I need more screen space - best way to get that? (Mac)
November 14, 2022 8:42 AM   Subscribe

It's about time for me to replace my desktop machine (a 27" iMac from 2017). The problem is figuring out what to replace it with, ideally that will give me more screen space. Apparently 27" isn't enough. I'm interested in ideas on how to do that sensibly for my needs and situation, and in recs for a monitor depending on what I end up picking.

Me: Librarian (and will use this machine sometimes for my day job), but more importantly a writer. I do a lot of research wrangling, editing, things that do better with multiple active windows up on the screen at once. (My other computer is a MacBook Air for times I need portability.)

General use: I don't use a ton of high-demand apps, but I am absolutely the person who has dozens of browser tabs open, including a fairly high-memory using tracking spreadsheet, so I'm usually using about 2/3 of my current 16GB memory, and occasionally hit needing to push the computer to behave itself about its memory use.

Overall: Budget is not a huge driving factor here: willing to go up to $2500 or $3000 to get what works best for me. Cheaper would be great but this is a thing I'll use most of the day, every day, I want the right thing for me.

I'd like to move to at least an M1 chip, but I'm trying to figure out my options for a better screen layout for my needs.

Screen layout: My most common layout (currently using Mosaic for this) has a narrow strip down the left (about a quarter of the screen) with a video at the top and a chat window at the bottom. These need to be visible, but don't need a ton of screen space.

The other two thirds are normally my working space. Sometimes I'll be focusing on something and split it half and half, but in a couple of cases (Gmail reading pane to the right, looking at you...) that cuts off useful info, and I have to scroll or rearrange things. A bit more elbow room, visually, would be great.

I do not need super high visual quality (I like my current Retina screen, but don't need it, I do not do detailed image/video editing, etc.) I do care about clarity of image, because my eyes do a lot, let's make it easier on them.

Physical space: My desktop lives at the foot of my bed, on a "over the bed" desk. I've got about 36" to play with for total space, but the cat does like to circulate around the back of the computer from time to time. (I am willing to give up this option, she might forgive me eventually.)

I'll be using an external keyboard and trackpad no matter what else I choose, and sound quality is not a huge factor.

Options I'm considering: (but please suggest other ideas given the above).

1) 24" iMac and a secondary screen (for the left hand side materials). I see that there are some secondary screens/portable monitors that would either work vertically or could be tucked down below the main screen to one side. Close to what I'm currently using, M1 chip, would need a secondary monitor, only 16MB memory as an option.

2) Mac Mini with a good-sized (32" or 36") monitor. Quite possibly the cheapest option, but only 16MB memory as an option. M1 chip.

3) MacBook Pro with a good-sized monitor (again 32" or 36"). 24GB memory as an option, also portable (even if I didn't make it portable most of the time.) M2 chip.

Thanks for any thoughts, ideas, and specific recs!
posted by jenettsilver to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure it’s in your price range, but any of the above (or the low-tier Mac Studio) plus an LG 34WK95U/34BK95U ultrawide would probably match up pretty well with your asks.
posted by doomsey at 8:53 AM on November 14, 2022

Bear in mind that one of the main things that determines how much you can fit on your screen is resolution. Resolution is not the same thing as physical size. Your 27" iMac screen has a resolution of 5120 x 2880, i.e. "5k". A cheap 30"+ monitor will likely have lower resolution (probably 4K). You will therefore be able to fit less stuff on the screen unless it is ultrawide.

Don't get another iMac. Get a mac Mini if you don't have room to use the laptop's display, otherwise get a Macbook. If you can keep the laptop open then use it for one or two of your tasks (e.g. Slack, video calls). And then for the external display, if you have room, get an ultrawide. If you don't have room, get a decent 4K 27" or 32" monitor (they can display the same number of pixels, so the physical size is up to you. 27" will look sharper and is what I would choose, especially if it allows you to open the laptop).
posted by caek at 8:58 AM on November 14, 2022

Best answer: All those options are good. Pretty much any third party monitor is going to be 4K resolution — so slightly less than the 5K monitor in your 27" iMac. At home, I upgraded my 27" iMac to a 16gb Mac Mini with a 27" 4K monitor. Even though the screen is smaller resolution, I scale it so it actually fits slightly more on screen than on the iMac, and it looks sharp.

