Are two monitors better than one?
May 4, 2007 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I have ~$1000 to put towards a new monitor(s). Should I get one big one, or two medium-sized ones?

I am willing to exceed $1K by a little bit if necessary. I will be using this monitor about 50/50 work and play.

- Primarily academic - word processing, powerpoint, excel, etc. I want a lot of screen space because I like to be able to view several documents at the same time.

- But also: moderate photoshopping, in which detail and resolution is useful; some viewing of videos/DVDs, so big screen is attractive; moderate use of music software (Sonar, Fruityloops, etc.) in which screen space is nice but not a necessity.

Should I get two 20" monitors to use side-by-side, or spring for a single bigger monitor to use as a standalone (I'd use the remainder of the cash for other equipment)? On one hand, the big screen would be really nice for video watching and photoediting; on the other, the two smaller ones seem to make a lot of sense for multiple-document viewing.

Any advice, including personal experiences on dual monitor setup, and insight on factors I haven't taken into account, most appreciated!
posted by googly to Technology (45 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I use dual 20" dells (1600x1200 x 2) and I wouldn't have it any other way. The total resolution is greater than one big one and I like the separation of having 2 screens. For example, I can code on one screen and run the app on the other screen. Or code in one, docs in the other.
posted by jclovebrew at 8:31 AM on May 4, 2007

I vote for two monitors. The reasons:

1. You get more screen real estate for your dollar.
2. If you get dead pixels, you can replace one monitor for 1/2 the price of replacing the big one.
3. It is easier for me to have 2 windows full screen on 2 monitors than to size 2 windows perfectly on one big monitor.

One other factor: I'd go with either 2 vga or 2 dvi connections. I found from experience that the connection type makes the same monitor look fairly different (this is after switching the cables back and forth between my two identical monitors). I really wanted the picture to look the same in terms of contrast, color, etc. and it took a lot of fiddling.
posted by underwater at 8:32 AM on May 4, 2007

I currently have two monitors, one big one and one small one. I like to be able to keep tools one the right hand monitor and photos/movies/piano rolls on the big left hand monitor. The big monitor is an expensive, highly profiled one... the little one is a cheap samsung and I don't bother profiling it. I like to be able to throw things like or bittorrent into the right hand monitor so it is there to look at but not in my face.

It's nice to have a big monitor to do page-by-page layups or read PDFs in two page spreads.

So I'm for the best of both worlds.
posted by unSane at 8:32 AM on May 4, 2007

If you want it to view multiple documents at once, definitely go dualhead. I will never go back. 20" sounds like more than enough for moderate photoshop and music editing. Videos/DVDs also actually actually benefit from the dualhead setup, since you can watch fullscreen on one monitor while continuing to work/browse on the other.
posted by contraption at 8:34 AM on May 4, 2007

Get one monitor, for your needs. Unless you're a developer or A/V pro, all that extra space is going to be wasted, trust me. Every time I've had an extra monitor set up, I've reverted to one.
posted by mkultra at 8:36 AM on May 4, 2007

I would get two 1600x1200 20" monitors (note: not wide-screen) or one 1920x1200 24" monitor. The former is more space, but substantially more expensive (the 2007FP is $449 each now on, while the 2407WFP is $569), and divided by the border between the two. The 24" is probably more usable day-to-day.

Or you could go all-out and get one of each.
posted by raf at 8:36 AM on May 4, 2007

Videos/DVDs also actually actually benefit from the dualhead setup, since you can watch fullscreen on one monitor while continuing to work/browse on the other.

I don't get this. Why bother with having a full-screen movie running if you're going to be sitting up close to it and looking at something else anyway?
posted by mkultra at 8:38 AM on May 4, 2007

The Dell 24" you linked there has essentially the same resolution as each of the 20s you'd have (it's 300 pixels wider and the same height). Things on it would look bigger, but you couldn't fit much more on it than you'd fit on a single 20.

