Xebec Tri-Screen 2 Review
Xebec Tri-Screen 2 Review
One display is never enough, especially if you can access more than one. Constraints are said to improve creativity. Give an artist a small piece of paper and see what magic they place on the tiny canvas, forced by its boundaries to toss out their preconceptions of what art looks like. But being productive and creative also benefits from large surfaces—not by their constraints but by their extension of choice.
Managing projects and e-mail and collaborative threads is not a creative act. The extended screens allow for the choice of a better information management environment. But it does not necessitate that enlarged canvas. More display real estate allows owners to choose through what windows they see and create.
Computing with a machine that uses overlapping windows causes disruptions in workflow, such as re-finding the right window, bringing it to the front, and scrolling to the right area. Bigger screens help, but on laptops, bigger screens mean more weight as they extend not just the display but the chassis to deliver a cohesive design—a shell that properly closes over the keyboard.
External monitors work on desktops, but they don’t work very well on the road. I know some people who carry extra traditional monitors in their bags, sometimes in very protective cases, like those from Pelican, designed to protect glass and plastic from the tumult of travel. It works, but it’s an inconvenient and clumsy solution.
So, the computer industry invented mobile monitors and lightweight displays, which bring additional display space to a work area, or the Mobile Pixels DUEX Plus with an even thinner profile. These solutions prove relatively light and thin but often output only 1920×1080 HD. Seemingly useful with HD laptops, but on a MacBook Pro, for instance, with its 3024-by-1964 display, the extra area looks comparatively small next to the native display.
But two displays offer more alternatives, enough to be meaningful. And with displays like the $499 Xebec Tri-Screen 2, the higher resolution of two displays creates a powerful workstation—and with two displays, the package balances the weight of the device horizontally, even as it challenges it vertically. But clever engineering solves most issues in an acceptable way. And while the Xebec Tri-Screen 2 is not as plug-and-play as its advertising may suggest, it is a solid solution for creating a bigger canvas, one that allows its owner more choices about how they view and explore their digital worlds.
What we like
- Dual 1920×1200 (16:10) panels add display real estate.
- Easy set-up on most modern systems, especially those with multiple DisplayPort-compatible Thunderbolt ports.
- Very portable, no need to de-install for travel.
The biggest issue with carrying more digital real estate is weight. At about 2 pounds, the Xebec Tri-Screen 2 offers a lightweight solution for adding two additional displays that extend out from the sides of the primary monitor. The solution works for Mac and PC, and Chromebook and Linux. I will concentrate on the MacBook Pro implementation, but readers will be able to easily see equivalent tasks required on Windows, Linux or Chrome to configure the monitor, depending on available ports.
The 1920×1200, 60Hz IPS panels offer slightly more than HD with 16:10 aspect ratios. The displays fold into a 7.5-inch by 12-inch hunchback atop your laptop’s display, adding about an inch of depth to a laptop. I don’t leave mine installed because I’m never sure how I want to use my laptop, but often, it’s fast, and a solo screen is just fine. When I travel with the Xebec displays, I put them in their own zippered case, commandeered from a 12-inch MacBook.
Owners of multiple Thunderbolt port laptops that support the DisplayPort standard have it easy. That near magical port allows Xebec’s displays to draw power from the USB-C connection and transport data. This simple implementation is the most elegant and convenient feature (see Notes on Xebec Tri-Screen 2 use below for additional configurations).
Basic installation requires expanding the Xebec enclosure, sliding it over the laptop’s lid/display, and extending the Xebec panels by pulling on cloth tabs until they lock into position. Multiple ports on the Xebec displays support HDMI, USB-C with DisplayPort, and passthrough connections, including charging. Always choose the simplest of options, the one with the fewest cables.
My configuration uses the simple two USB-C cables option, which I install, one on each side, using cables included in the box. For more complex configurations, Xebec sells a connection kit for $79.
It took me a while to figure out the right display settings for the Xebec Tri-Screen 2 displays. The company offers plenty of video tutorials, so the data is readily available, but I resist looking early in a review because I want to gauge the intuitiveness of the hardware and software. It may also be that you need a driver to maximize the experience (see What could be improved for more feedback on drivers).
Once installed, the screens can be slid back into their housing, the lid on the laptop closed, and the entire installation packed away for travel.
Once the configuration was settled, I found the displays very useful in managing my MacBook Pro workspace, keeping, for instance, my WordPress site open on one display with statistics showing, ready to accept new content—and on the other, my Microsoft To-Do list with my review backlog staring me down.
I am past the thinking phase, I hope, where I must figure out how the displays work with my computer, so I can go on to enjoy the solution. That said, I review a lot of laptops, and I’m sure I will not resist the urge to see how they work with other devices as they arrive for evaluation.
What could be improved
- Kickstand isn’t stable when extended.
- Higher quality and more intuitive display configuration switches/software.
- Not easy to perfect the overall viewing experience (hardware configurations on both displays, screen arrangements, resolution settings, etc.).
- Not as driverless as claimed in some circumstances.
- Panels are physically smaller than many standalone portable displays.
- No support for HDR.
The installed Xebec Tri-Screen 2 looks elegant after installation, but installation reveals the engineering challenges of hanging two monitors off of nearly any computer. There are probably many ways to engineer a solution; the elastic with a bezel to hold onto the main monitor is the choice made by Xebec.
