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Multi-Monitor vs Large-Monitor

Friday, March 4, 2011

I recently bought a Mac Mini with an Apple Cinema Display as my new main machine at home. I run Windows on it, of course, but the looks and form factor of the Mini actually make more sense to me than either a brick-shaped PC or a laptop.

The real surprise, however, turned out to be the Cinema Display. I more or less added it on an impulse decision, which I have not regretted since. Far from it.

At work, I have two large monitors attached to a brick-PC, both at the same 1680×1050 resolution. That works really well: I have a big desk and the two flatscreens next to each other leave a lot of spare desk space.

At home, I used to work on a Mac Book Pro with an external monitor, also at 1680×1050. The laptop screen was (in theory) my second monitor, but because a Mac Book Pro does not open all the way – in fact only a little more than a right angle – positioning the laptop next to the external monitor was awkward. It gets in the way of my mousing space and takes up a lot of desk. So effectively, I end up working on the single external monitor.

When I bought the new combo I was just hoping to unclutter my desk at home. But it not only turns out that the whopping 27 inch 2560×1440 monitor is gorgeous (it has built-in speakers, a web cam, and USB ports, too); it changes the way I work.

A different perspective

Have you ever noticed the difference between screen dumps on Macs and Windows-PCs? On Windows, applications are usually maximized. The screen is divided into two regions: the task bar and the rest of the screen, which is usually occupied by a single window. Using Alt+Tab we switch from one application to the next. In fact, that’s more like a multi-terminal setup than a windowing environment.

A Mac desktop, by contrast, usually seems messier at first. I don’t spend much time in OS X, but it always takes me a while to get used to having so much on screen. Safari, for instance, does not fill up the screen: it always leaves some room for the rest of the desktop around it, showing parts of Finder-windows and such peeping out.

I didn’t realize this until I sat down behind Windows running on the Cinema Display. First of all, the large screen makes maximized windows much less useful. Having a web page running full-screen makes no sense: it fills up one third of the width of the screen, the rest is just wasted browser-background. So after a while, you move the browser window to the left half of the screen – and presto, there’s a whole new area on the right you can use for other applications. By-and-by, the desktop starts to assume the messy appearance that I associate with Macs.

Some applications really must run full-screen, like Photoshop and – very important in my case – Visual Studio. They show main content (source code or an image) plus zillions of tool windows. And on a large display that’s sheer joy, compared to cumbersomely arranging windows across multiple monitors.

So maybe the Mac’s user interface was really always designed to run on big screens. OS X’s typography is arguably better readable at small font sizes, which probably accounts for the fact that I’ve always found small Mac screens easier to work with than comparable Windows screens. And maybe the Windows 7 user interface encourages maximizing windows to reduce clutter. I don’t know: I only know that I find working with a single VLM (Very Large Monitor) much more fun – and effective, I guess – than two Large Monitors. The side effect is that my desktop starts behaving more like a Mac’s. We’ll see how that works out, but for now I’ve gone over to the VLM side.

Dragging Windows in Windows 7

By the way, Windows 7 makes it really easy to arrange windows on the desktop. You can grab any window by the title bar (even when it’s maximized!) and drag it to the outer left or right edge of the screen to dock it there, or to the top of the screen to maximize it. Maximized windows are always draggable: you don’t have to ‘Normalize’ them first. A simple but very welcome feature on a VLM.