Woman using two monitors

People ignore some Smartlife advice because it messes with their established patterns, even though the whole point of staying alive is to make tomorrow better than today. Some advice seems like too much work, even though it saves time and energy in the longer run. And sometimes, just sometimes, the advice simply seems too good to be true: an excuse to indulge under the guise of efficiency. This is one such time. Buying a second monitor isn’t an obscene luxury or a greedy gadget grab; it really can improve your productivity.

Microsoft’s awesomely-acronymed Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment (VIBE) group has shown that larger screen area can significantly improve productivity. And by “significantly” we mean 10 to 50 percent depending on the task. And if you’re not interested in that, you actually are a gremlin, a fictional creature existing only to destroy progress. And most people seem to be said gremlins; the work was completed six years ago and we’re all still struggling in monoscreen sadness.

Obviously, “productivity” is a magical nothing-word which could mean anything to anyone. However, thinking about your equipment will make the advantages obvious. Your monitor isn’t just a “screen.” It’s part of the interface between a brilliant organic “computer” evolved over millions of years and an ultrafast electronic processor with network access to an incredible information archive. Your Internet connection speed is probably the most important aspect of your setup, both personally and professionally. You’d no more use a 56k modem than you’d send faxes by smoke signal. So why, after downloading megabytes of data per second all the way from across the world, would you send it the last foot over a small, dim, cathode-ray connection to your eyes?

It isn’t just the Internet. The screen really is your work area, and not just in the hardware. Your mind builds the picture of everything you’re doing in that space, seeing all the other applications either “behind” it or packed down into a corner. You wouldn’t work on a drawing board only eleven inches across; why would you construct every file you’ll ever use on the drafting equivalent of the back of a pygmy marmoset’s hand?

The original research involved a unique curved “DSHARP” monitor over a meter across, but multiple monitors are much more manageable and offer a lot of the same advantages. Different mental “panes” allow you to organize all your sources and programs, especially when you have to work between two or more at a time. On a single screen, alt-tabbing adds an extra step to every single operation. Reducing them in size to fit means you’re operating on two programs through tiny keyholes, constantly dragging scroll-bars left and right to find what you want.

The single screen forces you to think serially, clunking from one task to the next as you replace the entire work area instead of working in parallel between two (especially when you have to work between two applications which won’t talk to each other, often the case in offices where people work as organic adapters between databases and communications).

Let’s look at a few potential systems:

The Base of Operations

You work, you play, and you want your computer to be capable of both without breaking the bank. A good baseline for such a system is the NVIDIA GeForce 8800GT: excellent power while keeping clear of the exponential price increases you get in the upper end of the graphics card spectrum.

That's how cool it looks before it's even connected.

The dual link DVI connectors enable it to drive two displays. The second output can also be used to drive a projector or your TV, entirely eliminating the need for cable and paying for itself in a matter of months. Since it supports HDTV signals, you can enjoy your Blu-ray discs at your desk. An Intel Quad Core Q6600 can power it all at a decent rate without requiring a massive outlay, while a Gigabyte S-Series GA-P35-DS3L can tie them both together with whatever memory you require. Remember, heavy graphical lifting means you need a board which can supply your bigger card’s power and cooling needs!

The Docking Station

You can have all the advantages of a two-monitor desktop without ever buying the first one. Laptop “docking stations” are infamous for being ugly, unwieldy, and — with modern connectors — utterly unnecessary. They destroy your computer’s portability while reinforcing its failings, crowding all the equipment around a single small screen.

It looks like it’s in a wheelchair, but less accessible.

The Smartlife way is to set up the improved output on your desk and just leave it there. Most modern laptops can support an external monitor. The LG Flatron Wide series combine a large sharp screen with minimum profile, meaning you can push it out of the way and still have most of your desk to work on when you’re not computing.

From the front, it’s a glory…from the side, it’s a wafer.

Connect a Microsoft Digital Media Keyboard 3000 and a G5 laser mouse to a USB hub and you’re all set. Instead of encasing your laptop in an unattractive armored suit, simply put it to the side and connect the USB and monitor cables. Voilà, a full desktop system for regular work (though you won’t be doing any CAD or playing games), and a secondary monitor to the side for references, database access, or just organizing all your instant messaging clients where they won’t start blinking over your office applications.

Note: Some older laptops, like iBooks, insist that they can only clone their desktop, copying the same display to both screens, but there’s always a patch to fix that.

Bonus advantages: Never again will you forget an important file, or fiddle with USB keys or mailbox size limits when you should be on your way to a meeting! Work in comfort at your desk, and when it’s time to go, just unplug two cables and you’re bringing your entire computer with you wherever you go. This is ideal for anyone who is often on the move.

The Bond Villain Glory

We all want it bigger, and if you’re often distracted from the bad guy’s exposition of his only weakness by his badass multi-screen setup, the ATI Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity 6 is for you. That might sound like a lot of numbers, but those are nothing. This graphics card can shift one billion pixels per second, strewn across up to six monitors for the first hexadesktop ever.

Even if you work only half the time, that’s three times as much as normal! Honest!

They may be focusing on graphics, but a six-desktop system means you really could run one of those “surrounded by monitors” desks you always see the movie geniuses running. Instead of alt-tabbing, you’d by swiveling in your chair, which sounds like it’d be more work until you account for the incredible psychological effects that level of technogasm would bring.

As for the rest of the computer? Get everything. As big and brand-new as you can make it, because you’ve engaged in the wonderful commitment of making the best computer ever. Can we come and see it?

Image credit: jerges / iStockphoto