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A Large Monitor is Actually Cheaper Than a Small Monitor

No matter where I go, I always see it. Every company that I know of, with the exception of a few companies, are more focused on saving pennies by getting their employees the smallest monitors possible that they can get away with. Why? Because they don’t believe that a larger monitor is worth the investment. But then again I also see many of these same companies skimping out on hardware for the same reasons. The bad news for them, good for me, is that studies have shown that larger monitors do significantly increase productivity as shown here, here, and here.

The reality is that the extra costs to invest in a better monitor, or better hardware, will generally be returned to you in multiples. I personally work on the Dell 24 inch widescreen LCD monitor right now, and I can’t rave enough about it. The only complaint I have is that it’s not the new 30 inch LCD widescreen monitors that Dell now has available!

But really, the reality is that I’m so much more efficient on the larger monitor that the time saved makes incredible sense for me. Comparing the price of a 17 inch, or even 19 inch monitor, yes I’m paying substantially more. But you know what, I’m also a many more times more effective!

But the real question is just how much more effective? Well let’s break down the numbers, there’s no better way to determine the value than looking at the bottom line. At this time of writing, a 24 inch Dell wide screen costs $800. An equivalent quality 17 inch monitor can be had for as little as $150-200, so let’s use the smaller number of $150. Therefore the price difference is $650. All I need to do to justify the extra cost is find $650 of value over the lifetime of the monitor, which we’ll assume is at least 3 years (probably more). Breaking it down even more, all I need to do is increase my value by $650 / 3 years, or approximately $213/year. That shouldn’t be too difficult! In reality, I’ll get a LOT more value than $213/year, not counting the joy of using it!

Ok, so let’s look at the value. Below this paragraph you can find three screenshots of the Jakarta Struts project in Eclipse. The first at 1920×1200 resolution from my 24 inch widescreen monitor. The next one with the same screen settings showing the coding section truncated, and the last one how it would normally be displayed at 1024×768. As you can quickly see there’s a huge difference in screen real estate space! If I was just using Outlook, Word, or even an internet browser, it wouldn’t make that big of a difference, but for programming purposes it’s a very large difference.

24 Inch Widescreen

1024x768 Same Size

1024x768 Fit

For those of you would aren’t as familiar, let me walk you through the screenshots to give you a better idea of the real estate value. On the left we have our project structure (almost like Windows Explorer). When programming, you separate the code out into logical files to make your life a LOT easier. Therefore you’re always referencing this panel all the time. And sometimes it can get quite deep, with many nodes on the trees as you can see in the screenshots), so it can take some space (much like if you have many directories within directories on your computer).

After that you have your console on the bottom panel. This panel is also use a LOT! This is where information from your program is outputted. This can range from debugging (sending out diagnostic information to the panel while the program is running to give an idea of what’s going on), to bigger things like displaying program error message, etc. The more space you have here, the more diagnostic information you can display, otherwise you just end up scrolling the panel a lot.

Next we have the optional Outline display on the right. On smaller screens this is often omitted because there just isn’t enough space, even though it’s very handy and helpful. What it does is give you a succinct list of all the methods, properties, etc. of the class (or classes) within the file you’re currently editing. This might not seem like much, but imagine if you have several hundred lines of code (best of luck if it’s thousands) and you’re looking for a particular method? Instead of always having to scroll through the code or doing a search for the text, you can quickly see the list and just double-click on it to move your cursor there in a second.

Lastly, and by far most importantly, is the main panel in the center. This is your programming code! This is where you will spend most of your time and where you want to see as much as you can. Often an algorithm will be spread across a decent amount of lines, possibly over several pages (multiple methods, etc.). The bigger this space is the better! I can’t stress this enough. Think of it as a working piece of paper when drawing plans for a house. The more you can see at once, the better off you are!

As you can quickly see from the screenshots above, with a smaller screen you have to start sacrificing space right away to be able to see everything at once. And don’t think that you mainly use one panel at a time, you generally move around between the different panels very frequently as I’ve just described. It’s much like driving, you look out your windshield, then your rear view mirror, your speedometer, and so on. Always moving your eyes around as you need to get more information. The same is true when developing.

That being said, if you look at the amount of real estate space on the smaller monitor, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. Going back to the car analogy, you don’t have the dashboard space to see everything at once, so you have to cut into some of the information. So for example, you can only see half of your speedometer (showing only the most common speeds in that window). You can only 1/4 of your rear view mirror, so pick the most advantageous spot. You can only see out 1/4 of your windshield, so definitely pick the area directly in front of the driver’s side, near the center preferably.

