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How many monitors do you use? Why? How they are used?

Ive seen people mostly freelancers work with three or four monitors around them and it looks so cool. I personally have two screens in my office and i think it suits my needs well except certain situations where i feel that another display would have made it easier for me. So as a programmer/developer what is the ideal number of screens and display setup that would increase productivity. Will going to three or four screens decrease productivity as opposed to increasing it?

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marked as duplicate by Falcon, Klaim, JeffO, Jonathan Khoo, maple_shaft Aug 29 '11 at 12:32

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Related topic: programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/2757/… –  Falcon Aug 29 '11 at 10:35
I would say that ideally a programmer would need at LEAST ONE monitor to be effective </sarcasm>. The few places I worked where I had more than one monitor I found myself actively using both rarely and even then it was for fringe cases like comparing two web pages on different resolutions. I personally would rather have multiple workstations and a KVM switch as I can quickly switch between OS and other types of envioronments. –  maple_shaft Aug 29 '11 at 11:05
Ideally, it would be 3.4. –  JeffO Aug 29 '11 at 12:24

8 Answers 8

up vote 9 down vote accepted

There are many factors to consider to answer this question.

1. How your monitors are rotated and placed on your desktop?

If those are wide screens in landscape mode, you can hardly have more than two. Just because your eyes can focus at a limited angle, and motion outside this angle will mostly disturb you and decrease productivity.

Actually I have two wide 22'' and 24'' monitors in landscape mode. If I buy a third one, it would require me to turn my head each time I want to look at it. If I can't see all the workspace at once, what's the point in having more monitors?

On the other hand, portrait-rotated monitors fit well and you can have three or four of them, since you will be able to see the whole workspace from side to side.

2. How many windows can you handle at once?

I can't imagine working with more than three windows at once. Just because my brain will explode. Most of my work is done with two only windows:

  • two pieces of source code,
  • class designer and source code,
  • database schema and source code,
  • browser and source code.

I can deal with three windows, but it's hard. I can't do it with four. If I'll have four windows displayed at once, I'll just forget about one of them, and "switch" mentally to it when need.

3. What is the size of your monitors?

It's not about the number of monitors, but about space.

I often see in some companies developers working with two monitors, one being 21'', the other - 17'' laptop. Theoretically, they have two monitors. In practice, they don't even have one.

If on the other hand you bought two 26'' displays, chances are you'll not need a third one very often.

In theory, one 40'' monitor will be enough. In practice, it's difficult to rearrange windows on a single large monitor (at least in Windows; I heard in Linux it's much easier, but I don't have enough information on that), and your productivity will be affected.

4. Do you have always-on applications?

As a developer, you may have applications which are always running and it would be helpful to show them permanently. For example, time tracking app can be a good candidate. Bug tracking display with auto-refresh is another one. Ideally, you would have those applications running on a small tactile screen positioned on a side where you can watch from time to time.

Would it increase productivity? It depends. It may be useful to see relevant information permanently for some people. For others, it will rather distract them too much and decrease their productivity a lot.

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Great one for a blog post.. suggest you post it in ur blog if u have one –  swordfish Aug 29 '11 at 11:25

The answer to your question varies on the type of work you do.
If you are a graphic designer or a stock market analyst, you probably could use even more than three, if you work in a hotel reservations desk or a restaurant order desk one is enough.
For programmers, I feel that 2 monitors is sufficient in 99.9% of the cases. And one monitor is sufficient in more than 90% of the cases. It may look cool to have 10 monitors but it's a real waste and also an eye stress if you only use one of them while the others just sit in front utterly blinding you. But of course it's a personal preference, I can only tell you that in my >100 programmer company no one ever asked for a third monitor but it's pretty common to see dual monitor setups (I also have 2 monitors).


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I've used two screens before, and presently have an HD monitor on my Fedora workstation, but I actually prefer using a fifteen inch laptop. This lets me take my work with me whereever I go.

I am a freelancer and usually work out of my home. You'd best give up your fantasies about how great telecommuting would be because it is a horrible way to live. It is very isolating and lonely. When does the boss take me out to the lunch with the team? Never. For a beer after work on Friday? Nope. Project T-Shirts? Nada.

Having a laptop enables me to go out in public to work at WiFi spots, so I can be around other humans. That's the only way I could stand to do this work.

I'm considering buying a 17" MacBook Pro as my early 2006 15" MacBook Pro is really showing its age. I'd like the extra screen real estate, but I am not so sure that I want the extra weight in my laptop case.