(Given that, going with two 20s ought to be a no-brainer.)
posted by mendel at 8:38 AM on May 4, 2007

Consider getting one of these. They are marketed as "TVs", but don't be fooled- it is a 37" monitor that works just peachy as a computer monitor. Max resolution is 1920x1080 (1080p). Oh, and you can pipe your cable box in there for TV if you want too...
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:52 AM on May 4, 2007

mkultra: It's nicer for YouTubery and other short stuff, but I also liked watching movies on it before I got a TV because it meant my computer wasn't off limits for the duration of the film when others were watching with me. You can get up from the couch and respond to IMs, look the movie up on imdb, etc. without severely annoying other viewers.

Another bonus if you pay your own utilities: you can leave one monitor off if you're just doing light browsing/email and turn it on only as-needed.
posted by contraption at 8:53 AM on May 4, 2007

Another vote for two (I was using three 19" CRTs for a stretch, it was glorious) - If you have the space, you can't beat the setup.

Get one monitor, for your needs. Unless you're a developer or A/V pro, all that extra space is going to be wasted, trust me. Every time I've had an extra monitor set up, I've reverted to one.

I fully respect your decision, but I have to point out you are the only person I've ever heard of voluntarily going back to one after experiencing the sweet, sweet nectar of multiples ;-)
posted by jalexei at 8:54 AM on May 4, 2007

I vote one widescreen and one standard monitor (setup I use, spent $700 on ws, $300 on normal). Two desktops and still have DVDs play at massive size. Photoshop is a breeze, with Bridge or palettes on the extra screen.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:04 AM on May 4, 2007

Two 20" wide screens is a no brainer.

The only time that one giant screen (30") is useful is if you're using a Wacom tablet -- because the ratio of the screen matches that of the tablet. Even with the "widescreen tablets" -- two 20" widescreens side by side never quite matches up with the shape of the tablet.
posted by donguanella at 9:09 AM on May 4, 2007

I tested out both scenarios at work for a few weeks, and I vastly preferred the single monitor. That break between the two screens gets really annoying, and windows is always putting action buttons right in the center of the screen, straddling the two monitors, aggghh. I think we are getting 24 inch hires monitors for less than $600 from Dell now.
posted by caddis at 9:24 AM on May 4, 2007

With that Westinghouse display that mcstayinskool links, you can actually do dual monitors on the one big display via Picture in Picture. You just hook up two DVI (or 1 dvi and 1 vga) cables to the display.

Also, you can quickly swap between inputs or even swap the PiP screens around with a couple of button presses. Small, medium or large PiP size which can be positioned anywhere you want on the screen.

This would be the best of both worlds, IMO, and stays within your budget.
posted by utsutsu at 9:31 AM on May 4, 2007

Two screens are certainly better than one, especially if you're the type that has a dozen documents open and are continually going back and forth. But I imagine having two equally sized monitors could be somewhat distracting since neither monitor has clear "priority." I use a laptop and big ol' second monitor but all work gets done on the laptop screen and the second monitor is for reading/watching/monitoring and it's easy to turn off if it proves distracting. You might be better off getting one bigger primary monitor and a smaller secondary monitor but who knows, this might also not work for you at all.
posted by nixerman at 9:40 AM on May 4, 2007

If you're an academic and you like to have more than one item open at a time, go for two screens or go for the big screen little screen combo. I bought a cheap monitor to make my setup dual and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. I'll never go back.

Good luck!
posted by mulkey at 9:41 AM on May 4, 2007

That break between the two screens gets really annoying, and windows is always putting action buttons right in the center of the screen, straddling the two monitors, aggghh.

I can see how that would be annoying - I'd always found the border between screens "disappeared" to me within a few minutes of working, but I have a feeling getting dialogue boxes thrown up straddling the two would make it hard to miss the division. Macs send action buttons to the monitor you've denoted as the "main" one.
posted by jalexei at 9:46 AM on May 4, 2007

That break between the two screens gets really annoying, and windows is always putting action buttons right in the center of the screen, straddling the two monitors

That's a point I was going to bring up. What kind of machine are you using? Your video card is going to determine whether your monitors will act as one continuous screen or two independent ones. Some cards will give you both options but some will only support a horizontal span. And viewing/previewing a Powerpoint presentation split down the middle is not cool.

