A vote in favor of two monitors

As a college freshman, in the fall of 1992, I had to beg and plead with the dean of the College of Library and Information Sciences to get a university e-mail address and storage space on the network. Unless a student was enrolled in information science classes, you didn’t get any form of network access. I even remember the dean asking me, “How do you know about e-mail?”

It wasn’t until my junior year that the tides changed and any student could get an e-mail account and storage space on the network by signing up for it in the computer lab. By that time, I had long ago befriended the computer lab assistants and had a tricked-out student account that violated most of the new student-use policies. One of the nice parts of my account was that I had created a virtual desktop system in Mosaic. It wasn’t difficult to do, but it was definitely against the rules. When I started using it, I noticed significant improvement in my productivity and I paid off the lab guys with cookies to let me keep it.

After graduation, I went to work for an organization that refused to use a network and passed floppy discs around to share files. No e-mail. The whole building accessed the Internet by dial-up. I quickly forgot about virtual desktops and was simply glad to have a printer attached to my PC.

A couple weeks ago, I was watching my husband work at his desk with two monitors and all of the memories about my time in the college computer lab came rushing back to me. He was using his two monitors the same way I had used my virtual desktops. I was surprised that in more than 10 years I hadn’t once considered doing something similar.

I jumped on the Dell website and ordered a refurbished UltraSharp 2408WFP 24-inch widescreen flat-panel monitor. It is almost twice the size of my 13-inch MacBook monitor, and has turned out to be a productive and uncluttered addition to my workspace.

For starters, numerous reports abound that having more than one monitor increases productivity. The way it helps me is that I can keep open my calendar and other goal-oriented programs throughout the whole of my workday, and these programs don’t get lost behind my working documents. I also am far-sighted, so having the larger screen is great for when I’m working on images in Photoshop. There are additional productivity improvements, but I think they’re well covered in the article I previously mentioned.

The other benefit to having a second monitor is that it clears up cable clutter on my desk. The monitor has five USB ports, xD/SD/MS/MMC and CF drives built into it, and only one cable connecting to my laptop. Before the second monitor, I had a slew of cables coming out of my computer. I was constantly playing an unplug/replug game throughout the day as I needed to use different devices, and it was difficult to make my laptop portable. Now, I have a power cord, a monitor cable, and a USB cable hooked to my machine and that’s all. Not having to shuffle cables about also means that I can use cable ties on the cords that are permanently plugged into the monitor and get rid of the mess of cables that was on my desk.

40 Comments for “A vote in favor of two monitors”

  1. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    It sounds good in theory, and I can see the benefits, but I think that post was a little over my head. πŸ˜‰

  2. posted by Jason on

    So you’re using the MacBook monitor in addition to the 24″ Dell? I have the same setup (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rdpjason/2449880629/) but I keep the MacBook closed.

    Cutting the cable clutter has been great.

  3. posted by J on

    I bought a 24″ monitor from Dell a couple of years ago and it’s one of the best purchases I’ve ever made. When setting up an office I’ll gladly buy used computers and peripherals but there are two things I always splurge on: my monitor and my chair.

  4. posted by ChzPlz on

    Yeah, I do the same thing – external LCD connects to my Dell laptop – very useful when working on multiple references at the same time.

    Way back in the day I used to use the tiny screen of my Dell Axim handheld as a small desktop extension – It only had enough room for my MSN or ICQ or whatever messenger app it was I was running, but it saved some of that precious desktop real estate.

  5. posted by Josh Miller on

    My workplace uses two monitors on almost every computer. I work at a television station and we use a trafficking system to place spots and track billing. It’s easier for the people who use this system to run the program if they have more desktop real estate.

    I don’t use this system but I gave myself two monitors because I can as the person in charge of PCs and equipment (essentially head if IT) though we don’t have such a title.

    Anyway the point is, if I could afford it, ‘d do the same at home. Two monitors is great since you can keep your email and calender open on one while running programs on the other.

    If you can’t afford two monitors there is always the Windows Power Toy for virtual desktops.


    It’s the third one from the bottom.

  6. posted by Shannon on

    My husband is a graphic designer and he insists on two monitors. He keeps all the toolbars open on the smaller one which leaves lots of space for whatever project he is working on. His view of his work isn’t cluttered by the necessities he needs to create.

