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TUAW review: ViDock Gfx multi-monitor solution for MacBook Pro


I love screen space. At the same time, my primary machine is a 2nd Gen, 17" MacBook Pro, which offers only one external DVI port. In my greedy quest to add more external monitors to my home workstation, I've tried a smorgasbord of products. I quickly gave up on USB to DVI solutions due to poor refresh rates and unmanageable color, and the closest I'd been able to come to a workable solution was Matrox's TripleHead2Go. The biggest drawback to that solution (and it ended up being big enough that my TripleHead2Go is gathering dust in a corner) is that the 2 or 3 monitors you hook up to it end up being treated as one large monitor. This means that you have fewer options in positioning your displays, and -- at least with 2 monitors connected -- things like menubars, the application switcher and even newly created windows and dialogs all pop up in the split between monitors. It works, but not well enough.

We'd heard tell of a product from Village Tronic called the ViDock Gfx, but after several disappointing experiences with other products in the same vein, I hadn't been ready to shell out for another try. Then, we got a review unit and it became clear that there was, in fact, a usable solution to the MacBook Pro's multi-monitor dilemma. Read on for my impressions after a week with this unique product.

Unboxing and install

It's a bit of a departure from the overall review, but I have to start with my very first impressions: the unboxing. The packaging for this device is utterly classy. From the textured, black box embossed with a silver Village Tronic logo to the companion disc with the signatures of all of the members of the development team, it generates some excitement in and of itself.

The box contains the main unit, about 7"x5"x2" with a permanently attached 3' ExpressCard/34 cable, a power supply, 2 DVI-VGA adapters (should you need them) and the CD. The CD failed to read for me, which was a bit of a downer in my initial impressions, but I went ahead without it, and everything "just worked." No drivers or software are needed to run the ViDock Gfx. When I contacted support to find out what I was missing from the unreadable disc, I was told that the only items on the CD of import were a PDF manual (sent to me) and a System Preferences application called "Voilà " (available for download, I'll get to that in a bit).

The ViDock Gfx plugs into the ExpressCard/34 port of the MacBook Pro and provides two extra DVI ports, in addition to your laptop screen and the built-in DVI port, for a total of 4 displays. It's only compatible with certain generations of the MacBook Pro (2 and 4), though: if you have a 1st, 3rd or 5th generation MBP, you're out of luck for the time being. Compatibility with the Unibody line is promising, but not fully determined yet (I'll add an update when they have final word). Mine is a 2nd gen, so I was ready to go. I learned right away that the ViDock Gfx is not hot-pluggable on a Mac; you have to shut down completely to plug or unplug it. This inconvenience aside, once it's plugged in, your system has two extra DVI ports with no additional hassle. They just show up, and any monitors attached to them are treated just like a monitor attached to the internal DVI port. In addition to the 21" monitor running on my internal graphics card, I hooked up two 20" Dell 2005FPW monitors (the ones made with the same guts as the Cinema Displays at the time, just 1/4 of the price), calibrated the color and started testing the applications I use every day.


I had no problem setting the Dell monitors to their max resolution of 1680x1050. There's no detectable delay or stutter in video playback on the extra monitors. Color calibration worked smoothly and with the same results you'd get from a monitor running on the internal card. The fact that the ports provide discrete outputs means I can position the monitors in any configuration I like, with any combination of position, ordering and orientation, and there's no drawback to making one of them the primary (menubar and dock) display. There were very few applications which displayed any type of anomaly when open on the additional displays.

The included Preferences software, Voilà , provides some interesting utilities, primarily designed around the idea that it's easy to lose a cursor or window when your setup is four monitors wide. You can set hotkeys for various screen locations on the fly, and highlight the cursor location with a key combination. The most useful of the utilities is a HUD showing all of your displays with miniature representations of your open windows, allowing for quick navigation, ala Spaces. The utility, however, is not Spaces-friendly, so if you're running spaces on a four-monitor setup, you're better off using the default methods of navigating.

There's a single, powered USB 2.0 port on the unit. It's a convenience, allowing a hub to be connected and reducing the number of things you need to plug into your MacBook Pro when setting it up at the multi-monitor workstation. This was definitely nice, and I've been running a total of 10 USB devices through it with no problem.

Issues

My first concern was the noise level of the fans. It's not bad, really, but the general noise level during any activity which triggers the built in hardware video acceleration (thus kicking in the fans) is about equal to the sound of my MacBook Pro with both fans running at around 4000 RPM.

I did experience, on occasion, periods where all of the displays would flash blue as if I had connected or disconnected a monitor. This would happen several times and then go away. I had checked all of my connections, but after completely disconnecting and reconnecting all of the cables, the problem went away. Looks like user error.

As I mentioned earlier, there were very, very few applications which had any problem with the setup. In Path Finder, if you have the "zoom" effect turned on when double clicking an icon, a rectangular artifact about the size of the third frame of the zoom animation would be left on the screen, usually just an outline of the box. The artifact would disappear when the application was terminated. This issue was easily worked around by either not running a Path Finder window on those displays, or turning off the zoom effect. Strangely, the glitch seems to be isolated to Path Finder; other applications making use of the same effect didn't trigger this behavior.

The only truly major application incompatibility I experienced was with Aperture. When running Aperture while all 4 displays were active, all of the additional displays would display garbled messes when multiple photos were selected. I don't know if this is a software bug, something peculiar about some of my photos, or a hardware bug. If the display on the built-in DVI port is disconnected, and the only external displays active are on the ViDock Gfx, the problem is greatly reduced, although there were still some instances of garbled screens. This happened no matter what the Aperture settings for additional displays were (span, blank, mirror, etc.).

Working with Photoshop, Illustrator, Motion, Final Cut, and any of my other favorites was never an issue. Quite the opposite, it was an immense pleasure to have so many extra pixels of screen real estate to work with.

Impressions

I'm going to have a very hard time parting with the ViDock Gfx when I send the review unit back. I've grown quite accustomed to having 4 displays, and I'm seriously considering purchasing a unit of my own. The issues it may have are extremely minimal compared to the overall performance and quality of the device, and -- for the most part -- easy to work around. My overall reaction is one of awe; to finally have a viable solution to adding additional monitors makes me very, very happy.

The ViDock Gfx for Mac is priced at $499. That obviously puts it outside of the price range the average consumer wants to swallow, especially when you add the cost of two additional, high-quality displays. However, the average MacBook Pro user is likely in a position where the extra screen real estate becomes more valuable, and could put it to use in a way that the general population wouldn't need to. Further, all other existing options have enough significant drawbacks that the ViDock Gfx is essentially the only game in town. Perhaps the technology will be replicated in the future, and prices will come down, but for now, if you want additional displays on a MacBook Pro, this is by far the highest quality, most usable option.

The ViDock Gfx is available for online purchase, or see the "Where to Buy" page for more purchase options in your area. Check out the gallery for some shots of the unboxing and the ViDock Gfx in use.



I love screen space. At the same time, my primary machine is a 2nd Gen, 17" MacBook Pro, which offers only one external DVI port. In my...