I'm speaking from experience with certain models of ATI mobile cards. And they do have a program called Hydravision that allows you to tweak the settings and work around the problem, but you may not have that option.
posted by Cyrano at 10:01 AM on May 4, 2007

Response by poster: Oops. I should have included my specs:

- PC (this one).
- Windows XP
- Video card: Radeon X1050 1 VGA / 1 DVI-I.

Thanks for all the responses so far! Immensely helpful. I'm leaning towards the big/little combo.
posted by googly at 10:05 AM on May 4, 2007

I've used dual 19" CRTs and various forms of multiple LCDs, but I have to say that once you reach 24" @ 1920x1200 it's just enough for a single monitor. Of course, I use virtual desktops HEAVILY with a single monitor setup, but I find that quicker via key-combo than scrolling all over two giant displays and the headaches that come with the setup.

I have a SFF and 24" Dell at home (and random laptops/desktops with two 24"s at work) and I wouldn't have it another way, except perhaps to have a 30" eventually. It all fits on a small IKEA desk and stays out of the way while being quite usable.
posted by kcm at 10:07 AM on May 4, 2007

That break between the two screens gets really annoying, and windows is always putting action buttons right in the center of the screen, straddling the two monitors, aggghh.

That sounds like a new video card is needed.

I prefer the two screen set up. I'm a developer and it's much easier to code when I have two distinct areas for viewing. I'm also on a Mac Pro and run Parallels frequently to do all my cross browser checks. With two screens, I can run a Mac environment on one and Windows on the other.

I'm running dual HP L1940T's btw.
posted by captaindistracto at 10:08 AM on May 4, 2007

I have two 20" monitors and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. I do a fair amount of cutting & pasting from one app to another, and dual monitors are perfect for this. If you need to reference one doc while working with another - it's great.

Go for two.
posted by clh at 10:08 AM on May 4, 2007

That break between the two screens gets really annoying, and windows is always putting action buttons right in the center of the screen, straddling the two monitors, aggghh.

Hmm, that's not a problem I've seen before. All widely-used applications (and certainly all OS components) behave very nicely for me in dualhead under Windows (this is actually a sticking point that's kept me off Linux,) though occasionally something that's coded weirdly will make bad assumptions about your monitor and behave strangely:

One proprietary app I use has a pop-up window that remembers it's location from one instance to the next, and when I go from my laptop+aux monitor setup at my office to single-screen laptop in the field, I have to manually edit a config file to get that pop-up back onscreen. Another app doesn't like that my secondary monitor is higher-res than my primary, and constrains window position/size oddly. Gaim likes to pop up new windows in the upper left, even if that's the secondary monitor and sometimes turned off, but someone's made a plugin to fix that.

All in all, I think if I had 2 monitors of identical resolution and don't disconnect one of them regularly, all my (minor to begin with) dualhead problems would disappear.

All this assumes Windows and come think of it, the OP didn't specify an OS. I don't think it would be OT to include that information. On preview: oh, it's Windows. Go for 2!
posted by contraption at 10:10 AM on May 4, 2007

For that kind of cash, you could get 2 22" monitors -- 22" seems to have become more of a sweet spot than 20" in recent months. Don't forget to reserve money to get a good double-DVI video card, though.

For text editing and websurfing, I've come to love having the monitor in portrait mode -- taller than wide -- but the monitor needs to be able to physically rotate for that. Think about whether you want that option. (Seems like with 2 biggish monitors in landscape, you'd end up working too often with your head turned, but I haven't tried it.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:11 AM on May 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

btw, my dual monitors at home are 17" CRTs that I got surplus from the local university for a total of $80. Deals like this still exist if you've got room for a couple big boxes, and if they're not used up the image quality is still better than cheap LCDs.
posted by contraption at 10:13 AM on May 4, 2007

If you do multiple monitors, try to get monitors with the same vertical size. I run dual screens with my iBook G4 internal (1024x768) and an older 17" Dell (1280x1024), and the biggest issue I have with it is the difference in vertical heights. I'm constantly resizing things when I move an app from one to the other. I say vertical size, because if you got a widescreen and non-widescreen monitor (say, for movies and gaming, respectively), as long as your vertical pixel count is the same, you'd be fine.
posted by CipherSwarm at 10:15 AM on May 4, 2007

I have two 20" monitors.