  7. posted by Shalin on

    Nice post. When I started my newest job, I brought my old CRT in to help me get documentation done quicker – it helped A LOT! Apparently the idea is catching ’cause over the past year, others have brought in their old “doing nothing but collecting dust” CRT and started using it too.

    Yay for reuse and productivity! πŸ™‚


  8. posted by Matt on

    I used to have two 20″ monitors, and that rocked. But the downside is that when you stare at the middle you are looking at about an inch of bezel.

    If you can afford it, upgrade to one 30″ monitor, it actually has more pixels than two 20″ monitors and you don’t have to worry about the bezel.

  9. posted by becoming minimalist on

    i started using two monitors two years ago and completely agree that it increases productivity – especially when there is a need to switch between two documents/projects quickly (think cut/paste).

    i used to leave my e-mail account open on the left monitor while i worked on the right. unfortunately, leaving email open all day decreases productivity by increasing distraction. i quit that practice recently.

  10. posted by Ryan on

    I’d like to reiterate what Josh said about virtual desktops, for those who can’t afford/don’t have room for 2 monitors. I don’t use Windows Power Toys, but I have a program (bb4win) that gives me 4 separate Windows desktops that are an easy click to cycle through. Most (all?) Linux desktops have this built in. Not sure about OSX.

    This makes it easy to separate out your windows into categories. I’ll have work stuff separate from personal, and IM’s separate from all that as well, so I don’t have them flashing at me all the time, only when I decide to check them.

    I definitely understand the productivity boost of having 2 monitors. I can’t do any serious work without virtual desktops anymore. Too many windows all crammed together.

  11. posted by Ben on

    I used to run two monitors at home (12-inch PowerBook G4 and 19″ LCD), but now I have a Mac mini and it only supports one display. πŸ™ I alt-tab a lot!

    Btw: Nice to see a fellow LIS grad!

  12. posted by melissa on

    You do know that the latest version of OSX has virtual desktops built in, right? Hit F8 if you didn’t.

    It works with multiple monitors, too, so when I switch virtual desktops, both my MacBook and the external monitor’s desktops are suddenly blank slates. It’s a lifesaver for separating work stuff from idle browsing as you can’t see distractions from the other!!

  13. posted by Erin Doland on

    @melissa — I had no idea. You rock for sharing this … now it’s like four desktops … sweeeeeet.

  14. posted by verily on

    I’ve used virtual desktops along with Expose on my Mac at work forever. I couldn’t live without either, since at any given time, I have at least 8 applications open.

    Spaces is a godsend in Leopard. I used the app Desktop Manager previously, but it’s nice to have the functionality built into the OS.

  15. posted by Tiffany on

    I think I would give my right arm for a second monitor (and a computer with a graphics card that can drive two monitors) at the office. Sigh.

  16. posted by Zac Wolf on

    What kind of cable do you use to connect your monitor to your Mac that allows it to work as a USB hub? As far as I know the standard monitor cable would not transfer the USB data, but maybe I am wrong.

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Zac — You’re right, a standard monitor cable doesn’t work. In my article when I wrote speaker cable I actually meant USB cable … that was a typo on my part …

  18. posted by Philip on

    I agree completely and love having dual monitors. I have dual on my main computer at work but right now I am at an alternate location and only have 1, it is horrible πŸ™ It is kind of surprising to see this article on unclutterer however. I have always thought it would be against most of your creed to add more on top of the desk. I agree it can reduce a couple cables but it does take up lots of space.

  19. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Philip — Uncluttered doesn’t mean sparse. If you have high utility for an object, see significant gains in productivity, and wrangle a mess of cables, then a second monitor is not clutter. Now, if the monitor was broken and just taking up space on your desk … that would be a different story …

  20. posted by Shannon on

    It was a very happy day when my boss at my previous job suggested that I might like having two monitors. Boy, did I ever. It was amazing because the nature of the job required me to have multiple applications running at once, and I was constantly switching between them. Two monitors made everything easier.

