Thoughts on Three Monitors for Developers

For developers, using two monitors almost has become mainstream. Modern video cards tend to have two outputs, a second monitor usually is available after upgrading to a larger screen, and most software - including operating systems - doesn't have any major problems working with multiple displays. And it's pretty safe to say that the majority of developers who have experienced the productivity gain of a two-monitor system (when used properly) don't want to go back.

The next question obviously is whether - and how much - a third monitor would help. I have two 24" TFTs both at work and at home and I'm using an additional display (my old 19" TFT) at home for a couple of months now. After spending three weeks on vacation at home and having finished the second week back at work I thought that now is a good time to compare the two setups and share my experiences.

How do I hook up a third monitor anyway?

Those of you who are interested in a third monitor may already have read about the problems with adding a second PCIe video card to your system - some combinations work, others don't. If you're like me and want an easy, low-risk solution, you should take a look at an USB graphics adapter.

I chose an EVGA UV Plus+ UV16 that has a DVI port and a chipset by DisplayLink for which 64bit Vista drivers are available. It may not be suitable for hardcore gaming, and HD resolution videos show a slight stutter if you're looking closely. But Aero and applications are working just fine. If you watch e.g. the rotation of the chess board in Chess Titans, you couldn't tell that you're watching it on a display connected via USB.

Regarding compatibility, I have to switch off the UV16 graphics adapter for running Flight Simulator X (switching off/on is easy via a tray icon), but I don't have problems with other games I've tried: Prince of Persia, Mass Effect and L4D run happily on my primary display (driven by a Geforce 8800 GTS 512). All in all I'm very happy with the UV16 and can recommend it.

Now, what is it like working with a third monitor?

To be honest, it takes some time to get used to. One thing I had to struggle with at first was caused by the position of the mouse. I'm right-handed and both at work and at home I have one 24" TFT right in front of me as my primary screen, and another 24" TFT as a secondary screen to the right, at an angle of about 40 degrees.

When I turn to the right, the secondary screen feels equally "near" to me as the primary screen. But when I turn to the left, towards the third screen, that screen feels more "distant" than the other two because I'm turning away from the mouse. This is strange at first, but in the end I got (kind of used) to it.

And what about productivity?

Don't expect a similar effect like when upgrading from one to two monitors. And it may happen that you don't develop a "couldn't live without three" feeling at all - after two weeks back at work with "just" two monitors, I know I don't. Sure it's nice to have more space for help files and web pages, but I have observed that I tend to

  • either work with two instances of Visual Studio side-by-side (e.g. for moving over code step by step from a sample, or design time debugging),
  • do some research-heavy development in a single (visible) Visual Studio instance (with web pages and help files on the secondary display).

Well, what is it good for then at all?

For me personally, the primary reason for adding a third monitor was my hobby of working with video. I use the third screen as a preview device, and with the preview in Sony Vegas never running 100% in real time, I can't tell what is causing the occasional stutter anyway (USB adapter or video preview). Having the other screens available completely for the timeline and tool windows is great.

Another thing I like about a third monitor is that I have enough space for things like Twitter, Messenger, Skype. But this is at home, where I actually want to notice updates immediately and I'm open to distractions, contrary to the situation at work.

Having a third monitor dedicated to a remote desktop session or a virtual machine may be nice under certain circumstances, but with sufficiently large primary and secondary screens, I haven't encountered situations where three screens would have been much better than two. Let's put it this way: it's not as if going multi-monitor would suddenly take away the feature of switching between windows...

So what do I recommend?

Here's my recommendation regarding multi-monitor systems:

  • Before even thinking about three screens, make sure you have two large screens of equal size. Being able to move an application from the primary to the secondary screen without fiddling around with the layout inside the application window (think Visual Studio) is worth a lot.
  • If you already have two large screens, a third monitor is standing around collecting dust and you have enough space on your desk - you definitely could do worse than spending your money on a USB graphics adapter.
  • But if you have to actually buy a third monitor, then you really should think about how you want to use it. Unless money isn't an issue and you want to impress people (in this case make sure that your computer emits the typical sounds of computers from movies and TV ;-). But for everybody else, watch yourself at the computer - where is your focus, how long do you need a certain application, how often do you have to switch between windows, which information do you need to be able to view in parallel, etc. And then make a buying decision.

