We don't all have high-powered PCs that can support bank upon bank of monitors. Some of us are trapped in a single-display hell, clinging to our miserable existence in the hope that, one day, we too may be able to have a spreadsheet open on one screen and a Web browser in another.
Even if you decide to buy a graphics card that supports more than one display, you won't find it easy to install it in many PCs, even ones of the desktop variety. That's when external USB-to-DVI or USB-to-HDMI converters come in handy. Such devices can turn a USB socket into an extra monitor output.
Atlona's AT-HDPiX2 is a USB-to-HDMI converter that will appeal to people with new, higher-resolution monitors. It costs about £140 online.
It's beyond the scope of this review to go into tonnes of detail about how this kind of system works, but we should explain the basics, so you can understand the limitations of the hardware.
Video destined for your secondary monitor is sent via USB. Unlike video that travels via HDMI, DVI or VGA, this signal is quite highly compressed, and also uses an MPEG-type algorithm which only sends information about the area on the screen that is actually changing. It all works very much like MPEG in TV broadcasts, and can reduce the total bandwidth needed to a level that's within the capabilities of USB 2.0.
In terms of day-to-day use, the AT-HDPiX2 is just like any graphics card. It appears, together with your main graphics card, in your computer's display manager, just as two graphics cards or a dual-headed graphics card would. This means you can set the screen orientation and resolution as you wish, as well as place your second monitor to the left or right, or even above, your existing monitor.
The AT-HDPiX2 can drive monitors with a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. If you're still using square screens, then an output of 1,600x1,200 pixels can be achieved too.
If you need plenty of monitors, you can use up to six AT-HDPiX2s with your PC. Mac users are restricted to four AT-HDPiX2s for some reason. Be aware that there's no official Linux support, although some user-generated drivers do exist. While impressive, they don't work as well as the drivers for the Windows and Mac platforms.
If you already have a USB-based sound card, then you should take some care when adding the AT-HDPiX2 to your computer. Some machines can throw a blue fit when presented with two USB audio devices, leaving you struggling to get sound working as you wish. The AT-HDPiX2's ability to send both video and audio over HDMI is awesome, though.
Incredibly easy set-up
To get the AT-HDPiX2 working, you have to follow the simplest instructions of all time. You simply plug the device in and wait. Within no time at all, Windows will have detected the device and installed a driver. Then you plug the supplied HDMI cable into your monitor. We're impressed that Atlona provides a cable in the box.
You might have a monitor that only has a DVI input. If that's the case, then you'll need an adaptor that turns HDMI into DVI. This should cost you only a few pounds.
The AT-HDPiX2 is a DisplayLink device. As such, it's always well worth making sure that you've installed the latest package of DisplayLink drivers, because incremental updates are added from time to time.
Improved video playback
With our older DisplayLink USB converter, watching video was really a no-no. The AT-HDPiX2's newer chipset manages to handle video pretty well, though. Maximising video to fill the whole screen creates considerable judder, but it's still watchable. Video playing in a window works beautifully, and will prove good enough for all but the most discerning eyeballs.
In the past, we've found that USB adaptors give video an unpleasant, interlaced look, but this problem has clearly been addressed by the new generation of devices. We managed to tolerate YouTube playing in full-screen mode on our test Samsung monitor.
The Atlona AT-HDPiX2 won't be necessary for most desktop PC users, but it will be a life-saver for some. While you can get a graphics card that supports two monitors for less than the cost of the AT-HDPiX2, Atlona's device will probably prove far more convenient for most users, and it's the best device of its kind that we've seen so far.
Edited by Charles Kloet