  21. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    Great article. I currently have 3 17″ monitors. Two go to my personal PC and the third is for my work laptop. I bought a matrix switcher that allows me to flip the center monitor between my laptop and PC. So my layout fromleft to right goes [PC screen 1] [Work Laptop] [PC screen 2] or [Work Laptop] [PC screen 1] [PC screen 2]

    I can flip back and forth with the pucsh of 2 buttons. It’s heaven!

  22. posted by penguinlady on

    I have dual monitors (Dell laptop + 19′ flatscreen) for work, and there is no way I could work without it. I usually have two or three Excel files open at once, with Outlook & IM up all the time, plus other windows as needed. I have to transfer a lot of data from one source to another (from reporting software into Excel, from Excel into a database, from one database into another), and without 2 monitors, I simply couldn’t do it. Thank goodness for flat-screens – 5 years ago, the 2 CRTs on my work desk took up almost all the space!

  23. posted by Kevin Miller on

    I think “studies have shown” that workers are more productive with two screens, and I don’t doubt it. I have a pretty unusual 2nd monitor setup at work:
    The external display is *behind* my computer, which means the extended desktop is *above* the normal desktop as I look at it. It’s weird but it fills that unused corner of my cubicle and avoids – tada! – clutter.

  24. posted by barbara trumpinski-roberts on

    Where did you go to library school. I am employed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a library and my first email account was though the LIS department because at the time only secretaries and scientists (and a few “very special” faculty and staff members) had email accounts and the Dean of the college at that time was a soft touch. That was in 1991. At some point a year or so later UIUC gave staff regular email accounts. My net ID is kittent because back in the early 90’s I didn’t realize that I would be using it for anything more than checking usenet.

  25. posted by Gillian on

    Ben’s thing about the Mac Mini is why I didn’t buy one. I have used two monitors for at least 12 yrs, whether with a laptop or a desktop computer. My monitor doesn’t have the extra ports, but I’m inventing myself a surface to put on top of the cables which will contribute to a neater desk with more usable space. I should figure out how to market it.

  26. posted by infmom on

    My husband uses two monitors all the time at work and loves it. Unfortunately we have neither the space nor the equipment to try it here at home.

    I did have to smile at the “when I was in college” reminiscences. My, how times change. When I was in college, the only computer on campus took up a whole room in the basement of the science building and ate punch cards. Who would have thought that 57-almost-58 amounted to geezerhood in cyberspace? πŸ™‚

  27. posted by Paul on

    Another vote for two monitors from me. Although 3 is reportedly even better. I have two PCs at work. One is headless and I access it using remote desktop, the other has a 24″ widescreen as its primary and a 17″ secondary. Before I had the 24″ I had two 17″s – the two PCs originally came with a 17″ flatscreen each, but I connected both to the faster box. I’d been trying to persuade the company to move to dual monitors as a standard for the development staff for ages without any success; one evening when I was working away after hours, the head of IT wandered past, did a double take and we had a discussion of screen real-estate as it relates to productivity. About a week later a 24″ widescreen appeared on his desk, a week after that several more appeared as second monitors attached to developer PCs. I think it might have been the demo of “and this is how Excel looks with this huge project tracking spreadsheet displayed across both screens so I can see all the columns at once without having to scroll” which swung it…

    Strangely, when I work from home I just have a macbook, which runs various remote desktop programs and often has sessions into 4 different systems running at the same time. Expose is fabulous! But perhaps it’s time to buy a big screen for home…

  28. posted by Lisa on

    Yes! Having two monitors is great for productivity. My set-up at home and at work is an open MacBook + separate monitor. I haven’t gotten to grips with Expose or Spaces yet.

    I also have the laptop stand which allows you to stack papers, books etc under the laptop, which increases desk real estate. It’s similar to this one:

  29. posted by Tabitha on

    that’s actually a great idea and one I think I’ll go try tonight!!
    Tabitha @ http://www.fromsingletomarried.com

  30. posted by tabatha on

    i just started doing this, i just got a laptop last year and recently figured out how to hook up the monitor from my tower to it so i can photoshop with two monitors or watch internet tv and still do other stuff online, its great, i might try and hook three if i get the chance.