So right away, you’re limited in information, you can’t drive or program at nearly the same speed. The good thing though is that you can resize any of these windows as need be, but each time it costs you time and you have to sacrifice another panel. So for example, if you want to see out of your complete windshield, you can’t see any of the other windows (rear mirrors, speedometer, etc.). You can also just partially increase the size of any one window but you must also relatively decrease the size of the other(s) to compensate. As well, each time you adjust the size of a window, it costs you time. For programming, this means you have to move your hand to the mouse, adjust the size, etc. It might only be 2-3 seconds, but do this hundreds to thousands of times a day and it quickly ads up; 400 seconds to 4000 seconds – 6 minutes to a full hour!

Each time you make an adjustment, you lose other information, so if you need to move back and forth a lot, you’ll probably lose a little bit of the context. If you spend 1/2 your time adjusting the sizes of the windows, it’s easy to quickly forget simple details such as the speed you’re driving at, which means another adjustment, lookup, etc. This ads up.

Assuming your programming pretty consistently (ignoring things like attending meetings, being tired on Monday, etc.), I’ll use the one hour metric for our calculations, and then I’ll follow up with the 6 minutes to show that even that’s worth the return on investment!

Ok, so getting back to our calculations, assuming about 200 workdays, and assuming 1 hour is lost each day, that represents 200 lost hours of labor. But before I go on, I’ll just take a minute to talk about the cost figure I’m going to use for a developer hour. In a previous article I used $1000/day per developer, which caused some people to comment that this was too high. The reality is that this isn’t too high from the businesses perspective, this is the cost of a developer. The developer won’t receive $1000 in salary, they’ll just receive a portion of that. What you have to remember is that the business also has to pay for the employees benefits, real estate (for example IBM saved $700 million in real estate costs by having workers work from home), hardware, software, etc. All these things quickly add up!

Anyways, assuming a $1000/day cost for a developer (or $125/hour) , giving that they lose 200 hours a year because of the size of their monitors, that’s a $25,000 difference in cost. So you just lost $25,000 in productivity to save $800! If you like those kind of deals give me a holler, I’m sure I can provide you with other similar great deal!

Now what if I grossely overestimated my numbers, which I didn’t but what if, then that’s 200 days * (6 minutes/day at $125/day) = $2,500. So even at 6 minutes a day, we spend $2,500 to save $800! Wow!

To add on top of this, in the above calculations we assumed our monitor would last just one year (200 working days). So multiply the above numbers by 2-3 times since most monitors will easily last longer than that! You can quickly see how valuable a larger monitor becomes!

To add to this, getting a larger monitor will also make programming much more pleasant to your developers, which means they’ll be more efficient. No you can’t really measure the benefits here directly, but rest assured that they do exist. If you go with high quality monitor, your employees will be less tired (it’s less hard on the eyes), and so on. With LCD’s I also found that it significantly reduced the number of headaches I personally got, so that’s another measurable benefit in terms of productivity.

All in all, as you can quickly see, a large monitor is actually much cheaper than a small monitor when you consider the total value of your purchase. If you only use it to surf the internet, send emails, etc. then you’re absolutely right, there’s no real benefit in terms of dollars. But if you program on it, the return on investment is incredible!



 
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Comments:

  •     Eric
    · December 19th, 2006  · 10:28 pm  · Permalink

    Wow,

    I would really need you to help me justify why a trip to Hawaii will make me much more productive and save money!

    Kidding aside. I have a cousin who works -uh- worked on AutoCAD (Computer Assisted Design) for his regular job.

    I am sure he got his share of headaches, neck strain, and eyestrain over the years.
    NOW at a ripe old age of 34, he has to look at a career change. Seems like all those clicks and mouse movements have given him an extreme case of carpal tunnel. His physiotherapist said they could help him along but the only solution if for him to stop using a mouse.

    That is what came to mind when Steph mentioned the extra mouse movements, and adjustments; all movements and adjustments lead to something!

    I know my example is extreme mouse movement and clicking, but the argument can still be made that with a larger screen perhaps a few less clicks a minute would help!

    Makes me think of a company I worked for that lost thousands of dollars worth of production time (hard to calculate) but morale was definitely down, as we “discussed” often, and at length over several months: the brilliant decision by management to cut back on paper clip purchasing, as there seemed to be an excess cost in office supplies.

