Linux and the Dual Monitor Dilemma

posted in: KDE, Linux | 6
My old desktop from 2009
My old dual-screen desktop from 2009

This has been an ongoing issue for me.  Not all Linux desktop environments respond the same to dual monitor hardware configurations, and not all of them function well when it involves a laptop.

For years I have favored KDE’s desktop workspace, partially because of its superior set of options for dual monitors.  You can set the primary monitor, tell KDE to follow the mouse when starting an app so that it opens on the right screen, and even configure separate desktops and widgets for each screen.

Gnome automatically detects dual monitors like other desktops, and it seems to work very well.  One limitation, however, is that the Nautilus-powered desktop duplicates the same wallpaper on each screen.  The only other option is to get a wallpaper wide enough to stretch across both screens.  If the monitors are not the same size, you are out of luck.

XFCE handles dual monitor setup very well. It has the auto-configuration of Gnome and also allows for two or more different wallpapers like KDE.  What it does not have are some of the more intricate settings only found in KDE, such as window placement support, and “show unmanaged windows on…”

With that in mind, it would seem KDE is the clear winner, and for my desktop computer, it always was.  With a laptop, however, problems arise.  When the connection is not permanent, KDE goes haywire.  Connect an external monitor, setup an extended desktop, and then disconnect the monitor, and KDE will not go back to single monitor settings correctly.  Sometimes, the Plasma workspace will become unresponsive, forcing you to use a workaround that involves adding a new activity, switching to it, and then switching back.

With the new Ubuntu Unity, Gnome, and XFCE, switching from one monitor to two and then back to one does not seem to cause the same problems.  They detect the changes and switch.  Right now on my laptop, I am currently running an experimental desktop that combines Ubuntu’s Unity window manager, XFCE’s desktop (for dual wallpapers), and (mostly) KDE applications.  This is, of course, just experimental, but it also highlights the flexibility and diversity you can get out of Linux to make it work exactly how you want it.

6 Responses

  1. Kim Winston-Jackson

    What an informative article. I’ve haven’t really used KDE all that much, but I’m glad to see I’m not alone in my dual monitor issues. I’ve been battling the dual monitor issue with linux since 2006 when I first switched over. This is one reason why I switched from ubuntu to lubuntu 11.04 which uses the lxde graphical frontend instead of gnome or unity during my last system upgrade. Now I use the nvidia X Server Settings software provided with the nvidia proprietary driver to generate multiple config files ( I currently have 4) and a modified grub boot menu to choose between them and their associated scripts during boot up. I can also run the scripts after the system has booted if I still need to change monitor configurations. I do hope dual monitor performance improves with the ubuntu 12.04 release in the spring. I itching to try it out. Again, I really enjoyed your article. It’s nice to know there are multiple ways to tackle the dual monitor situation.

  2. Tavis J. Hampton

    Hi Kim. The latest version of KDE actually fixes a lot of the problems that I described in this post. So, I’ve been back to KDE for a while, which is my favorite.

    For a computer with an Nvidia card, things are actually much easier if you use Disper. I wrote an article about it a while back:

    With Disper, you can just make little scripts that will quickly switch different modes. I use it to easily connect my netbook to my TV.

  3. Kim Winston-Jackson

    That’s neat. I agree nvidia cards make things much easier. I had never heard of Disper. It seems to work much like the scripts I’ve written to change between monitor modes. If I’m not satisfied with way ubuntu 12.04 handles dual monitors by default in the spring, I might give Disper a try before attempting to refactor my custom scripts. Thanks for the tip! Also is linux your sole/primary operating system?

  4. Tavis J. Hampton

    I think it all points to a larger problem with Linux graphics drivers. They each behave very differently, a problem that often happens in Windows too. We Linux users are just used to consistency in everything else.

    Yes, I use Linux on all of my computers. I recently even got my sister to use it on her computer.

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