I have two 23″ monitors on my desktop at work, and have worked that way for about three years now (aside from a brief flirtation with a single 30″ monitor in California). On Windows and Linux this is an incredibly productive setup. I can have a full screen IDE open on one and a full-screen web browser open in the other. The web browser gives me a huge reference library and easy access to a lot of apps including e-mail, calendar, and more, and the IDE lets me do my work. I can easily switch back and forth between them to surf or edit. It’s a smooth and fluid workflow. Even a single monitor twice the size doesn’t work as well since you can’t easily organize the two applications on the screen.
I’m a programmer but the same is true for anyone who works primarily in one large application. For instance, for designers it might be Photoshop or QuarkXPress. For writers it may be Microsoft Word. For business folks it could be Excel. We all need a web browser open and we all need our main productivity app. On Windows and Linux these days, this just works. You plug-in two monitors. You open two apps. You move between them as you feel like it, and do your work. This is what it looks like:
On the Mac, however, it doesn’t work. The Mac, which was perhaps the first platform to support multiple monitors, certainly the first consumer platform, a two monitor setup looks like this:
Do you see the difference?
The problem is that the Mac always and only puts the menubar on one screen. That means using any app on the second screen means constantly redirecting your attention back to the first screen. Furthermore, you have to constantly move the mouse between screens, rather than just slamming the mouse to the top as Mac users are accustomed to doing. It may not seem like much, but after you’ve grown accustomed to a multiple monitor setup on Windows or Linux, trying to use one on the Mac is jarring. Not only does it not just work. It just doesn’t work.
The solution should be simple: put a menu bar on each monitor, at least optionally. The menu bar can even be disabled until the app is focused with a click. Why Apple hasn’t done this, I don’t know. For single screen computers, the Mac still has by far the most efficient menubar design and the best multi-application UI ever invented. Windows and Linux still haven’t caught up with where the Mac was in 1984. A menu bar belongs at the top of a screen, not the top of a window. But unfortunately the Mac doesn’t put a menu bar at the top of a screen. It puts the menu bar at the top of one screen, and that makes all the difference.
A few applications can actually use multiple displays for their own needs without the single menu bar approach crippling the user. For instance, PowerPoint can show the slides on one display (typically a projection system) and speaker’s notes on the other (typically a laptop). The key here is that such applications are tiling a single application across several monitors, and are designed for this environment. However this is rare. Most applications are designed to run on a single screen, and can’t really make use of a second monitor. To gain extra productivity with extra monitors, you need to be able to show different applications on different monitors and still have each application be fully functional.1 Without that ability the second monitor is just eye candy. In fact, maybe it’s not even that. I’ve never even found something as simple as a slideshow program or screensaver that can take over one monitor without blacking out the second.
Virtual desktops are not a solution either. The goal is to be able to see the web browser and the IDE (or whatever applications you happen to want to run simultaneously) at the same time, not merely to be able to switch back and forth between them. The eye can move faster than mouse, and sometimes that’s important.
I suspect this problem just wasn’t obvious circa 2000 when the last major refresh of the Mac UI was contemplated. At the time, multi-monitor setups were still rare and pricey things. However it’s 10 years later now. Video cards that support multiple displays are stock equipment in every Mac, and large flat screen monitors can be had for the price of a nice meal in Cupertino. It is well past time to fix this. Until Apple does, the Mac is, at least in this respect, a distinctly inferior platform for software development, photo editing, page layout, spreadsheet analysis, and other tasks that require a large, full-screen interface.
- Does More Than One Monitor Improve Productivity?
- Multiple Monitors and Productivity
- Multiple LCDs
- Joining the Prestigious Three Monitor Club
- The Large Display Paradox
- LCD Monitor Arms
- The Virtues of a Second Screen
1 We could also envision running different instances of the same application on two or more monitors. However most modern applications such as Firefox and Eclipse have too much implicit global state to make this feasible.