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In a New York Times article about dual and single monitor setups, columnist Farhad Manjoo challenged the idea that having multiple monitors was better than having a single monitor. In his self-imposed challenge, he claims that by going to a single monitor configuration he was able to improve productivity because he, “…found something increasingly elusive in our multiscreen world: focus.” However, I have an issue with his testing method and also his conclusion.

As someone who has used both single monitor and dual monitor configurations, I was suspicious of his claim that having a single monitor increased productivity. But I tried to understand where he was coming from and I could see that having a second monitor could possibly cause more distractions. From checking e-mails to working on other tasks, the potential to slow down productivity is there. So I decided to run my own experiment.

For the majority of my day, I have two 22-inch monitors as my primary displays. They are configured to be in extended view and are not cloned. I turned off one of my two 22-inch monitors to see what kind of effects it might have. Instead of being hyper focused on what I had in front of me however, I ended up spending much more time than I’m comfortable with just switching from window to window to retrieve information.

Instead of just smoothly and easily finding my reference materials, I often had to fish for them among many open windows. While writing, I found myself having to constantly switch between my Internet browser and Microsoft Word to pull information from primary sources and my notes. It was adding seconds to the most ordinary of tasks. The time it took to write and edit documents increased, but yet I wasn’t finding any extra focus.

I am not alone in my doubt about the value of having one monitor over two. In a multi-screen productivity study conducted by Wichita State University and commissioned by Dell, participants were asked to gather different text and image elements in one working document from other documents and Web pages. Respondents stated that they found themselves perusing reference documents by roughly 4% less. And they overwhelmingly ranked dual monitors higher based on pleasantness to use. The most important piece from that study however, was that the participants were able to complete their task 2.42 seconds faster with a multiple monitor setup.

Another issue is that the picture included with the New York Times article shows Mr. Manjoo using quite a large primary monitor, with the secondary monitor turned off. From the looks of it, his display of choice seems to be a 27-inch monitor and with a resolution measuring 2560 × 1440. With so much screen real estate, I can easily see why a user wouldn’t need a secondary monitor.

At my personal workstation at home, I have been using dual Dell U2711 monitors, which are 27-inches diagonal and with a 2560 × 1440 resolution. With such a setup, I am able to open up to four Word documents side by side at 100% zoom. Even with just one 1440p monitor, I could effectively do what I would normally need two lower resolution monitors to do.

By using a display with such a large resolution, a user basically has two 1280 × 720 displays side by side. In fact, a 1440p monitor offers more real estate than two 720p monitors. So yes, one monitor can be just as effective as a dual monitor configuration—if that one monitor is a 27-inch 1440p display. For users with 1080p or smaller resolutions however, I contend that a dual monitor setup is a superior configuration.

But what do you think? Are you using one display or multiple displays? 

Photo by Steve Lacey, taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Wallace Chu

Author Wallace Chu

A self-professed tech hipster that loves computers and music. Uses an iPhone ironically.

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Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Christie Standish says:

    I use two monitors, but in my case it is almost essential. When I draft schematic drawings for a customer I can put the “wanted” changes on one screen, and my autocad program on the other. This allows me the versatility to zoom in on both drawings, and to have a direct reference for the changes that I am making.

  • i typically use three and three at work. At work I use two monitors for stuff i am working on and the third monitor to communicate with people over work related issues. Example: Google adwords on one monitor, excel on another, microsofty lync on the third.

  • Joe Fabrie says:

    I agree that it’s not necessarily about how many monitors you have to be productive but the overall amount of real estate that you have to work with. Since you need documents, web pages, and programs to be a certain size to be usable then it stands to reason if you have one monitor with as many pixels as two monitors then there shouldn’t be a difference except aesthetics and preference. I personally use three monitors in portrait mode to maximize my document viewing pleasure.

  • The original research on multiple monitor setups was on programmers. In that job at least, the extra screen real estate is a clear win, especially now that paper documentation has gone the way of the dinosaur. A game developer is likely to need at least THREE monitors: one for the programming environment, one for the game, and one for documentation.

  • Elijah says:

    I use a 50 inch, 4K TV as my home computer monitor. I have so much screen real estate. I use this for music production, and when I open my DAW, It’s like having 4 monitors, but without any bevels in between. This makes for a more seamless experience, and I think this is probably a better configuration than anything mentioned thus far.

What's your take?