I'll be upgrading to a single large one shortly.

Although I like the screen area I have, the bar in the middle is a pain I am tired of dealing with.

Also, I have had no end of trouble getting support for both monitors working well in Linux - particularly Ubuntu+beryl.

YMMV, naturally.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:18 AM on May 4, 2007

"That break between the two screens gets really annoying, and windows is always putting action buttons right in the center of the screen, straddling the two monitors, aggghh."

That sounds really strange to me - Windows doesn't treat both monitors as one large monitor. Applications and windows usually constrain themselves to one monitor only - like the maximize button expands the window to the maximum of that one monitor. Maybe there's a setting in your video driver that accidentally enabled this strange behavior?

I'll also put my vote in for two monitors, with the caveat that having two identical, equally sized monitors isn't extremely important. I usually move my monitors to a primary/secondary configuration, where the primary is directly in front of me and the secondary is to the side. Both OSX and Windows want one monitor to be the "primary" monitor, with the Start Menu/Dock on it. For a very long time, I worked with a 20" widescreen display next to a 15" laptop display, and it worked out fine for me.
posted by meowzilla at 10:21 AM on May 4, 2007

meowzilla I think it's more likely that your drivers are telling Windows to treat them as two separate, special monitors. I have an older video card with special software that lets me pick if I want it one way or the other (and, of course, tons of other stuff) but "treat it as one big monitor" seems to be the default.

Anyway, casting my vote for two monitors, more pixels are better!
posted by anaelith at 10:53 AM on May 4, 2007

If you get two, get two identical models. Otherwise the difference in brightness/contrast and especially color reproduction will drive you mad. You can't color match two different monitors, no matter how hard you try.
posted by humblepigeon at 10:57 AM on May 4, 2007

Definitely two monitors. You can get more screen real-estate with two decently-sized (19-20") Dell monitors for $1000 (hell, you might even be able to get three).
posted by DrSkrud at 11:04 AM on May 4, 2007

The Dell 3007WFP will set you back $1200, and will have plenty of real estate. Look at the picture of it next to two 17"s.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:58 AM on May 4, 2007

Oh, the difference would be that two 1600x1200 monitors side by side give you 3200x1200, and the standalone 3007 gives you 2560x1600. So you get 7% more pixels with the bigger monitor. Whether or not you prefer one aspect ratio to the other is personal, I suppose.
posted by Kwantsar at 12:03 PM on May 4, 2007

Forgive me if I re-hash any of the above, there's too much to skim through quickly.

I run triple LCDs. I have a 21" Wide in the middle, and it's flanked by dual (identical) 17" Standards. These are all on a single Ergotron stand.

I love this setup. I'm super-productive because of it. When I use a system with a single monitor now. I feel cramped because I can't move around as freely and see everything at once.

Multiple monitors is the way God intended computers to be used.

posted by SlyBevel at 12:28 PM on May 4, 2007

How much photoshop work do you do? I had a 23" ACD plus a 17" off-brand and reverted to just using the single 23" monitor. The kicker for me was my graphics tablet mapped perfectly to one monitor but was iffy to map to two (it would map, but being way too wide and short made the aspect ratio of the mapping hard to work with). What use was the second monitor if I couldn't easily access it with my primary input device?

ymmv, of course, but the single monitor setup does have it's advantage in a few places.
posted by devbrain at 12:40 PM on May 4, 2007

Get two monitors.

Spend $700~800 on a good 24inch monitor, then use the rest to buy a 19~21inch monitor as a sub. Chances are good the 24-inch by itself will be enough, though, so try just that one first. If you're feeling cramped, add some space.

What people say about colors is true, so when you Photoshop and whatnot you'll want to stick to one monitor if you go this method; of course, it's not necessarily a bad thing to have unmatched color properties; you'll be able to IMMEDIATELY notice if something you made doesn't look right on certain types of monitors. That, of course, may matter very little depending on what you're photoshopping and what you're doing with the product.
posted by Muu at 2:58 PM on May 4, 2007

It's totally a personal preference. I've used 2 smaller and 1 bigger. Right now, I like the one bigger setup but before it's just a preference. My only note is that I hated photoshoping on two monitors. The black void in the middle became a real obstacle.

