More Pixels Lets You Be More Productive
by Dr. Jon Peddie
The use of multiple monitors dates back to the beginning of the PC age (1981) when multiple display controller boards (as they were called then) had to be used and custom drivers employed.
Since then, multiple concepts for driving multi-screens have been developed and evolved to the present where the Windows and iOS operating systems can easily handle the management of multiple displays, and even integrated graphics can drive them. The question of ‘should you use multi-monitors?’ has become, why wouldn’t you?
The more you can see, the more you can do
More displays, spread out horizontally not only give you a bigger working space, they stimulate your peripheral vision, and that is the first step to immersion. Alternatively, if you can’t stimulate the peripheral, then block it off with goggles, and/or a darkened room. The whole idea is to remove distractions in real world from the simulated.
Our studies have found that productivity can be increased by 50% or more with multiple monitors. Realism and the details revealed with more display area not only improve understanding in a visualization, but increase enjoyment. It’s tiresome to have a constrained view of the world; it’s like looking at the world through a tube or a pair of binoculars.
Multiple displays—the productivity enhancer
Figure 1: Multi-monitor setup circa 1999.
Multiple displays are a staple in professional environments including CAD, scientific visualization, analysis, and financial centers. Now that prices for many LCDs have settled comfortably in the under $200 range, the use of multiple monitors is available to mainstream users. Today, users of desktop and laptop computers can install multiple monitors on their system for no additional cost than the displays themselves.
Due to the software drivers in the operating system, each monitor can be used to extend the Windows desktop. You can drag program windows across the gap between screens, as if that physical break between the individual monitors did not exist, and position, for example, a Web browser on one display and an Excel chart on the other. You can also open multiple copies of the web browser, and all the applications, windows, and browsers can be individually set for size and location independently of the others.
Figure 2: Open more pages, drag from one to the other.
While it is true you can attempt to do the same on one monitor by juggling program windows, but it cannot be done with the same degree of efficiency, clarity, and productivity. With multiple monitors, there’s no need for window hide-and-seek, no need to shuffle one window from another. You can keep open more windows, thereby seeing more, and able to do more with less mousing, sizing, toggling and frustration. This magnifies the benefits from multi-tasking significantly.
Being able to do more by seeing more means to have more pixels on the screen—effectively high resolution than can be obtained on any monitor.
The math is simple two 1920 × 1080 monitors side-by-side give you a 3840 × 2160 resolution, (over 4 million pixels). And it scales, add a third monitor and it’s a full 3X more visibility into your applications and work.
All new graphics boards and all new laptops feature built-in multiple monitor ports and controls at no extra cost. Windows 10 and Macintosh Operating System 10+ fully support multiple monitors, and there are special programs from card and computer manufactures for older operating systems.
The age of multiple displays is here—do more by seeing more
We live in a busy world with too many demands on our time and an unrelenting stream and backlog of data. Devices such as tablets, smartphones and convertibles are bought to help manage time. As a result, millions of books on how to prioritize and stay focused are sold annually and seminars on how to be more efficient are a booming business. All of them miss the obvious – the more you can see the more you can do; and the more you see the better and faster you can do it.
Most people today spend most of their work time in front of a computer. The wide array of computer applications has enabled us to do more things ourselves, and we’ve come to depend on it as a result. In fact, many people in management are taking on more tasks—tasks such as typing, letter writing, general communications, that were handled by secretaries and tasks such as creating presentation, image processing, photography, drawing and diagramming that were handled by specialists within the company. People are taking on more tasks than ever before. Are they more productive?
In addition to the onscreen information deluge, most people have papers all over their desk. And when they run out of space, they put Post-its on their papers, their monitors, and walls. An average desk is about 72 × 36 inches or 2,592 square inches and if there were nothing else on the surface the desk can hold approximately twelve sheets of paper flat down with little to no overlapping. In addition to the ever-present computer monitor, the average information worker usually has four sheets that are visible at once for quick referencing—plus the Post-its to remind him/her of what they should be doing.
If the average screen size is 17-inch diagonal, that’s about 148 square inches of display. At HD resolution (1920 × 1080), you can comfortably see about 1.25 pages with a zoom of 75%, that just doesn’t compare to a desk, or multiple monitors.
