I have always been interested in getting as much screen real estate as I can on my computers. In the early 2000s, when dual outputs on video cards1 were first becoming widely available I ran a pair of 19” CRT monitors and ever since my main machine has had at least two displays. My new iMac has given me the opportunity to create something pretty close to my ultimate setup.
The iMac can support one 5K external display or two 4K displays. I opted for the two 4K displays, both because that provides more screen real estate for less cost, and because it allows me to create a symmetrical arrangement (the iMac in the center with a secondary monitor on either side2).
4K displays are available in 21”, 24”, and 27” sizes. The 21” seemed like it would be a bit small for displaying two apps or webpages side by side, especially since the secondary monitors would be further from my eyes. I’ve read several places that stretching 4K over a 27” monitor doesn’t look as nice as the smaller displays. The sweet spot for 4K displays seems to be 24”.
I went with the Dell P2415Q, a 24” 4K display recommended by The Wirecutter and Katie Floyd. It’s a nice monitor. The picture is very crisp, though the color and brightness can’t compare with the iMac’s built-in display. After playing around with the scaling in display preferences it does a good job showing two side-by-side apps, showing the full content in each app while not being too small to read comfortably. I’m very happy with them so far.
One of the keys to using a big multi-monitor setup like this is to be thoughtful about how you place your apps. Don’t just spread windows out willy-nilly. Each part of my desktop has a particular role.
The center screen is obviously where I do most of my work. It’s usually home to either one maximized app that fills the entire screen or two apps running side by side (often Reeder and Safari).
The right half of the left-hand monitor and the left half of the right-hand monitor are for my supporting apps. While I’m doing something on the center screen I might be using one of these positions to take notes in Bear, move cards around in Trello, or reference an email.
Several years ago I was running a pair of 24” monitors on my work machine I usually sat in front of the right-hand monitor and I often found that the left half of the left-hand monitor often ended up “out of sight, out of mind”. I didn’t want that to happen with this setup, so I try to be very thoughtful about what goes on either end of my desktop. I use the left half of the left-hand monitor and the right half of the right-hand monitor for apps that I want to be able to see at a glance, but don’t need to pay continuous attention to, like the Sonos controller app.
One important thing to note is that while different parts of my desktop fill different roles, apps aren’t necessarily confined to a single role or position on my monitors. For instance, OmniFocus usually lives at the extreme right side of my desktop (the right side of the right-hand monitor) so I can glance over and see my task list. However, when I’m doing my weekly review OmniFocus takes center stage and moves over to my main monitor. Similarly, when I’m using Bear to take notes, it lives on the left side of the right-hand monitor with whatever I’m reading on the center display. When I’m using Bear to write or edit an article like this one I’ll move it over to the iMac (and often maximize it).
This sort of flexible approach means I need good tools for moving apps and arranging windows. I’ve used several different window managers over the years. My current favorite is Magnet. It’s just a quick key combination to move and size a window to cover the left or right half of the current monitor, maximize it to cover the whole display, or move it to the next monitor. I got a Magic Trackpad with this iMac, which has lead me to incorporate Better Touch Tool into my window management. I have it set up so a force press on the upper right or left corners of the trackpad will move the current window to the left or right monitor, respectively. A force press on the lower right or left corners moves the current window to that half of the current display. If I’m typing on the keyboard and need to move a window, I’ll use Magnet. If I’m using the trackpad, I’ll use Better Touch Tool.
Being able to have a ton of windows on the screen can be a huge productivity boost for some activities. For others it can be a huge distraction. To help combat the latter, I often use HazeOver. This app grays out everything on your screen(s) except for the current application. You can set how opaque you want this to be, all the way up to pitch black. I have it set to about 90%, which does a great job helping me concentrate on the task at hand when I need to.
Running a setup like this does have some implications for some of the OS’s built-in features. For many years I ran the dock on the side of my screen to save precious vertical screen real estate.3 With three widescreen monitors like this that would mean an awfully long trip to reach it, so I’m back to the default position at the bottom of my center display. Apple added the ability to jiggle your mouse back and forth to make the pointer expand so you could find it in El Capitan, but I never found the feature that useful until I had this much screen real estate to loose the cursor in.
I’m very happy with this three-monitor setup. The iMac display does most of the work, but the ability to have supporting apps to either side and apps I can glance at easily on the extreme ends is really nice, and helps with productivity.
- VGA and DVI! Talk about a blast from the past. ↩
- The true ultimate setup would be an iMac flanked by two 5K displays, something that will be possible with the iMac Pro, coming out later this year, albeit at tremendous cost (~$8000). ↩
- I still run the dock on the left side of my monitor on my laptop. ↩