Picking Your Best Monitor Setup

Written on August 17th, 2013. We've got comments, too!

“Riz, since monitors are getting cheap nowadays, I feel like we should have more freedom in picking our screen setup based on what we need, not what we can afford. What should I get as a programmer?” — Email that arrives once every few days

These people are absolutely right: good quality monitors, with great color accuracy, IPS displays and other wizardry, are getting cheap. As professionals, we’re now able to afford multiple monitor setups as we see fit — done right, they can strongly boost productivity. But which setup?

Here’s my answer.

I’m going to throw out the common monitor configurations that you’ll see out there.

As you’d probably guess, the best monitor setup for you depends on what you need it for. While reading these different configurations, keep in mind what you want to do most on your computer.

monitor-mono

The vanilla configuration. Cheap, and actually really effective if you only have 1 application open at once.

Having one monitor can actually improve productivity if done correctly. It reduces distractions from side screens, and forces focus on one thing. It also minimizes the need to drag windows around. But for anyone who needs more than 1 application open at once, it just won’t cut it.

monitor-satellite

Coupled with the “should I get a laptop or desktop” question, this is the go-to setup for laptop owners who want practicality. Having just a monitor and associated peripherals allows you to sit your laptop on a cooling stand, and work with all the goodies a desktop can bring.

This is the path Apple took with the Thunderbolt Display (which is now probably waiting for a refresh). One connection to all sorts of outputs, including extra USB and ethernet.

For extra awesome, place your backup drives alongside your monitor.

You will need a powerful laptop with a graphics card to pull this off smoothly.

monitor-double

The Double is a common setup, but I really don’t recommend it. It’s preferable to have one screen to focus on, and not having a “middle” screen can get confusing. But if your line of work needs you to have 2 similar applications at once, it can be a good deal.

I highly suggest that both screens are the same make and model, to help them seamlessly blend into 1 desktop in your mind. The slightest color or size difference can throw you off.

For people with more dynamic needs, however, I tend to recommend…

monitor-couple

This is my favorite setup: 2 mismatched monitors. They don’t have to be exactly like the picture; one smaller monitor next to another, or both being horizontal, or any other setup qualifies. They just have to look clearly different.

Here’s why it’s so awesome: having a clear distinction between the monitors (as well as having a “main” one) allows you to have 2 divided workspaces.

Many workflows benefit greatly from 2 monitors as 2 clearly separate areas, such as having your Photoshop toolbars and windows on one screen, with the canvas on another. Or type HTML on the side-window and refresh your browser on the main. Or type a text document (or angry forum post) on one, research wikipedia on the other. Play Minecraft on the big screen, open wiki pages off the side.

Most of these benefits can also be gained on a twin setup, but the mental difference of having completely distinct monitors is key. You can focus entirely on one screen, or focus on the other. You can glance or compare between them without distracting your concept of which area is which.

I highly suggest a contrasting setup like this for most developers and designers. Hell, probably most people.

If you want overkill, though…

monitor-triple

There’s actually a maximum number of pixels you can have before you just have too much space. Your mouse movement needs to go too far and your eyes keep seeking for the window you’re looking for.

If you’re going for this, I suggest using small monitors (under 23 inches) and preferably not widescreen. Stumpy, square-ish screens would be best. I’ve seen triplets of 30” wide screens out there, and while they do look damn awesome, they’re also damn impractical (and expensive).

This setup is great if you have a vast number of things to pay attention to at the same time. It highly benefits from having touch (or air) based input devices, so you don’t have to swoosh your mouse all over the place. Keyboard shortcuts and application switchers also help. Crazy people like sysadmins would love this one.

Conclusion

My generic advice? Get a big main screen, and get a good satellite for it (such as my much-loved Dell U2312HM which is incredibly well-suited for this task). 99% of the people I talk to could benefit most from a double-monitor, distinct-desktop setup.

As with all tech, this will probably change over time. Having access to the Leap Motion, for me, allows me to jump quicker between screens, and I’m still trying to figure out how to do this well. Currently it doesn’t work at all, but it’s supposedly in the works. Full touch monitors would also change the game entirely.

So heads up, readers from 2016. Your Minority Report interfaces are probably better anyway.