    What is the cost of frequent 4-5 employees 15 minute water cooler discussion about how silly of a decision that is, versus the cost of a Price Club “Skid Size” order of paper clips.

    A little bit of savings…a huge cost!

    Penny wise..Pound foolish.

  •     Greg Moreno
    · December 20th, 2006  · 4:12 am  · Permalink

    If I may add,

    – a Aeron chair is cheaper than those space-saving “computer chairs”
    (the more time you spend sitting down, the more time you spend coding)

    – a 2 GB RAM is cheaper than 256MB
    (the less time you wait for debug results, the more time you spend coding)

    – an office is cheaper than a cubicle
    (the less time you get interrupted, the more time you spend coding)

  •     mikx
    · December 20th, 2006  · 11:56 am  · Permalink

    Well, it definitly proofs IDEs like Eclipse or Visual Studio waste a lot of screen space and programming is an entirely bad experience from a UI perspective….

    Accepted, large screens are a must today – but don’t forget this just mitigates the problem of crappy (and for years unquestioned) user interfaces for development.

  •     Rob
    · December 20th, 2006  · 12:55 pm  · Permalink

    How many of these “big” monitors do you have? If you’re spending big money on big monitors instead of buying 2 (minimum), 3 (preferable) or more (wahey!) affordable monitors (and associated display adapters) you’ve missed the target slightly, in my opinion.

    Set these up in a row as follows:

    Middle Monitor: Eclipse main window, maximised; use this for the coding window only (actually, I have enough real estate, so I have the outline window docked here as well)

    Right Monitor: Undock all the other windows you use regularly (for me this is Package Explorer, Console and JUnit). Don’t maximise these, so you can view them at-a-glance most of the time.

    Left Monitor: For all the other gubbins (Web, e-Mail, Word, whatever)

    Play with these layouts to your satisfaction (of course).

    I’ve only got two monitors, actually – I use the “in-front” one for my current task (right now, writing this comment) so usually it’s the Eclipse code window. The second monitor is offset to the right and I’ve dragged the other Eclipse windows there. Outlook maximises in that window when I need it, and I bring documents and web-pages up on that window when I’m using them as references.

    But I wholeheartedly agree with the general conclusions in the article and subsequent comments that, for software development, scrimping on equipment (whether it’s monitors, processor spec, RAM, whatever) is pretty much guaranteed to be a false economy.

    Rob

  •     Doug
    · December 20th, 2006  · 2:31 pm  · Permalink

    I agree that multiple monitors are a better choice. I mostly do web development so I have 2 17″ monitors in front of me — one for code and the other for the browser. I have a third 17″ monitor off to the left with email, and IM clients running. Works well for me.

    And, now that Firebug allows you to detach it from Firefox I’m thinking of getting a fourth monitor just for it.

  •     Jacob
    · December 20th, 2006  · 2:46 pm  · Permalink

    I agree with the comment about multiple monitors in lieu of the 24″. You can get two 19″ LCDs for half the price of a 24″. Heck, you could probably get something like two 20″ and spend about the same amount but getting a lot more space.

    24″ = 1920 x 1200 = ~$800
    2 x 17″/19″ = 2560 x 1024 = $300 to $500
    2 x 20″ = 3200 x 1200 = ~$800

    Of course, movies would look much cooler on the 24″, but for work I prefer duals any day. I currently use dual monitors for development and I could never, ever go back. It’s insanity for a company to think that not spending $200 for an extra monitor is saving the company any money. And don’t get me started on RAM.

  •     Anonymous
    · December 20th, 2006  · 5:15 pm  · Permalink

    And don’t forget the productivity boost that comes from “wow, my manager gives me neat stuff, I love this job” as opposed to “my eyes hurt, I’m hitting the snooze button and going in 5 minutes late again”.

  •     Walter
    · December 21st, 2006  · 3:02 pm  · Permalink

    I think that the real problem is that the tree control needs to be redone. It wastes far too much space when there is heavy nesting.

  •     Steph
    · December 21st, 2006  · 8:23 pm  · Permalink

    Many people here suggested that two monitors is better than one large one. I personally have to disagree because there are certain things you can do with one large monitor that you can’t with two.

    So for example, if you can split all your screens, it’s great. But sometimes this isn’t possible. For example if you’re editing a large image, looking at a very large chunk of code, etc. Some tasks do require a larger monitor rather than 2, which happens more often than you realize.

