Trial-screens setup: the definitive guide

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
161
articles
June 27, 2015
Tags: featured 8 workplace 7 productivity 33 hardware 10

You got your sec­ond mon­i­tor. You've seen how much it en­hances (or de­grades) your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Now, you are dream­ing of hav­ing three mon­i­tors. Or maybe you don't have dual-screens set­up and you're jump­ing straight to three mon­i­tors set­up. Or maybe you don't have any mon­i­tor at all and your an­ces­tors be­lieved three is a no­ble num­ber? (It ac­tu­al­ly is¹.)

In all those cas­es, you may find a few in­ter­est­ing points in this ar­ti­cle.

Use­ful­ness

Any per­son should have two mon­i­tors, be­cause some­times, it comes in handy. The prob­lem is that two mon­i­tors take a lot of place, and the sec­ond mon­i­tor is use­ful at most once per week for an or­di­nary per­son. That's why they don't have two mon­i­tors.

De­sign­ers and de­vel­op­ers are not or­di­nary peo­ple. They need a large amount of desk­top es­tate on dai­ly ba­sis, be­cause they are con­stant­ly run­ning mul­ti­ple ap­pli­ca­tions at the same time, and need to see them at the same time as well, be­cause switch­ing be­tween ap­pli­ca­tions wastes pre­cious time.

Two mon­i­tors in­crease our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, be­cause they re­move the ex­cise as­so­ci­at­ed with switch­ing be­tween ap­pli­ca­tions. This comes at a price of Fitt's law, i.e. time wast­ed mov­ing the mouse. Two as­pects should be not­ed here.

While the ben­e­fit of a sec­ond mon­i­tor are ob­vi­ous for de­sign­ers and de­vel­op­ers, adding a third mon­i­tor is hard­er to jus­ti­fy. Two mon­i­tors work well for most sit­u­a­tions we en­counter dai­ly: code on one screen, brows­er on an­oth­er; code and brows­er on one screen, real-time logs, real-time per­for­mance or real-time CI re­port­ing on an­oth­er. Makes sense. Three mon­i­tors may make sense in the fol­low­ing sit­u­a­tions:

Es­sen­tial­ly, a third mon­i­tor doesn't bring as much as the sec­ond one, but can even be an is­sue, since it's dif­fi­cult to fo­cus on so many things at the same time. Dual-screen mon­i­tor makes your work dual: code and brows­er, code and re­port­ing from CI serv­er, Adobe Il­lus­tra­tor and a brows­er for help, Adobe Pho­to­shop and pic­tures for in­spi­ra­tion or ref­er­ence, etc. More of­ten than not, the third mon­i­tor is just awk­ward and un­prac­ti­cal.

Be­fore pur­chas­ing a third mon­i­tor, make sure you know ex­act­ly why do you need one and how would it af­fect your pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. If you still de­cid­ed to pur­chase a third mon­i­tor, think about the way you'll po­si­tion it.

Con­fig­u­ra­tions

Switch­ing be­tween con­fig­u­ra­tions is rel­a­tive­ly easy and fast. For ex­am­ple, I use pyra­mid con­fig­u­ra­tion, but oc­ca­sion­al­ly switch to stack+por­trait con­fig­u­ra­tion when I need it for half an hour. I takes twen­ty sec­onds to move the mon­i­tors in new po­si­tion, and an­oth­er twen­ty sec­onds to ad­just them with pre­ci­sion.

Pyra­mid

I found it to be the most prac­ti­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion. Two mon­i­tors are po­si­tioned side by side, and the third one is raised above them. The bot­tom ones are usu­al­ly used for pri­ma­ry work, and the one above them is more for back­ground mon­i­tor­ing. The user stays fo­cused on one of the screens, while her pe­riph­er­al vi­sion cov­ers the oth­er two mon­i­tors—thing which is im­pos­si­ble with curve con­fig­u­ra­tion de­scribed lat­er.

The im­por­tant thing is that mov­ing win­dows (and cur­sor in gen­er­al) to the top mon­i­tor can be chal­leng­ing be­cause of Fitt's law. In­stead of mov­ing the cur­sor in a straight line, you'll of­ten need to use a third point.

An­oth­er draw­back is that de­pend­ing on the an­gle of the mon­i­tor and the stance of the user, both the view­ing an­gle of the top mon­i­tor and the dis­tance from the eyes can make it dif­fi­cult to view the top of it. I have this prob­lem re­cur­rent­ly when I use the third mon­i­tor for logs mon­i­tor­ing, then stop the tail -f, clear the ter­mi­nal and start typ­ing a com­mand: I have to move for­ward to see what I'm ac­tu­al­ly typ­ing.

You may also be un­able to see the very bot­tom of the third mon­i­tor, since a few mil­lime­ters can be hid­den by the two oth­er mon­i­tors:

This usu­al­ly hap­pens to me when I ad­just them while sit­ting straight, but can't see the bot­tom if I start to bend. From my ex­pe­ri­ence, this is still a mi­nor is­sue. One may sug­gest rais­ing the third mon­i­tor, but this would make the top of it more dif­fi­cult to read. It may re­quire mul­ti­ple read­just­ments to find the po­si­tion which works well for you.