Pros of a single monitor
A large single monitor with high resolution is an excellent choice for improved productivity if one has limited desk space and/or budget. Some of the advantages of a large single display are discussed here.
- Focus attention. One of the best researched articles on the benefits of a single monitor was written by Cory House. House’s contention is “Humans can only focus on one thing at a time,” and multiple displays are distracting, and cites Cal Newport’s work on “Deep Work.”
- Virtual desktop. Managing desktops beyond the limitations of a physical display is an excellent technique to organize groups of windows and make them easily access. Virtual desktops were invented at Xerox PARC in the 1980s (called Rooms), and the concept was copied by Apple on the Mac, and by Microsoft in Windows 3.x. Microsoft (called the Virtual Desktop Manager) Several other operating systems (e.g., Unix, Linux, etc.) and third-party utilities have also introduced virtual desktops. In 2015, Microsoft made a native virtual desktop capability in Windows 10. A virtual desktop allows the user to open several applications and files simultaneously and park them in the task bar. There they can be quickly opened up and made the main application or document on the screen.
- Big enough but not too big. A large (> 27-inch) medium resolution (> HD) monitor is a fine compromise, and is often referred to as “Good enough.”
As with all technical products from automobiles to smartphones, no single solution is going to be the “one size fits all” panacea for everyone. Therefore, advocacy of a particular solution is suspect, even mine for multiple displays.
Cons of multiple monitors and/or large screen
As with any concept there will be opportunities, and criticisms of it, and multiple and/or large single monitors are no exception. However, some of the criticisms seem specious and contrived. Nonetheless, I’ve listed some of them here and my opinions about them.
- Too many choices creates choice anxiety. Having lots of screen space can make you less productive because of the choices you are confronted with. American psychologist Barry Schwartz contends in his 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice,” that decision fatigue is a real problem. Sometimes, more is less (he presented the concepts at his TED talk in 2005). In the book, he explores the stress people feel when confronted with ample opportunity, and the regret that follows from choosing poorly. He also cites the loss of presence (why am I doing this when I could be doing that?), and our raised expectations (with so many options, why settle for less?). “Choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied,” says Schwartz. Which of course is counter-intuitive to the concepts that the way to maximize freedom, is to maximize choice.” Schwartz’s book was discussed by social scientist, economists, and phycologists, and in November 2009, Tim Harford published a piece in the Financial Times, saying that, “offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way.” And is 2013, Derek Thompson published an article in The Atlantic titled “More Is More: Why the Paradox of Choice Might Be a Myth.” Although these discussions are interesting in a social science realm, they don’t really apply (or shouldn’t apply) in the case of a personal workspace. It would be just as logical to say having a small desk that will only hold one book or folder, because that is all you can read at a single setting. Or, there shouldn’t be a pan-shots of a sports field because you should only look at the ball. If one can’t focus on a given document or file when several others are on the screen(s) at the same time, then that is a personal issue of poor concentration. However, the productivity of wide screens and/or multi-screens, comes from having quick access to associated and supporting information for the task at hand. It’s like having a tool box open near you, even though you are only using one tool at a time.
- Too many documents are distracting. Having lots of screen space can make you less productive due to all the open windows, applications, browsers, files, and documents distract your attention from your primary task.
- Too much moussing around needed. Another criticism of a large, or multiple displays, is the amount of mouse movement needed to get from one document or file to another. Some proponents of single (and smaller) displays contend the amount of cursor movement required actually takes longer than switching between virtual desktops. That is an interesting premise and one that could be tested in a time-and-motion study (and beyond the scope of this report). The difference would be the time it takes to mouse left or right to the other document needed, vs. moussing down to the task bar and then clicking on the application or desired document. I wrote a book many years ago on graphical user interfaces and graphic standards, and in it described the various ways being developed to get more information, in a convenient, useful, and accessible manner on a single screen (and at the time, a 19-inch 1280 × 1024 screen was considered the biggest and best). Virtual desktops were the solution, and various companies developed schemes to provide it. It was (and still is) a work-around to the problem of limited screen size and resolution.