At work, I have a MacBook Pro attached to a 32" 4K monitor, and I think it's scaled so I can fit even more on screen, which isn't an issue, since the monitor is 5" bigger. I'm hoping to upgrade my 27" at home to a 32" because it's so much nicer. The one I have at work is by BenQ, and they include some software that lets you partition your desktop, which might be helpful for what you're doing.
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:59 AM on November 14, 2022

Best answer: I have a similar use case and I was considering a similar array of options last year. I chose option #3 and I really like it. Rather than splitting my budget by maintaining both a laptop and a desktop, I bought the best Macbook I could afford and paired it with a high-quality secondary monitor. When at my main desk, I use this laptop stand and a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse to make it ergonomic. From there, I have great options for portability.
- If I'm working somewhere for a few days, I'll take the laptop, the laptop stand (it folds up tightly), an external mouse, and a teeny-tiny folding Bluetooth keyboard.
- If I'm working elsewhere for a few hours, I'll just take the laptop without any of the ergonomic kit.
- And if I want an ultralight kit for just doing emails, journaling, or another single task, I'll take the teeny-tiny folding keyboard and pair it with my phone.
posted by ourobouros at 9:00 AM on November 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

I also use and recommend Option 3.

There are some crazy-big and crazy-expensive monitors you could hook up. I'm using a more conventional 27" 4K monitor, which is really nice, and sometimes I use resolution scaling to split the difference between "default" and "more text" if I need more room. I've also got an external keyboard and trackpad, and a perch for the laptop so that it lines up better with my monitor to extend the desktop.

I've got the M1 MacBook Pro, which is great. Great keyboard, display, and build quality: it feels like a solid billet of aluminum. All of the M-series chips are very fast, efficient, and more parsimonious with RAM.
posted by adamrice at 9:13 AM on November 14, 2022

Apple's Pro Display XDR would give you a lot of screen space (32" diagonal) — and at 6k resolution, to boot, so everything is crystal clear.

It connects via Thunderbolt 3, and so it should work with any modern Apple desktop or portable.

It has three USB-C ports at the back for plugging in other gadgets. Unlike other monitors, these days, it does not come with a camera built-in. Logitech sells one that sticks to the top with a magnet.

The Pro Display XDR is not cheap, but it is a lot of display. If your budget allows, definitely take a look.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:14 AM on November 14, 2022

I’ve had good experiences with using a laptop stand like the one ourobouros mentions. Specifically it looks like a ripoff of the roost stand, so getting that one may appeal if you’d rather not support Amazon
posted by Cogito at 9:51 AM on November 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

The Apple Pro Display is $5000 — very much outside the OP's budget.
posted by jonathanhughes at 10:34 AM on November 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

For a very similar use case, I have the M1 Mac Mini with a 34" Dell Ultrasharp Ultrawide monitor (U3415W) on this swing arm. It feels like a vast amount of screen real estate to me.

It's a dream to use and (bonus!) cat-approved. Not sure if it would work with an over-bed desk, though, unless the desk is very well balanced and securely anchored - the swing arm plus monitor are pretty heavy.
posted by invincible summer at 10:36 AM on November 14, 2022

In the food for thought department, would you be happier with 2 external monitors? As a heads up, not all apple devices support this option natively.

Another option might be using an ipad can be used as a secondary display (or just as another device). I'm envisioning that video watching/ e-mail could potentially happen from the ipad.

