April 8, 2014

Displays for digital distraction: Larger monitors, multiple monitors

Back when computers were machines for doing something productive or creative, their monitors were small and compact, whether in a business or home setting. They could have been made much larger, since the same CRT technology was used for medium and large-sized TV sets. But those larger screens were preferred because TV was for entertainment, hence were of little value when it was time to type up a report or crunch some numbers on a spreadsheet.

Here is the original IBM PC, with an 11.5" monitor (and only about 10.5" being viewable), and the original all-in-one Macintosh, with an even smaller 9" monitor (rather prophetic copy in the ad, don'tcha think?):



How did Primitive Man ever get any work done with such crude tools, unable to read emails in HD? How could they have focused on the memo they were typing, without the word processor overwhelming their eyes on a 30" screen? Really makes you grateful for not having to live in the dark ages anymore...

Monitors stayed small for well over a decade, and did not begin to bloat out and take up most of the desk until the mid-to-late 1990s, as they came to be used more for entertainment — first for graphics-intensive video games, then for watching illegally downloaded movies and TV episodes, then for illegally downloaded porn, and then web pages in general once they became more dazzling than black Times New Roman text against a gray background.

The increasingly common widescreen aspect ratio is another sign of computers as entertainment centers.

But one monitor can only get so big — eventually you're going to have to step up your game and upgrade your rig to include two monitors. Awww yeah, son: getting interrupted by emails on one screen, while refreshing TMZ on the other. Creating PowerPoints LIKE A BAWS. Nobody can hold me down now, I'm a productivity beast!

The multi-monitor set-up is nothing more than conspicuous consumption for nerds. In fact, if two are better than one, why stop there? Hook up ten. (Brought to you by the makers of five-blade razors.) Better yet — swiveling around at the center of a 360-degree ring-o'-monitors. And hey, the sky's the limit: install a planetarium ceiling and crane your neck up toward your Display Dome. Endless workspace, endless possibilities!

Forget the fact that, in the old days of a real desktop, they did not bother extending desks out to 10 feet long in a lame attempt to maximize productivity. Having too many separate sub-areas of the desktop makes it hard to focus on the one at hand. About the only task that truly benefits from two separate areas visible at the same time is manually copying a target document onto a blank one, analogous to dubbing cassettes. Otherwise, the world churned right along — and saw greater productivity gains over time — with just one central work area on their desks.

Something similar is going on with the phenomenon of "twenty tabs open at a time," as though keeping twenty books open on a real desktop would somehow make you absorb information more efficiently. Or as though playing twenty TV channels simultaneously would make for greater entertainment. In Back to the Future II, that was presented as satire; today it has become the unremarkable reality.

Undoing or not participating in the multi-monitor trend is fairly simple. Finding a monitor under 17" is a lot tougher. Buying them new is out, and even thrift stores will not accept them, so don't bother there. Craigslist and eBay are the best places, although since most of them are CRT (better than LCD in any case) the shipping will not be cheap. Still, it's a small price to pay for something that will last forever and prevent digital distractions from taking over your desktop.

24 comments:

  1. ludditemuch4/8/14, 11:19 AM

    You might as well go back to pen and paper bro, people used that for thousands of years. Do you really need to send fragmented thoughts in one line emails across the world in fractions of a second? Gather your creative forces and spend a day writing an old fashioned letter. You might have trouble finding a good old fashioned quill pen though, the nerds have driven the market to these unreliable, unergonomic, cheap feeling "Ball Point" pens.

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  2. Sure, they could have made CRTs bigger back then - but not at any kind of acceptable resolution.

    I my job I often have to have SSH sessions open to many different devices at once, along with various web consoles. When I am out and about on my laptop, I have constantly ctrl-tab between all the open windows or click to different tabs, and it can be tough to monitor a debug in one window while changing a config in the other. When I get home to my external 27' monitor, I can spread things out and actually see what I'm doing.

    Not everyone is a grad school slacker who just types deathless prose all day. Some of us actually use these things for work, y'know...

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  3. What a joke...perhaps Agnostic is right with the implication that sometimes less is more. I'm sure technology will go full steam ahead though, regardless of any possible negative impact on mankind. The Apple copy is very prescient indeed.

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  4. "Some of us actually use these things for work"

    So that's who's driven the sub-27" monitors out of the market -- every Tom, Dick, and Harry is secretly an IT worker. Rather than a shut-in looking for the best picture for their video games and porn.

    Get a clue dude.

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  5. "You might as well go back to pen and paper"

    Another gizmo fetish response to push things wherever they're going without asking, as though the state of the art before the '90s was pen and paper. And as though we've seen soaring productivity gains since the '90s -- guess again.

