Dual display (or extended desktop): good or bad; and how big a screen you need?

I’ve always been a great fan of dual displays, having used the setup since the demise of my old desktop; that situation afforded me an extra monitor. What do I use it for? Primarily when I’m preparing my lessons for teaching: I’d have my Word document (lesson plan) on my main screen (in front of me) and the PowerPoint lecture slides on another monitor to my side. This setup allowed me to work on both documents simultaneously instead of one after the other. How about split screen or alt-tabbing, you might ask. For me, the former is too cramped even on my 15″ MacBook Pro screen, and the latter too tedious and mentally draining.

I haven’t been using it for a while now, because I gave away my external monitor and I’m working on either my 11″ MacBook Air or 21.5″ iMac. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought of myself as a huge fan of the setup.

Ben Brooks recently wrote about how he switched from a dual display setup to a single, large monitor setup since 2008-9[1] and I quote:

At some point in 2008-9 I started just using one display — this only after I measured my use of the second display finding that I rarely used it.

Since that time I have held the opinion that one, large, monitor is the best action to take in the name of productivity.

Now I am even questioning just how large of a monitor you need.

It triggered two things in me: first being the use of a dual display, and the second about the size of a screen.

Let’s look at the first one.

Technically, my 21.5″ iMac has a screen that’s almost four times the size of my 11″ MBA, so I should logically be able to see four times the things right? No. What happens is that I usually have the same number of apps open on my iMac as compared to my MBA, just that their windows are bigger; and since the font sizes on both machines are similar, I end up with a lot of white space on my iMac.

What I can do is to arrange my app windows such that I fit in four apps/windows on screen instead[2]. However, I don’t do that because it’s tedious and repetitive, and somehow, it makes my screen/desktop look cluttered — like some security surveillance monitor.

That’s where the beauty of a dual display comes in.

I used to hate the borders of individual monitors and wished that they were non-existent so I can put together two screens and make it look like one big screen. On hindsight, the division caused by the borders created different physical spaces: in essence, I am told by my setup that I am working on two screens, and how each one has a specific purpose (like how one handles my Word documents and the other PowerPoints). That specificity of purpose gives me more cognitive coherence and flow than the extra space on my 21.5″ iMac.

Weird, but it works for me.

Having said that, I don’t use a dual display setup often, nor wished for it all the time; but when I do need to view multiple things at the same time, a dual display setup works like a charm for me. As an aside, I don’t have my extra monitor now but instead use my iPad as a secondary monitor via Air Display[3].

So what does it mean for you?

If you have never tried a dual display before, give it a shot for the following situations: 1) when you need to edit two (or more) things simultaneously like me with my Word and PowerPoint documents, or 2) when you need to see real-time reviews, like when you are working on coding, graphics or web design (one screen for code and the other for output).

In this sense, Krishna M. Sadasivam from PC Weenies[4] echoes my thoughts:

Most of my work involves working with multiple applications at a time; applications that have tool palettes scattered around my screen. A typical scenario for me involves working with references when digitally illustrating. A dual display setup lets me use the main (larger) LCD for palette blossoming applications like Photoshop, Sketchbook Pro, or Manga Studio Pro while the secondary (smaller) LCD is used for displaying reference photos or a creative brief. A dual display eliminates the need for me to shuffle back and forth between apps, thereby improving my productivity.

So how can you get to try the setup without buying an extra monitor? Use the projector in your office to act as a dual display. Yes I know it’s crazily out of proportion but hey, it’s just for a try-out right? Or if you have nice friends with desktops and standalone displays, go over their house with a pint of ice cream and borrow the monitor while they enjoy your bribe.

Let’s now look at the second point about the size of a monitor.

My first laptop had (I think) a 14″ screen or thereabouts. Moving forward, I have worked on screens at least 13″ and bigger. So you can imagine my hesitation when I was considering the 11″ MBA (which has a resolution of a 13″), but after using it for half a year, I can safely say that size is not an issue. Then again, I need to qualify that I have my iMac if I really do need the screen space, and I don’t do Photoshop on my MBA.

So what does this mean? Basically, the screen on my MBA is suitable for over 90% of my computer usage, and that justifies its cost. In other words, I can’t see myself spending more money just for the additional 10%. Furthermore, I actually enjoy looking at my MBA screen; my iMac just feels too large.

In this sense, I agree whole heartedly with Ben:

For about a month I have been debating and failing to pull the trigger on a monitor for my home. Monetary concerns are certainly a factor, but the bigger factor is that I quite like just having the small screen.

So as I stare at this 24″ Apple LED Cinema Display as I am typing this post, I can’t help but wonder: what if I ditched it for just my MacBook Air screen?

How about for those who only have one laptop as their primary machine? Two options: 1) Switch to the 13″ MBA (which has a resolution of a 15″, or any other laptops with bigger screen), or 2) add a dual display when necessary.

In conclusion, forget the concepts of productivity or efficiency. Try out different setups and see which allows you to produce better.

It might not be faster, but it can be better.

Or even more comfortable or happier.


[1] Ben Brook’s take on why he’s not using a dual display anymore.

[2] I use the app Cinch to manage the windows in my Mac and I love how easy it is. There’s another more powerful windows management app for the Mac called Moom but it just didn’t grow on me.

[3] Air Display as a extended display works really well and it’s selling for US$9.99 now as a Universal iOS app; much cheaper than getting an extra monitor. However, do note that it runs over Wi-Fi and hence not as responsive as a display plugged into your computer: meaning video streaming and gaming is not recommended for it.

[4] Krishna’s take on why a dual display setup works for him, and if I may add, myself.


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