Thursday, December 29, 2011

USB Video, Fact or Fiction?

    In my last post I wrote about ordering myself a USB Video Display Adapter. Well, as it happens, it has arrived and I have taken the plunge and opened the box. In the next few paragraphs I will attempt to go over both the pro's and the con's of such a device.
   
    First, lets start with the un-boxing, sort of. First, I didn't take any pictures. Even if I did, they would be unremarkable. Its a standard cardboard box that houses a Sabrent "USB-DH88". This is a USB Video Adapter. The default port type is DVI, but it also includes adapters for both HDMI and VGA. The system  for its intended use is a 15", Mid-2010, MacBook Pro running osX Lion 10.7.2. This is important for two reasons. First, the included driver disk is a mini-cd with doesn't play well with my MacBook's slot-load dvd drive. Second, the driver (version 1.6) that I downloaded from the Sabrent web site doesn't play well with osX Lion. More on that in a bit.

    With my MacBook Pro in a "Henge Dock" (I really love this little thing), using the internal display was  not an option. The docking station only works with the lid closed, thus eliminating that display. I am currently using the mini-display port to connect an Acer AL2216W LCD screen. Its actually very good for such a low end screen. I have yet to worry about flicker or anything like "image burn" or bad pixels. This is one monitor that just keeps working.

    I have been wanting a second screen for use when I was docked for a really long time. Unfortunately my MacBook Pro is not new enough to include the new, somewhat mystical, "Thunderbolt" port. As I understand it, you can use it as a second mini-display port. I am sure there are catches to that option as well, but since I don't actually have one, I am not going to comment any further on it.

    My secondary screen is a Sceptre X9W. It is a venerable screen that I have used off and on mostly for testing computers. It has a decent 19 inch wide screen with a maximum resolution of 1440x900. Nothing stellar, but then again I am not going to be playing any sort of games or high definition videos on it either. The purpose of this screen is mainly extra storage space. A place to hold things like PDF Documents, Web pages that I need to use a reference, or even my Amazon Kindle application. Nothing at all really "graphics intensive". Theoretically, this is exactly what I was looking for when selecting using a USB video display adapter.

    So, after reading the direction I went to www.sabrent.com and downloaded the latest drivers they had listed that wasn't beta. Version 1.6. After installing the driver the computer needed to restart. This actually upset me as this would be the first restart in 19 days, 4 hours and 31 minutes. A little bummed, but still hopeful, I restarted my computer. So far so good.

    I attached the VGA adapter to the USB-HD88 and then plugged the USB cable in to it. Connection complete. Sort of.

    The connection was complete, but all I got was a blank screen. My Main screen, the 22 inch Acer AL2216W, had become the secondary screen. I had no way of accessing my system settings to even begin to diagnose the issue. The solution? Unplug the USB Cable from the adapter to get my screen back on the larger screen. Then, open "System Preferences" and drag the window about halfway off the screen. Then I plugged the USB-DH88 back in to the USB port. Once again I had the same issue, but this time I had the System Preferences window accessible.

    The driver for the USB-DH88 did seem to be working. It even correctly identified the 19 inch Septre X9W monitor and all of its supported display modes. The problem, which I failed to notice initially, seemed to be the screen refresh rate. It was stuck at 75Hz. The screen only support 59Hz and 60Hz. What could I do now?

    I went back to the user manual. Trust me, this is not something I ever do. In this case I figured it couldn't hurt anything. The user manual recommended downloading the latest drivers, (already done and installed) from the web site. The kicker? The manual included a second web site: www.displaylink.com. It was on this web site that found the non-beta version1.7 of the driver.

    So I completely uninstalled the old driver, and restarted my MacBook Pro yet again. I then Installed the version 1.7 driver, and I restarted yet again. I was starting to feel like a windows user again. Once the system was up and running again I plugged in the USB Adapter again.

    It works flawlessly, for what I need it for.

    Let me elaborate. There is noticeable screen flicker when "sliding" from one "virtual desktop" to another or when selecting the dashboard. There can also be a bit of jerkiness when moving the mouse pointer if you go to fast. For the most part this is not a really an issue.

    As I said before, it is "A" solution, and the one that seems to work well for me. It will not be for everyone, but it is really inexpensive and requires little to no technical expertise to setup. In fact, even doing "normal work", such as moving around windows, viewing pictures or documents, or even writing this blog entry, the CPU usage only jumps by a lowly 5%. I can even type on the "USB" screen while watching an HD video in the "Main" display without one affecting the other.

    My conclusion? If you need a cheap and affordable way to add an extra screen to your setup that you don't plan to do any heavy graphics on, this is an excellent solution. Even with the minor setup issue concerning the driver, setup was relatively painless. For osX Lion users, just make sure you get the version 1.7 driver from the displaylink.com web site before you plug it in.