In the Introduction, I mentioned my second axiom, “The more you can see, the more you can do.” My first axiom (1981) is:
In computer graphics, too much is not enough
The rule applies primarily to the need in simulations, games, and movies to obtain as much realism as possible to take the participant into the realm of the suspension of disbelief. However, it also applies to the concept of seeing more and doing more. Computer displays are computer graphics devices. They are bit-mapped, use GUIs, play videos, games, and animations, even simple ones like animated GIFs in messages. As pointed out in the beginning, limited screen space and resolution restricts the user to a myopic view, and wastes his or her time moving and opening applications and files to find associated information.
The most beneficial, and proudest thing OS developers did was to make a multi-taking system with a GUI. The ability to have dozens of browsers, applications, and file open simultaneously was one of the breakthroughs that enabled the explosive growth of the PC in the 1990s. To restrict the use and opportunity of having multiple documents and applications available to you instantaneously is Luddite.
Good enough never is
JPR conducted a survey to determine if end users were aware of the advantages of multiple displays, if they had such display capability, and if not why not and/or did they plan to obtain such capability.
Usage and awareness
When we did our first multi-monitor survey in 2002, we asked if the respondents were using multiple monitors, and 68% said no. In our 2012 survey, 59% said no; and in this 2017 survey we found that 90% of the respondents are using multiple monitors.
Figure 3: The adoption of multiple monitors over time.
This is a dramatic uptake but over the period of time (15 years) is only a CAGR of 10%; and, most likely the curve is now asymptotic.
The end-user survey segregated the respondent into two major classifications—using multiple monitors, and not using multiple monitors. In this section, we report on the findings of the respondents who are using multiple monitors.
As mentioned, this is our third survey of multi-monitor users. Our motivation for the surveys was to find out if our premise of productivity of being able to do more by seeing more was being realized by the users (the respondents to our surveys). In 2002, the average expectation of productivity improvement due the use of multiple monitors was 46%. Productivity expectation in 2012 dropped a bit to 42%, and in our recent 2017 survey it stayed the same at 42% average expected productivity.
Arranging the data in a Pareto chart, where individual values are represented in descending order by bars, and the cumulative total is represented by the line, shows the significance of the respondent’s expectations.
Figure 4: Expected productivity from multiple monitors.
With the increased use of multiple monitors, and the similarity in expectations of productivity, it seems reasonable to assume 42% average productivity is a realistic expectation for increased productivity through the use of multiple monitors.
HD, 1920 × 1080, was the most popular resolution for all monitors, as shown in the following chart.
Figure 5: HD (1920 × 1080) was by far the most popular resolution for all monitors.
The second most popular resolution was 1920 × 1200, followed by 2560 × 1400, which shows a desirability for not only more screen space but more pixels as well—seeing more, to do more.
Number of monitors
However, only a few people had more than two monitors, which is shown in the next chart.
Figure 6: All of the multi-monitor users had two or more monitors.
Only 1.3% of the respondents had five monitors, which is not too surprising given the space, cost, and power requirements to run five monitors.
Although all modern graphics add-in boards (AIBs), and graphics processor units chips (GPUs) used in modern laptops can drive multiple displays, not everyone has a new AIB or laptop. GPUs can be found on AIBs in desktop computers, as individual chips in laptops, and as part of the CPU in notebooks and low-end desktop units, known as integrated graphics.
Therefore, we wanted to find out if the respondents upgraded their graphics for multi-monitors—most, just barely, did.
Figure 7: Graphics were mostly upgraded for multi-monitor use.
We wondered if there was any correlation between the company size and the upgrading of the AIB, and found that small organizations and individuals upgraded the most often, followed by medium sized organizations.
Summary and Conclusion
The role of multiple monitors as a means toward greater productivity seems to now be well established, and the only hindrances to the benefits of multi monitors is desk space. The cost of monitors has come down to the point where the productivity gains pay off the cost in hours, and the PCs and operating systems today are capable of driving multiple displays without the need for special IT management or involvement.
A few people still prefer a single large (>27-inch) monitor to multiple monitors because of concern about distraction. That’s a personal decision, and not one driven by cost, technology, or available (but as mentioned, maybe desk space).
I practice what I preach. I sit in front of three, 32-in 4K monitors most of the day when I’m in town—that’s 24.8 million pixels, 12x HD, spread across 1,314 sq.-inches of screen, and even that isn’t enough sometimes. I gotta see more, I’ve got a lot to do.