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I recently heard that a big part in successful/quick debugging and easing the process of programming is to use a big screen.

I may be purchasing a new computer in the future and this has me wondering:

1)Is the aforementioned statement actually true or is it a bit of a stretch?

2)Have you noticed that this plays a significant enough part to buy a bigger screen if the bigger screen is significantly more expensive?

3)Is it common for developers to work on 13'' laptop screen as their main (and only) workstation (this is what I currently develop on) or is this actually disadvantageous?

This may be subjective but any professional opinions/experiences would be greatly appreciated!

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There are so many blog articles and even actual research on this topic that I'm a little surprised to see the question. Even a basic search would have helped a lot. –  Мסž Jul 7 '11 at 1:39
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I work really well with two, medium resolution monitors. I use one for the running app (set horizontal) and the 2nd for the dev environment which I set vertical. Personal preference, really. –  Patrick Hughes Jul 7 '11 at 2:10
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nobody needs more than 1 color ( green or amber ) and 80 X 24! –  Jarrod Roberson Jul 7 '11 at 2:11
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Resolution matters. The more you can see the better. –  user1249 Jul 7 '11 at 18:57
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So here is my opinion in a nutshell: "successful/quick debugging" is only marginally related to the size and quantity of your monitors. Regardless of Jeff Attwood's opinion ;) –  Andres F. May 19 '12 at 14:42
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closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, Thomas Owens Oct 3 '13 at 13:37

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12 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted
  1. In my own experience, more screen space means faster work. I spend less time Alt-Tabing between windows (which does become frustrating after a while). If I have enough space to see my IDE and whatever window is executing my code (be it a GUI or a console app) at the same time is always easier than having to switch back and forth.

  2. I recently got a used desktop computer from my parents for cheap, but the monitor resolution was a measley 1300x700 (rounded because I can't remember the exact numbers). Trying to develop anything with that screen was just an awful experience. I did eventually opt for buying a new monitor (23", 1920x1080 resolution) for about $180. If that price doesn't sound unreasonable to you, I'd highly recommend buying an extra monitor. It is fantastic to have the extra space. I generally keep my IDE maximized in the big monitor, and run my code in the original one. At work I have two monitors as well, and the same kind of thing is true.

  3. I guess I partially answered this question in my answer to part 2. To reiterate, I don't believe that a 13" primary screen is common or good in any way. I can only relate my own experience; everyone in my office has two monitors that are each at least 16". And we still would like even more space!

  4. There have been studies on productivity boosts with large monitors (extra screen real estate). See: http://www.corecommunication.ca/4-studies-which-show-that-using-a-second-monitor-can-boost-productivity/

  5. Screens are only one part of development efficiency. If it takes three hours to build the application, you've just lost three hours of testing time. Think about all the different hardware requirements. http://stackoverflow.com/questions/499889/ssd-and-programming

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You're welcome rrazd. Hopefully you find that you agree with me if you decide to buy! –  Dylan Halperin Jul 7 '11 at 1:08
    
More pixels is definitely an advantage. Having multiple source files open side-by-side, having reference information visible at the same time as the source you're working on, etc etc. Having a single small monitor is kinda like tunnel vision. Virtual desktops provide some of the same advantages, but still aren't as convenient as more real pixels. –  Steve314 Jul 7 '11 at 1:24
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There's a point where more doesn't make much difference. I find that that's at about 5000 pixels wide. –  Мסž Jul 7 '11 at 1:40
    
with screen, more is mor –  nXqd Aug 31 '12 at 10:05
    
"I generally keep my IDE maximized in the big monitor, and run my code in the original one." Wonderful advice! I'm going to try it myself ;) Thank you Dylan! –  Ken Sep 5 '12 at 12:50
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Having a large screen, especially coupled with a dual monitor, is a gigantic advantage.

Think of it like this...for professions that work with paper, wouldn't you think they would prefer more physical desk space? More space to lay out papers to review at once.

Same with us. The more screen realestate, the easier it is.