As you can guess, this is my completely personal opinion, not based on any scientific research, so as usual YMMV. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. Do you agree? Or do you organize your work in a different way across monitors so that three monitors notably increase your productivity?


  • I've been running 3 monitors for over 2 years now, 3 identical monitors running 1600x1200

    I am right handed as well. my layout is as follows:

    Right monitor:
    any notes I tend to need to read or reference
    any infrequently used visual studio debug windows. stuff I glance at but don't regularly interact with.

    Middle Monitor(Primary monitor):
    Actively used programs
    Visual Studio
    The App I am designing
    any active writing
    my web browser.

    Left Monitor:
    Sql editors
    2nd most active applications
    applications I need to interact with while using the main app on the primary monitor
    actively used and viewed debug windows

    I could get away with using 2 monitors, and didn't notice as much of a productivity increase going to 3 as I did to 2, but if given the choice I would prefer to not give up the 3rd. When staring at monitors all day it's nice having the quick reference to things and not having to move windows around.

    I also sit in a corner desk and have the 3 monitors wrapping around me requiring little head movement and strain being that they are all roughly the same distance from my eyes.

  • While I'm known for being "that crazy monitor setup guy" I fully agree with you "YMMV". It does vary a lot and depends largely on two things. First, the work you do and how it can benefit from more workable surface area. Second, your personal adoption speed/preference in learning how to make subtle (but often noticeable in the beginning) changes in the way you look, watch things from peripheral vision, and focus on what is the primary field of view you're working on.

    Personally I have found that the more screens you add the more you will use and once you are comfortable with it, anything less feels like having been cramped in a claustrophobic space. On the other hand, I have also found there is a limit to what can be managed. For me it's 6x24" because the physical space is a match for my focal and peripheral vision. Anything higher stacked or wider would not be of any further benefit.

    The other thing to get accustomed to is that going from one or two to three or more screens is that your normal seated position and your overall movements will start to change because sometimes it is needed to lean a bit to the right or the left. Then again, I always consider that a benefit of exercise that otherwise would have been lost. :-)

    As for organizing many windows on many screens. I've rolled my own little tool for that which allows me to to swap entire layouts and configure things to adjust on the fly as I need. Something I plan to release as a free download in the very near future.

  • @Tony Bunce :
    Actually, even cards from different manufacturers and with different drivers do work.
    I've got a 3 monitor setup at work using an SLI motherboard with a ati radeon x300 and a geforce 7600 le and they work fine.
    My setup is usually visual studio's tooltips on the left screen, visual studio on the center screen and the running application on the right screen, but all my screens have different sizes.
    To manage it all I found winsplit revolution to be an indispensable tool.

  • @Bruno: AFAIK under Vista, you have to use the same driver for both video cards.

    Thanks for the tip regarding Winsplit Revolution, I'll take a look at it.

  • 3 monitors are essential for me - since I use VS exclusively on 2 monitors (code on primary screen, solution explorer, properties window, controls toolbar etc. on secondary screen) The 3rd monitor then comes in handy as a "communications" window - outlook / skype / gmail / internet etc.
    ...although I'm not quite fortunate enough where work sponsors 24" monitors :|

  • 2 24" displays in portrait-mode is very nice for me. A 3rd would not add much more value IMHO

  • I'm actually going to disagree on the "don't go out of your way to buy a third monitor". If you consider the monetary value of your time, even a very small performance improvement is probably worth upwards of $1500, the cost of a Dell 30" LCD. I've been using 2x Dell 20.1" LCDs + 1x 30" and it is fantastic. I put the 20.1" displays in portrait mode next to the 30" and the pixels line up almost perfectly.

    One of the benefits of having that third display was that I could easily have a perfmon instance running against our SQL Server while doing a lot of DB development. Nowadays, I can often look at a perfmon and tell what the DB is doing directly from that. This can be pretty useful...

  • O.K. I am currently running 2 monitors. My HP 7570 desktop has only 1 PCI card that am using for a dual card which allows me to run 2 monitors. can I run 3 monitors with only 1 PCI card


  • @Ed: Seems you missed the part in my blog post where I wrote about adding the third monitor using an USB graphics adapter and included links to manufacturers.

Comments have been disabled for this content.