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  6. "Do you really need to send fragmented thoughts in one line emails across the world in fractions of a second?"

    Another sign of how unaware the technophiles are -- ever hear of the telegraph or telephone? Those were major innovations and did just fine. Email has mostly replaced telephone calls and knocking on the door of your office-mates or others in the same building as you.

    Hence why we see zero productivity gains from the introduction of email (a negative effect, if all else is controlled for).

    Never thought I'd read folks praising one of the biggest drains on time and energy -- 1000 emails a day -- but there you go.

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  7. ludditemuch4/8/14, 9:12 PM

    "Another gizmo fetish response to push things wherever they're going without asking"

    I get it, you "question" the need for 3 27" monitors stacked on top of each other to better watch pirated porn, therefore you're going to hunt for a monochrome 14" crt that's going to cost more to ship than its worth, because your priority is "productivityl. There's some guys with fedoras on over on reddit that would be very interested into your ideas.

    Computers are augmenting televisions and stereos as media consumption devices. If you're going to cry about it, you might as well start at the beginning, with the original idiot box.

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  8. I for example still use a 4:3 screen & prefer it over widescreen alternatives.

    Because i can only focus on so much screen area anyway...

    And because it's more pleasant for my eyes to alt-tab between applications
    without having to move my eyes and refocus on another part of the screen.

    Like you have to do on 24", 27" or now even already 32" / 4K screens.

    And don't get me started on DPI & the small font issue, talk about unpleasant.

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  9. As far as productivity goes - total factor productivity increased most rapidly in recent decades in the late 90's tech boom. This would have been on GUI based Windows PCs.

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  10. "some guys with fedoras on over on reddit"

    More black-and-white hysterics. If you point out how bizarre today's world is, you want to authentically recreate yon golden past days in 100% detail.

    I don't want a CRT from 25 years ago -- I want a CRT monitor from the mid-2000s that's around 13" or smaller. Older ones wouldn't have a flat screen, for one thing. Ordinary TV displays (ones that won't put you close to $10K) peaked with the CRTs of the mid-2000s, and so did monitors. But they're hard to find in a small size.

    When every movie is shown in 3-D, btw, don't whine about how terrible the theater-going experience has become. You'll just be a kneejerk luddite.

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  11. ludditemuch4/9/14, 12:00 AM

    Who are you kidding man? What kind of productivity work are you doing that would be done more effectively on a smaller screen, with a smaller resolution, and with increased eye strain? All you're going to get out of this is stinging, bloodshot eyes. The only people interested in the golden era of crts anymore are gaming nerds obsessed with refresh rates. If you don't like widescreen monitors because you need the blogging real estate, there are plenty of lcd monitors that tilt to the vertical position.

    P.S. If you don't like having 100 tabs open, just don't open them. Modern web browsers allow you to browse the web just as well with just one tab open as with a bunch of them open. If you can't help but succumb to the temptation to middle click links, that's your own fault.

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  12. I don't open more than three or four tabs -- I said the 20 tabs open was an extension of the nerd's drive for ever greater clutter, along with two widescreen monitors.

    Who can stand to look at a screen under 15 inches? How about everybody who uses a laptop, dumbass. Michelle Obama should get on that epidemic of bloodshot eyes caused by laptop usage. It's crippling the nation. (Another failure of the technophile to perform basic reality checks.)

    As far as the mainstream set-ups go these days, the laptop is the most welcome. Small screen (though a bit too low below eye level), keyboard that is scarcely wider than home row, keyboard that feels and sounds more mechanical (from scissor switches, on the better brands anyway), not so much time wasted on the mouse.

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  13. ludditemuch4/9/14, 10:10 AM

    People don't buy laptops for the smaller screen, "dumbass", they buy them for portability. Also, notice laptops do not use crt screens, probably because it would weight 50 pounds. And people who are buying laptops seem to be buying ever bigger ones as well - 15 inches is big for a laptop screen. Go to any electronics retailer and notice how big they're getting. Plenty of laptops have 17 inch screens now. A bigger screen is more practical. As is a bigger keyboard with spaced out keys. You can buy mechanical keyboards now with "clicky switches", and a mouse is obviously better than a trackpad.

    At this point you're basically trying to maintain that smaller, heavier and less practical is better just because it's older. If you think a 27" lcd is going to take up a lot of desk space, let's what your awesome new 13" crt is going to look like on your desk. I like this blog and I agree with a lot of what you write, but sometimes you just need a reality check, some stuff is clearly just better than the old shit.

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  14. "People don't buy laptops for the smaller screen, "dumbass", they buy them for portability."

    No, I personally prefer a laptop for the smaller screen and more comfortable to use, even though I don't take it out in public. When I was in college, my roommates had laptops which they never took anywhere. Laptops are just easier on the eyes and more comfortable to use.