Curve

In this con­fig­u­ra­tion, all three mon­i­tors are po­si­tioned side by side. The cen­tral one is used for pri­ma­ry work—this is the mon­i­tor you'll stare at most of the time. Two oth­er mon­i­tors are sec­ondary, giv­en that when you're look­ing at one, you'll be prac­ti­cal­ly un­able to see the one on the op­po­site side, the pe­riph­er­al vi­sion be­ing too nar­row for that. (If, un­like me, you don't have to be close to the mon­i­tors, this is­sue might be ir­rel­e­vant for you.)

Per­son­al­ly, I would use this con­fig­u­ra­tion only when forced by the en­vi­ron­ment. If you don't have mon­i­tor arms (see be­low), you may have no oth­er choice than to use this con­fig­u­ra­tion. If you have some­thing above your mon­i­tors, such as shelves with books you need to ac­cess on reg­u­lar ba­sis, this con­fig­u­ra­tion may be the only valid one. Fi­nal­ly, if you're work­ing in an open space, hid­ing be­hind three 24-inch mon­i­tors may not be per­ceived well by your col­leagues (un­less you're ugly and un­lik­able, in which case, they'll only be hap­py about the wall of mon­i­tors.)

Ben­e­fit:

Draw­back:

Stack+por­trait

This is the con­fig­u­ra­tion where two mon­i­tors are stacked, while the third one is ro­tat­ed 90° and po­si­tioned at the left or right of the first two. This con­fig­u­ra­tion is ide­al when you're work­ing with large amounts of text and you want to see the most of it. For ex­am­ple (see the im­age), fol­low­ing Mon­goDB repli­ca­tion tu­to­ri­als was much eas­i­er with­out hav­ing to jump back­ward and for­ward all the time.

Make sure you check that the im­age is dis­played cor­rect­ly by the mon­i­tor when it's po­si­tioned in por­trait mode. Some per­form quite well; oth­ers are ab­solute­ly ter­ri­ble, with an im­age not lit uni­form­ly (see mon­i­tors sec­tion be­low).

Ben­e­fit:

Draw­backs:

Hard­ware

So what to buy, where to start, what to ex­pect and what to check be­fore mak­ing the pur­chase?

GPU

It is es­sen­tial to check that your cur­rent GPU ac­tu­al­ly sup­ports three mon­i­tors. It doesn't mat­ter how much ports there are on the rear pan­el: my moth­er­board has three of them (VGA, DVI and HDMI), but I can con­nect ei­ther VGA and DVI or VGA and HDMI, be­cause it sim­ply can't use DVI and HDMI at the same time.

In gen­er­al, you won't find this sort of in­for­ma­tion in con­struc­tor's mar­ket­ing ma­te­r­i­al, nor in re­views, since of­ten they don't even men­tion dual-screen se­tups. You may check the man­u­al, if avail­able be­fore pur­chase, or spec­i­fi­ca­tions, al­though most spec­i­fi­ca­tions won't con­tain such de­tail. If un­sure, ask on hard­ware-re­lat­ed fo­rums.

Per­for­mance-wise, with my GeForce GTX 660, there is ab­solute­ly no is­sue us­ing three mon­i­tors when do­ing “or­di­nary things.” By or­di­nary things, I mean run­ning a few desk­top ap­pli­ca­tions which will work with any GPU on one mon­i­tor, an HD video on an­oth­er one, and some hard­ware-ac­cel­er­at­ed web ap­pli­ca­tion in a hard­ware-ac­cel­er­at­ed brows­er on the third one, full-screen.

I'm us­ing it both in Ubun­tu 14.04 and Win­dows 8.1. Both stay pret­ty well re­spon­sive.

As for the games which make use of two or three mon­i­tors, I'm pret­ty sure a more pow­er­ful GPU will be re­quired. For any­thing else, in­clud­ing run­ning one-screen video games, the GPU such as GeForce GTX 660 is large­ly enough. And it costs just $175 at the time of writ­ing.

By the way, if you use a lap­top (why would you do that, se­ri­ous­ly?!), tri­al-screens set­up (the lap­top's mon­i­tor be­ing one of the three mon­i­tors) may not be sup­port­ed (and of­ten isn't). The fact that you can con­nect a mon­i­tor di­rect­ly to a lap­top and an­oth­er one to a dock is ir­rel­e­vant: the GPU may refuse to use both at the same time, leav­ing you with two ex­ter­nal mon­i­tors only but not the lap­top's mon­i­tor, or one ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor and lap­top's one.

Mon­i­tors

Choos­ing the right size is a dif­fi­cult task. Small mon­i­tors are ter­ri­ble, but large ones may not fit, es­pe­cial­ly if you have three of them. An­oth­er im­por­tant point to con­sid­er is that all mon­i­tors should be of the same size, so once you've cho­sen one, you should stick with it.

