Are three monitors better than two?

In my mind, there’s no question that any information worker will be more productive with two monitors than with just one. I’ve been using dual monitors for at least five years, and I can see my productivity drop when I try to work with just one, as I do when traveling with a notebook.

I’ve considered adding a third monitor, but it’s never made it to the top of my upgrade stack. Partly, that’s because I’m not sure I’d really get a lot more benefit out of it. Some time back, Jeff Atwood argued that three monitors is the "sweet spot" in terms of desktop space, pointing out that Google’s Larry Page and Microsoft’s Bill Gates both use triple-monitor setups. Today, Scott Mitchell says he doesn’t see the payoff:

I’ve been using the three monitor setup for a couple of months now and regret to say that I have not seen the same productivity benefits or improvement of worklife that Jeff espouses or that I enjoyed when going from one monitor to two. For certain tasks I am more productive with three monitors than two, a prime example being if I need to review a client’s email while bug bashing. I can have the email open that explains the error in one window, Visual Studio in another, and the web application running in the third. However, for most other activities the third monitor does not add too much value. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for one of the three to sit unused for long stretches of time.

In my hardware setup, the biggest issue is how to drive that third monitor. Currently, I have a 24-inch (1900×1200) widescreen LCD and a 4:3 (1600×1200) LCD. Because both displays are the same height, they form a continuous desktop surface. I keep the Windows Vista Sidebar and the Taskbar on the smaller of the two monitors, arranged on the right. The widescreen monitor is on the left, and I use Ultramon’s extra taskbar to manage windows on that display. Here’s a bird’s-eye view:

dual- monitor desktop

Jeff Atwood uses a Matrox TripleHead2Go device to drive his three monitors. [Update: In the comments, Jeff clarifies that no, he doesn’t use this device. Instead, he has a pair of PCIe video cards.] As he points out, though, this device is less than optimal because it creates a single large display instead of three individual displays. For me, the dealbreaker is that it requires all three monitors to be the same resolution, and the maximum supported resolution for each screen in a three-monitor display is 1360×768. (The digital edition will handle two 1900×1200 displays, but that won’t help me.)

The more logical way for me to get a third monitor is to add a second video card. Alas, none of my desktop systems have two PCIe x16 slots. I’ve looked into using PCIe x1 slots and PCI slots, buut the performance is terrible and the price is high for those options. For my next desktop PC I’ll probably spec out a gaming-class machine that has two video card slots.

Meanwhile, I’m happy and productive with two monitors, and I guess it will stay that way for a while.

Update: I love my readers.

In the comments, James Tenniswood suggests a USB-to-DVI external adapter, which can drive an LCD monitor at 1280×1024 ($110, free shipping), or a high-resolution USB-to-DVI adapter that works at 1600×1200 ($130 with free shipping).

Reader Jeremy (no last name) swears by MaxiVista and says he “experienced a great lack in productivity” when he had to go back to two monitors after using three.

From Italy, Paperino says he is using an EVGA USB adapter with good results. Customer reviews at Newegg are mixed.

Any other options worth exploring?

24 thoughts on “Are three monitors better than two?

  1. Well, good points were posted, but I’ve used 3 monitors before and had to give up my 3rd to someone else at work a couple months back. Now, I’m back to 2 monitors. In contrast to your post, I have experienced a great lack in productivity.

    My typical setup WinXP –
    1st monitor: Outlook, Sidebar (Vista Sidebar clone), taskbar;
    2nd monitor: main workspace, browser, apps, etc.;
    3rd monitor: MS OneNote (used constantly).

    I used MaxiVista to display the 3rd monitor. It was great and my co-worker uses it with his 3 monitor setup.

    Cheers.

  2. Follow up — I told my co-worker (programmer that uses 3 monitors) about your post concluding with the opinion that 3 monitors did not make a big difference. Well, let’s just say…he laughed in my face and used other choice words 🙂

  3. Ed,
    I did exactly what James suggested and I bought an EVGA usb adapter. It works great although I have been running with three monitors for only few days so I cannot make a statement about productivity: but I use Remote Desktop a lot and I can really apreciate the fact that I can operate different boxes very easily. I just posted on the topic (in Italian though):
    http://aovestdipaperino.com/posts/in-da-cleb.aspx

  4. You can get a nVidia 6200 based PCI card for under $60. The performance won’t run high end games but is more than sufficient for Aero or other desktop apps.

  5. Brian, multiple cards have to be using the same driver, and my main systems here are ATI-based at the moment. But now that you mention it I might have an old Radeon 9600 card hanging around… Update: Looks like the only ATI cards available in PCI format are Radeon 9250s, which are DirectX 8 only and thus not Aero-compatible. So that’s not an option.

