Blog Post

Multiple-Monitor Setups: Are Two Enough?

In my recent post, “3 Efficiency Tips for Using Dual Monitors,” I noted that I recently switched to a dual monitor setup, and will never go back to a single monitor. The post also delved into some simple organizational principles for using multiple running applications with dual monitors, such as using different tabbed browsers on each display. Readers wrote in with some interesting additional tips, some of them adamant that two monitors are just not enough, and, since doing the post, I’ve noticed some other related multi-monitor tips around the web, too. So, here are a few extra items of interest on this topic. If you’re still using a lone monitor, these ideas can give you a real efficiency boost.

Utilities. In response to my first post on using two monitors, some readers wrote in with tips on free software utilities that can really add to your efficiency when running more than one monitor. Multi-Monitor Mouse got good marks from readers. It allows you to speed up your mouse interaction on multiple monitors, and use shortcut keys. Katmouse also drew praise for offering “universal scrolling,” where you can scroll the contents of windows that are under other windows. (If you use multiple monitors, you tend to have more windows running concurrently than you otherwise would.)

Are Two Displays Enough? The chief efficiency benefit I’ve gotten from using two displays concurrently is that I can run multiple applications in logical ways, constantly keeping the tools that I use all day available and easy to get to. However, several people who commented on the original post, noted that they use four and even more displays concurrently.Check out the six-LCD setup seen here, and shown above. In response to this post on the OStatic blog, another reader wrote in supplying a photo collection of his four-screen setup, dubbed “MEGADESK.” It has large individual displays, and allows him to look at one huge image across tons of screen real estate, or run many applications on several displays concurrently. Very nice.

Bill Gates Hits for a Triple. I noticed with interest this Lifehacker post, which discusses this post about how Bill Gates makes use of three displays concurrently. Gates reports that he gets over 100 emails per day from Microsoft (s msft) employees alone, with many more coming from outside the company. He says:

“The large display area enables me to work very efficiently. I keep my Outlook 2007 Inbox open on the screen to the left so I can see new messages as they come in. I usually have the message or document that I’m currently reading or writing in the center screen. The screen on the right is where I have room to open up a browser or look at a document that someone has sent me in email.”

That’s exactly the benefit I see in multiple displays, and I’m seriously considering moving beyond just two displays. The separate displays make it easy to isolate applications and tasks, in a more organized and logical way than you can with just one. If you haven’t tried multiple displays, try it.

Do you use more than two displays? Has it noticeably boosted your productivity?

40 Responses to “Multiple-Monitor Setups: Are Two Enough?”

  1. I can accept that there are some people who genuinely do need more than one monitor but I don’t think I could get one with it. There are some good multi screen support systems out there but I think that more than one monitor would really hurt my eyes.

    I think I would be tempted to browse through other websites on other monitors though, when I was supposed to be working on all of them.

  2. jim anders

    I recently upgrade from a dual monitor stand to a triple monitor stand, and i have to say that my productivity has gone up. When you’re used to having multiple monitors, one more couldn’t hurt. You just added a bunch of desktop real estate. I also found this good review site on multiple monitor stand, perhaps it’ll be helpful to someone

  3. I have to say that I never even thought about using two monitors, but more than two seems even more ridiculous. If it can’t fit on one screen I think you might be overusing your computer, just my opinion :)

  4. I typically prefer multiple monitors, but I can definitely see the appeal in having a 30 inch as my only display. More about it here:

    But for me, the best thing about multiple monitors is the separation that is created by having actual physical spaces available to place windows into. I can actually put something over to the right and glance over at it. That can really help my mind as it takes part in my workflow. It’s almost as if the head movement helps jog my memory. As for two versus three, I think that anything more than one is good enough.

