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Why more or less monitors is worse than your configuration?

Why is important use it in this way (position)?

Productivity is obvious, but what specific advantage?

A picture would be nice.

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closed as not constructive by Walter, Mark Trapp Oct 5 '11 at 16:58

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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

40 Answers 40

up vote 36 down vote accepted

This is my current configuration:

I continue to recommend a triple monitor setup because it gives you a "center", and it's the practical sweet spot (or limit, if you will) for head turning anyway.

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how do you typically use those three monitors? email, debugging windows. would really interest me. –  Patrick Klug Sep 23 '10 at 23:06
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@bryan Showing it off may be an e-peen thing. Having it is most certainly not. With prices what they are (and my large corner desk) I'm leaning towards this setup more and more. @jeff One vid card or two? –  George Marian Sep 30 '10 at 13:05
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I use one for email/messaging... middle for what I'm focused on... left for reference (SQL Query results, Webpage reference, work log). I envy the bigger/newer monitors, but I couldn't live without 3 monitors at work now that I'm used to it. –  WernerCD Oct 7 '10 at 2:41
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I love the Portal's Companion Cube. –  Kendall Hopkins Jan 26 '11 at 14:15

You may need a LOT of monitors depending on what you do, this is a standard issue system for air craft simulation, requires at least eleven:

lotsamonitors

(from http://www.iconicaircraft.co.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=219&start=25#p23425)

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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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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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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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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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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
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@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
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@maple_shaft seems like a nice example but again i havent been with 4 women either –  swordfish Aug 29 '11 at 11:55

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 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).

HTH,
JP

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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

3 x 22" Dell Ultrasharp.

Two of them connected to Ubuntu desktop machine (on which I actually run my development env). One of them connected to Windows laptop (which I use for mostly for communicating with the rest of the company and web browsing).

So it's: 1. consoles 2. IDE 3. Outlook/Web Browser

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1 monitor (15.6", 1024x800, notebook), 3 virtual desktop (Compiz-Fusion):

  • e-mail, web browser (for reading articles, blogs, and searching for work-related docs), music player, IM chat windows,
  • text editor, test browser window (only for web developement), terminal window,
  • SQL browser, deploy copy, monitoring windows (e.g. memory watch), open documentations (which needs to be open long term, e.g. specifications, design docs), other long-term tasks.

Sometimes I use my desktop monitor for displaying docs.

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Current Setup:

alt text

Specs:

27" -- 2560 x 1440 - iMac

20" -- 1680 x 1050 - external display

19" -- 720p LCD - xbox :)

Description:

Usually code on the 27" and preview on the 20". The 27" is nice to see lots of code without too much scrolling and the 20" is nice for web previews because it is closer to average monitor size.


A Past Setup:

alt text

Specs:

30" -- 2560 x 1600 - Cinema Display with Mac Pro

27" -- 2560 x 1440 - iMac

Description: This setup worked well for the situation. I could have the Mac Pro running heavy video compression (video for web), and still code and design on the iMac without getting bogged down.

Sidenote: I later set this up with SynergyKM as to only need one mouse and keyboard. It works across multiple computers/platforms via network (low-latency), and you can copy paste text as well.


Other Resources:

There are some cool workspaces for inspiration here: http://wherewedowhatwedo.com/

Gallery of multi-monitor setups: http://www.realtimesoft.com/multimon/gallery_browse.asp?date=desc&mon=desc

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At work (where I spend most of time): One 19'' monitor of 1280x1024. I've never worked with more that one monitor. Cheap companies I guess...

But my most important concern is having only 2gb of memory and an antivirus that does a lot of I/O. Eclipse + JBoss for local testing + slow computer = fail.

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At work; I generally use a 15" laptop (1366x1024) next to a 24" 1980x1200 on desktop.

The laptop runs XP and generally runs outlook+documentation; sometimes a putty window/db browser/vic, the desktop generally running ubuntu where the real work happens.

I use Synergy+ to control everything from desktop keyboard/trackball. works well.

At home; I use a 27"1920x1080 next to a 17" 1280x1024 lcd, both plugged into desktop. Gaming on left; everything else on right. (Generally a terminal for irc/etc).

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3 monitors: center monitor vertical, side monitors horizontal.

I use the center one for the IDE I'm currently working with, the other monitors for other IDE instances, e-mail client, web/help pages, and to run application I'm testing.

The biggest advantage is running the debugger in a separate screen from the application you're attached to.

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I have 3 x 22" for a cumulative resolution of 5760x1200.

And although I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff that three monitors is the sweet spot, I'll probably have to get a fourth monitor when I have a fourth kid.

Three monitors, one for each kid?

As for usage, it's typically:

  1. Docs for whatever API I'm using at the moment
  2. IDE
  3. Web browser for whatever app I'm working on at the moment
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+1 for one per kid. –  user1249 Jan 26 '11 at 13:57

It depends on whether I bring my laptop to work, but monitorwise 2-3. One with Windows XP running AVR Studio or QtCreator, the other running Fedora 13 with datasheets and the like. Sometime my laptop is also present running Matlab and Foobar2000.

