Why one monitor is better than two
21 Feb 2012
I interact with two computers on a daily basis. I have a desktop and a laptop, both running Windows. My desktop is a stock Vostro 430 - I haven't done much in the way of customizing the hardware, so it's no powerhouse, but it's capable. The selling point is the monitors, two 24-inch beauties I've acquired over the course of a year or two. On the other hand, my laptop is a wee Vostro V13 (notice a trend?). The hardware is minimal, and the screen is only 13 inches. I bought it primarily for taking notes once I got to college- I didn't expect to use it for much else than notes or the occasional trip, which is why I was surprised when I realized I was doing most of my coding and development on my laptop. After all, I'm a sucker for screen real estate, and here I had the ideal work desktop setup! Big monitors, a nice keyboard, and a great mouse. So why was I doing all my work on my laptop?
Admittedly, it took me a while to realize why I was doing all my work on my dinky laptop and not my desktop. After all, why would I do such a thing? Multiple screens allow me to keep an editor and a browser (or multiple browsers) all open and visible on one desktop. There's infinitely more room for API references, Stack Overflow searches, you name it. I'm not particularly a fan of alt-tabbing all over the place, so the ability to keep everything open at once was like a godsend to me. And yet, most of this website was written on my laptop, along with most of my other web development and school projects of late. I've realized it all boils down to one thing: focus. After all, on a desktop there is indeed more room for browsers/API stuff, etc. But I found it was also enabling distractions. For example, my most common setup was an editor on screen and a testing browser on the other. But being the distractable person I am, I would often find myself pulling up reddit or Hacker News on a peripheral monitor the instant I got bored or temporarily lost focus. It was trivial to pop open a window or tab for something inane or distracting and stop working on my productive enterprises.
Although I find I tend to be able to focus more while I'm working on my laptop, there are still the tradeoffs I mentioned before. Small screens suck, and alt-tabbing is worse. There's not much that can be done about the screen itself, but there are workarounds that can make life more manageable. After some experimenting with virtual desktop programs, I came across VirtuaWin, which provides a fairly unobtrusive and functional interface for Windows. I found I could now emulate the advantages of multiple monitors - one for an editor, one for testing, etc. The experience is virtually the same - with some configuration, you can zip back and forth between workspaces in a heartbeat, but without the instant access to distraction. The portability aspect presents a pretty significant advantage as well - as an intern at RingRevenue this summer, I expect to be shuttling a computer back and forth, and the rumored MacBook Pro redesign is looking pretty tempting. I'm not a particularly disciplined person, and so I find that the 'confines' of a laptop allow me to sit back and just work, something I wasn't accomplishing as often as I'd like on my desktop.
What I'm describing here doesn't necessarily apply to everybody - many people work perfectly fine with desktops and dual monitors. However, I've learned that I'm extremely prone to distraction and find myself not getting in the "zone" while trying to work at my desk because I'm constantly opening up tabs on another screen. By no means do I plan to get rid of my desktop - it still has its place. But when it comes time for getting work done, I'll take my laptop any day.Tags: Tweet