Where previous versions of Windows offered only basic support for multi-monitor configurations, causing power users to seek out third party utilities to take up the slack, Windows 8 comes prepared for battle. In this Windows version, we’re finally getting the multi-monitor features we’ve longed for. We’re also getting some new functionality related to Windows 8’s Metro environment … in the Release Preview.

As a general rule, Windows 8 provides only a single screen to the Metro environment, which includes the Start Screen, PC Settings, and all Metro-style apps. So if you are running a multi-monitor configuration, you can only dedicate one of those displays to Metro, while the rest will display the Windows desktop. (You can also display the desktop across all displays while not using Metro.)

The most basic multi-monitor configuration occurs through the Second Screen pane, which replaces the presentation mode in previous Windows versions. It’s reached in the same way, via the WINKEY + P keyboard shortcut. Or, you can find this interface via mouse or touch through Charms, Devices, and then Second Screen.

secondscreen

This pane lets you configure the screens as follows:

PC screen only, where the second screen is simply ignored and only the PC’s primary display is used.

Duplicate, where the second screen mirrors, the primary display.

Extend, in which the PC display is extended across the two screens and allows you to have a desktop that spans two screens or to use Metro on one screen and the desktop on the other.

Second screen only, where the main PC display (on a laptop or tablet, the display that’s built into the device) will be disabled and only the secondary screen is used.

For more advanced multi-monitor configuration, you will need to access the Screen Resolution control panel, which is similar to that in Windows 7.

screenres

This interface provides the following configuration options:

Visual positioning of the displays. You can move the graphical representations of the displays in the window to approximate how the physical displays they represent are in fact oriented on your desk. This is useful for mouse cursor wrapping purposes, but also for offsetting the hot corners of the primary display a bit so that mouse-based “hot corners” work more simply.

Set screen resolutions lets you configure the resolution of each display.

Orientation, where you choose between landscape, portrait, landscape (flipped) and portrait (flipped) orientations, handy for those displays that can be rotated.

Multiple displays. This drop-down works much like the Second Screen pane described in the previous section, though the four options are described a bit differently.

Beyond this, there are other interfaces that are useful for configuring the desktop wallpaper and taskbar in multi-monitor configurations.

Use a single, panoramic image across all displays. To configure a single, panoramic picture to span across two or more displays, use the Desktop Background control panel and specify Span from the Picture Position drop down. Note that Microsoft includes some panoramic backgrounds in Windows 8 and is making more available via new panoramic themes at the Windows Personalization Gallery web site too.

spandisplays

Use a different background on each display. To choose a different background for each display, navigate to the Desktop Background control panel, select a (picture) location from the Picture location drop down (it can’t be a solid color for some reason) and the select the picture you want for the first display. Then, right-click that picture and choose Set for monitor 1. Repeat this process for each display.

Configure the taskbar for multi-monitor. By default, the taskbar will be duplicated across each display, which many users will find unappealing. Fortunately, you can customize this too, this time through the Taskbar Properties window (right-click the taskbar and choose Properties). There are four basic configurations for the taskbar in a multi-monitor set up: You can duplicate the taskbar across all of the displays (the default), use the taskbar only on the primary display, use a unique taskbar (with display-specific buttons) for each display or, confusingly, use a a unique taskbar on each display, but all open windows available on primary display too.

taskbar_props

As for Metro, you may recall that you can only use the Metro environment on one display. The question is: Which display? As it turns out, there’s no user interface for specifying which display is used for Metro, and it will of course use the primary display by default. In the Consumer Preview, there’s no way to change how this works. But my sources tell me that the Release Preview will include a new feature that lets you move the Metro environment to the display of your choosing. To do so, you will grab the top of any Metro-style app via touch or mouse (this won’t work from the Start Screen for some reason) and then just drag the app to the display you prefer. In other words, it works just like shutting down the app, but instead of dragging to the bottom, you drag over to another display.

It’s not clear yet whether this configuration will be persistent across reboots. That is, if you reboot, will Metro stay on the secondary display, or will it return to the primary display? I guess we’ll have to wait for the Release Preview to find out. (Update: Actually, this DOES work in the Consumer Preview if you use the keyboard shortcuts WINKEY + PAGEUP and WINKEY + PAGEDOWN.)

Regardless of this coming change, Windows 8 multi-monitor support is greatly improved, and if you’re using such a configuration, this is a great reason to upgrade.