How many displays?


Source: Stefan Didak King of Geeks 

How many displays is optimal? 

God bless geeks! I nominate Stefan Didak to be king-of-office-geeks!  

A few of us on RestartGTD have been talking about the optimal number of monitors over the past few days. I found that I have a lot of opinions for a simple setup with 1 significant to large monitor that is <30″.  In order to unpack my opinions, I though I’d take a trip down desk-memory-lane, and see how my desks have evolved over the past 12 years.  

Monitor Setups I’ve tried: 

In the beginning … I had one monitor.  One 5″ monitor.  But at age 22 in 1982, when my eyes still worked, this was bliss.  Freedom from punched cards and the disdainful geeks in white coats.  I could even use my computer at home!  


Desk Computer 1981-2

Next, I had one monitor, one 9″ monitor.  A detachable keyboard was an ergonomically improvement.  Why?  Because you could put a box of laser cut pin-feed printer paper underneath the Compaq, and then you could look straight ahead into the monitor as you typed.  


Desk computer 1983

~~Fast forward to Y2K~~ 

In the beginning (9 years pre GTD for me) were 20″ CRT monitors.  I don’t think I have any pictures of 20″ CRTs on my desk.  But, when 20″ LCD monitors replaced CRTs, I began keeping a pretty good record.   I think of Monitor Setup 1 as my “I read therefore I am” desk.  What I liked about this desk was that I could have all the books I love most, within arm’s reach.  What I don’t like looking at it now is how the clutter pours down from every visible angle.  This was still the desktop era (tower barely visible between the two monitors).

Note that the keyboard and mouse are very close to the edge of the work surface, an ergonomic setup that I can use for only about 5 minutes today.  As soon as I don’t have my forearms firmly planted and I start typing, my hands go numb.  At this phase of pre-GTD I was reflexively performing the slob’s liturgy, “I know where everything is!” daily.  And, my angel of a wife said “I have to have a door that I can close on Bill’s office.”   

Superdesk 7

Monitor Setup 1: 12/31/2000

I think that Y2K was the year that large monitors broke below the $2,000 price point.  I was making good money then, consulting on intellectual property, so I had to try the larger monitor to see if it was better.  News flash: big monitors are better.  You task switch faster, you multitask more efficiently, and being able to move the monitor around (i.e., because it has a good arm under it) allows you to use many more poses while you work.  

I started with large monitors by setting up a second workstation with a 23″ Apple Cinema Display.  For me, this was a big improvement, and somehow I was able to keep the table clear which also improved productivity.  You can see the PowerMac below the table, and a limited amount of clutter.   


Setup 1 + 2: 12/31/2000

In 2004 I still had the PowerMac and 23″ Cinema Display, but I shifted my “I read therefore I am desk” away from desktops and used the new HP 18″ laptop with an external 20″ display.  The 2nd 20″ display was absconded with by one of my 3 sons. 

DSC 7132

Setup 3 with Son #2: 11/23/2004

In 2005 I re-organized my office and then used 3 operating systems, 2 monitors, and 2 laptops. As I recall, I heated the office in the winter time with all these computers running!  Note the chaotic organization of materials in the cabinet at right.  


Setup 4: 2005

My nonexistent organization skills had a strong evolutionary impact on my office, albeit a negative impact.  By 2008 I was working out of a compost pile on my desk.  My most productive hours were at night, working by the glow of the 23″ monitor.  I think this was because at that time, I could not see the clutter of my working compost pile.  By this time I had replaced my “I read therefore I am” desk with stacking bookcases and a new Jesper Scandinavian desk setup.  So, I was down to one desk, two monitors (on laptop and on monitor arm), of which I only used 1 monitor.  This is the first evolution away from multiple monitors to a single larger monitor for me.  

