What's your ideal computer display setup?

altoption's picture

I'm currently working on a 15" MacBook Pro with an external 23" Apple Cinema Display. I'm planning to upgrade to a new Mac Pro and I'm trying to figure out the ideal display set up. Anyone use 2 - 30" displays, or 2 to 3 - 23" displays? With my setup now, I'm constantly juggling windows between the 15" and the 23". Most of my work is in CS3, with mail, iTunes and web open. I'm just curious if anyone has found the dream display setup for this kind of work.


russellm's picture

It would be multi-screen


Mark Simonson's picture

I've been using dual displays for the most part since the Mac II days. Two displays around 20" or so works pretty well for type design. I use the main screen for the glyph and font windows with previews and other windows on the secondary screen. When I'm working in most other programs (Photoshop, Illustrator, web, etc.), I usually just use the main screen. I keep my email, calendar, and to-do list on the secondary screen.

I think larger screens would be even better, but I have noticed that if I am spending a lot of time doing something on the secondary screen, my neck starts to get sore, and I think larger screens would make this worse. Moving the keyboard, mouse and chair helps, but I don't usually remember to do it. Sometimes I just move the window I'm working in to the main screen temporarily. I also sometimes think a single, very large screen (a 30-incher) would be better.

My main screen is a 21" Wacom Cintiq, which I've had for a couple of years. This is one of those tablet/screen hybrids with which you can draw directly on the surface with a stylus. I thought this would be the ultimate, best display for working on type and doing lettering, but my experience has been mixed. It works great for Photoshop and drawing in general, but not so great for editing fonts. It can't match the precision of the mouse for making small movements. What I mean by this is that the on-screen cursor has a tendency to jiggle around, as if it can't decide precisely which coordinate it's on, even when you hold the stylus rock steady. This never happens with a mouse. Because of its size, figuring out where to put the keyboard when you're using it to draw is a real puzzle, and you always need to be able to use the keyboard, even while drawing. There is a limit to how upright the display can go, so even in it's most upright position, it's fairly tilted back, and this causes a glare problem when you have overhead lighting. So, great idea, really fun to use, but problematic.

Dav's picture

I wish I could afford 2 30" displays. I am currently working with a MacBook (13") and an additional 19" display. (I am currently considering exchanging the 19" one with a 22 or 24" one.) I actually never worked with a multi screen setup of 2 or more displays. (Sadly enough, maybe. ;)


Nick Cooke's picture

I've got a 30 incher :^O and it's fine for type design - I can see a character window and the preview panel. It's a pretty big space to fit everything on. With Exposé on Mac it's easy enough to toggle through different program windows, so I really can't see the point of 2 displays (of that size).

Nick Cooke

Jos Buivenga's picture

A MBP with a 20" display in this set up. Having the metrics monitor above and the edit window beneath does lessen some strains :-)

Nick Cooke's picture

Oh yes, I forgot to mention a chair and a desk :^)

Nick Cooke

Mark Simonson's picture

I like the idea of putting the second display on top like that, above the Cintiq. I worry that our cats might knock it over. Still...

Spire's picture

Here's a photo of my desk:

Dual 22" displays, each running at 2048×1536, for a total display area of 4096×1536, and an effective resolution of 128PPI.

No LCDs for me; not even Trinitron/aperture-grille CRTs cut it. I use only good old shadow-mask CRTs -- which, sadly, are getting really hard to find these days.

Jos Buivenga's picture

I like the idea of putting the second display on top like that, above the Cintiq. I worry that our cats might knock it over. Still...

Once you've tried it you won't go back. And the cats ... maybe this wallpaper will do the trick :)

Nick Shinn's picture

I have one big screen and a 6" x 8" Wacom Intuos.
I find the small tablet is useful, by minimizing arm movement.
I don't have the wobble problem Mark does, with FontLab snap-to distance set at 3, which seems to be adequate.
The single screen is cluttered with palettes, but I'm used to it.

Mark Simonson's picture

> maybe this wallpaper will do the trick

That would probably keep me away, too. :-)

Randy's picture

I run one big 30 off a 17" laptop (closed mostly). If I need more real estate I open the laptop. But that is extremely rare.

You'd be a natural for Spaces in OSX 10.5 with productivity apps in one space and CS3 in the other. In that context, one big is definitely the way to go. And it doubles as a nicer TV :-)

JCSalomon's picture

 The ideal display for working in design or engineering is the 300+ dpi electronic-paper drafting table. Anyone care to guess when pressure-sensitive 18000×12000 resolution desks become available?

Spire's picture

Given the glacial pace of innovation in display technology, I wouldn't expect desks like that for at least another 15 years.

Fifteen years ago, 640×480 displays were the norm, and displays running at up to 1024×768 weren't uncommon. In 1993 I was using a 15" display running at 1280×1024 (~122PPI). Things have hardly changed since then.

Thomas Phinney's picture

That reminds me: I hope nobody is running 1280 x 1024 for design work!