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I can't really develop without two 1920x1200 monitors. Any less than that seriously hinders my productivity.

But

I don't know what you consider large. I definitely wouldn't recommend monitors larger than 24", unless they also have a better resolution. The pixels are too big, and to have a good viewing angle on two of these you would need to sit too far away to comfortably focus on them all day long.

I used to develop on a 17" laptop; I would connect it to a desktop with a 22" screen (both were 1920x1200) and use both monitors while I'm at the office; at home I also had an extra monitor. As long as you've got enough screen realestate, you don't need the screens to be exceptionally big.

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"The pixels are too large"? I beg to differ; I find that a 27" screen and a resolution of 2560x1440 is superb, much more useful when I want to compare two files side by side in Xcode 4. –  Sedate Alien Jul 7 '11 at 4:11
    
Yes indeed - I went from 2x19" @ 1280x1024 to 2x24" @ 1920x1200 earlier this year. HUGE difference. Now seriously considering going for 3 screens at home, possibly a large central one with smaller portrait-oriented at the sides. –  Mike Woodhouse Jul 7 '11 at 8:23
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@Sedate Alien: I meant bigger monitors with 1920x1200, as these are quite common. I've amended the answer. 2560x1440 sounds nice, but if my monitor was 27" 1920x1200 I'd have a hard time using it. –  configurator Jul 7 '11 at 18:39
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@configurator: Absolutely. I also have a 27" 1920x1080 monitor and it's just awful -- one of my most regretted purchases. –  Sedate Alien Jul 7 '11 at 22:09
    
2 monitors of the 1900ish to 1000ish range are a realistic minimum. However, the maximum is very similar. Same resolution, but 3 of them. More monitors than that (or higher resolutions) and I start misplacing windows and start wasting time trying to find things! –  Brian Knoblauch Nov 6 '12 at 18:41
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It's part of the entire I/O stack that includes your keyboard, mouse/trackball/trackpad, desk, chair (yes, your furniture is important too), etc.
Of those I consider the screen to be the least important, and it's positioning more important by far than its size. While I'd love to have dual or triple 23" widescreens at my disposal, in reality that'll likely never happen. I'm lucky to work for a company that gives us a decent single 15" laptop rather than having us make do with 5 year old (or worse) castoffs from managers and their secretaries. Could bring in my own screens of course, but I've already brought in $500+ of other equipment to make me work RSI free and am not going to sponsor the company to increase my workpace as well. If they want that they'll have to pay for it themselves (I'll invest in staying healthy, hence buying a split keyboard and things like that, not to make someone else make more money he knows he can get by making that investment :) ).

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Almost everybody seem to think bigger=better & more=better. But in my experience:

  • 13" laptop screen is too small for full-time work.
  • 23", 1920x1080 screen at about arm's distance is optimal.
  • Bigger than that offers no advantage, you would just have to position it farther.
  • Dual/triple screens are a distraction.

Yes, the more desktop space you have, the more stuff you can see at once. At the same time, people are building distraction free editors. Isn't this a bit contradictory?

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Dual/triple monitors might be a distraction for writers... but definitely not for developers! I've had 2 monitors since the early beta-days of windows 2000 (which was the first Microsoft OS that supported multiple monitors) and I wouldn't want to go back anymore! –  fretje Jul 7 '11 at 8:17
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@fretje: As I wrote, almost everybody feel that way, but I've tried 2 monitors a few times, and always went back to one. Maybe I'm the exception that proves the rule :-) –  Joonas Pulakka Jul 7 '11 at 8:59
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Documentation/Google on one, IDE on another. Running GUI app (possibly full screen) on one, debugger with breakpoints on another. These are few examples why I think 1 monitor is not enough. –  Coder Jul 7 '11 at 9:30
    
