"Out of sight, out of mind" is a lousy way to multitask. Repeated studies have shown that you can improve your PC productivity by anywhere from 10 to 50 percent with a system upgrade that has nothing to do with speed or storage: adding a second monitor.
Of course a second (or third) screen is a bit of a luxury. Windows users can click through active applications on the Taskbar, or cycle through programs à la geek by repeatedly tapping Alt-Tab.
But anybody who's plugged a notebook into a monitor knows that gaining another acre of display real estate makes it infinitely easier to do two things at once to switch between a word processor and spreadsheet at a glance instead of flipping back and forth, or to keep an eye on a Web site (*cough*ESPN*cough*) while writing a proposal.
Collaborators cherish additional monitors for keeping an instant-messaging, chat, or videoconferencing window in view while tag-teaming a document. Adobe Photoshop users and other creative types swear by an extra screen for having tool or color palettes handy without cluttering one's main image-editing workspace. We like to leave Windows Explorer open for the copying and compilation of images and other files that go into a complex document.
Of course, not everyone has a spare LCD or CRT lying around. Not every system has a spare video output, either. You may want to add a second display to a desktop that has only a single VGA port, or a third to a laptop already maxed out by its built-in LCD plus sole external-monitor connection. Opening cases and installing graphics cards might not be your thing. Nor might having a tangle of multiple video and power cables on your desk.
This is where the Nanovision Mimo UM-710 comes in. The $130 gadget is a small (7-inch diagonal, 800-by-480 resolution) LCD monitor that plugs into one of your PC's USB 2.0 ports, using DisplayLink's popular USB video technology so a single cable serves to both power the device and carry display data. It's one of the quickest and easiest ways to open another window on your computing world.
The other end of the cable has two full-sized USB plugs, only one of which is needed for both power and data in most cases. (The Mimo draws 5 volts DC, consuming just under 5 watts at its brightest setting.)
You're out of luck if your system requires the use of both plugs and lacks a pair of adjacent USB ports, but one plug sufficed with the one desktop and two netbooks with which we tested the Mimo. On the minus side, our test unit's mini plug proved to be just a bit loose, coming undone several times as we adjusted or repositioned the monitor.
The screen screws onto the provided folding/tilting stand with a chrome knob, which lets you adjust the screen height by an inch or so. Too low, however, and you won't be able to take advantage of the monitor's ability to pivot 90 degrees between landscape and portrait mode, with screen image adjusted accordingly via the DisplayLink driver software.
Accessed via a Taskbar system tray icon, the driver lets you choose whether the Mimo mirrors your main display (panning around the larger main image as you move the mouse around the 800 by 480 screen) or extends to either side of or above or below it. A click of the menu summons Windows' Display Properties Settings dialog for fine-tuning the auxiliary screen's position.
Gamers should know that the USB video link does not support hardware graphics acceleration or DirectX or OpenGL applications. After spending an hour on YouTube, however, we can report that motion video looks just fine on the UM-710, as do the translucent effects of Windows Vista Aero.
Buttons on the monitor's right side let you step through eight backlight brightness levels, of which the top two or three are fair game for most applications (Nanovision rates the monitor at 350 nits of brightness with a contrast ratio of 400:1). There's also an on/off button, which we used only to turn the display off after shutting down the PC it switches itself on when you boot up.
Apart from the DirectX caveat and the few accidental unpluggings, the Mimo experience was painless on all three PCs we tried, although we blame the driver for a handful of error messages on our 64-bit Vista Home Premium desktop several times we saw "DisplayLink Manager Application has stopped working," although the tray icon continued to respond, and twice were haunted by an old nemesis, "RUNDLL32.EXE has stopped working." No such glitches occurred with the 32-bit Win XP netbooks.
In a world where you can buy everything from hamster wheels to soda-can-sized refrigerators to plug into a USB port, the Mimo is one of the more useful gadgets. We'd be more enthusiastic, frankly, if it had either a smaller price or a bigger screen -- at least 10 inches, say, for less squinting or for more than just a taste of the benefits of an additional monitor.
This article was first published on Hardware Central.