This solution requires no magnets or adhesives, but it does add a frame that increases the weight, or I should say the mass, of the solution, inviting gravity to pull down on the display with a force the laptop hinge engineers were not expecting.
The company includes a pull-out kickstand, which is stable in a non-extended configuration, but the extension is another issue. If the laptop typically sits on a stand, the extension must be used to stabilize the combined displays.
During one installation, I didn’t pay as close attention to the display’s placement as I should have while installing the USB-C cables. The MacBook Pro main monitor was leaning slightly backward…from there, it aggressively tilted back, sending my Fametek U.S.S. Enterprise Bluetooth® speaker careening out of control into the gravity well off my office floor. Luckily, the carpeted floor absorbed the impact, and no harm came to the speaker, but I did have to reassemble its deconstructed components.
The kickstand issue also manifested when dealing with another hardware issue, the panel’s configuration switches. They highlight the issue with low-cost panels. The tiny switches don’t offer as good a surface as they do on professional desktop monitors like the ViewSonic VP2768a.
Trying to figure out which keys to push without standing up takes practice (and the controls, like all monitor controls, are unique and non-intuitive, seemingly by design). And that returns us to the main display issue of weight and pressure with the Xebec panels installed. Pushing on the buttons without considering the added downward pressure of fingers can also trigger the retraction of the kickstand extender, destabilizing the computer. Any inadvertent extra pressure on the display causes the foot to withdraw from a stable extension.
[BTW, I stabilized my Xebec Tri-Screen 2 kickstand with a plastic Christmas popper paperclip and some museum tack. Easy to remove to travel, and small enough to fit in a baggy if I need it on the road.]
On the first install, I had to play with the buttons extensively to get the color temperature and brightness/contrast close enough to the main monitor, so I didn’t find the dissonance distracting. In the default mode, the Xebec panels were tinged yellow.
It would be great if the future Xebec Tri-Screen 3 included better, perhaps, software configuration for the panels and a locking mechanism for the kickstand—and perhaps an even longer one. I must push my laptop stand to a low profile so the Xebec stabilizer will reach the desk—push the laptop stand to its maximum, and the stabilizer dangles uselessly off the back of the Xebec assembly.
On the software side, Xebec’s claims of a driverless install are not exactly true, especially on my M1 MacBook Pro. Xebec references conversations with Apple in their support docs, but currently, the displays work best with a lower resolution option of 960 by 600 for those who don’t want to look at third-party options. That resolution makes them readable but reduces the value of the added display area. In their native resolution, the displays work, but the menu fonts prove so small it isn’t feasible to use them like this in practice.
So, guess what? The Xebec Tri-Screen 2 needs a third-party driver, at least on the M1 MacBook Pro. SwitchResX, which runs $16 in its registered form (10 days before the owner starts bugging downloaders, not clear yet if they turn anything off or keep asking for registration), allows users to create customer resolution configurations and save them to the main Display Control Panel.
I used SwitchResX (suggested by Xebec’s online support notes) to create custom display resolutions that enhanced the font size while keeping the high-resolution real estate available. It only takes a few minutes to set up using the step-by-step instructions from Xebec. This process, however, is far from driverless, intuitive, or expected.
I don’t know if it’s the Mac or the Xebec Tri-Screen 2 displays, but after several of my configuration changes, the screens lost their relationship to each other, defaulting to the right and left displays swapping spaces.
I ran through several configurations. The one that seemed to work was turning off displays having their own Mission Control spaces. Honestly, I tried several options; some appeared to work and then stopped working. Likely more an Apple issue than a Xebec issue, but you will be forced to think about it and rectify it each time a Mac sleeps or reboots, and that will bring both Apple and Xebec to mind.
I’m giving Xebec several notes in hopes that as they continue to engineer this very useful product, they will improve future versions of the Tri-Screen by eliminating annoyances, which often keep a good product from being great.
Notes on Xebec Tri-Screen 2 use
Xebec supplied me with their Tri-Screen Adaptor, which allows the monitor to connect to less modern computers without DisplayPort Thunderbolt ports, or not enough of them.
In other configurations, the display requires some combination of power coming from somewhere and video coming from somewhere else. The Xebec adaptor covers most contingencies.
Many configurations require software to support dual monitors over HDMI, which is not unusual. All modern USB-C docks with more than 1 HDMI port require Synaptic’s DisplayLink Manager to get around hardware limitations.
The other option is a good USB-C hub that either supports dual HDMI or, better, dual USB-C with DisplayPort, either of which should drive the Xebec experience without their adapter—while offering other features not available on their adapter (such as USB-C, Ethernet, SD card reading, and other ports). (See our list of USB-C hub reviews here.)
Xebec Tri-Screen 2: The bottom line
The Xebec Tri-Screen 2 dual monitors allow laptop owners to explore wider landscapes for creativity and analysis. And that is welcomed. That’s the company’s value proposition, and they deliver on that promise.
The thin and light display panels work well regardless of configuration, but the bigger the main monitor, the more the Xebec displays feel superfluous—small add-ons hovering on the edge of a behemoth. Like many things in life, they perform best when at parity with the thing in power, in this case, the main laptop display. I find them best suited to 13–15-inch laptops.
Despite issues with the configuration buttons, overall, the Xebec Tri-Screen 2s offer a quality, well-considered solution for adding more displays on the road. They do a fine job in the home office too.
Xebec provided the Xebec Tri-Screen 2 for review. Images courtesy of Xebec unless otherwise noted.
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