  5. There is another option that some people might find helpful and less expensive than plunking down $3k for six monitors, cards, stand, cables, etc. Many monitor cards (PNY, ATI etc.) have ‘multi-monitor’ modes. Some are called Hyperdesk or whatever. There are also free software utilities that allow your single monitor to work like 10 monitors. PNY’s Hyperdesk for example allows me to set up my single or dual monitor system to use up to 10 different desktop’s (think monitor floor space) and switch between them by a simple “Alt+Numerical Keypad 0-9” and I can switch between multiple word processor files, to day trading windows, etc. What’s also neat is the softwares ability to remember a desktop configuration. So for my daytrading, with one command I can open up multiple programs, on multiple screens and I am up and running in the morning in moments.
    Just a thought. :) Erin

  6. I feel obligated to mention Synergy, an application that I use all the time to use one mouse/keyboard combo for multiple COMPUTERS. Most of the time, this consists of one dual-monitor desktop with a laptop sitting off to the right. I consider three screens to be the absolute ideal, when I do add a fourth screen, it’s likely to just end up playing music and running a visualization of some sort. Not really necessary from a productivity standpoint.

    Synergy also allows me to use a multitude of operating systems without having to jump back and forth or run a bunch of VM’s. My Desktop can run Linux, my laptop can run Windows, and I can have an OSX laptop off to the right (running visualizations, as mentioned) to test the latest design draft in Safari and IE for Mac.

  7. Having more than one monitor is great but just the first step to increase the overall productivity – there are some minor but annoying user interface drawbacks which may diminish the work efficiency (at least, on Microsoft Windows OS):

    – there is no standard service such as Windows Taskbar to manage windows located on secondary displays
    – you can’t quickly minimize, restore, or activate any particular window via its Taskbar button without having to move your cursor to the primary display
    – there is no access to the Start Menu from secondary displays – requires moving the mouse pointer to the primary display each time you need to access Start Menu
    – when you switch windows using Alt-Tab the Task Switcher service window is displayed on the primary display only, which is quite distracting if your current attention is on a secondary display
    – there is no quick way to move a window to a certain monitor or to maximize a window over the entire composite desktop if such need arises

    Unfortunately, even the upcoming Windows 7 doesn’t address those issues properly, so most of power multi-monitor users usually utilize the 3rd party products, such as UltraMon, MultiMon or DisplayFusion. Recently, there appears the new solution – Actual Multiple Monitors (, which fixes the mentioned UI issues and provides some additional services such as window thumbnails on WinXP, Windows 7 Aero Snap emulation on WinXP/WinVista, and others.

    I’d recommend any professionals who uses several displays at once at least check this program out – it may improve the multi-monitor experience significantly.

  8. I’ve been running two monitors at work for the past 6 months or so and I love it. I’m a web content editor and I tend to use one screen for reference and the other for making editorial and formatting/layout changes. The kicker is when I work from home. I’m still using a 9lb desktop replacement at home. When I bought it 5 years ago, it was perfect for my needs but it doesn’t have the video capacity to support dualies. Now that I’ve been using two monitors at work, I just get irritated at how slowly my work gets done from home. Planning to purchase a new set up in the next few weeks. Yea!

  9. I once had a dual-view setup, but I had to sell my second-screen. It was a luxury that I liked very much. One for my active tasks, and one for my passive tasks (like opening Thunderbird there, iTunes, etc.). Now the taskbar replaces the second monitor ;))

  10. Once I started using two monitors I found use for three, then four… Currently I have five on my desk.

    20″ (server, seperate computer), 22″, 26″, 26″, 22″

    I plan on replacing the two 22″ soon as I just got the 26″ and found some nice 24″ that offer the same resolution options (1920×1200) as the 26″ ones.

  11. I’ve gotten more and more involved with PhotoShop. I’m considering adding a second 24″ 1920×1200 that would be in portrait mode, to go along with the exising 24″ and older 21″ 1280×1024.

    All LCD.

    But I would speculate that there are diminishing returns … huge gains (for me anyway) going from one to two. Maybe marginal for three.

    Like another poster, I almost can’t work on a system with a single monitor that is 1280×1024 or less.

  12. Visual Studio developer of MFC freeware:

    I’ve had dual monitors since late early 2000’s or so … maybe 90’s? … with Matrox dual-head. G450?

    Debug stepping in one window while the app is running in the other.

    Learning new app or computer language: documentation on one side, app on another.

