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One Display Used to be Plenty

In the earlier days of the PC, a single computer monitor made perfect sense. Those things were huge, they were bulky, they were expensive and they were power hogs. The first computer monitor I bought (not counting the TV used with a VIC-20) was a 12-inch Apple RGB display. As the name suggests, that was a whopping 12-inches of display space—smaller than the screen of my current laptop. It was powered by a cathode ray tube (CRT) which made it massive, weighing nearly 11kg. And it was also expensive. Accounting for inflation, that thing cost the equivalent of $1400 in today’s dollars.

When a monitor offers just 12 additional inches of screen real estate, takes up half your desk and costs as much as a mortgage payment or two? Yeah, you need to have a pretty good reason to use more than screen. Besides, few computers could support multiple monitors and other than very specialized applications, the need to have multiple screens wasn’t really there.

But Things Have Changed

The current computing situation has completely changed in every way.

First of all, what we use those computers for has evolved and we have become a society of multitaskers. Home computers went from a rarity to commonplace. Instead of being used primarily for word processing and similar tasks, we use our home PCs for everything from web surfing to playing games, editing home videos, updating social media, cataloging digital photos and watching streaming video. Often, we’re doing two or three of those things at a time—multitasking, in other words—and if you check your web browser right now, I bet you have multiple windows or tabs open.

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It goes without saying that a similar transformation has taken place in the business and small office environment as well. Multitasking and multiple open Windows is the norm.

For virtually everyone, more screen real estate is better and having multiple monitors with each dedicated to a specific task is ideal. Microsoft and Apple have added virtual desktop features to their operating systems in order to offer a software solution, but the reality is having two or more monitors beats having two or more virtual desktops any day.

Fortunately, hardware has also evolved dramatically. Any laptop will now let you output video to a second display. Many desktop PCs are also equipped to drive multiple monitors and when you move to a gaming PC or desktop workstation with a beefy video card installed, it may have the option of connecting three or more monitors. The display size and resolution of monitors has increased dramatically, while the introduction of LCD and LED panels has meant the overall footprint, weight and power consumption has dropped just as dramatically.

While that old 12-inch CRT monitor of mine used 90W of power, a typical 24-inch Energy Star certified LED monitor today offers a screen twice as large (with far greater resolution) uses just 30W, weighs a third as much and takes up a fraction of the desk space—it can even be wall mounted. Instead of $1400, there are plenty of choices for Full HD, 24-inch monitors under $200.

Going From One Screen to Two: Even Science Says It’s Better!

Looking at how we use computers today, it seems inherently obvious that having two monitors would have some real advantages over one, even if that single monitor is a big one.

Beyond instinct, science backs up that theory. For example, SURL (Software Usability Research Laboratory) at Wichita State University published research concluding that dual monitors offer a performance benefit, regardless of what size those monitors are. Among the findings, users equipped with a dual-monitor setup switched active windows less frequently, took more frequent advantage of maximized windows, clicked less frequently to perform tasks and at the end of the study, only one percent of users listed a single monitor configuration as their preference.

That study focused on computer users performing the kind of tasks you’d typically associate with working, or doing homework, such as copying and pasting text between documents.

Think of the way you use a PC in general and the case for two screens becomes even more compelling.

Streaming video services like Netflix and sports feeds are more popular now than ever. I don’t know about you, but every once in a while I like to have a big game or event live-streaming while I’m working and being able to having it running on its own display means less distraction from the task at hand while also being able to expand that video to an optimal window size. Editing video or digital photos? With two monitors you can expand the content to fill one display and move the tools onto the second one. Want to keep an eye on your social media accounts while focusing on another task? Just put your Twitter and Facebook feeds on the second monitor. Comparing two of anything, whether that’s documents, images or products, is easier when you have two monitors and can display both sources full-sized, side-by-side instead of having to shoehorn both into a single display.

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And it goes without saying that PC gaming is better with two monitors, whether you use one screen for the action and the second for a tactical display, or you spread the action across both as a single giant monitor.

I’ve been working through a home office renovation for several months now and by far the biggest pain has been the days when I have to set up shop at the dining room table, relying on the single display of my laptop. It’s not just the size of the screen, it’s losing the workflow and versatility of having an external monitor hooked up that makes it so annoying.

Going to Three Monitors (and Beyond)

For home use, going from one to using two monitors is where you get the biggest bang for the buck. Adding a third, or fourth won’t have the same dramatic improvement in user experience and comes with challenges like the need for a video card capable of driving that many screens and the physical space required.

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However, gamers could certainly see a benefit from expanding beyond two monitors and anyone with a home office who spends time on tasks like coding, writing, researching, editing or working on spreadsheets can see real gains. The OFFICE 21 study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering found people doing these sort of tasks moving to three monitors saw a productivity boost of over 35 percent compared to using a single monitor.

The takeaway from all this? If you’re still using a single display or monitor at home, or at work, you’re missing out. It’s not just common sense, science agrees you can take your productivity and the PC experience to the next level by adding a second monitor. Become a gaming/productivity king by adding a third, or a fourth or ….

Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.

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