No, You Don’t Need Three Monitors

Robert Quinlivan
The Startup
Published in
4 min readApr 16, 2020

If you’re the kind of person who works with a computer at a desk then you’ve no doubt spent some time endlessly tweaking and tuning your setup to achieve the right feeling.

Having a nice desk setup can create a soothing sense of feng shui. You feel more productive, even if you aren’t actually getting any more work done.

I’ve gone through many variations of my setup. Some have been clear improvements. After years of writing at a cheap Ikea table with a kitchen chair I finally invested in an ergonomic chair and a proper desk. Both have proven to be excellent investments for creating a comfortable space for doing my work.

Other tweaks have more dubious value. Case in point: extra monitors.

Walk into any office and you’ll see people with external screens galore. Some of these arrangements are absurd arrays of many millions of pixels. I worked with someone who had a large 52 inch screen TV on his desk, in addition to the large laptop screen he already had. Another person I worked with had three 4K screens on rotated mounts.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think most of us actually get anything out of additional screen space.

Let’s consider why we add monitors to our desk setups in the first place. I think there are two reasons: a) we have special requirements that our primary screen can’t provide, or b) we want more screen space.

Maybe you’re a graphic designer or a video editor with a laptop and you require extremely high color depth or an unusually high refresh rate. I don’t do a lot of graphics work anymore, so I can’t comment on whether typical Macbook or Thinkpad screens are “good enough” for that work, but my suspicion is that they usually are. However, I concede that there may be some real cases here where the screen attached to your laptop is just not good enough.

For the rest of us, which includes the vast majority of desk workers — developers, engineers, writers, business analysts, marketers, HR, sales — there is only one reason: because we want more screen space to display stuff.

The question I will then pose is: why do we feel that we need so much extra screen space?

There was a time in the early 2000s when video cards could only pump a paltry 720 x 480 pixels out to a flickering CRT monitor. I remember when 1024 x 768 felt huge. In those days, it made sense to add additional screens to be able to display…

Robert Quinlivan
The Startup

Robert is a writer and software engineer.