In the past, we’ve considered the question of whether the current crop of mega-monitors actually work to enhance productivity. But there’s another option that web workers, at least those with a relatively stable desk, ought to look seriously at: multiple monitors. Instead of buying one single 30-inch (or larger) behemoth, equip your computer with two, three, or even more reasonably-sized monitors.
Software developers in particular have discussed the benefits of multiple monitors for some time now. Those of us who work with them – I have four monitors on my own desk right now – are happily convinced of these benefits. It’s really pretty simple: overlapping window and taskbars and docks and virtual windows are all poor substitutes for actually being able to see your work. With multiple monitors, I can have an email client open in one, an application I’m writing about in another, and a word-processing program in a third, without constantly shuffling windows back and forth and trying to remember what I was doing.
Fortunately, for reasonable numbers of monitors and modern hardware, the effort and expense of adding a second monitor is often trivial. Just about any Mac you can buy today will support a second monitor; Windows XP and Windows Vista offer good dual-monitor support out of the box, requiring only that you make sure you have a dual-port video card. As you move up to more monitors, you’ll need to invest correspondingly more in hardware (and learn about more esoteric options), but three- and four-monitor setups are not particularly difficult to manage. With decent 19- and 20-inch flat-screen monitors available for under $200, even the cost of the pixels themselves is reasonable.
Another option, particularly attractive if you’ve recently upgraded hardware, is to use a second computer for your second monitor. In this plan, you keep two monitors connected to different computers (or park your laptop next to your desktop monitor) and use specialized networking software to allow one keyboard and mouse to control both. You lose the ability to drag applications from screen to screen, but can still work fluidly with windows spread across the wider workspace. Free software such as Win2VNC (for Windows) or Synergy (for Windows, OS X, or Unix) makes it easy to set this up. On Windows, the commercial MaxiVista will actually allow you to treat a laptop as a legitimate second monitor, with full drag and drop. ScreenRecycler provides similar functionality for OS X.
Whatever your field, unless you’re a road warrior 100% of the time I urge you to consider a multiple monitor setup. Look at it this way: would you use a desk that only gave you room for a single sheet of paper at a time? If you’re not prepared for that sort of productivity compromise in atoms, you shouldn’t force yourself to make it in bits either.