I disagree with the comment about bigger and multiple screens offering no advantage. I recently switched to a 30" monitor as my main monitor and it is considerably better than anything I've used before. I'm now using a 30" and two 23" screens, though I would be quite happy with just one screen in addition to the 30". Try a 30" screen, you'll be amazed at how much better it is. I'm not the type to maximize windows though, preferring a couple page-sized windows which still leaves room for desktop icons and little status windows and so forth. –  Bryan Oakley May 19 '12 at 18:10
    
If you do UI development, you have to have 2 monitors. Stepping through code causes the screen behind the paused application to never refresh. That means if you have the IDE and UI on the same monitor, you can't see the IDE while debugging! –  17 of 26 Oct 3 '13 at 13:03
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I use to have a 32 inch LCD and it was jut far to big. I actually stopped using it for that fact. Great for my xbox but not for any real everyday computer use. I had dual screens and loved it. Though I recently just moved to the UK so sadly only have one 22 inch monitor, which is an LED 1080p and fantastic. Having one really kills my productivity. I need 2.

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Beyond a certain threshold (subjective), bigger screens make you turn your head to see everything on a window. Some people can see everything, even when sitting close to the monitor, but not many others can –  inspectorG4dget Jul 7 '11 at 20:05
    
Yeah, I do not want bigger screens. I have 3 19"@1280x1024 and that's it. If someone made taller screens (not simply rotated--you can't do anything full screen on a rotated screen) I'd like it but it's as wide as I want to go for comfort. Having it as three separate monitors means I can lay them out in an arc and keep all the space at just about the same distance from my eyes. When screens get too big you can't do this. –  Loren Pechtel May 20 '12 at 3:54
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I use two 19" monitors at work, it's far easier to work with two screens than it is with one. I work with a lot of stored procedures in my application and it's really nice being able to have Visual Studio open on one screen and SQL Management Studio on the other. It's great for debugging too as you can have your application on one screen and Visual Studio on the other. I don't know how anyone could work productively on a 13" laptop screen, or with a tiny laptop keyboard for that matter!

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My work environment

  • 19" in portrait: 900 x 1440
  • 27.5" Hanns-G: 1920 x 1200
  • 27.5" Hannspree: 1920 x 1200
  • The Lenovo laptop was replaced with an HP EliteBook 8540w: 1600 x 900

Spec docs or server monitor open on the 19", IDE open on the left big monitor, SQL Manager open on the right big monitor and Outlook on the laptop screen. I can have FireFox open on one screen with Firebug fullscreen on the other. Talk about being able to inspect HTML, JavaScript and Ajax calls.

About 6 of my coworkers went out and bought similar 27.5" monitors. These include other Architects, PDF developers, Project Managers and web developers.

I also have 2 x 25.5" monitors at home using an Eyefinity card on my desktop. I highly recommend Craigslist for finding used monitors and monitor arms.

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I should post my setup - 2*30" 25600x1600, 2*24" 1920x1200!!! However I have specific requirements for the app to run on the 2*30", while I debug and develop. For "normal" development, I find 2*24" ideal. –  mattnz Jul 7 '11 at 23:16
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To be honest, I'm glad Windows lets you set left-CTRL to "sonar"/highlight the mouse. Sometimes it gets lost scrolling across all those monitors. –  iKnowKungFoo Jul 8 '11 at 15:05
    
Awesome setup but do you find the monitors a little bit low? Seems like you'd be looking down at them (hence them tilted back slightly?). With the placement of that cabinet it looks like you're stuck though :) –  MattDavey Sep 1 '11 at 8:28
    
Given the height of the desk and chair I have, they're not so bad. I don't really need those cabinets, but getting them removed is more pain than it's worth. At home, I have a taller desk & chair with 2 x 25.5" monitors on monitor arms where they're higher off the desk. Great, now I've got to figure out how to raise the monitors at work. :) –  iKnowKungFoo Sep 1 '11 at 15:25
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How many monitors you have is only one side of the picture. Yes, more monitors help, but if you are unable to get more monitors right now (for whatever reasons - you are on the move - laptop, not enough desk space, whatever), then you might stumble on this epiphany:

It's not always how many monitors you have. 
Rather, what you'd like is to be able to see 
    the contents of multiple windows at once

This means, that you could use something like virtual desktops and get very close to the same effect as having multiple monitors. My personal workstation (the only one) is an HP laptop with a 15.1" screen. Since I develop on Ubuntu, I have the virtual desktops, which functions almost equivalently for me. That being said, there /are/ times when I'd prefer a second (or even third) monitor so that I can have an API or tutorial permanently visible.

