The Idea

Everybody's seen the small 2 and 4 line by 16 to 20 character LCD's that hook to a serial or parallel port. Usually people use them to show system temperatures, mp3 player info, etc. They work very well for that purpose, but they're kind of plain for my tastes. So what's the alternative? How about a video LCD? Sounded good, and I knew laptop screens could be had for cheap. Then I found out why, they don't use a standard video signal. Instead, most need a special controller card. There's two problems with this. 1st, the cards are based on SLOW chipsets with very poor performance. And most are ISA cards, which will NOT work in a multiple monitor style setup. 2nd, the cards are very expensive, usually well over $150. So what to do then? I went looking for small VGA input screens, with little luck. Most were too large for my needs, and the prices were as high as the 14" and 15" desktop LCD's that are out there. Then what? I found NTSC input 4" and 5.5" LCD's at Parts Express. They use 12 volt power and a composite NTSC input. Perfect for computer use, 12 volts is right there and a PCI card with a TV input would work great for the LCD while still allowing me to use a high-end 3D card for gaming. I'm not going to go step-by-step on the setup because it varies from PC to PC and is NOT that hard to do. It's basically a multiple monitor setup with one small, special monitor. The tricky parts are mounting the unit and finding the right secondary PCI card. I'm not going to get into mounting, if I could get it mounted anyone can.

Here's some suggestions for video cards to use, by chipset and OS. Not all are TV out equipped, that'll be explained below.

For Windows 98

3dfx Voodoo3
ATI Rage Pro, Rage 128, Rage 128 Pro, Radeon
Nvidia TNT/TNT2/Vanta/m64/GeForce/Geforce2mx
3dLabs Permedia2
Matrox Millenium II or higher
S3 Trio/Virge and higher

For Windows 2000

3dfx Voodoo3
ATI Rage 128, Rage 128 Pro, Radeon
Nvidia TNT/TNT2/Vanta/m64(iffy support)/GeForce/Geforce2mx
3dLabs Permedia2
Matrox Millenium II or higher

Other cards may work, but many require workarounds/hacks for proper use.

How to do it without a TV out equipped card

I currently use a VGA-TV converter on my setup because I couldn't find a secondary card with a TV out that worked properly for me. These can normally be found on Ebay for around $75, or even purchased new for $100+. They offer some advantages over TV out PCI cards, though. 1st, the converter lets you use ANY PCI card in the lists above. No need to search for a TV out equipped card. 2nd, most TV outs downscale the output so the entire PC screen can be seen on a TV. It's called underscan and results in a black border on the LCD. The converters are able to zoom an image to fill the entire LCD viewing area, larger images as a result. 3rd, I find the output of a scan converter to be superior to most TV out cards I've seen. With a screen as small as these I'll do anything to improve image quality.

Dualhead, Twinview, et al

Any of the current crop of dual output cards should work just fine under Windows 98/se/ME/XP for this type of setup. The problem starts with Windows 2000. Only the Matrox G400/450/550 series have the proper driver support to run seperate desktops under Win2K. So, if you want to do this setup under Win2K: 1.) Use two cards 2.) Use a G400/450/550.

The Parts

Here's the parts I used for my screen. Everything besides the LCD, PCI card, and VGA converter can be found at pretty much any electronics house, I got all mine at Radio Shack because it was close and I wasn't sure what I wanted to use. Spent a few hours staring at the racks before I settled on the following parts.

4 pin molex passthrough with 12 volt tap, pulled from my parts box
4" LCD from Parts Express
SPST mini-toggle
DPDT mini-toggle, I'll explain it later
Red, Orange, and Green 12 volt LED's - Radio Shack sells normal LED's in a special plastic mounting with a resistor already attached. They look good and simplify the wiring.
One RCA jack
Matrox G200 8MB PCI
Black Box VGA-TV converter
Easy Transfer board, drive bay extender for USB, serial, audio, and firewire

The Explanation

My original version didn't even have a power switch, turned on and off with the PC. That was a pain in the butt, at night it would illuminate the entire room. So when I put together the first prototype 4" screen version I added a simple toggle switch pulled from the parts box. The DPDT mini-toggle and RCA jack are for a second video input and status indicator LED's. These can be left out to simplify the wiring even more. The G200 and VGA converter have been explained above, better quality and full screen use. The EasyTransfer board came from Computer Geeks, not sure if they still carry it. I've got three of them, modding this one because there's no room left for it in the case.

The Schematic

Coming soon...

The Mounting

It's made of 1/8th inch Plexiglass, 4 pieces, and held together using superglue and clear silicone caulk. Exact sizes are: 1 piece 5"x5.75", 1 piece 5.75"x5.75", and two pieces 1"x"5.75". Front, two sides, and a bottom. The design allows for the mount to be screwed into place like any 5.25" device. The design also affords a layer of protection for the screen, the LCD is mounted to the back of the Plexi with no cut outs like I was forced to do on my cardboard setups. Should keep the LCD free of scratches or other damage.

The Pics

1st, turned off

2nd, input 1, PC's secondary video card

3rd, input 2, external. This pic was taken on Sept. 11th, shows the live feed of FoxNews.

4th, input 1 no flash to show the LED indicators

5th, input 2, from the TV

Update 12/16/2001: Since the time I initially wrote this up I've changed video cards and upgraded the system to Windows XP. I now run an ATI Radeon 8500LE with the 4" LCD running off of the TV output. I've also removed the VGA->TV converter board since the TV out for the Radeon can have overscan turned off with a registry hack.

I've also seen that Overclockers Hideout sells a $119 "kit" to do this that only consists of the 4" LCD and cable that Parts Express sells for $20 less.

Update 7/25/2002: Here's a few more recent pictures, it's now running Coolmon to display system stats. The current hardware setup is an ATI Radeon 8500DV and a Matrox G200. The G200 runs my 17" CRT, the Radeon runs a 14.1" LCD and the 4" LCD(on the TV out). I can highly recommend the Radeon 8500/8500DV/7500(AIW) for this kind of setup since the TV out's overscan can be disabled. Anyway, a few newer pics.