    IMO, you almost can’t have too big of a monitor. I recall spending about $3000 on a 21″ Gateway in the mid-90’s. My wife is still using the 21″ NEC I bought used from the predecessor of newegg back in the mid 90’s … with a dual-head Matrox G550, iirc.

  13. I use dual monitors and I can’t part with them now. It has seriously changed the way I work. It lets me see more at once and cuts down on the back and forth.

    I’d love to get a third monitor however my current video card, nvidia 9500 gt I think, only supports two monitors.

  14. At our workplace, the Technical staff (Programming and Tech Support) have either three or four monitors, 19 inch or higher, and the Clerical staff have 2, 17 inch or higher. They allow us to keep more than one application open at all times, several of them needing to consume an entire screen due to the amount of data displayed. I personally use on monitor for PC watching apps, Time Clock and a web browser. the others are either used for Remote Desktop software or Visual studio.

  15. We started by implementing two monitors in the IT department. WHen the execs saw how much more efficient it was we got two from them as well, now dual monitors is the norm.

    Since I need to be accessible from home I have a laptop at work. I use a port replicator which doubles as a riser/stand so the laptop and monitor are raised to eye level for comfort. Then plug a second flat screen monitor in to the port replicator so you can undock and go, very sweet.

    This is an especially useful set up since I connect to a second PC from my desk via KVM switch so when I need to be on the other computer I can have it up on my second screen and still catch email, or log requests on my laptop screen.

    Now if I could only have one more…

  16. At work I have 4 monitors on my main PC:

    The coolest part of my setup is the monitor stand, which is home-made to my exact requirements from plumbing pipes.

    That’s a main 24″ for most work, one 19″ for e-mail, one 19″ for work-related stuff (monitoring logs, comparing docs, etc.), and the 17″ the Windows taskbar, gadgets, media player, etc.

    Very efficient and very fun!

  17. The real relation is:
    “Productivity is directly proportional to the number of running windows you can open.”(stevev 1986)

    That can be One really high-pixel monitor (where I started) or it is usually more cost efficient to use multiple commodity monitors. Just remember, you need the rest of the resources: cpu power, memory, ethernet throughput, etc to have all those windows actually functional. It doesn’t help much if the time it takes for a back window to gain focus and update is longer than it takes to load and run.

  18. @alnonymous – I hope those screens are solar-powered! Way to save the planet there Al! ;)

    @toto – Yep , power consumption is always something some of us forget when using multiple displays.

    Having said that, at both my home office and my client’s office I have a 2×22 set-up and I find that I really struggle when I have to use my laptop solo now.

  19. I have a 30-inch monitor as my main monitor, and a 24-inch monitor in portrait mode as a secondary monitor. I face the 30-inch monitor head-on, and the secondary monitor is off to the right. I’ve done many multi-monitor setups, including three monitor setups, and I think one very important principle is that you should have a principle monitor, and it should be a big one. If you have an odd number of monitors, that’s easy. It’s not so obvious when you have an even number of monitors, because you’ll have to place them asymmetrically to have a principle monitor. If you don’t have a principle monitor that you face head-on, you’re going to spend 100% of your day with your head cocked to one side. Ouch.

    Right now, the 30″, 24″ setup is working well. The 24″ in portrait mode is actually taller (both physically an in terms of pixels) than the 30″. It’s better for long documents or code or portrait-oriented photos. I can’t imagine going back to one screen for at-home work. Multiple monitors relax me.

  20. I do dev. on 2 screens now. I love it.

    I am waiting for new LCDs with low power consumption (Amazing to see the drop in the last years) and would like to switch to 3 screens.
    It is hard to find screens built for displaying source code 12 hours a day….

  21. We actually upgraded all of our employees to 19″ LCD’s and recommissioned all of the 15″ LCD’s they replaced as second monitors. So now just about everyone runs Outlook on the small monitor and a browser/primary app on the larger monitor.

    As far as this discussion goes though, my ideal is 3 monitors, 20″ 30″ 20″ with the 20’s rotated to be 1200w x 1600h so that your effective resolution is 4960w x 1600h.