GTDBefore01D3M 2516

Setup 5: 5/2008 

The next monitor evolution was to a 30″ (ar! ar! ar!) Apple Cinema display.  I feel a little odd describing this to you.  Like Tim Allen looked on TOOL TIME when he had a 72″ bar chain saw that was obviously too big for him to handle.  I read GTD, got going in 2008, and then I hired a local organizing guru in Boise, Mega Hoiosen, and she made a few changes in layout that really improved how the office worked.  I also added a “Perfect Chair” for reading and reclined telecommuting.  The monitor arm then allowed the 30″ display to hang over the desk, or over the perfect chair (ar! ar! ar!).   

I had also read GTD by this time, so the ambiance of the office pics from here is clean. Whiteboards installed on bookcase ends, walls beside the door and on the door itself.  My first GTD office!  It was a sweet release from clutter!  

D3M 368211162008

Setup 6: 11/2008

*Aside* I have to take this opportunity to show you the after cabinet setup.  When people tour my office these days, they look inside my cabinet and often say “I am going to replicate this.”  I found the totes at Walmart for $3 each and I kept acquiring them until at peak load, the cabinet had 33 totes in it.  I’ve found since, that every year I need fewer totes.  Since moving to Portland, Beth and I have been on a “if we are not using it, we are giving it away” load lightening program.  Better organization of less stuff, feels WONDERFUL! 

D3M 3702

Now initially I LOVED the 30″ display.  But looking back on the experience, I think I was being a mindless Mac fanboy.  It was fun when people went “Whoooooooaaaa!!!” when the saw the monitor.  I never actually heated a sandwich on the 30″ display, but I could have.  You felt the heat on your face as you used it.  I’m nearsighted so I felt a lot of heat as I was often 10″ from the monitor for long periods of time.  

Now, I’m getting in the zone with the “tweak your office and see how it makes you feel” principle of GTD, so I decide to further tweak my desk, and the obvious way to do that is a … wait for it, wait for it, a second LARGE monitor!  And oh yes, a Bose speaker system (*Note* the double sided sticky tape holing the speakers on!), and a desk filing frame behind the monitor so as to keep the desk surface clear, but keep important files near.   

D3M 5683

Setup 7: 3/2010

While having a 30″ and a 25″ monitor was definitely cool in a mindless Mac fanboy way, it was hot, dark (the more surface area around you, the more shadow), and eventually, a little overwhelming.  I definitely felt that having project folders on the desk was too much.  So, I gave the 25″ monitor to a friend who bent over backwards for me time and time again (Thanks Bryan!), Gave the Mac Mini and 30″ monitor to my iPhone app programmer to pay him for coding.  And I dropped back to a 24″ iMac.  

D3M 2940

Setup 8: 1/2011

And I have not missed the 2nd monitor.  Mac, Windows, and Linux applications are unruly with large and many monitors.  It grips my groin that every time I open Excel, for example, it covers the entire screen.  In fact this “screen greediness” is the only complaint I have with Windows 7.  Windows 7 is the first build of Windows since NT 3.51 that feels as solid as Mac OS X.  But the screen greediness of Microsoft applications is a perpetual annoyance in my Windows use and especially in my computer lab teaching.  

After setting up my office in January 2011, Beth and I lived in an apartment for a year, found a house, and then moved in.  In the new house, I took what I liked about Setup 8 (above) and extended it.  Instead of a regular large desk, I bought an IKEA conference table, Galant adjustable legs, cable management, and a new high capacity monitor arm.  Then I bought a 27″ iMac and set it up on the arm.  So, here is Setup 9: 

Actually, I’ll finish this post after I get back to the computer with the Setup 9 pictures on it.  

Have a great day! 


bill meade 









3 thoughts on “How many displays?

  1. So I showed the IKEA conference table setup to my wife (basically just pointed her to your site – she likes it, by the way!) and it “met with her approval” (yes!)

    I’ll be off to IKEA in a few weeks (rubs hands together) – now, I will have to source a monitor arm… and figure out the best way to mount/hide my MacBook Pro and 3 external hard drives underneath the table. I want a totally clean surface. I think I have an idea.

  2. I’ve got two displays for my Windows desktop PC in my office. I use almost all applications in fullscreen mode and use the second screen for reading or searching while I use the first one for writing/creating content.

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