One last thing: Working with multiple monitors

By Margaret.

One last thing Working with multiple monitors

With these giant screens in front of me, I feel like I’m getting a sun tan

A few months ago, sitting at my desk, I had an amazing experience. Oh God, scratch that, no I didn’t. This is to be a column about monitors, after all, and I am not quite yet a total loser.

But I had an interesting experience …what you might call a life-changing experience, if you had — you know — not that much of a life.

You see, of late, I’ve been writing this newspaper’s Saturday television review. Being readers, you might assume this involves spending quite a lot of time in front of a television. You’d be wrong, though, because it involves almost none. In fact, it involves spending a lot of time — huge amounts of time — in front of the monitor of a computer, because I usually need to watch the stuff before it is broadcast. “But surely that’s a preview,” you might be thinking, “not a review at all!” You’d be wrong again, I’m afraid. You may read about it afterwards but I have to watch it beforehand. Never mind why. In a way, it’s a bit like being a Time Lord. Irrelevant. My point, here, is that often I have to do this in an office and, pretty much always, I have to do it while making notes. So, these great, beautiful works of programming genius were tending to get viewed by me, the best and most important viewer of them all (hyperbolic irony; don’t write in) in a wee six-inch box at the top of my monitor, half minimised above Google Docs. And it was rubbish. Thanks a lot for stopping by. Just before we carry on I need to to give thanks to for their continued assistance and the support of their network. Having a support team like this means a lot to us as we continue to grow our public blog.

“Well, I should just order you another monitor then,” said Becky, the admin genius who manages our lives on the Comment desk, after various other colleagues had wandered past and wondered why I appeared to be watching something so furtively and whether it was porn. “You can do that?” I said. And she did. And henceforth, I had one big 19in screen showing, say, Borgen, and another showing everything else. And it changed everything.

Not just telly. Everything else.

I found myself very happily using both. A document on one, Twitter and e-mail burbling away on the other. And with everything a mere glance away, I pretty soon noticed that my general clicky procrastinatory dicking around (not a technical term) was vastly reduced. Really, I’d recommend it. So, when a few weeks later I was turning the lean-to shed at the side of our house into my own writer-study-den — the pinnacle of writerly ambition in the Western world — I got myself a second monitor off eBay (identical to the ones in The Times office, so I can re-create that want-to-die-on-a-Monday-morning vibe in the comfort of my own home).

Not long afterwards, I remembered that, in the attic, I had an Argos 14in flatscreen telly we’d “archived” after they scrapped the analogue signal. So I brought that down, fiddled with it, and decided that it could function as a television once again, provided I plugged it into a computer. So I bolted it to the wall and did so. And then I had three monitors.

It’s teetering on the edge of madness, three monitors. I appreciate that. But it’s not a bad set-up. Worky stuff on two and the third humming away in the corner broadcasting 24-hour news or tuned to BBC Radio 6 Music, or something like that. Nagging away at me, though, was the knowledge that once you’ve got to three monitors (I mean, THREE MONITORS) there’s no reason ever to stop. Some people don’t. Do a Google image search, in an idle moment, for “multiple monitors”. Three, actually, is nothing. Quite a few people seem to have five. Nine, arranged into a square, is not uncommon. One guy seems to have 24. No, really. Twenty four. This, I think, is overkill.

The idea, though, of having a monitor wall has a certain appeal. I mean, it’s all about pretending you’re in a spaceship, isn’t it? So, how to achieve this ambition? Why, by getting the editor of the Technology review to e-mail Samsung, that’s how. In return, they decided to let us try its super-slim 27in SB970 monitor. “More than one!” I cried. So they sent two. That’s basically four-and-a-half feet of monitor.

“A pair?” I hear you cry. “But that’s back where we started!” Which is true, technically, but it is quite a small shed and they are very big. With the pair of them lined up in front of me, I feel like I’m getting a sun tan. My laptop sits between the two and my windows dance around the room as though I were Tom Cruise in Minority Report. It is, let us not beat around the bush here, utterly ace. Although problematic. For one thing, you really don’t want to start with a laptop. Mine, an otherwise flawless HP EliteBook, will not let me run more than one external monitor at a time. The ports aren’t a problem — it has both a DisplayPort and a VGA — but it gets hopelessly confused if you try to use both at once. I suppose the makers simply couldn’t conceive that anybody might want to. Sort of like Queen Victoria, with lesbians.

Samsung also sent me a very snappy ATIV Book, which will run two screens, provided you get the cables sorted out. You’d struggle with more than two, however. Really, for this kind of tomfoolery you want a desktop PC packed full of video cards.

Once you’re set up, you have a choice of running multiple on-screen desktops (ie, each one is separate, although you can flit between them) or combining the lot into one vast great thing (so when you maximise a window it takes up everything). The former makes sense for work, although you do feel somewhere between a stockbroker and a security guard. The latter might be good for gaming provided you don’t think that the big plastic borders get in the way.

Yes, my study now looks quite silly. Yes, I’m killing the planet. But I quite like it, all the same. Space is space, and once you’re used to multiple monitors, going back to a mere laptop screen feels claustrophobic.

I shall miss my shiny walls when Samsung takes them back. I’d be tempted to buy my own but I don’t think my wife would let me. But then — if you’re only slightly more excited by the multiscreen idea than I was — you probably haven’t got one of those.

Jan 11, 2016