For as long as I can remember, there has been a steady stream of research (funded, no doubt, by the Monitor Makers Trade Association) that has brainwashed persuaded me to believe that more screen real estate means more productivity. (I can’t find it, but I do recall there’s a limit to the productivity curve that stops when the total square feel of your monitor space reaches the area of that screen they have at the new Dallas Cowboys stadium.) Sure, the bigger-is-better theory is debatable, but for me, it’s completely logical: I can be more efficient with visible windows rather than stacked windows and tabs. Right? Anyway, I’ve hung around woodworkers and cabinet makers enough to hear their old saying: “There’s no such thing as too many clamps” and I doubt there has been any scientific research into the precise number of clamps an average woodworker needs. They just know it. So, if working with lots of programs opened and spread out in an organized way helps you be more productive, you just know it.

So that’s what’s led me to the sin of coveting my neighbor’s monitors.

The Simple Version of What I Used & How I Set This Up

Hardware

Monitor #1: That’s my 13” MacBook Pro. It is my primary leaning-forward, computer. To get that monitor to work, I pushed the “On” button.

Monitor #2: I can’t recall how old the 20” Apple Cinema Display is, but it’s old enough to be something I got handed-down when someone else in the office traded up to something nicer. Making that display work as a second monitor for a MacBook Pro is a snap that Apple anticipates people will want to do. The only challenge is having the correct adapter (or dongle if you want to use the official geek term). As I have a box full of dongles as evidence, Apple loves to change the size of them every six months, so this seemingly simple task may take a trip or two to an Apple Store (I’m lucky, there’s one about ten minutes away from my house and my office) or a few days of sending dongles back and forth to the place in China where Apple.com stuff comes from.

Anyone who has regularly used a MacBook Pro (or any type of Mac laptop over the years) with an external monitor or a projector should know by now how to use the Display control of the Systems Preferences. If not, you are a very lucky person. Most problems occur if you don’t have a grasp of what “mirror” or “arrangement” mean. Another thing you should know is that the little white bar across the top of one of the blue boxes can be moved from box to box, indicating what monitor will display the control menu along the top of the screen.

My MacBook Pro is connected to the monitor with cables and connectors that terminate with a “Mini DVI port” on MacBook Pro end and a VGA female connection on the display end. Piece of cake.

Monitor #3: For this “experiment,” I’m using a 27” Samsung LCD model that I brought into the office from home. I purchased it a few months ago at Costco for around $300, but ConsumerReports.org reports that next month (black Friday), you could see prices for 32” HDTV for $200.

Parts & wires:

imation link dongle

This USB dongle
is the transmitter.

I’m using the following “parts” that all come in a bundle with the Imation LInk.

1. A USB dongle (much like a USB cell-phone modem) that serves as a transmitter.

2. On the TV end is the antenna encased in an eight inch strip of black plastic sporting a shark fin looking thing in the middle.

3. A power cord adapter for the antenna

4. The antenna is connected to the HDTV with an HDMI cord (supplied, no additional purchase necessary). It can also be connected to the TV using VGA and audio-in adapters (not supplied). That’s it for the hardware.


shark fin back

The back of the shark-fin: The Link comes with an HDMI connector (actually included) and power adpater.

Software

A disk comes with the device on which is loaded some PDF files, including a user manual (which, after my typical attempt to set everything up while ignoring it, I discovered has some informative directions). The disk also includes a Mac driver from DisplayLink, although I went ahead and downloaded a newer beta version of the driver from the DisplayLink website because, well, I didn’t follow the directions. (The PC version of the DisplayLink driver is already pre-loaded on the dongle.)

There’s an sequence in the directions for installing the driver (requiring a reboot of the computer) and configuring the three displays (for Mac users, using the Display panel in System Preference). If you follow the user manual’s suggested sequence of hooking things up (translation: not like me), it should work immediately. (I didn’t, but still figured out how to make it work.)

My Review: The Pros & Cons

Okay, okay. I’ll get to the pros in just a second, but first, I’ve got to provide a big “Hold your horses,” to some of you who are reading this, thinking it may be an aswer to the whole “battle for the living room” thing. It’s not. But, frankly, the more I learn about such a battle, the more I believe it’s just a big circle of people pointing guns at each other. (Two articles on the topic may explain what “the battle for the living room” means, this one by David Pogue and and this very detailed blog post written by Mark Shuster (via: Fred Wilson)

You’re satisfaction or disappointment with the Imation Link will be in in direct relationship to your reason for wanting a third monitor. Most importantly, while there are some types of video that can stream from your laptop to your TV screen, it is important for you to know: for some ridiculous Intellectual Property reasons and, perhaps, some limitations to the technology, this isn’t going to be a substitute for AppleTV, GoogleTV, a Mac Mini or any one of the many wired devices hitting the market.

My Pros:

My “pros,” are based specifically on my objectives. The geekish term for what I wanted to accomplish is called an “extended desktop mode,” which simply means, to create one giant desktop that extends across multiple desktops. (The other “mode” most people are familiar with is “mirroring” where the monitors all display the same thing — the mode you’d want when making a presentation, for example.)

For my work environment — to support my work-flow and most of the software tools I use in my work — the HDTV connected with the Imation Link works perfectly. Frankly, it’s amazing (again, at what I’m using it for). I’ve experienced no latency in using a mouse or moving windows on the monitor connected via UWB and only extremely slight latency with something like a YouTube video. (The issue of latency is hard to explain, so I’ve included some video to demonstrate what I mean.)

