Dual displays contrasting with virtual screens (aka multiple desktops)

June 12, 2020

At work, I have dual displays on my office desktop, specifically two Dell U2412M monitors (which are 24" diagonal with 1920 x 1200 resolution). This gives me a lot of space to work in, and lets me do things like have a full sized Grafana dashboard on the left one while carpeting the right one with windows that are investigating the problems shown on the dashboard. Of course, given world and local events I'm not at work, I'm working from home. At home I have a nice HiDPI display, but it's a Dell P2715Q which means it's only 27" diagonal (and a 16:9 display compared to the 16:10 of the dual monitors). This is not anywhere near as much space as two displays, and the space doesn't split naturally or as nicely.

One of the things that my window manager supports is what is variously called virtual screens or multiple desktops. I have multiple virtual screens set up on my desktop at work as well as at home, but at work I've generally not used them very often or for much. Generally I would switch virtual screens only if I was interrupted in the middle of something and so needed a whole new set of windows on top of the set that I already had. Otherwise, I did everything on my primary virtual screen, because it had enough room.

This isn't really the case with working from home. Now I'm routinely out of what I consider enough space, and so my work sprawls across multiple virtual screens. Sometimes this is different parts of my work; I might be running virtual machines on one virtual screen and looking at a Grafana dashboard on another. This sort of split across virtual screens is okay, and some people would find it an improvement over putting everything on the primary screen, although I'm not sure I do (having everything iconified in one spot is convenient). However, sometimes my single screen and lack of as much space forces me to split one thing between two virtual screens. The most common case is looking at Grafana dashboards, which really want to be full screen on my display. A full screen dashboard leaves me no room for other windows to investigate things, so I often wind up flipping back and forth between a virtual screen with a Grafana dashboard and a virtual screen where I'm doing something about what the dashboard is telling me. This is, naturally, not the best experience; I can't see both things at once and I lose some context and flow as I flip back and forth.

Even with different parts of my work, it's not infrequently a bit more annoying to switch virtual screens than to have one set of things on one display and another set of things on the other. One area this especially comes up in is reading email as it comes in. At work, my email client de-iconifies on the left side of my right display (more or less in the center of where I look), and I tend to first use the left display for things like terminal windows and work, which means that there's space left for the email client to open up, for me to write replies to email, and so on. At home, the de-iconified email client is competing for space with all sorts of other things, so if email comes in while I'm working I'll often switch to another clean virtual screen to read it. This is more of an interruption than it is on my work dual display.

At the same time, the clean virtual screen that I get at home is in its own way a nicer thing. I can't deny that there's clutter and a bunch of distractions on my primary virtual screen at work, both passive ones (things I could do) and active ones (things I'm currently doing). A forced switch to a different virtual screen at home wipes away all of that and gives me a clean, low distraction slate (at least until I start cluttering up the second virtual screen). The very lack of space that I don't like pushes me to switch virtual screens more often and thus to get that new, uncluttered, lower distraction experience more often.

My current feelings are that virtual screens at home don't make up for not having dual displays. I can get my work done, but it's not as nice an experience as it is at work, and not as flowing (for lack of a better term). I'm cramming too much into too little space, and my virtual screens are mostly a method of trying to get more space (as opposed to, say, trying to keep things organized).

(Some people like using virtual screens to separate various things from each other, but my current view is that I don't want to do that for various reasons beyond the scope of this entry.)

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By Andrew at 2020-06-12 00:35:53:

Like you, I have a single monitor at home and a dual monitor at work. Unlike you, I use virtual desktops extensively in both places. At home, it's a single task (usually a maximized window) per desktop. At work, the desktops span both monitors, and I have sort-of-logical pairings... one has email on the left and chat on the right, one has code on the left and docs / debugging on the right, one has logs on the left and dashboards on the right, etc., plus a few "overflow" desktops for more transient tasks. Even though I use a "standard" WM (kwm), I feel like the way I drive it is "tiling-esque", with almost everything fullscreened, windows almost never hidden behind other windows, and everyday tasks assigned to desktops whose hotkeys I have in muscle-memory. It Works For Me, I guess.

The downside is that using anyone else's machine is weirdly claustrophobic... I can't send windows to another desktop, so they're all "occupying the same space" by being stacked on top of each other, and I feel almost physically crowded by them.

Written on 12 June 2020.
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Last modified: Fri Jun 12 00:11:12 2020
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