What’s Better: One Big Monitor or Two Smaller Ones?

I was in London Drugs today, buying a new router. Man, the price of monitors has gone through the floor. You can get a 24″ Samsung monitor for $449.

To put that in some perspective, I’m currently typing on a four-year-old 23″ Apple Cinema Display monitor. I bought it off the set of Catwoman for a ridiculous discount, but I think the retail price was CAN $2799.

The old Apple display has been great, but it’s looking a bit dim (plus the frame has turned that gross yellow, computer-in-the-sun colour). Some time in the next year, we’re likely to buy some new monitors. I could buy a 27″ monitor for, say, CAN $999. Or I could buy two 22″ monitors for, say, CAN $329 each.

I’ve only worked with two monitors briefly. Do you think two smaller ones are better than one big one? On the one hand, one monitor avoids any configuration hassles. Plus, it takes up less desk space. On the other hand, two monitors give you more actual screen space. And they apparently make your more productive, which is enticing.

For two monitors, do you have, like, a primary and secondary? If I lined them up directly side-by-side, I couldn’t tolerate having the space between the two monitors staring me in face.

Chris would definitely take two smaller ones:

I would go with two separate monitors any day, over one large one. Having two monitors can cause issues, as I said. Some of your software may run differently. Your computer may need to have minor configurations made to it. It can be a headache to get correct… but it’s well worth it. On one monitor, I have my email and work open. On the other monitor, I have all my “widgets”… for IRC, IMs, RSS feeds, etc. It makes it a lot easier for me to keep things organized, and be more efficient with my work.

You’ll actually have more “screen real estate” within two 17″ monitors side-by-side than what you would have with one huge screen. As I said, this can help you stay much more organized. Having one monitor made things too cramped, and too jumbled. I had to search for things, or keep them hidden when running.

Which would you choose?


  1. I have a two monitor setup at work and a one monitor setup at home. They are both useful for different things. I wouldn’t worry about the gap in the middle – you get used to it, and rarely split windows between monitors.

    For programming, the dual monitor setup lets me develop on one monitor and view the result on the other, so it makes sense. For home, I usually do image work, and I like having one large image instead. So I would say get two if part of your workflow involves doing a task that you can split into two applications, otherwise just stick with one.

  2. Whatever size you decide to buy, make sure they’re matched. I used to run a 20″ and a 17″, but I found it annoying when I had to resize windows after dragging them from one display to the next.

    Now I have a 20″ iMac and a 20″ Dell monitor and I’m much happier.

    I wouldn’t want to get anything larger than a 20″ display in a multi-monitor setup though. I like being able to take in the whole screen without “panning” my head around. I’ve always drooled over the 30″ Apple Cinema displays, but I know I could never actually work on one.

  3. I’m with Chris on this one. I have dual monitors set up at work and at home, and I organize in similar fashions to him. Plus I am in Photoshop and Illustrator a fair bit, which like to extend as far as they can over a given monitor, and sometimes I need to use them as a reference rather than an environment. Having two monitors makes this way more of a possibility. I am actually just about at the point where I am considering having two monitors hooked up to two different machines but both in dual monitor configuration with a switch. Only problem is that one of them is a Mac and the other is a Windoze box, which makes finding the right switch, shall we say, erm.. difficult. Apparently not a lot of people do this..

  4. I also use two monitors – have been for over six years now. A couple years ago I wrote a blog post about the advantage of dual-monitors.

    I’ve got a 20″ Cinema Display and a 19″ Sharp that’s in need of replacement. I was also looking at the 24″ Samsung in the $450 range but I think to get an experience that matches the quality of the Cinema Display, I’ll likely need to move into the next level of Samsung, Apple or Dell monitor, which is in the $700 range for a 24″.

    Being a windows user, I like having two monitors because it allows me to maximize the windows when working (ie. the snap into place). On one big monitor I find it’s easier to get lost.

    All that said, if someone were to drop a 30″ Cinema Display on my desk tomorrow, I don’t think I would care if they walked away with my two monitors. But I’d probably still want a little monitor to preview web work.

    My vote, two monitors.

  5. Hi Darren,
    I’ve got a matched set of Dell 19″ monitors, and this is my preferred setup. When I have to work on my laptop, it feels cramped because I can’t move windows out of my way. You don’t even see the split after working this way for a while (at least, I don’t).

  6. I agree with pretty well everyone else here that dual displays is better than a larger single. The nice thing is that you can quickly maximize a window in one monitor without affecting anything in the other. Maximizing on a large (30-inch) display is just… goofy.

  7. I miss the two monitors I had at my last job, because I’d have my code and terminals on the left one and the browser and email up on the right, so that I’d work on one and refer to the other and not have to switch between windows. Now I have a wide 20″ but find I can’t really have two things running side by side except for terminals.

    I have never used a really big monitor, however, so I’m not sure what’s better.

  8. Absolutely, without question, two monitors. Or if you can, get three. Large monitors just can’t compare to multiple monitors. The productivity gains are amazing. It sounds nutty, but you really do have to experience to believe it.

  9. I’ll echo the consensus: absolutely two monitors, especially if you’re doing any sort of coding. Or writing documents where you need to cut and paste from multiple applications. And, if you can afford it and have the desk space, go for three. Two monitors for ‘work’, one for web browser/email/im/irc/help files/misc. documentation.