Indeed, I had intended to just experiment a few days with using the HDTV to test this setup: I didn’t think I’d want it permanently as a monitor because I grew up being told I shouldn’t sit so close to the TV or I’d go blind. However, even though the resolution is 720 instead of 1080 (which, as far as I’m concerned, is no different), for displaying calendar, contact, IM, Seesmic (how I track things like Twitter and Facebook), a to-do list, the HDTV monitor works great. I have tried it in both the 4:3 aspect ration (not widescreen) and 16:9 (what is pictured in the photo above) and it displays fine both ways. While it stretches the windows extremely wide, for the purposes I’m using the programs displayed on that monitor, I’m finding nothing about it that makes me think I couldn’t use the HDTV as monitor permanently.

My Cons:

As I’ve already said quite directly, this is not going to be your video streaming technology of choice. However, for certain YouTube videos, it works fine. I had latency issues with displaying video I’ve created, but a slide show from iPhoto works great. The strangest, and frankly, most outrageous limitation to video came when I tried to test a movie I’d downloaded from the iTunes Store. Because the HDTV was even a part of the setup, I was not able to watch the video on any device that was connected. That seems illegal to me.

Another drawback is some a bug that prevents PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentations to work on the big monitor. That, to me, is a pretty significant bug as I can see using the device as a means to make presentations on an HDTV monitor set up in a conference room.

Bottomline:

The Imation Display Link is not the device for you if you’re looking for a means to display all the movies, in real time, wirelessly from your laptop to your HDTV’s monitor. However, for displaying photos and some of the video on your laptop, it works amazingly well.

However, the amazing trick this device does for me is extend or mirror my laptop’s display onto an HDTV with very little hassle in setting up, and with no noticible latency in its performance. If you have a big-screen TV you want to use for a monitor to compliment your laptop’s screen, it works great — for me at least. And, most importanty, if you own a MacBook Pro, it provides a simple solution for adding a third monitor without having to buy a box of parts.

Some additional notes, and I’ll probably add more as people respond:

Easter egg: Watch the video to learn how to add a bonus monitor using an iPad.

About Ultra Wideband: The device uses a radio technology and spectrum that isn’t yet baked into many consumer electronics and computer products called Ultra Wideband, or UWB. While not techically accurate, in layman’s language, UWB is to Wifi what broadband is to dialup. UWB technology has been around a long time, and even has a trade group called the WiMedia Alliance that touts it, but I learned a long time ago that when it comes to technology, the best technology is not always the technology that gets adopted by the mass market. Apparently (and if I were a gadget blogger, I might care enough to do the research), there are other technologies claiming to do the same thing, but I think they’re primarily trying to get more bandwidth out of wifi, rather than using a different chunk of radio spectrum as WBU does.

How I discovered this: A few Saturdays ago, a Nashville friend of mine, Jay Graves, a successful entrepreneur (including an appearance on the cover of Inc. magazine) and currently, the CTO of the Nashville startup, edo Interactive, posted some video on Facebook of him using the device with his MacBook Pro and a much nicer, larger flat screen TV than my desktop unit. Jay lives nearby so I asked if I could drop by his house and see how it worked. (He didn’t know about my three-monitor coveting.) I quizzed Jay for a couple of hours, especially about why I’d never heard of this, and where he discovered the device. Answer: He’s on the board of a company called Alereon in Austin, Tex., the firm that provides Imation with the UWB chips that go into the Link. However, even though he’s on the Alereon board, like mine, Jay’s Imation Link was ordered from Amazon.

More hacks for setting up ad multi-monitor MacBook desktop: If you’re looking for a “wired” way to connect multiple external monitors to a MacBook Pro, in addition to Danny Sullivan’s configuration linked-to above, here’s a wired, geek-oriented solution that’s more professional than my Imation Link hack.

*This link to Amazon.com includes an affiliate code that I am using as part of a test unrelated to this post.

  • This is the most seriously geeky post you have ever done. On a scale of 1 to 10, this one goes to 11. nnI just wanted to add a note of background about how long it can take for new technologies to move from laboratory to living room. About 10 years ago, when I worked for the dearly departed weekly Internet business magazine that shall not be named, I was researching a feature story about ultra-wideband and a scientist named Larry Fullerton. I went down to Huntsville, Alabama where his firm was located and saw all kinds of amazing demos, radar that could look through walls, movies sent to TVs all over a house, etc. It was all about to hit the market any minute. Seems like it’s finally here but perhaps taking longer than expected.

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  • I’m not sure the technology (UWB) has actually arrived, but you should do a follow-up story on why some technologies that seem like no-brainers don’t get adopted. I have no doubt that if this technology was what had been adopted for consumer products instead of wifi, we could have amazing gizmos today. I guess it was a mixture of pricing and politics — I think it would be good story. Maybe like that movie about the guy with the intermittent windshield wipers, or, the one about the guy, what’s his name, that did that Facebook thing.nnAnd thank you for giving me a 11 on the geekometer. It only took me a month to figure out how unusual what I was doing really is.

  • P.S. Weekly “Internet business magazine” sort of narrows down the publications you could be referring to, Aaron.

  • It’s easily identifiable where I used to work (cough Industry Standard cough cough) but since I view the parent company’s actions at the end as sort of Voldemort-like and they’re still using the brand name for a cheapie web news, analysis and linking site, I don’t usually refer to the magazine by name anymore. Or maybe it’s just too much of a bummer. I still want a bumper sticker that says: Bring back the Internet MAGAZINE bubble.