The Best Christmas Present for a Nerd

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Desk of a nerd with 2 monitors and stands
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Christmas is right around the corner and if you wonder about the presents, I have just an idea for you. No, it is not the new iPad, Galaxy S3 phone, or any of the new “ultrabooks”. In fact, this is exactly the opposite. My present idea is to boost your productivity in creating “content”, not merely consuming it.

And when it comes to creating anything with a computer, you need a big screen–the bigger the better. In fact, I’d recommend that you get yourself two new monitors. And don’t think small. How about two 27″, 1920x1080p full HD, LED-lit panes? You can get those for under $300 each, so a pair will still cost you less than a new iPad.

I got such a setup a few months ago, and now I’m absolutely convinced that this has been the best investment in my productivity–better than a faster CPU or a solid-state disk. I really can’t benefit from my machine being faster–that’s not what wastes my time. But I sure can use more screen, to read the documentation two pages at a time, and to see a complete IDE or a modeling tool on the other screen (modeling tools absolutely love big screens!).

The picture of my desk shows my setup. I have two 27″ HP 2711x 1080p monitors connected to an HP dv6 laptop. One monitor is connected via the HDMI cable and the other via the analog VGI cable. I don’t see any degradation in image quality on the VGA-driven monitor.

Dual Monitors

As you can see in the picture, I’ve placed my monitors on 6″ stands above my desk ($25 each). This is actually quite important, because too many people place their screens too low for comfortable work. (Using a laptop without a stand and additional keyboard is absolutely the worst!)

So, here it is: my Christmas present idea for a nerd. Write a letter to Santa about it, and maybe he will shove it down your chimney? (Only if you are good, that is!)


9 Responses

  1. Desktop computers these days have a video “card” on the motherboard that can typically handle two monitors. The IT manager in my company doesn’t seem to know that so he orders computers with another video card that can handle two monitors. I’ve discovered that I can activate all four video outputs and use four monitors instead of two!

    1. Rick,

      Nice desk, although at some point you reach diminishing returns on the number of monitors. Two monitors seem to deliver the biggest bang for the buck for me, but your job might be different.

      I also see that you placed stacks of books under the monitors. Smart move, but stands work better. I use the space under the stands for backup hard drives, USB hub, and other gear.

      Dual-monitor (or multiple-monitor) setup is obviously not new, but in the past it required special graphics cards with multiple digital outputs. One of the main points of this post is that today even standard laptops can easily drive two big external monitors, WITHOUT any “splitters” or additional hardware. I wish somebody showed me how easy it is years ago, but I hope it’s not too late for other folks out there (in my travels to customers around the world, I still see too many poor souls hunched over 10″ laptops in the cubicles).

      But perhaps I should note that it is important to choose a laptop with at least one HDMI output. This seems actually a more important feature than a big, or extra high-resolution display in the laptop itself, because for any serious work in the office, you can always hook up a real display.

      Finally, as this post is about productivity, I would like to mention that even though pixels are cheap these days, I don’t like to see them wasted. This is specially important for the vertical pixels, as the modern, 16:9 aspect-ratio monitors have almost twice the number of horizontal pixels than vertical. Therefore, I pay extra attention to configuring my applications to recover as much vertical space as possible. For example, I like to move all toolbars to one side and orient them vertically .

      Also, I noticed a significant productivity gain if I can read PDFs in two-page mode (side by side). Again, to do this efficiently, I configured all toolbars and menu bars in my PDF reader vertically (you can actually see this in the picture of my desktop).


  2. Miro,

    Agreed – I’ve been running twin monitors for years. The PC metaphor is that of the “desktop,” but a single monitor is nothing like a desktop; it’s way too small.

    However, the 6″ elevation may work for some but not others. I find I have to keep them as low as possible in order to see them (darn bifocals!). My chair is as high as it will go for the same reason. One also-aging pal cut his desk away so he could lower the monitors below desk level.


  3. Miro,

    since 2007 I’ve been working with two 20″ 1600×1200 monitors and I couldn’t even imagine downgrade to 1080 lines. If I considered 27″ monitors, they would be 2560×1440 ones. But what I’m thinking seriously about right now is a 2×30″ setup (1600 lines!).
    Second thing – glossy displays. You seem to be quite happy with them but for me glossy is a no go. Just my 2ct 🙂

    1. Agreed, the more pixels the better! But pixels are not everything. The size of those pixels matter as well. Obviously, bigger pixels are more valuable than tiny ones.

      The mass produced, standard resolution 1080p HD panels offer the best price by far, though. Panels of a non-standard resolution, like 2560×1440 cost almost three times as much as the 1080p panels of the same size.

      But I like your way of thinking. The prices have already fallen so low, that a nice, big high-res monitor is a non-issue. It’s just too bad that so many people still hunch over 15″ laptops…

  4. Nice photo. “From whence comes many products and useful things.” I personally know of one that will be sent into space in a few years. It would not surprise me, though, if QP is already out there! If not it will be soon enough, doing lots of cool stuff very adroitly :-).

  5. As the owner of a small embedded startup I can’t think of a bigger boost to productivity for dollars spent than multiple monitors for each employee regardless of their role be it Engineering/Sales/Marketing, etc. Having a reference screen and a working screen on the go without having to toggle back and forth is a huge timesaver and worth every penny. Good point raised about comfort. To combat repetetive strain injuries my next purchase will be monitor stands (or shorter chairs)


    1. Aaron,

      I’m really glad to hear that you agree about the productivity gain from multiple, correctly positioned monitors.

      Since taking the published picture, I’ve raised my monitors by additional 1.5″, so that the lower edge of the LCD panel is now almost 12″ above my desk. I can’t stress enough how important that is for the correct posture.


  6. The cheapest way to get the monitors to the correct height is to use office paper reams. I do this at home and also in the office. They are cheap ($4 each) and solid, so depending on the size of your monitors you can put 1, 2, or 3 reams under a monitor. The downside…you cannot put things under the monitor, like a pure monitor stand. I have been doing this for years.

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