  31. posted by Tradd on

    I have two large (at least 20″) flat screen monitors at work – in fact, my entire department does. I work in international shipping on the import side. We maintain shipment tracking spreadsheets for our customers and have to update them from steamship line/railroad websites and such. It’s SO easy having your spreadsheet on one screen and your tracking website on the other one. I’d never seen such a thing before but it makes SO much sense!

  32. posted by melissa on

    YES! dual monitors are where its at.

    I researched and helped to implement them at work about 18 months ago. Best thing ever. What’s amazing is that so many people in the office resisted them so heavily.

  33. posted by Daniel on

    The benefits of an external monitor also includes moving down to a smaller, more portable laptop. It’s possible to have your cake (lightweight cheaper laptop) and eat it too (humongous display).
    I’ve been telecommuting for years, and that is the ultimate decluttered lifestyle: no commuting, no wasted time getting ready for work, no parking hassles, get my internet and telephone paid for, family time…

  34. posted by timgray on

    Actually I cant live without my Triple monitor setup. I bought a nice stand that holds all three as well as the speakers and it not only cleans up the desk but get’s the monitors up to where they belong.

    Now I can get a lot more done and the 3, 17″ monitors + stand + other items costs far FAR less than any 30″ monitor and I have way more usability. I can simply shut off one monitor when I want to show customers a design so they can focus on it and not see my book-keeping or other information.

    My buddy has a quad 22″ monitor setup, but he’s a day trader and a bit crazy.

  35. posted by Ben on

    I can barely work without dual monitors, unless the single monitor is abnormally large (and a 24″ widescreen is the lower limit for ‘abnormally large’). I’ve been using some combination of two or more monitors for about five years now, and absolutely can’t go back.

    However, you brought up something else interesting when you mentioned your laptop being chained down – it’s not as bad now, but it’s still a slight inconvenience, I suspect. It’s for this reason that I never suggest someone get a laptop as their primary computer unless they have very basic needs.

    For people who use their computers a bit more fully, there are significant advantages to having both a powerful desktop and an inexpensive, less-powerful laptop. For a start, I find that a desktop is actually less cluttered than anything but a totally naked laptop; due to the way cords come out from a laptop in all directions, it can be very difficult to manage them. More importantly, though, having a powerful desktop gives you the performance when you need it, and your slower, cheaper laptop gives you portability at a moment’s notice. It’s not even a terribly expensive proposition, because a high-performance laptop will generally cost about the same as an equally-fast desktop PLUS a low-end laptop.

  36. posted by Kyle on

    I think it’s far worthwhile–with today’s technology prices–that those who use the computer a significant part of their day invest in multiple monitors. I installed two 22″ Dells at work two years ago, and since then everyone in my production department had upgraded to the same.

    At home though, I’m switching back to one 27″ Dell since I don’t edit that much anymore. I’d rather have one larger space for my photography work, since that middle bezel wasn’t too thin. The best part is that multiple monitors forced me to change some bad habits–like keeping my email up in one window throughout the day.

  37. posted by Sharlene on

    Dual monitors are fantastic. My favorite uncluttering is keeping my desktop clear and spacious.

    Here’s something else you might enjoy. Spatially organized desktop backgrounds:

    Whenever I freelance, I keep one in my thumb drive so I can keep everything organized on whatever computer I use.

  38. posted by Sharlene on

    Oops, I guess no image links for you:


  39. posted by Chad on

    I had the most beautiful dual monitor setup when I worked in an office. My desk and my desktops were clean, organized and I felt extremely productive.

    I work for myself now at home and anywhere with wifi. When I made the switch, I had to make a choice. Do I want to be restricted to an office and have dual monitors? Or, do I want to learn to do everything with a laptop, a single screen and be flexible about where and when I work? It’s a difficult choice because dual monitors provide an amazing work environment. Switching to a single laptop screen seems restrictive. But, I learned.

    I have an amazing 15″ Macbook Pro and I can run my business from anywhere. Last year I traveled around Europe and continued to work. Working productively and enjoyably in a Starbucks in Nuremberg was a highlight of my career.

  40. posted by Desktop Backgrounds « Tiny Tank : Blog on

    […] I was perusing Unclutterer the other day, and they tackled one of the best ways to increase any computer user’s productivity: dual monitors. It’s likable to increasing your actual desktop space or kitchen counter space; you’re more productive when you have more work space. […]

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