    "At this point you're basically trying to maintain that smaller, heavier and less practical is better just because it's older."

    Not because its older, but because its easier on the eyes and more practical.

    "I like this blog and I agree with a lot of what you write, but sometimes you just need a reality check, some stuff is clearly just better than the old shit."

    Its about 99% accurate, even if you don't always like the points being made.



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  15. Well, yeah, I think that's the thing with buying a small monitor.

    People who want (or are happy with) small screens pretty much just use a netbook or a laptop or their phone or iPad, which are plentiful options.

    The only reason not to would be if you wanted a big deck with lots of power, and if you want that, you'd want a big screen to have your graphics look all nice and big on.

    Not sure about 30" monitors in a business setting. I think most businesses don't go that big, unless it's like for graphic designers or something?

    I think most people have always pretty much liked the largest screen they had space for and smaller screens were more about tech and cost limits.

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  16. Other programmers thought I was strange for using one-screen for so long. Switching to two (and having a large screen) has indeed been quite useful for work.

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  17. Al Gore computer setup: http://dilettanteville.files.wordpress.com/2007/05/gore_desk.jpg

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  18. 'every Tom, Dick, and Harry is an IT specialist'

    Yes, actually. Not a top-flight Eric Raymond or Marvin Minsky, but every secretary has some kind of IT degree, or could if she bothered.

    Norman Spinrad A World Between in 1980 thought screens would top out at six simultaneous monitors. A little extra to look at on the side. We aren't there for everyone, not cheap, yet, but it's not far away.

    Not arguing your main point, if your main point is there's lots of excess and hooey in computer sales.

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  19. "they buy them for portability."

    Think it through: portability implies a small screen (and a smaller keyboard, without the pointless number pad).

    If they could somehow roll or fold up a 27" screen and unfold it at the library, coffee shop, etc., do you think they would? No, because they chose the laptop for its more personal scale, where you don't feel like you're in a Cinerama theater or an amusement park ride while you check your email.

    "smaller, heavier and less practical is better just because it's older."

    Still wrong. My ideal monitor would not even be 10 years old. I had a sweet little 13" CRT monitor by NEC in the mid-2000s and foolishly gave it away / threw it away.

    CRT technology was not perfected back in the '80s. I don't watch TV or DVDs on an '80s TV either, but a Sony Wega from the mid-2000s. They made fairly large CRTs with component inputs then. The image quality is superior to LCDs.

    What does the weight of a CRT matter? You will never carry it around with you. It just stays put on the desktop. Unless you're too weak to carry it onto the desk after buying it, or your desk is made of cheap fake wood that will buckle under the weight of 30-50 pounds, you're all set.

    And the multi-giganto monitors are the ones that are not practical. For just about all tasks a normal user will do, they're like having a desk with 10 feet of workspace. A la the Al Gore pic that "as" posted.

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  20. Agnostic wrote:
    Still wrong. My ideal monitor would not even be 10 years old. I had a sweet little 13" CRT monitor by NEC in the mid-2000s and foolishly gave it away / threw it away.

    You can walk into Best Buy and easily buy a laptop with a 13" screen, if that's what you're looking for. Not sure what you're complaining about here.

    What does the weight of a CRT matter? You will never carry it around with you.

    That could be why at every one of my workstations, I have two screens available to me. I'm certainly more productive with two then one, and some may be more productive with three than two. I'm sure there's a point of diminishing returns somewhere beyond that level.

    Working at a cafe, bookstore, or airport is a different ball game, since people want to maintain an awareness of their surroundings there while they work. An unrollable 27" monitor would be zone-out city under those circumstances so nobody wants one. But people's wants and needs would be different in an area with greater privacy such as home or their workplace.

    And the multi-giganto monitors are the ones that are not practical.

    Those that do extensive graphics design may benefit from such a setup. For my own development work I can get by with a bit less.

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  21. Wait...am I missing something? Why would anyone need two computer screens at the same time?

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  22. "Why would anyone need two computer screens at the same time?"

    I'm an attorney, and sometimes I need to have an exhibit displayed on one screen while I'm writing about it in a brief on the other. Otherwise I'd be toggling back and forth 20 times between them.

    Yes, in the "old" days, they just had the exhibit sitting next to them while they typed, not displayed on a screen. But they couldn't scroll effortlessly between pages of the exhibit; more shuffling and misplacing papers.

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  23. Ah thanks MC. Does this mean you have two computers there or is there a way to split one computer on two screens? This may make me sound like a dumbass but I've really never seen this before.

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  24. "Does this mean you have two computers there or is there a way to split one computer on two screens?"

    The latter. The mouse moves between them as if it were a single screen.

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