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Last Saturday night, we threw a party for a group of people who have been friends of ours for over ten years – but some of them we had never met before. They’re members of a small private email list that “spun off” from a larger Internet discussion group back in the 90s, and when one of our fartherest-away members (from Australia) decided to visit us here in Texas, we took that opportunity to invite other list members from the states to all get together. We had a great time, and as usual when you get a bunch of avid ‘Net users together, the talk eventually turned to computers. During the course of conversation, one friend mentioned a co-worker of his who was wanting to get a new computer. An analysis of her needs and the reason she wanted to upgrade revealed that her present machine did pretty much everything she needed to do; her real complaint was with her small, outdated monitor. He pointed out that instead of spending a lot of money to buy a whole new system she didn’t really need, she could put the same amount or less into a high quality large screen monitor and vastly improve her computing experience.

When you really think about it, your monitor is one of the most important peripherals you’ll buy. For most of us, it’s the primary way we interface with the computer (the exception being the blind who must rely on software that can talk to them and tell them what’s on the screen). Although your processor and memory determine how well and quickly your computer performs tasks, it’s your input/output devices – the keyboard, pointing device and monitor – that greatly influence how pleasant or unpleasant the process of getting information into and out of your computer will be.

Yet I see people all the time who buy high end machines and then add a single 17 inch monitor almost as an afterthought. By limiting themselves in that way, they ensure that their computing experience is never quite what it could be. Sure, you can check your email or surf the web or even get work done on a small monitor – I do it on the road with my tiny Sony laptop and its 12″ monitor. Likewise, one can live fairly comfortably in a 500 square foot home; people in New York City, Tokyo and other places where housing is expensive are living proof of that. But it’s so much nicer to have more space to spread out in.

Think back (if you’re old enough) to the days before computers, when we had to get work done with pens and tablets and paper files in manila folders. You could write a report sitting at a little TV tray table, but it was much easier if you had a big executive size desk or dining table where you could spread out all your books and papers. That’s what a big screen monitor – or its often lower cost alternative, multiple smaller monitors – lets you do.

I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. A recent article on Slate at argues that upgrading your monitor is almost always a better choice that upgrading your processor. And now gigantic monitors that were once reserved for only the wealthiest are within the affordability range of more and more computer users.

Apple is probably responsible for starting this trend when they released their 30 inch Cinema HD display back in 2004. I’m not a big Apple fan (although I do have one Mac), but I lusted after that monitor every time I saw one. It was way out of my price range back then, but the price has dropped steadily and the current incarnation sells for $1799, not cheap but not outrageous either.

However, Apple’s no longer the only company with an affordable giant screen. Dell just recently dropped the price of their 30 inch UltraSharp model to $1499. One thing I like better about the Dell and some others is the ability to adjust the height of the monitor. And HP has a 30 inch model, the LP3065, for just $1399. Samsung’s Synchmaster 305T goes for $1271 on Amazon.

You don’t have to go quite that big to get more screen real estate, though. Many companies make 24 to 27 inch monitors that cost quite a bit less. Both Dell and Samsung have 27 inch models for around $1000 and a ViewSonic VX2835wm 28 inch monitor is selling for $679 on Amazon.

Of course, you want to look at more than just the screen size when you buy. Other important specs include the resolution (you’ll want at least 1920×1200 in a giant screen, or even 2560×1600 in a 30 inch), contrast ratio (the higher, the better; for example, the ViewSonic’s 800:1 is not as good as Dell’s 1000:1) and response time (lower is better; 6 milliseconds is pretty good).

Before you plunk down the bucks for a huge monitor, also be sure you have a video card that supports it. Most 30 inchers require a dual DVI card. Other problems with the supersized screens include the heavy weight and how to fit it on the desk. Although not weighing nearly as much as the old CRTs, a 30 inch can easily weigh in at 25 pounds.

As tempting as the huge monitors may be, it often makes a lot more sense both financially and logistically to buy several smaller monitors instead. You can end up with more total screen space for a lower price, the individual monitors are lighter and easier to move around, and you have more flexibility in arranging them (for instance, you can angle/curve them around you instead of having one big, completely flat surface, or even have a second row of monitors above, like this.

Another advantage of multiples is that you can turn on only as many monitors as you need. For instance, if I’m just going to do a quick check of my email, I only turn on one monitor, saving the electricity required to run the other two. With a giant screen, even if I only need to use a small part of the screen, the whole thing has to be turned on.

Of course, you have to have enough video cards to support the number of monitors you have. Most modern cards have either two DVI connectors or one DVI and one analog connector, so you can get two monitors to the card. So, for example, to hook up six monitors to your computer you’d need three video cards. That might mean you’ll need at least one regular PCI card, since few systems have more than two PCI x16 slots.

For most people, though, two cards are enough. I find three to be the optimum number of monitors for my work; I had four for a while but found that I rarely turned the fourth monitor on – I just didn’t usually need to spread out quite that much.

I like being able to reconfigure my monitor setup the way I want it at any given time. That’s why, much as I like the look of some of the sleek all-in-one computers that have the monitor and CPU in the same housing, I haven’t bought one. If that built-in monitor dies before the computer does, you have a problem.

Whichever way you do it – with one giant screen or several smaller ones – having more room to spread out your various application windows without having to click to bring one and then another to the forefront can improve your productivity more than you can imagine. It’s as if, after having viewed the world through a tiny porthole for years, one day you knock out the whole wall and put in a full size picture window. It changes your perspective completely.

What about you? Do you think bigger is better when it comes to monitors, or are you perfectly content with that 15 inch screen that came with the computer? If price were no object, would you prefer to work with a 30 inch behemoth of a monitor or three 19 inch ones? How many monitors, of what size, are ideal? Would you buy (or have you bought) an all-in-one where the monitor isn’t detachable from the rest of the system?

Deb Shinder

[My opinion? I recently got a very large monitor and I’m not sure I like it as much as my older one — it seems like more work to read from side to side — I would check the ergonomics for comfort if you’re looking at getting a larger monitor — Alex]