Working with Three Monitors: A Workspace Reflection

(Project Description: This post is the first in a short series between Stacey Pigg and me. Each post should explore some aspect of our work spaces. It’s rare to find someone who thinks about the work spaces and processes as much as I do. She probably thinks about it even more than I do, given that part of her dissertation focuses on how people construct spaces for writing work in a coffee shop. So, a project emerges. Blog posts exploring space, work, writing, productivity, scholarship, etc. How many posts? How often? Not sure. It’s a blog; it’ll evolve. Or it might not. (Wanna comment on these work spaces? Spotlight your own? Leave a comment. Copycat this on your own site. Point us to it. Or relax and see what we can do. Either way, we welcome you to our spaces.)

What defines my work space? Triple monitors.

That’s right–three of ’em. I first ran across the idea of dual monitors about 5 years ago. I’d never reaally even thought about it before then. I’d just picked up a Windows XP laptop and was curious about the VGA port. Turns out that an external monitor for a lap is just about as simple as plugging in a printer or a mouse. I was hooked. My laptop lacked the processing power I was after as I started to get more interested in video production and digital storytelling. I needed a desktop. But most desktops from places like Dell or HP only had ports for a single monitor. This is probably where I really started to get interested in the idea of tinkering/DIY/hacking. I quickly researched how to build my own desktop computer, ordered the parts, put it together, installed XP, and I was off. Dual monitors. I can’t imagine going back.

[pullshow]Eventually, I outgrew that model and wanted something bigger and better, especially as my design skills and ambition have grown. I’d already experimented some with plugging dual monitors into my laptop, which was actually really cool and pretty easy, but that didn’t address the need for more processing power. I loved the idea of three monitors working together. So when I built my current machine, I bought a Gigabyte motherboard (this one) which could accommodate a snappy video card (this one) which had ports for three monitors. Now I’ve got a decent processor, lots of RAM, and an array monitors. Here’s a pic of the desk in my office. I made it out of plywood. I’ve got it assembled and I wanted to use it for a while before I went about giving it some sort of finish. Good thing, too, as the monitors tend to ride a little higher than I’d like, and they’re not adjustable. I’ve mapped the image to label some of the peripherals. Maybe I’ll follow up on those in a later entry. Below the pic, I reflect on specific aspects of the monitor set up. Some of the reasons I like it. Some reasons I don’t. And why I’m about to change it up.

Highly Customizable Workspace

When people first encounter my office, they’re almost always fascinated by the monitor set up. I drag a browser window or some other object from one monitor to the other, and the gasp is predictable. There’s just something about the boundaries formed by the edges of the single monitor that people have naturalized. Moving off the edge of one screen and reappearing at the edge of the next really challenges people’s paradigms about screens and the mutability of the “desktop” as a user-interface metaphor. At first, it’s a little disorienting, but the adjustment is pretty quick. [pullthis]I’m now completely used to the idea of rearranging the the placement of different windows, widgets, libraries, shortcuts, launchers, and files according to the particular task I’m working on and the way I want to structure that workflow.[/pullthis]

Writing

I love the writing environment created in a multi-monitor array. One screen might display a PDF of a book/article I’m referencing, while another has the document I’m actually writing, while a third might have another PDF, an outline of the text, a previous version of the text, comments/feedback from an instructor/collaborator/dissertation director.

Grading

When responding to student texts, I generally use all three monitors. On one monitor, I’ve got the assignment description open, so I can refer back to it while commenting. Another monitor displays the student text itself. If it’s a file that I can mark up, I’ll do that within the document itself. If it’s not (student video or blog entry, for instance), then I’ll have another document open (an email message to the student, for instance) where I can write my comments. And then it’s also handy to have space to display student grades while working through a folder full of papers.

Design Work

It’s nice to have multiple monitors when editing or producing digital texts. Especially if I’m writing scripts in Flash or CSS in a text editor. I can make the adjustments in one window; reload the document in another. I’m also a big user of Adobe’s Creative Suite (trying to wean myself, though), so it can be really handy to produce an image in Fireworks or Photoshop, and then drag-n-drop from one monitor to the next into Flash or Dreamweaver or InDesign. Another HUGE bonus is the ability to move libraries and toolbars onto a separate screen to clear space in the actual editing environment. I also spend a significant amount of time watching training videos or working with troubleshooting guides while I’m learning a new software tool; it’s great to have my own work open side-by-side with the tutorial or guide.

Multitasking

This one I’m more ambivalent about. I love having my email window open on a separate monitor. Actually, I use gmail as my primary email interface, so I also have my calendar and othe Google apps at the ready. But I also like having Tweetdeck open, tracking my tweet stream in real-time. And for a while, I had Facebook open in Tweetdeck, too, but it’s way too buggy still. Multiple screens are also nice if I’m downloading large files, exporting video, uploading files, or taking notes on multimedia texts while they are playing.

Drawbacks

Of course, multiple monitors ain’t all love-n-rockets. With all of that screen real estate, it’s easy to lose track of where something is. And there’s a lot of head-turning. And then there’s the expense. The extra monitors and souped-up video card ain’t cheap. And then there’s the old myth equating multitasking with productivity. I’m actually not so sure that having my twitter stream and gmail open on a separate monitor is such a good thing. More and more often, I’ve been turning it off for longer periods of time.

What’s in store

Most of what I’ve covered here is just as true for two monitors as it is for three. And I’m getting closer all the time to pulling the trigger on an iMac now that the new models have been released. And I’ve yet to run across a three-monitor set up for iMacs that doesn’t involve an external splitter (which, in truth, still have a ways to go). So very soon, I’ll be paring things back to dual monitors for the Windows machine, and then I’ll have my Macbook Pro connected to its own external monitor. As always, I’m messing with my work space. I don’t believe in the idea of working toward a “perfect” set up; I’ve just gotten into the habit of tinkering into a co-evolution of workspace and work flow.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Ryan, thanks for sharing your workspace experience – your approach looks solid and thought-out.

    Let me suggest you the program which may highly enhance your multi-monitor Windows experience – Actual Multiple Monitors ( http://actualtools.com/multiplemonitors/ ). It puts the fully functional taskbar on each secondary display (with the Start button, system tray, clock, etc.), adds new special buttons to each window’s title bar to move windows between displays quickly, can send certain windows to specified monitors automatically, and more. I believe it may be useful for you.

  2. Three monitors? Love it! I’ve been using two monitors for years now, currently a 23.6″ and a 22″. I find that I “have” to work on my desktop now because of the efficiency of working with more than one monitor. You are right. It’s great for teaching and for writing.

    But hmmm…now I’m thinking I need to upgrade to three 🙂

    Charlie

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