At home, I have just my 15" laptop and a 19" LCD. The LCD has media running on it, TV shows or whatever, and I have everything else confined to the main screen. I just moved in to a new apartment, and don't have a desk yet, but I am getting a 40" or 46" TV and a desk within the next week or so, so I should be able to start using the 19" for code again, and have the smaller screen for documentation.

Hell, maybe I'll even get the code going on the 40"?

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If you ever want to debug custom drawing code, a dual monitor setup is almost essential

Debug->Step draw line look at result Debug->Step - write text look at result

etc...

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At work, twin 20" 1680x1050 LCDs. At home, twin 19" 1280x1024@72Hz CRTs.

I use them for different things.

At work I do a fair amount of client/server development, making heavy use of virtual machines. I'll often have three or four remote desktop sessions maximized on my lefthand screen, switching between them using the taskbard conveniently docked on my righthand screen. Throw in a number of reference windows on the righthand screen (Outlook, Word, Excel, JIRA, TeamCity) and it's a highly productive environment.

At home, a wider variety of activities. For self paced training, reference notes on one screen and my work on the other. Often I'll have my RSS reader on one screen, and a collection of browser windows on the other. Usually OneNote is hiding beneath the RSS reader (just an Alt-Tab away) so I can take notes on what I'm reading. For writing blog entries or larger articles, I'll have Word (for writing) opposite OneNote and a browser (for notes and references).

What I notice, when forced to use a single screen environment for anything, is that I seem to spend a lot more time switching between windows and finding my "place". Having dual screens also seems conducive to entering a good "flow" state, probably due to the lower overhead.

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Main screen 22" horizontal. Secondary screen 22" vertical.

Main screen good for:

  • IDE's
  • 3rd Party clients with GUIs
  • Outlook

Secondary screen good for:

  • File Exploring
  • Document review/writing ("fit to page" looks very clean)
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I've used a 28" iMac with a 24" second monitor at work for the past few months. Being a web developer, I had Eclipse/Terminal on the larger monitor and my web browser on the smaller monitor and that setup worked great (As great as it gets on a Mac). Now I've sadly switched to a Macbook Pro with the same 24" monitor for my other screen. Haven't quite figured out my arrangement for that though.

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Three, with the left being web browsers (output), center being vertical (code), and right being smaller (email, chat, API).

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One. I've a laptop, so I've connected a keyboard, mouse and a monitor to it, effectively making it a desktop for ergonomic reasons. I still have the benefit using the laptop when not in office.

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A 17inch flat screen, one of them :-( . I work for a national corporation (in the UK).

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At work: 2 19" horizontal monitors. I have in the past added a virtual desktop to one of them through VirtuaWin.

One typically has the IDE, the other is everything else -- another IDE for referencing code in other solutions, Outlook, browsers, etc.

At home: currently a single 23" monitor running at 1920x1200. I don't do a lot of coding from home at the moment, but when I do I find I can just minimize windows to gain some real estate, so the push to clean my desk to make room for a second monitor has been relatively light. :)

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I have a laptop at work so I'm using the display of the laptop and 24" external display, the external display being on the right. At the laptop's display I keep Outlook and Skype to keep me connected all the time and to avoid switching from window to another every time someone skypes me.

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This is the first place where I've worked that provided dual monitors. I will never go back to just one. I will make sure to put it in my employment contract the next time I change jobs!

I tend to put some things always in the same monitor (Outlook is on the left, often buried but always there and Excel generally lives on the right), but others move around depending on what I'm doing.

I often have two different versions of SSMS (SQL Server Management Studio) running, one in each monitor which makes it easier for me to compare different things in different databases or lately I am working in two schemas in the same database that has a gazillion tables, so I filter for each schema in the object browser in a differnt SSMS on a differnt monitor. Or one might be for one project and the other for a different project. It is nice to be able to do a quick fix on one screen without losing your place on the task you will be retuning to.

Long running tasks that just need occasional glances to check progress always go on the right.

I also often have the requirements doc open on one side the and SSIS package on the other, to make sure I don't miss any required tasks in my ETL process. Or if I'm creating documentation, I have the word doc on one side and the interface I want to take screen shots from on the other.

Sometimes I have the raw version of a file I'm importing open on one screen so I can compare what the client sent with what is in the database.

If I have a help window open it goes on the right and what I'm working on that I needed help with is on the left.

I find I tend to do more concentrated work on the left and quick reference glances on the right. I think that has to do with the cubicle set-up where the aisle is to my left as I feel the need to see if someone is coming (get attacked in the office and you won't want to work were you can't see who is coming either, it was almost 30 years ago and I still hate having people approach me when I can't see them, they actually had to rearrange the cubes before I could sit here as they faced the wrong direction).

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2x24" on portrait position. Some times I rotate one to landscape position.

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I'm fairly happy with my current three screen setup - 3x 24" LCDs with 1920x1200 each.

Two screens alone are a huge upgrade from just a single one, but I upgraded to three screens after using two for about a year or so, in order to limit the context loss during alt-tabbing.

The main usage scenario is web development:

  • left: application output (in my case a browser stack - native browsers, multiple IEs in virtual machines)
  • middle: my main context (e.g. an IDE, debug logs, file manager, SSH client)
  • right: supplementary information (e.g. documentation, database schema, minimized email client); vertical/horizontal switch when needed

The left screen is shared with a dev.server, and is also occasionally used for PCs that someone brings for repairs.

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