Regarding your external monitor(s), I think a monitor arm may help keep your setup more kitty friendly, provided that your desk is suitable.
posted by oceano at 11:19 AM on November 14, 2022

The Apple Pro Display is $5000 — very much outside the OP's budget.
Also, absurdly overkill for the task. If you don’t need to be doing professional color work, it’s not worth it.
posted by Cogito at 11:42 AM on November 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have a cheapish 4k tv I use as a display and it's great
posted by Nothing at 2:18 AM on November 15, 2022

Best answer: Another option 3 vote here, except I use an M1 MBP with a Studio Display. If I ever want more screen real estate, I'll get another SD. The laptop came at the end of January and I'm still relishing the upgrade from my old 2015 iMac.
posted by kingless at 3:28 AM on November 15, 2022

Response by poster: My thanks for all the comments so far! I've marked a few of the most helpful answers for me, but one further question:

For those of you using laptop stands who have cats, how's that working for you? Knowing myself (and my cat), I'm up for a solution that involves closing the lid, but not taking the laptop entirely off the stand every night, etc. I'm worried about her climbing it, or nudging against it, so interested in particularly sturdy stands that keep the laptop securely in place, even if a cat rubs against it from the side/etc.

That, or I'll go for option 2!
posted by jenettsilver at 9:16 AM on November 15, 2022

I have a cat and she hasn't caused any problems with my laptop stand...though that's no guarantee yours wouldn't. The Nexstand/Roost-style foldable stand is designed to be light and might scoot sideways if aggressively nuzzled by a cat. However, it seems structurally stable and very unlikely to actually tip over, especially if the laptop lid is closed. It also has little friction pads that are quite effective at keeping the laptop from being knocked out of the stand -- I definitely need hands (with thumbs) to remove the laptop.

You might try putting the stand on a neoprene desk mat to help prevent scooting. If you want a heavier stand, Wirecutter has options, or you could always try a stack of coffee table books.
posted by ourobouros at 9:26 AM on November 15, 2022

Best answer: If you just need more desktop space, you can change your current iMac display to "scale" but the opposite - System Preferences -> Displays -> Resolution -> Scaled -> More Space.

The belief that the 5K display on the iMac shows more stuff than a 4K display is wrong - Apple sets the monitor to show the same amount of "stuff", it's just using twice the amount of pixels than a normal 27" monitor. Otherwise, everything would be displayed half the size, and most people cannot read anything at that size.

You may be a good candidate for an ultrawide monitor - if you routinely want to see more than one window simultaneously, an ultrawide is sorta like having two useful monitors side by side, whereas normal monitors work poorly when split in half. However, because ultrawides are sized differently than normal monitors, the size measurements are misleading. A 34"ultrawide (3440 x 1440) has the same vertical space (both physical and virtually) as a 27" normal monitor (2560 x 1440, and your 27" iMac is set to act like this too), but the additional width is fantastically useful. But ultrawide monitors that are larger than 34" are quite expensive - 38" ultrawides are usually $1k or more, while 34" ultrawides (non-gaming) seem to have settled in the $400 range.

There's also the option of getting a second monitor, but unlike the ultrawide it will always be a "second" monitor and not easily able to integrate with the first.
posted by meowzilla at 9:59 AM on November 15, 2022

I have two cats. This is the laptop stand that I use. Nudging hasn't been a problem—it's pretty stout. And because the keyboard is held at an angle, it's not an attractive climbing/lying surface.
posted by adamrice at 10:15 AM on November 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone who helped with this! The last piece of my setup arrived today, and I am delightedly set up in a way that's doing everything I was hoping.

I ended up going for the 13" MacBook Pro (M2) chip, and a 34" monitor (the Dell 34 Curved USB-C Monitor -P3421W that was the Wirecutter rec for text). So much space! I can see all the things I want to see at the same time! It's glorious!

Specifically, I've got a main window that's half the working space in the centre with my current work, and then columns on either side for chat and other things I want to see, but don't need to be right in the line of sight. (This is why dual monitors weren't a good choice.)

(The MacBook is also delightfully speedy, I've got plenty of memory to play with - I did go up to 24GB on principle.) I'm looking forward to finetuning everything.

Migration Assistant worked like a breeze, too. I've generally been a "migrate manually, it's a good chance to clean things up" and this time that didn't make sense for several reasons (though I did do a bunch of file cleanup in advance). It meant I was up and running within a couple of hours, though.
posted by jenettsilver at 2:16 PM on December 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

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