  6. Ed, another option would be to go with a straight USB-connected monitor. Samsung makes a 19″ that uses USB and works very, very well. I’ve got my CEO set up with 2 of these on her laptop and she just loves ’em. Their nice quality monitors and the USB connection is dead simple. (There’s a “virtual video card” in a flash chip in each monitor – slick)

    From what I’ve seen, these provide better image quality and response time than most of the DVI-USB converters.

    Not for high-powered gaming or huge video files, but for heavy office functions, just dandy.

    The model we’re using is a Samsung 940UX. (19″, 4:3AR) There was a larger one (21?) on the roadmap when we bought these, but the 19s were more than enough for our needs.

    They come with built-in USB ports, which means the laptop user can plug in one simple USB port to get monitor, keyboard, mouse etc combined – nice for laptops with no docking station.

    Might work for your 1 additional monitor if the larger size is now available. (we bought 6 months ago).

    Paul

  7. I run 3 Viewsonic VP2030B monitors at 1600×1200 from a single NVidia Quadro NVS 440 card. I picked up the card for $250 on eBay.

    Malcolm

  8. I have two monitors: 24″ 1920×1200 and 22″ 1680×1050, and unquestionably see higher productivity. I never thought I’d need 3 monitors until I really mastered the two monitors, then just last week I was telling my wife how much better it would be with a third. Usually I do multi-tasking stuff on top of my web design. I usually program in one monitor, test in the other and wish I had a third for email, IMing (which I do constantly) or even for testing in another browser. Often times I get turned around when I go from Dreamweaver to IE to Firefox. However if I had a third I’d pick on of those and probably wish for a fourth… for now I’m good with two.

    Besides the graphics card issues, don’t forget the all important “desk” space issue 😉

  9. Another option, and the one I use, is to hook up the third monitor to a second computer and use Synergy to share the keyboard/mouse.

    So I’ve got Vista on two monitors, and Linux on one. You simply can’t beat a Vista+Linux setup…. I can run any software I want, plus I’ve got the power of the linux command line at my fingertips.

  10. I should add that for the first month, I did feel a bit ridiculous, but I loaned out my 24 to a buddy for a few days and really missed it. One of my screens is almost dedicated to instant messenger/music…so not super productive but it keeps it out of the way of real work.

  11. Thanks a lot, Ed. I didn’t even know this existed and now I have serious envy. For many reasons, I do most of my computer stuff with my notebook on my lap while I sit in a squishy overstuffed leather chair. But I will never really like the touchpad when compared to a mouse for getting stuff done.

    I’ll add “2 or 3 monitors” to my dream-office wish list.

  12. Hi Ed,

    I’m a big fan! Love your articles! Thanks for the link.

    Jeff Atwood uses a Matrox TripleHead2Go device to drive his three monitors.

    Actually, I don’t. I use two paired video cards to drive 3 monitors. Right now it’s a NVIDIA 9600 GT and 8500 GT pair. They don’t have to be the same brand, but they have to be the same family tree (ATI or NVIDIA) and same “generation”. At least in Vista, anyway. The simple path is just to get two of the same model. I highly recommend the 9600 GT at the moment, though the new ATI 4850 cards are outstanding as well.

    Unfortunately to get real multimon, you must build your own PC, as big box retailers almost NEVER ship PCs that have two video card appropriate slots. One, if you’re lucky. Never two. Only aftermarket mobos offer this. So for the average user, they’re effectively stuck at two monitors.

    I proposed the matrox as a postfix for people who aren’t willing to build their own PCs and get mobos that have two video card slots. It is my hope this will become more common in the future, but based on rabid cost cutting, I’m not hopeful.

    The main advantage of three monitors is that you get a “center”. With two monitors, which one is primary? Left? right? Do you put them in the middle of your desk or off to the side? With two there’s a line right in the middle!

    I do agree that the principles of diminishing returns kick in pretty quickly after two (for one thing, how much can you move your neck), but having a center is HUGE. Four is pretty much out of the question for me, but my life begins at three monitors. 🙂

  13. I effectively have three monitors. My main PC is a middling Gateway laptop (2.2. Ghz AMD solo core CPU) with a 14.1 in 1280 x 800 screen, and a 19 in 1280 x 1024 LCD attached to the laptop’s VGA out connection. I use the 19 in LCD as my main monitor, and the laptop’s screen is my “utility” monitor (I recently re-installed Vista on it — it came pre-installed with Vista, but I “downgraded” to Win XP until SP1 came out — so the sidebar is open here, as well as Skype, Twhirl, etc.). I also use Ultramon — couldn’t imagine going without it.

    Then, I have a 1999-vintage laptop with Win 2000 that I use for printer-sharing (my old laser printer has a parallel connector, which new laptops don’t have), IM (Pidgin), and streaming audio (VLC). The laptop has a 400 Mhz Celeron CPU, 192 MB of RAM, 800 x 600 screen, and 8 MB of video RAM, but it is more than capable of doing these light-duty tasks with Win 2000 (heck, even Win XP runs suprisingly well on this old laptop — until you add security software, which makes it crawl). I suppose I could also use MaxiVista or Synergy and control everything with one keyboard/mouse, but it works fine with this setup.