If you do get two, get them at the same time from the same place otherwise the subtle color variations will drive you nuts.

Just be sure you go DVI. VGA is terrible at higher resolutions.
posted by chairface at 3:24 PM on May 4, 2007

After years of using dual 20" CRTs I sprung for a 30" Dell 3007-WFP-HC and I'm quite happy for several reasons, not the least of which is color calibration. Using a color calibration sensor/system is tricky enough with one monitor. Trying to get 2 to match is a bitch.

I already have enough Left brain vs. Right brain issues and the gap between the monitors doesn't help. For me the single large monitor is a much more immersive environment. While I do miss having my controls on one monitor and content on another, I have much more perceived real estate now.

I primarily use 3D, Compositing and CAD apps and you can never have too much space for all the zillion buttons these apps have.

When I do indulge in such things as games of movies I'm like, "Whoa, this kicks ass!".

On the dowside you generally need a pretty hardcore pro level video card to drive a biggie at its full res of 2560x1600. My Nvidia QuadroFX card cost more than the monitor when I got it.

Of course now I like the idea of dual 30" monitors but by the time that's feasible for me it'll be cheaper to have one 60". Then you have to think about neck fatigue because you're moving your head so much to take it all in. You just can't win!

As has been said on this thread, it really is a matter of personal preference. I used to prefer smaller duals but now I prefer one biggie.
posted by HK10036 at 8:17 PM on May 4, 2007

I've got a two 19" monitor setup at work and a 24" screen at home.

70% of my time is spent in graphics and design applications; 30% proofing and editing multiple documents.

When I'm at home I sometimes miss having a second screen to dump things on to. When I'm at work I sometimes hate having the big black gap between displays.

Overall, I'd say the two monitor setup increases my efficiency more than the large monitor but I care about the way my home looks and so one large screen is far better than the alternative.

The two monitor setup feels incredibly natural after a day or two. A single large monitor feels incredibly natural immediately. If you're using Indesign or After Effects, a single, large monitor is the most efficient layout I've found. If you're doing something like copying Word files into Dreamweaver, you can't beat having Dreamweaver maximized in one window and Word in the other.

If you're at all likely to use the computer for watching movies or television, spend your money on a single screen. The large Dells are great for colour right out of the box and the large Apples are nice to look at even when they're off.
posted by ChuckLeChuck at 8:22 PM on May 4, 2007

Don't get a single large monitor. Get two monitors, so that you can put them at a slight angle for better viewing. If you sit in front of a single very large screen, it's like sitting in the front row of a movie theater—hard to see what's at the corners of the screen.
posted by Hildago at 9:34 PM on May 4, 2007

I have 3 large monitors on my home/work setup.

24" Dell (wide)
21" Samsung
22" Samsung (wide)

Do NOT go widescreen on any of your monitors. I run the 24" in the middle and the 21" on the left. The 24" is too wide really take advantage of the extra monitor without turning my head.

Go 3x 20" or 21" (non-wide). A widescreen will compromise the vertical height.
posted by mphuie at 3:21 AM on May 5, 2007

Definitely double up. At my office we all have 2 and no one knows how they used to function with only one.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:52 AM on May 5, 2007

Dual monitors are good if you're constantly comparing things to each other. They're also good if you like to be monitoring more then one thing at a time, like a chat window and your workspace.

If you don't do a lot of the above, then I'd recommend getting the one big monitor, because, let's face it, big monitors are kewl.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:51 PM on May 5, 2007

if you are loooking for cost effectiveness I would say go with 3 monitors and maybe one that rotates. This way you can move them to landscape or portrait based on what you are reading and doing. Plus if you have any dead pixels or problems you are just out one smaller instead of one massive one. Also go with DVI if possible VGA is dead and you don't want to spend the money on dead tech
posted by the_binary_blues at 8:19 AM on May 17, 2007

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