Tools like multiple virtual desktops and window transparency definitely help a lot in getting you /very/ close the the multiple screen experience, and do the job a lot of the time. But there are times when that second monitor is just absolutely necessary.

Now, if you're going to develop, you want to be able to see all your code without scrolling much (horizontally or vertically). At work, I have two 19" fullscreen monitors - bad aspect ratio and too small). I would ideally not settle for lesser than two 21" widescreen monitors. This will give me ample on-screen real estate to have multiple (more than 2) windows open simultaneously. That being said (just because I am as quirky as I am), I will probably still use transparent widows and virtual desktops, even with two 21" monitors.

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I'm going to give you a different advice.

It depends on how fast are you already working on your current screen size.

Or rather, it depends on how much frustrated you are at doing small things (like some have mentioned, they consider alt-tab annoying, it hurts their brain, their always wondering "why do I have to alt-tab" and can't focus on the work)

I have a 14 inch and a 24 inch. Not much difference at all. In fact I can't even guarantee that it's faster on a 24 inch!

That said, the fact that I don't actually find anything frustrating at all may be because I've memorized every single obscene short-cut that I don't actually find anything frustrating at all even working over 48hours without sleep.

If even at your current small screen size everything just flows (you don't get frustrated at small things, at all) you won't see any benefit.

Plus I'm going to assure you, everytime you've spent too many hours on one screen size, you are sure to have a jet-lag on the switch.

G'd luck!

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The window/view on the world of an application developer is only as big as the total number of pixels on his (set of) monitor(s).

Imagine a construction worker building a house, only being able to see 5 bricks simultaneously at any given time. Imagine a doctor only being able to see one limb at the same time of a patient he's examinating. Imagine a chemist only being able to observe one particular test tube at any moment.

What I'm trying to say is, programmers start off with a limitation because they are depending on existing technology to view what they are doing. As a student on digs, I need to have a portable workstation. My laptop has a 15" screen with a resolution of 1366x768 and I find this limiting my productivity every single day.

As a student we get stuff, tasks thrown at us that require us to do more than simply to work with an IDE and to see our program running. I often have multiple browser tabs, a file browser, an IDE, file editors and 2-3 command shells open (in a linux distribution) and believe me, this all gets confusing and I quickly lose focus that way on my small screen. Hence I'm glad I get home in the weekend and I can use my 24" 1080p monitor.

In my opinion, you should find a balance between too expensive and exagerated, because having 4 screens isn't necessarily productive either. You have to move your eyes around a lot more and you even have to turn your chair around.

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Well, I couple of years ago I spent a thousand dollars of my own money to buy a 30" 2560 x 1600 monitor for work. I got a (very small) bit of flack from the IT support people, but I stuck to my guns, and am very very happy as a result.

I find programming so much less frustrating when I can actually see a decent chunk of the document that I am working on, rather than having to hunt around for whatever is causing the problem.

It saves me time, it reduces my blood pressure, reduces the risk of RSI (less scrolling), and reduces my cognitive load (less effort remembering where in the document to scroll to next).

I only wish that the thing was bigger. I really want a 55" monitor with roughly 4000x3000 resolution (or better), pivoted so that it can either sit upright like a conventional monitor or at a shallow angle, much like a drafting table. Touch screen would also be good for when it is positioned at a shallow angle. I would happily pay up to about 3000 dollars for such a beast (although I might have to save up for a couple of years if it cost that much).

After all, we are designing complex systems, why should we not get as much usable workspace as analogue tools afforded architects and graphic designers in the past?

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