Introduction

Since the early days of software development, developers have craved more and more "space" to do their work. Since the unit of space in computer land is pixels, this has created a desire for larger and larger screens, with more and more screens.

The following is my personal experience over the past 24 years as I subjectively rate each monitor setup in terms of "productivity".

Findings

Generally speaking, more pixels means better productivity - but only to a point. For me, that point is reached at Quad 27" screens, or about 15 million pixels. If I am honest with myself, my sweet spot is about half that, with Dual 27" screens, although I expect Dual 30" screens @ 2560x1600 would be even better.

Image alternative text

>I found that there is approximately linear productivity improvement between about 2 million pixels and 10 million pixels.

Discussion

Single 13" @ 640x350 = 224,000px (1990)

My first foray into computers was with an Amstrad PS1640 HD20 back in 1990, with a whopping 640k of memory and a 20MB hard disk. Screen realestate was limited to 640x480 (EGA), and my productivity was appalling (to be fair I was 8 years old).

Image alternative text

Single 15" @ 800x600 = 480,000px (1995)

A freind introduced me to GeoCities in 1995, which in turn introduced me to HTML and my first real programming experience. The development environment here was a simple text area box at the bottom of the page, so there was not much need for a lot of screen realestate. However, my software development and screen realestate requirements stepped up as I began programming in Visual Basic 6.

Single 21" @ 1600 x 1200 = 1,920,000px (2000)

Image alternative text

CRT's had one advantage over the LCD's that has since replaced them in that they could support much higher resolutions. Constantly in search of more screen realestate, I of course ran my screens at the highest possible resolution, without any thought to how close I needed to sit to the screen to make out anything. Migrating on from Visual Basic 6 to web development using ASP & PHP, the need to see code, sql and a test browser pushed this setup to the limit.

Productivity improvement: 2x

Dual 21" @ 1600 * 1200 = 3,840,000px (2002)

Moving to two monitors was a revelation. The excitement at being able to move the mouse cursor from one screen to another was somewhat sad to my non-geek friends. Not to be deterred, this meant wonderful things for my development productivity as I could code on one screen and view the results on another. Mind blown!

Productivity improvement: 2.5x

Dual 19" @ 1280 * 1024 = 2,621,440px (2004)

At last I converted to LCD's after droning on for years about how poxy their resolution was and how they would never be suitable for real programmers . Of course, the drop in pixel count was accompanied by not having to squint anywhere near as hard to make out what I was actually typing. And it meant that my desk actually had enough room to support my keyboard and a cup of coffee at the same time.

Productivity improvement: 0.75x

Dual 24" @ 1920 * 1200 = 4,608,000px (2006)

Image alternative text

The Dell UltraSharp 2407WFP was my first screen that really outclassed the old CRT's in my book. Prior to this screen, most LCD's had large dot pitches, meaning that each pixel was really big. This was the first screen where sub-pixel font rendering become less important. These screens were also my first foray away from the world of the 4:3 aspect ratio. While I was skeptical at first, I soon become a convert when I realized you could have 2 documents open side by side on the same screen.

Productivity improvement: 2x

Dual 27" @ 1440 * 2560 = 7,372,800px (2010)

The 27" Dell's are a beautiful screen, a tiny dot pitch by comparison to other non-retina LCD's and excellent colour quality (so the marketing copy tells me). These screens mean that you have not only enough room for 2 documents side by side on the one screen, but you can even squeeze in 3 (if your lines aren't too long).

Productivity improvement: 1.5x

Quad 27" @ 1440 * 2560 = 14,745,600px (2014)

It took me a great deal of time to come up with a better setup than 2 Dell 27" screens, but the solution was staring me right in the face - take a good thing and double it. The result is 4 27" screens in portrait mode. It looks ridiculous:

Image alternative text

This setup takes some getting used to. I find it best to think of the setup as 8 individual smaller, screens running at 1440x1280. Most of the time this is great, as it enables me to have 4 documents open in visual studio (2 centre screens), a full web browser window, a full inspector window (left screen) and a database window plus a browser with communication tools (email / asana / slack) on the right screen.

That said its not without its dissadvantages:

  • Heat: these bad boys throw off a ton of heat, which is good given its cold at the moment but its going to add to the airconditioning bil come summer time

  • The wall of screen can feel oppressive: There is just a weird feeling you get being that close to a wall of bright lights that is quite strange. Almost your entire field of view is screens, which is a strange sensation. This is alleviated by rotating the screens back - for some reason it feels like it "opens it up".

  • Its much higher than your used to: Ergonomically you should have your eye level at the top of your monitor. Thats simply not possible in this configuration. At best my eyes are 2/3rds of the way up the screen. Initially this resulted in minor neck stiffness, but its comfortable now.

Productivity improvement: 1.05x

Further Research

With 4k monitors starting to come onto the market, they represent the next big test in testing the relationship between pixels and productivity. The 4k monitors on the market are not yet ready for serious work, with their pitiful refresh rates, but I expect that they will be ready in the next couple of years.

No doubt it won't be too long before I am rocking Quad 30" 4k screens!