    I find now after many years of dual monitors that I just don’t seem to be able to get any work done on one monitor. You get used to the gaps pretty quickly. My only beef is that even now, Windows XP does an extremely poor job managing the desktop stretched across several monitors. You get used to the quirks, but …. it’s quirky. If you can, run Linux instead. X.org and the various window managers do a much better job.


  10. I’ve currently got two 19″ LCD monitors, and I love the setup for network admin & project management. I also wouldn’t go much bigger for a dual display configuration (unless you enjoy a sore neck).

  11. Back when displays were still expensive, I’ve had as many as three smaller displays at a time. Right now my music workstation has two. I find them more useful than a single larger one would be. And when on my laptop (which is most of the time), I make liberal use of Mac OS X 10.5’s “Spaces” virtual desktops — but it’s nowhere near the same.

  12. I have a matched set of Dell monitors (21″ I think at work). I find it very useful to have them in different orientations – one is in portrait, for long text documents, and the other is in landscape, for wide diagrams. Windows has no problem supporting these two modes seamlessly side-by-side, presumably the Mac would be ok with it as well.

  13. One thing to keep in mind with the large wide screen monitors is that the 24″ through 28″ models all have the same resolution, 1900×1200. They will display the same amount of information, only the sharpness could vary.

    At work I have two 21″ LCDs running at 1600×1200. I tend to use one as my primary work monitor and the other for Outlook or for running a desktop of a different machine. I don’t generally span applications between the monitors.

  14. If you read between the lines, it’s not the number of monitors, it’s the amount of screen real estate.

    So, yeah, I agree with everyone: more is better; more of the same size/resolution is better than more of different size/resolution (well, Richard Akerman is an exception but his exception may be completely appropriate to some circumstances).

    Let us know what you decide in the end.

  15. Even with my 13″ Macbook screen alongside my 22″ Samsung, I still prefer two monitors. I dedicate the small one to chat windows and various other widgets.

  16. I work on two 17″ monitors, and that space between the two of them isn’t very noticeable after a few days of use. And it’s very handy to leave a window open in the other monitor while working away. I spend most of my day working on PeopleSoft in one window and pdf documents in the other, and it works very well.

  17. Another vote for duals, Darren – been using ’em for 10 years. As soon as I started this new gig back in July, others in the office got interested and we’re now in a program to get everybody upgraded. The stats for surveys of efficiency improvements are universally in the 30% range.

    One disadvantage to a single huge monitor is that it takes a lot more mousing to get around it. I actually like the separation tasks enforced by 2 monitors

    Like others here, I use one as my primary and one as my “monitoring” monitor – everything from chat client to Outlook, to server monitoring. When photo editing, one full monitor for workspace canvas and the second for palettes ans toolbars

    I’m doing 2×20″ at 1600×1200 which is perfect for me. Since you’ve already got the 23″ though, if your were to add something to it, I’d go the 24 inch route. One of the things it does beautifully, especially for web editing, is going to vertical orientation. You then have a vertical monitor that splits into two windows 1200×950 px each. You can essentially stack 2 web browsers one on top of the other, and still have your second monitor for actual editing.

    If you’re going to get 2 new monitors, I’d suggest 2-20 inch (make sure they’re 1600×1200) that are NOT widescreen, unless you’re going to do video editing. The double screen essentially does much more effectively what a wide aspect ratio is trying to do in a single monitor.

    Can’t remember if your primary machine is a Windows box? (I know you’re Mac on the laptop but think I’m remembering you’re on PC for workstation?) If Windows for the dual monitor workstation, you’ll want to grab either MultiMon (free) or Ultramon (about $40) for optimal multi-monitor management. They really do offer useful features, the main one being the ability to have a taskbar on each monitor, instead of just the primary. (Anthony, you might want to check these out, if you haven’t already).


  18. @Davin: What you’re trying to do sounds like a perfect application for Synergy

    It’s essentially a “network KVM switch” except without the video part. It allows you to set up 2 separate machines with separate monitors, but using the same keyboard and mouse. As you move the mouse from one screen to another, the software senses the change and bring the mouse and keyboard focus to the “new” system. It’s quite slick and worth a try as it’s a cross-platform open source project. So no cost compared to the cost of a hardware switch which could be hard to find.

    The other thing you can do, if your monitors have dual inputs, is plug both systems into both monitors, then use Synergy in concert with the input switching capabilities of the monitors.

    I have a dual monitor setup on my Windows box, with my Mac plugged into the second input of my second monitor and Synergy activated to control the Mac. I typically work all day in Windows, but when I need the Mac for testing, I move the mouse off the top off my screen to activate Mac control, then hit the input switcher on the monitor to bring the Mac screen up. The end result is pretty much the configuration you describe wanting, but also offering me a true dual-screen system on Windows when I want it.

    You’d also have the ability go whole hog and create a “dual monitor setup for each system” interchangeable with a “one monitor for each” system, though I think my brain would fry trying to keep the configuration straight.

    Check out Synergy though, and see if it’ll do what you want.


  19. Go for the larger if you play games a lot but be ready to have a powerful video card

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