The Problem With Dual Displays

Ben Brooks at The Brooks Review:

The problem with dual displays is that they are pretty lame to use, your options for positioning are either to position them so that when you look straight ahead you see the seam between the two monitors, not ideal.

A seamless experience would be better, of course. But couldn’t we consider the seam as a visual barrier between content and source? For instance, we could keep the list of emails and the email we’re replying to on the left, and have the email we are composing on the right. The seam could act to distinguish consumption from creation.

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

Generally speaking a larger monitor means more pixels, but we know there are many exceptions. There are cheap 27-inch monitors with 1920×1080. And then there’s the 13-inch Sony Z with the same pixel format. Productivity will depend on what you’re trying to get done. Sometimes having more than one display can improve your productivity, despite the seam.

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?

It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re writing original content without needing references to source materials, then you wouldn’t need a display with 1920×1200 pixels. That would be a waste. A MacBook Air would be more than sufficient. Actually a MacBook Air would be overkill. An old 12-inch PowerBook might be a better fit for many reasons.

I find it more comfortable writing on paper or typing on a display in portrait mode. I guess I’m just more used to it. The old PowerBook is cheap, but good enough. You can probably pick up for $200 on Craigslist. The G4 processor is powerful enough to run TextEdit, TextWrangler, or any number of text editors without a fuss. And the 12-inch LCD sports a 4:3 aspect ratio, like what you see on the iPad. It’s more squarish than the new MacBooks and that makes for better writing in my opinion. The 1024×768 pixels would be more than enough and your productivity wouldn’t suffer one bit.

On the other hand, if you need visual access to source material while typing away those 1920×1200 pixels on the 24-inch would come in real handy. By putting up two 960×1200 windows you can have the source to your left and the article you’re working on on the right. You can switch that around, or course. The extra pixels that allow you to put up two windows will really help you in your productivity. If this is what you needed to do and decided to try it on a MacBook Air I guarantee you’ll lose productivity.

So, I am going to give it a go. For at least the next week my largest computing screen will be thirteen inches. My goal isn’t that I will instantly be more meticulous, my goal is that I will be instantly less distracted.

Dual displays are pretty lame if you don’t need them. They are a waste of precious desktop space, a waste of your money, and a waste of resources (they suck a lot of power). But when you need those extra pixels to put up information you need to get work done, and I don’t mean a FaceBook window or a Twitter window, multiple monitor setups can be a boon to productivity.

The abundance of pixels doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be more distracted. That’s really up to you. You can use those pixels for mindless social networking or for invaluable information you need to get work done.

If you’re a writer who writes original content, then just go for the cheapest Mac you can get your hands on. Heck, I might even suggest you check out some of those adorable Macintosh Classics. You’d have to work really hard to find ways to distract yourself with one of those.