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+1 for the isolating effects of being a solo freelancer. I sorta did it in the past, and I've found that the human interaction between co-workers is extremely important. –  tehnyit Aug 29 '11 at 10:38
It works for some people, not for others. Personally, I've recently returned to 9-to-5 after five years as a solo at-home freelancer. After getting to set my own hours, not having people around constantly is the second-biggest thing I miss. –  Dave Sherohman Aug 29 '11 at 11:23

A study that keeps coming up is a University of Utah study sponsored by NEC (a company that makes computer monitors, for full disclosure). There is also a Reuters press release that discusses it. A 2003 NEC/ATI/University of Utah study was also cited, but I couldn't quickly find it as most of the search hits were about the 2008 study that cited it.

I also seem to recall a study (not sure if it's the 2008 NEC/University of Utah study or not - I didn't read the whole thing this time) that provided people with one, two, three, and four monitors of the same size. Productivity significantly increased when going from one to two monitors, slightly increased going from two to three monitors, and (in some cases, anyway) showed a decrease in productivity when going from three to four monitors. However, the authors of the study suggested that if the person was working with high volumes of data data (think financial data or defense/intelligence analysts), then four (and maybe more) monitors might be useful.

Personally, I prefer two monitors since I frequently have an application full screened (my IDE) or multiple windows open (terminal windows). However, it depends on how you use your applications, at least based on the study.

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The number seems to be whatever you are used to using. I was happy with one until I got two then I couldn't imaging coding without two. Then my current job I get four. And when I have to go back to two at home I really miss the space...

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You're spoilt rotten :-) Seriously though I have quite the opposite experience. I have one (24") at work and had two (24" and 19") at home for some time. In the end I ditched the 19" one as I really didn't use it much. What I put on there was so much orthogonal (in a sense) to what was on my primary monitor I found myself working on either one, but never both simultaneously. Simply switching windows from the taskbar was just as easy. –  Marjan Venema Aug 29 '11 at 11:24
isnt it really cool to work with 4? everything i think about it i feel excited... how does it actually feel to work with 4 –  swordfish Aug 29 '11 at 11:25
@swordfish, I imagine it is similar to being with 4 women at the same time. It sounds like an exciting idea, but then once you try it out you feel awkward and unnerved and ultimately a little disappointed. –  maple_shaft Aug 29 '11 at 11:43
@maple_shaft seems like a nice example but again i havent been with 4 women either –  swordfish Aug 29 '11 at 11:55
Because I work on some client/server software, mostly I have a client console on one, a server console on the second, some source code on the third and help/email/web browser on the 4th –  JohnB Aug 29 '11 at 12:15

I currently work with a laptop+second monitor when I'm at the office and the laptop alone when I'm at home. If anything, I feel more productive without the external monitor than I do with it, since a) I never maximize windows anyhow, so neither screen is ever filled entirely by just one thing and b) I just put email/IM/etc. windows on the extra screen where they can distract me out of the corner of my eye; with the laptop alone, I put those windows on a virtual desktop where they're completely out of sight until I actively check on them. (My general coding style is "five xterms scattered across the screen running some mix of vi, man, and test runs of the code, plus a browser to look up additional docs." If you're an IDE junkie, what's best for me may not be what's best for you.)

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Similar setup here: email, IM and stuff like that on the laptop screen, IDE on the big screen. –  Zsolt Török Aug 29 '11 at 12:18

It probably boils down to personal preference, with what you work and how you work. Here are my few cents if you are programming:

First of all, it is better with more screens than bigger screens once the screen size goes beyond 22-24 inch. It is better to be able to "wrap" your screens around than having one big wall in front of you. Also, on bigger screens the resolution tends to make the text smaller but if you increase the size you loose space and thus you won't be able to fit as much onto the screen.

When it comes to number of screens and you have a good work-place to fit them onto then I say three is pretty much ideal. One (the middle one) is your work-bench, that's where you keep your code editor, debugger etc. One is for reference, that's where you keep any guides, your friend google-search, stack overflow and other things that you need to look up when you work. Finally you have your test/monitor screen, this where you run the code that you are working on so that you can have both code and running code up at once.

This way you don't have to know exactly where every window is on your screen but as long as you know what you are looking for you know where it should be (center, left or right).

Beyond three screens I think it starts to get messy and probably is more for people working as sysadmins or working with monitoring systems. I don't think it will decrease your productivity but I doubt it will increase it as much as going from one screen to two or from two to three.

What's also important is that your screens are the same size, has the same resolution and similar brightness and colors. This is to reduce the stress on your eyes.

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If you are working on any front end related code, one landscape and one portrait should work. The Landscape one to quickly see the UI changes or other things and the portrait monitor for reading the code. Most of the code normally flows vertically so portrait monitor allows you to see more code.

The ideal number I would look at is a 17"-19" landscape monitor for the UI and a 26" portrait monitor for the code. This allows larger texts and lesser chance to miss things.

If you are primarily working on back end applications, you would do well with one monitor. Cause 2 monitors often means too much distraction.

I also like xmonad type of window managers. They give you more viewing space. But I don't necessarily like doing everything using keyboard.

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