The Multi-Screen Debate

Farhad Manjoo on using one screen instead of two:

With a single screen that couldn’t accommodate too many simultaneous stimuli, a screen just large enough for a single word processor or browser window, I found something increasingly elusive in our multiscreen world: focus.

We’ve seen this debate a lot over the past five years. I’ve gone from two screens to one (although that was mostly driven by a lack of retina external displays than anything else) and back and back. This debate, and Manjoo’s post, also mirrors the iPad versus Windows/Android argument too. Where the iPad forces one app at a time and other tablets allow you to see two apps (or more) at once.

In May of 2010 I wrote about moving back to one display:

A couple of hours into it and I feel liberated.

Just a few months later I wrote this about distracting apps on my Mac:

A few weeks ago I thought this was all a waste and that there had to be a better way of dealing with these distractions. Keeping them on their own space was not good enough – I had to remove them from my Mac. The answer was of course the loyal iPad sitting in its lovely stand next to my computer.

What I had done was to take Twitter apps and only use them on the iPad — thus the iPad was a second display, but one that shut off after a bit and wasn’t controllable by my keyboard or mouse. I was also using Things1 at the time and used my iPad to view/review the tasks on it.

That setup worked pretty well actually — maybe I should do that again — but now I just have my 15″ MacBook Pro display. It’s not bad, and most of the time it doesn’t feel cramped. I use fullscreen apps almost all day, and I love the focused nature this presents.

But there are times when I need that second display. When I need to be able to look at a reference item and my current document. I need a second display for that, but I really just want a portable second display so that I can put it away once the task is completed.

For that, I use my iPad.

There are two ways I accomplish this. The first is just by opening that reference material on my iPad. Sometimes that actually works pretty well (especially with Safari tabs, and PDF Expert on the iPad), but there are other times when that’s a pretty crappy solution.

For those rare times when I really just need a true second display I utilize Air Display — an app that can turn your iOS device into a second display (on Macs it support multiple iOS devices, which I guess is neat?). Air Display is a neat tool, but very limited in its ability to make a true second display out of an iPad. That said, for being able to look over and glance at data in a spreadsheet/webpage while maintaining the ability to also copy and paste — it works ok for that.


So this debate of two screens, or one. Of one app, or two/three apps. This debate is a bit pointless. Each shine in their own light and own ways — but both also have clear downsides. Most people will need both setups at different times, some more often than others.

It’s just pointless to argue about which is better.


  1. Gasp! 

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Article Details

Published
by Ben Brooks
3 minutes to read.


tl;dr

Farhad Manjoo on using one screen instead of two: With a single screen that couldn’t accommodate too many simultaneous stimuli, a screen just large enough for a single word processor or browser window, I found something increasingly elusive in our multiscreen world: focus. We’ve seen this debate a lot over the past five years. I’ve […]