The reason being is that of all the standard monitor resolutions, it is the only one that doesn't match the aspect ratio of the screen. A "normal" (non widescreen) monitor is a 4:3 aspect ratio. But 1280x1024 is 5:4 aspect ratio. Only your software doesn't know you're running a non-standard aspect ratio, and all your work is subtly distorted compared to WYSIWYG.



Ch's picture

Thomas - please clarify this... (i hope this doesn't degenerate into the ppi debates of yore).

1) is there really any such thing as a "normal monitor" ?
2) most good monitors come with some adjustments for horizontal and vertical sizing.
3) i work on one machine that is set to 1280 x 1024 (its maximum resolution),
but the first thing i do on any monitor is draw a perfect square and circle, print them out, and measure the image on both screen and paper, and adjust accordingly. no problem.

that aside, my perfect set-up is no computer at all, pencil and paper.

but seriously, i do try and look at my work in progress on several different monitors for color and distortion. i'm mostly producing motion graphics, but for print i frequently print and compare same at various print settings.

also, i'm utterly dependent on the largest available tablet and pen for ergonomics and dexterity. i prefer an older wacom, without the new on-tablet side controls, which i find are too easily activated accidently. at a client's office where i often work they gave me one of those and i had to disable those controls.

and while we're on the topic, i'm discouraged that the new imacs and macbooks ship with glossy screens only. when low gloss flat screens came out it was such a relief to be free of unwanted reflections, and now in some bizarre act of consumer fetish manufacturing apple has decided that people want them. why would i want my screen display modulated by anything other than the image i'm working on ?
i urge anyone who feels the same way to submit a complaint to apple's consumer feedback forum. perhaps if enough professionals complain they'll get the message: non-gloss now !

Spire's picture

Thomas: FWIW, back in 1993 when I was running at 1280×1024, I used my monitor's controls to horizontally squeeze the display area to give me a perfect 1:1 pixel aspect ratio.

(My ~122PPI calculation above was based on the dimensions of my squeezed display.)

jasonla's picture

I'm using a 19" Hanns G wide screen, the bottom part isn't to low profile but ideally i'd like dual monitors 20"+ with a very low profile as well as two office desks since i can't ever seem to keep mine cleared of papers much longer then a week. I have stacks of invoices notes and all types of other office clutter on it right now.

innovati's picture

I read a study once where they determined that 24" was the optimum size for a screen, with productivity on a 24" screen 40% higher than a 19" screen, but when they moved beyond 24" the productivity went down again.

Armed with that Knowledge I'd probably go out and get a 24" screen to use in addition to my 20" imac, if I had the money kicking around for a new desk too.

Mark Simonson's picture

I stopped using the Cintiq and switched to a 24" display and a 6x8 Wacom tablet instead. It was a hard decision because the Cintiq wasn't cheap and it is really cool to be able to work directly on the screen.

After living it with a couple of years, I noticed that I didn't need to "draw on the screen" as much as I thought I would, and as a general purpose monitor (which is how I used it 90% of the time), it's less than ideal. Even when you use it as a tablet, there are problems. For example, the typical GUI assumes that you are not covering any of the screen with your hand. When you use the Cintiq, you're often covering up things you need to see. Another problem is where to put the keyboard. I've never figured out a convenient place to put it when using the Cintiq for drawing. Glare was a big problem. Because of the tilt feature and the way the base is designed, the Cintiq is always tilted back somewhat. Overhead lighting was a constant problem and I had to choose between good room lighting and being able to see the screen clearly.

The "drawing on the screen" thing turned out to have a subtle drawback. When I sketch designs for a typeface or lettering, I like to work fairly small, close to the actual size of the finished piece. But when you draw small on the Cintiq, there simply isn't enough resolution to capture the level of detail that paper does. I might be able to learn to draw bigger, but, given the other problems, I'm not sure it's worth the effort.

For certain kinds of things, it's wonderful, such as retouching and painting in Photoshop or other "paint" programs. In fact, I would say that it works more like a paintbrush than a pencil or pen, and it's better suited to that type of work. It's not very good for detail work unless you're comfortable working zoomed in big.

Some of these problems are probably solvable by changing my habits, or changing the lighting, seating or desk arrangement in my office, but for now, after giving it a two-year test run, I think it's not really for me.

I still keep it around for the things it's great for, but I do my day-to-day font and lettering stuff with a 24" Apple Cinema Display connected to a MacBook Pro. The laptop's screen I use as a secondary display. I've also broken myself of the habit of having lots of windows open on the secondary monitor. I keep mail, calendar, things-to-do, web browser, etc. hidden while I'm working now as much as possible and I'm getting a lot more done.

Finally, I'm finding the Wacom Intuos 3 6x8 tablet to be really great as a mouse replacement for anything that involves a lot of dragging and clicking. For general navigating around the screen, especially when I need to use the keyboard a lot, I still use the mouse (I love the scroll wheel). But when I need to do a lot of selecting and dragging and clicking (like when I'm constructing glyphs in FontLab) the tablet is much easier on the wrist, more flexible and less cumbersome than the Cintiq.

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