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On the Road with the World’s Thinnest, Lightest, Hi-Def Second Monitor

·Tech Critic

My First World problem this summer was the result of two conditions: I had two computer books to write, and I was going to be on the road a lot.

I don’t just write, using Microsoft Word. I also work with the actual layouts of my books in Adobe InDesign. So I need a screen big enough to show the full two-page book layout, like this:

Monitor displaying an InDesign spread
Monitor displaying an InDesign spread

In the past, I’ve tried working on a laptop screen, by constantly zooming, unzooming, and painstakingly scrolling. But the screen is just too small. It’s like mowing your lawn with fingernail clippers.

I wondered what the smallest, lightest external monitor in the world might be. And that’s when I discovered DisplayLink. It’s a company (and a technology) that lets a monitor connect to your laptop using only one cable: a USB cord. No power cord, power brick, or power outlet needed. The USB cable carries both the video signal and the power.

This technology has given birth to a whole new category of monitors — including super-light, thin screens designed for precisely my purpose: serving as external travel monitors.

Screenshot showing search for travel monitors
Screenshot showing search for travel monitors

These looked like they’d be perfect for my task: light (about 1.5 pounds), thin, low-power, simple to set up. It occurred to me that lots of people might like to know that these screens exist: video editors on the road, presenters, trade-show attendees, and even people at home who’d prefer slim and sleek to bulky and tangled.

I was just about to click Buy when I caught the specs page. Turns out almost all of these have the same resolution: 1366 × 768 pixels.

Well, shoot. The resolution of my MacBook Air screen is 1440 × 900! The screen of my laptop already has more pixels than the external screen! If I tried to view my book layout on the travel monitor, I’d see even less of it than what I see on the built-in laptop screen!

And then, in the comments of a video editors’ website, I saw a reference to one USB monitor model that has full hi-def resolution (1920 × 1080 pixels). That’s 60 percent more screen area (pixels) than what’s on my laptop.

It’s the ridiculously named ASUS MB168B+. (Don’t mix it up with the non-plus model; it has lower resolution, like all the others.)

ASUS MB168B+ monitor
ASUS MB168B+ monitor

This is not, as you’re probably starting to figure out, the usual product review. This is something I bought, with my own money. $200 of it.

You cannot believe how thin and light this thing is. It’s so weird to see a flat panel that’s not entombed in a body, surrounded by cables, ringed by edges with connectors. It’s like twirling a legal pad in your hands — with a live computer image on one side.

ASUS MB168B+ monitor
ASUS MB168B+ monitor

On the other hand …

Obstacle 1: When I plugged it into my laptop, the ASUS screen didn’t turn on. Quick search online: Turns out it’s intended for Windows computers only.

ASUS MB168B+ monitor system requirements
ASUS MB168B+ monitor system requirements

And yet plenty of people online say they use it happily with their Macs!

The solution, apparently, is to download the free DisplayLink drivers from DisplayLink.com and install them on your Mac. Presto: The screen blinked to life!

Super-sharp, super-gorgeous. The book’s two-page spread filled it perfectly — with extra room on the edges for InDesign’s palettes.

MacBook Air with ASUS MB168B+ monitor plugged into it
MacBook Air with ASUS MB168B+ monitor plugged into it

Obstacle 2: The screen has no legs. How are you supposed to prop it up? Duct tape?

Actually, ASUS has thought of this. The padded carrying case, when folded just so, can serve as a stand. You have a choice of two positions: Almost straight up, or angled slightly.

ASUS MB168B+ monitor propped up on its carrying case
ASUS MB168B+ monitor propped up on its carrying case

Most people online call this a wobbly and impractical solution — because they don’t know about the secret Velcro tab! (ASUS doesn’t include any instructions on how to set it up. There’s an online manual, however, with a good drawing.) If you discover the Velcro tab, then the case holds up the screen very securely indeed.

ASUS MB168B+ monitor propped up on its carrying case
ASUS MB168B+ monitor propped up on its carrying case

Still, it’s not ideal. First, the case takes up a huge amount of desk space. Second, experts say your monitor should be at eye level; the case system means you’re looking down toward the desk.

Solution: For $10, I found this great tablet stand, small enough to toss into my laptop bag. You can adjust it to any angle — a lock button clicks into place — and it holds up the ASUS monitor perfectly.

Anker Multi-Angle Portable Stand for Tablets
Anker Multi-Angle Portable Stand for Tablets

A couple of big cookbooks underneath, and boom: perfect height, perfect stability.

Obstacle 3: Although the screen looks great, it started out pretty dim. It has brightness buttons, but they didn’t work.

Once more, off I went to search the Web. On a video editor’s blog, I discovered that the brightness buttons work only when the screen is connected to a Windows PC. But if you connect it to a PC and brighten it up, the screen remembers that setting, even when you then move it to your Mac!

Luckily, I can run Windows on my Mac, thanks to the Parallels software that I reviewed last week.

Obstacle 4: Unluckily, the DisplayLink drivers weren’t fooled. They won’t install in Parallels. They want a real PC.

Monitor error message
Monitor error message

Sigh.

So I borrowed a Windows laptop, connected the ASUS screen, brightened it up, returned the laptop, connected the screen to the Mac again, and boom: I was in business. Full, wonderful brightness.

I have two more beefs, though.

First, the screen has some cool sensors. When you rotate it 90 degrees, the image automatically rotates, too, giving you a portrait-orientation monitor.

ASUS MB168B+ monitor in portrait orientation
ASUS MB168B+ monitor in portrait orientation

And the screen has an ambient light sensor, so it can get brighter or dimmer with the room light.

Unfortunately, both of those are Windows-only features (along with the brightness buttons). Come on, ASUS. You really wanna ignore a potential market of millions more customers?

Second, the screen has a “cool,” bluish color temperature. Nothing wacky, nothing intolerable, but not as warm as what I’m used to. And you can’t adjust it — even in Windows.

Otherwise, though, I’m in heaven with this setup. Here’s a complete, truly portable big-screen (well, biggish) workstation — small and light and thin enough that I can stuff it into my existing laptop bag and take it anywhere. On one long flight, I was even able to set the monitor up on the tray table next to me! (The seat was unoccupied. I’m not that rude.)

I figured not many people know about this category (portable USB superthin monitors), and even fewer know that there’s a full-HD resolution model available. Video editors, designers, presenters, photographers, and tradeshow-goers of the world … you’re welcome.

MacBook Air set up with portable ASUS MB168B+ monitor
MacBook Air set up with portable ASUS MB168B+ monitor

You can email David Pogue here