13 August, 2010

The Usefulness & Addictive Nature of Multiple Displays

It seems to be a divisive issue when dealing with developers, engineers and programmers alike... The usefulness or annoyance of multiple displays.  Recently having upgraded to my fifth display, I felt it was about time that I weigh in on the issue/share my opinions.

Five displays : One 1920x1080, Two 1920x1200, One 1280x1024 and One 480x800 :: 8.4 Mega Pixels in All
Back in 2001 at an interview with Health Market Science in Conshohocken, PA (now in King of Prussia, PA I believe), I had witnessed a key benefit of new up and coming startups for their developers...  multiple displays for each workstation/desktop.  Flash forward a few more years and one Mac Book Pro later and I find that ever company at which I would work, I would attach a secondary display so as to provide more desktop real estate.  Whether this was to provide a shell or two in which to run emacs while accessing a db frontend or browser preview window, it proved beneficial in terms of productivity with less switching between screens, windows and what not.

Ever since my first exposure to such setups (which were astronomical in price to setup back in the 90's and the beginning of the newest millennium), I was rather enamoured by them.  Now in 2010 I find myself working not on laptops, but full blown 64 bit Unix workstations.  A major benefit of such setups is the ability to run a considerable number of graphic cards and their associated displays.  Some wonder what could I possibly have running that dictates so many displays.

I personally like to keep a web browser open at all times so using the picture above, I will explain as best as possible.  So, as I was stating in the previous line, the left most display is running a full height copy of Google Chrome, flanked by three separate terminal windows running a mix of local and remote shells on  various servers.  The middle large display is running my current favourite IDE for python development in fullscreen (in this case, NetBeans 6.8).  The right hand most screen is used for additional remote shells used more so for large rsync'ing and process monitoring.  The upper left screen (a great displaylink/USB powered 480x800 (or 800x480) from Mimo) is used for Skype & Adium (and both are pinned to all spaces/virtual desktops due to content), and the upper rightmost monitor is a free for all to display whatever is needed in addition to all of the aforementioned items (pdf viewing, techtalk viewing, the occasional movie, db schemas or gui, etc.).

The biggest issue I currently have with the setup is physical layout.  A table roughly 144 cm (60 in) wide can only handle three widescreen displays (between 23" & 24" diagonally) when in a concave configuration.  Having to position the additional displays above the lower displays does cause the occasional confusion regarding pointer location.  A better layout would be an array of identical displays, preferably with VESA mounts in a 5 wide portrait layout or a two rows of three in landscape layout.

I highly recommend that others who haven't had the opportunity to work in multiple display setups to try it out as soon as possible.  Those simple keyboard shortcuts used to swap from window to window and/or virtual desktop to other virtual desktop do take up time and can interrupt one's flow.  Is it really worth it when displays are so cheap these days?

Caveat emptor:  The use of multiple displays causes varying ranges of discomfort when penned/cornered/shackled into a single screen machine, not to mention there is desire to acquire more screens after getting acclimated to the first addition, second addition, etc.

Till next time...