    So, that’s my “poor man’s” 3 monitor setup.

  14. Ed,

    I have a USB-DVI Adapter that drives a 1600 x 1200 monitor.

    Although the DisplayLink driver software has gotten better in the past few months, there are a number of problems with it.

    Primarily

    1) High CPU Usage to the point that during CPU spikes my mouse would stop moving.
    2) no support during boot of course
    3) some issues with docking/undocking my laptop
    4) occasionally “forgets” monitor configuration. Mostly a problem for laptops.

    It’s neat technology though.

  15. After a recent trip back from Europe I ended up with serious neck/shoulder pain. After a month+ of muscle relaxers, PT, MRI’s and other treatments nothing seemed to help.

    One day I had a brain storm and decided to go from my three monitors back to only two. Within a couple days the pain was gone and hasn’t returned.

    I vote, stick with your current configuration.

    Bill

  16. Hey Ed!

    Why do you need 2 x two PCIe x16 slots? Why not go for a 4 x DVI card like the Asus EAH3870X2?

    To be honest Ed, I think if I was to take the 3 x screen approach I’d make the third screen a Wacom Cintiq – those things are nice and add a new dimension to having more screen real estate.

  17. Adrian, that card is over $400. Way more expensive than any of the other solutions.

    Jeff, thanks for the comment. I’ll update the post to reflect your actual setup. BTW, it’s worth noting that Dell now ships at least two good designs with 2 PCIe x16 slots. The XPS 630 and XPS 720 are both available for well under $1000 refurb with excellent configurations.

  18. You could drive two 1920×1200 monitors with a DualHead2Go Digital Edition, and hook your 1600×1200 lcd to your computer’s other graphics output. (Or have 2x 1600×1200 +1x 1920×1200). It comes with Matrox PowerDesk software to manage your windows.

  19. “Adrian, that card is over $400. Way more expensive than any of the other solutions.”

    Did’t say it was cheap, jsut that it was do-able without replacing the motherboard!

  20. Like Malcom posted above, I also run three Viewsonic VP2030B monitors at 1600×1200. I’ve been running this setup for over a year and a half and it’s been a dream to work with. Until last weekend I was running these off of a Radeon x700 (PCI-E) for my main 2 monitors and an old Radeon 7000 (PCI) for my 3rd. (With this setup two monitors were connected DVI-D and one was connected with good ol’ VGA cable.) I just upgraded my machine, though, and am now running these off of twin Radeon HD 3650 512MB DDR3 cards on a motherboard with two PCI-E slots. (I now can connect all 3 via DVI-D cable and the 3rd monitor is that much crisper once again!) Yes, I made sure to spec out a gaming mother board when upgrading just to support two PCI-E cards for my three monitor setup.

    Prior to getting my VP2030b monitors, for many years I used two 19″ CRTs and a 14″ CRT for my 3rd monitor.

    I do a lot of coding and also spent the last two plus years working from home doing some intense graphic work in Photoshop. Nothing beats a three screen setup for that.

    With Photoshop I dedicated my main monitor to the work area, the right monitor to pallets and Adobe Bridge (and winamp from time to time 🙂 ). The left monitor was used as the misc. monitor. I’d open up folders, text files, email, Firefox, Trillian, a movie from time to time … etc.

    When coding, it’s basically my editor on my main monitor, browser on the right monitor, and misc. on the left monitor (FTP, SSH shells, email, remote desktops, VirtualBox running differing OSes, etc.)

    I definitely see a difference in productivity going from my three higher resolution monitors at home to two lower resolution monitors on my desk in the office. A lot of that may be because I’m used to throwing all the misc. windows off to the left allowing me to have more info at a glance and not having to juggle windows around as much. I do miss the third monitor when it’s not there … and one monitor seems so barbaric after having three for so many years. 🙂

    Also, on top of having the three monitors (or two at work), I use Virtual Dimension for setting up virtual desktops. So I have three monitors width and many desktops deep (though I find that 3 deep works fine for me — 3×3 … 2×3 at work). This helps keep things organized even more. I find that when I’m coding, I’ll have all the progams open for a dev site on one desktop, the programs to work on the live site on another desktop … and inevitably someone wants something tweaked “real quick” and I’ll switch over to a third desktop and hide all the other clutter to do the fix and not be distracted by the other work. Hey, it works for me.

    I do find that I agree that three monitors is a sweet spot. I toyed with the idea of getting four monitors when I purchased my three, but am glad I didn’t. It was more of a “I have four ports, I really should fill them all!” But when it comes right down to it, the three are balanced just right for the way I work, and I never have seriously thought that I wished I would have gotten that fouth monitor. I think it would have sat there off and unused 90% of the time.

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