Per­son­al­ly, I find 24-inch 1920×1080 mon­i­tors the most prac­ti­cal for me. Small­er res­o­lu­tions are sim­ply too small: with 1920×1080, I can put two ter­mi­nal win­dows side by side and still have a place. 23-inch mon­i­tors with the same na­tive res­o­lu­tion strains my eyes when used for ten hours a day. 25-inch mon­i­tors and larg­er won't be an is­sue with dual-screen set­up, but would be prob­lem­at­ic with three screens (see be­low why).

How ex­pen­sive those mon­i­tors should be? It most­ly de­pends on how much do you care about your eyes and com­fort. $200 per mon­i­tor seems a good start­ing point. When choos­ing a mon­i­tor, be aware of the fol­low­ing points:

Check what your GPU sup­ports in terms of in­ter­face. If you can con­nect two DVI and one HDMI, make sure two of your mon­i­tors have a DVI port and one has a HDMI port. Most mon­i­tors have DVI ports. Some don't have HDMI ports.

Mon­i­tor arms

Mon­i­tor arms are an es­sen­tial and manda­to­ry part of the set­up. I'm us­ing Er­gotron LX Desk Mount LCD arms, and they are just ex­cel­lent. The qual­i­ty is out­stand­ing; the arm is well thought, very ro­bust and per­forms well. It's a sort of thing that you use for sev­er­al decades, which makes the $145 price ridicu­lous­ly low. I suc­ceed­ed dam­ag­ing one of the arms, but un­less you're com­plete­ly wild, they will re­main in per­fect con­di­tion (dust doesn't count).

The spec says that the arm can sup­port a 32-inch mon­i­tor, or, in terms of ca­pac­i­ty, up to 11.3 kg. Those arms feel very sol­id and I won't hes­i­tate to use them for flat pan­els of more than 32 inch­es.

The only prob­lem I en­coun­tered with this arm is that it is too low for the top mon­i­tor. This is ac­tu­al­ly not an is­sue for two rea­sons. First, I for­got that the po­si­tion of one of the parts can be ad­just­ed, which would in­stant­ly solve my prob­lem. Sec­ond, Er­gotron has a vari­ant called tall pole (but re­tail­ers rarely have this mod­el) for cas­es where even ad­just­ing the con­cerned part will not be enough.

Er­gotron also has a LX Dual Side-by-Side arm. It can be a good choice, since it will cost slight­ly less than two or­di­nary arms, but make sure you can fix the arm at the mid­dle. On my desk, I can only fix such arm at its right or left side, which means that such arm is not a so­lu­tion for me. You may also buy two or­di­nary arms but use only one of the two bases. This gives you the flex­i­bil­i­ty lat­er to switch to two bases. This is how an Er­gotron arm is fixed to the desk:

An­oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ty is to fix the arm to the wall di­rect­ly. This gives you more com­fort if you use the pyra­mid con­fig­u­ra­tion. The draw­back is that you might not be able to eas­i­ly switch be­tween con­fig­u­ra­tions (but it de­pends most­ly of how pre­cise­ly you fix the arms.)

Most im­por­tant ben­e­fits of hav­ing mon­i­tor arms:

Such arms make the pyra­mid con­fig­u­ra­tion not only pos­si­ble, but very nat­ur­al. By ad­just­ing the an­gles of two screens at the bot­tom and one screen at the top, you can have an ex­cel­lent view of all three mon­i­tors when sit­ting straight, as soon as the third mon­i­tor is used for sec­ondary tasks only, be­ing too far from the user's head.

Ca­bles

This is eas­i­ly for­got­ten, but there is a risk that with three mon­i­tors set­up, the ca­bles which come with mon­i­tors will be too short. When buy­ing ca­bles, re­mem­ber that they will have to go along the arm parts (un­less you want them to hang down or lie down, which is ugly).

Thick ca­bles can't be bent enough to be put in­side the mon­i­tor arm. This is for ex­am­ple the case of my ten-me­ters VGA ca­ble I use to con­nect the mon­i­tor to the serv­er (the ca­ble can be seen on the im­age al­ready shown above; com­pare it to the DVI and C13/C14 ca­bles which fol­low the arm on the im­age.) I also had a lot of pain us­ing the flat HDMI ca­ble (it has a form sim­i­lar to a SATA ca­ble, but slight­ly larg­er and heav­ier; the ca­ble can also be seen on an im­age al­ready shown above.) Al­ways pre­fer cir­cu­lar-shaped HDMI ca­bles; most should bend well enough to be put in­side a mon­i­tor arm.

Some mon­i­tors have spe­cif­ic adapters in­stead of us­ing or­di­nary C13/C14 ca­bles. This sucks, be­cause they are usu­al­ly short, and there is no easy way to make them longer (and is hell if you want to plug the screens into a pro­fes­sion­al UPS.) Al­ways pick a mon­i­tor which uses stan­dard C13/C14 ca­bles for pow­er.

Over­all cost

For only $1,255, we have our set­up, giv­en that you pay $435 for in­de­struc­tible, high-qual­i­ty mon­i­tor arms you can al­ways reuse some­where else if need­ed.

*1* “According to Pythagoras and the Pythagorean school, the number 3, which they called triad, is the noblest of all digits, as it is the only number to equal the sum of all the terms below it, and the only number whose sum with those below equals the product of them and itself.” [Wikipedia][1]