Virtual desktops versus multiple monitors

June 26, 2008

A commentator here asked:

With respect to tabs vs. windows (vs. virtual desktops vs. extra monitors vs. separate computers), I always wonder what combination of the above will lead to the greatest productivity.

Having used both, my personal opinion is that virtual desktops are inferior to multiple monitors for the same reason that tabs are inferior to windows, namely that you can't see two virtual desktops at once. This makes virtual desktops good for grouping and a good place to shove excess windows but not a good solution when you really need to see that many things at once.

(Although I'd used virtual desktops for years, even a casual experiment with dual monitors was such a powerful experience that I was hooked on the spot. But I continue to use virtual desktops even with multiple monitors; you can never have enough space, and as mentioned I'm very big on using spatial organization for things, which virtual desktops are good for. Plus, for a sysadmin the ability to instantly get an uncluttered workspace to deal with some important interruption is very useful.)

I'd think that a single computer with multiple monitors is better than several computers, each with a single monitor, for much the same reason; using separate computers with separate displays constrains how you organize and re-organize information. The exception is if you really need multiple computers for some reason (a classic reason being testing on one machine and debugging from the second), in which case you have no choice.

Sidebar: the poor man's KVM

If you have a primary machine plus one or two secondary machines that you only use occasionally and modern LCDs with both VGA and DVI inputs, you can construct what I call a 'poor man's KVM':

  • give each machine its own keyboard and mouse, ideally small ones for everything except your primary machine
  • hook your primary machine up to one set of inputs (DVI or VGA) on the LCD panels.
  • hook the secondary machine(s) up to the other LCD panel inputs

When you want to use a secondary machine, pull out its keyboard and mouse and switch the appropriate LCD monitor's input to it. (If you don't need to watch anything on the primary machine, you may want to power off the other monitor to avoid absent-minded mistakes.)

It's probably easier to put the primary machine on the DVI inputs and the secondary machine or machines on VGA (partly because more things still support VGA than support DVI).

Comments on this page:

From at 2008-06-26 11:17:31:

Poor man’s KVM can be done much better than that, in fact can be done so well that it’s arguably better than a hardware KVM in a number of ways.

Aristotle Pagaltzis

From at 2008-06-26 12:48:31:

First, to respond to Aristotle (this is getting to be a habit), Synergy was the first thing that popped into my head after reading Chris' post. Of course, it admits to being a KM (instead of KVM) solution. Another issue is that in some setups, you may need to login to a client machine before the Synergy connection is established, which would require a separate keyboard, if briefly. I think it would be good if Synergy had some way of allowing the server to authenticate and initiate the client remotely. (I suppose I could do this with SSH; I wonder if anything more is really needed.) Those are probably some of the reasons why you used the "arguably" qualifier, though. When you don't have an extra monitor, Chris' "poor-man's KVM" is a reasonable solution. I only really want one monitor for myself, so I use one of those nice Dells with multiple inputs and use it with multiple computers as well as console gaming systems, and it serves as the only standalone display device in my apartment, where space is at a premium. I then combine it with Synergy to hook in my laptop. Fun fun.

After reading Chris' previous post on this general topic, I spent some time reflecting on why I use the various interface organization paradigms. There is certainly a benefit to being able to simultaneously obtain information from multiple interfaces if work done in one is dependent on the others (copy and paste, drag and drop being WIMP examples). This is sometimes the case, but I find myself more often focusing on one interface to the exclusion of others. (Or do I?) In those cases, why should the others be available (at that time)? For example, if I'm reading one web page, I don't need to see the other web pages I have open at the same time, so they are usefully organized into tabs (or virtual desktops, or both). How can we best organize our visual (and other?) input streams to accomplish particular goals? Some other tasks in this space are finding and transitioning from one interface to another; being notified of updates in non-focused interfaces; and providing structure, organization, and context for work, but I'm also curious to know if there is some sort of systematic characterization of all the issues involved here.

   - John L. Clark
By cks at 2008-06-26 15:48:58:

For me, the 'poor man's KVM' solution is for situations where you rarely use your secondary machines, so you want your primary machine to have all of the monitors almost all of the time. I think that this is a different usage scenario from Synergy; Synergy seems more aimed at when you're regularly using multiple machines but don't want to use multiple keyboards and mice.

(The poor man's KVM also works best if you don't try to use your primary machine and a secondary machine at the same time, because you have to remember that half your primary machine's display is invisible.)

From at 2008-06-26 23:22:18:

Over the last few years my company has embraced the idea that giving people the tools they need to do their work is a good thing! Faster desktops, more screens, more disk space, more bandwidth.

Currently I now have dual 20" displays on my work desktop, some developers have triple headed systems and there are now plans to give some of our NOC type people 8x30" monitors to stare at. They currently have 8x20" displays as a minimum.

While I do find KVM type virtual desktops useful for remote operations, nothing beats good old screen real-estate.

Chris Gregors

From at 2008-06-28 04:13:51:

I too have been in love with multiple monitors for many years. This should be empirically tested, but the productivity does seem to increase with spatial place. (Classical example for me would be a side-monitor with either some .pdf to read while coding or .dvi to use with LaTeX.) Yet, I have also noticed that too much can be exhausting: human mind has very limited capability for multitasking. Once you have, say, three monitors and various things blinking, it becomes hard to concentrate on any particular window.



By cks at 2008-06-29 00:16:59:

I tend not to multitask very much even with multiple monitors; instead I use them to spread out a lot of stuff for a single task, and sometimes to preserve a clear space to put windows needed for interruptions.

Written on 26 June 2008.
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