    Also, some applications on a larger screen are much nicer to work with if unbroken, or just don’t really divide up nicely…

  •     3cp0
    · December 21st, 2006  · 9:27 pm  · Permalink

    This article is truly an epiphany.

    I’ve just calculated that a Ferrari is actually much cheaper than a Honda Civic. I’m much more productive in a Ferrari, I can out-run the cops which saves on speeding tickets, and the chicks swarm to the car like bees to butter, I mean honey, er, I mean like flies to poo.

    I’m going to apply this concept into all phases of my life. Life doesn’t have to be a 15″ LCD, it can be widescreen HDTV. But first thing’s first: I need to upgrade that “Honda Civic” girlfriend for a sportier model. I’m also changing my name to “Rockefeller” …I know I can’t be part of the family, but I certainly can have their name.

  •     Joe
    · December 22nd, 2006  · 2:32 am  · Permalink

    Walter, If you use the flat view instead of hierarchical view in Package Explorer, it’s much less annoying. I don’t know anyone that uses the hierarchical view as shown in the screen shots.

  •     Adam
    · December 23rd, 2006  · 12:02 am  · Permalink

    Why not have multiple large monitors?

    You illustration of the cost savings due to efficiency is all that I need to justify my current work setup (although I didn’t have to justify it, as where I work employees are trusted when they make hardware requests).

    My current setup consists of two Dell 20″ LCDs and a single Apple 30″ display. The great thing about this arrangement is that you can put the 30″ in the middle and pivot the 20″ and put them on the sides. The 1200×1600 of the sideways 20″ matches the 2560×1600 of the 30″ monitor great.

    I let Eclipse consume the entire center monitor and even go so far as undocking the package explorer and putting it on the left monitor. My Eclipse window is large enough that I can have two full width (160 col) editors along with the outline view (great for doing diffs). The right hand monitor get used for email client, secondary web browsing, etc…

    While this might be overkill for some, I think that my offices policy of throwing everything they got at their development systems pays off.

  •     greggman
    · December 27th, 2006  · 6:06 am  · Permalink

    I agree with both the idea the multiple monitors are better than 1 and that a large monitor also has it’s advantages.

    I have 2 20s and a 24inch. The 24 has my text editor full screen. The large space gives me lots of visible lines etc. The two 19s have reference materials (web pages, help) and email.

    I also believe my 3 monitors 1600×1200 1920×1200 1600×1200 or better than 1 giant 5120×1200 monitor (if such a think existed) because it’s so convenient to drag a window do a monitor then maximize it. If I had one giant monitor then setting up the various windows would take extra time.

    Like you said, you are saving $25k a year or $75k over 3 years. Do yourself a favor, buy an extra monitor or 2 and just try it out. I think you’ll agree.

  •     Andrew Howe
    · December 30th, 2006  · 10:00 pm  · Permalink

    The Dell 20″ has saved my eyes. I could never go back to using the smaller monitor. I do npot fully understand the hardware and/or software required to have multiple monitors, but would be interested in learning more about that setup.
    Andy

  •     Steph
    · January 2nd, 2007  · 8:34 pm  · Permalink

    After having read all your comments I think one thing is clear. No matter if you have one large monitor or several monitors, you come out ahead!

    I’ve noticed many people have very different preferences, and I’ve come to believe that whichever that particular developer wants, that’s what they should get. It’s worth the investment.

  •     Web Clipping - 1/9/2007 » Continuous Learning
    · January 9th, 2007  · 3:30 am  · Permalink

    […] A Large Monitor is Actually Cheaper Than a Small Monitor […]

  •     Ed
    · January 12th, 2007  · 3:46 pm  · Permalink

    Does anyone have a link to a document that calculates how much time savings I will get as a programmer or software tester using 2 monitors?

  •     Steph
    · January 15th, 2007  · 9:13 pm  · Permalink

    Hi Ed,

    Apple actually published a report of the their study in pdf format which you can find here.

  •     Margherite
    · January 16th, 2007  · 4:38 pm  · Permalink

    The bottom-line mentality has not always been part of the business culture. There was a time (late ’40s to early ’60s) that CEOs invested company profits back into their companies, not into their bonuses and golden parachutes. I had top-of-the-line equipment when I worked on a PDP-8, for G’s sake. It doesn’t happen now because all those bean counters that graduated with MBAs from 2nd-rate schools (these are not Harvard or Wharton quality bean counters) need to justify how they SPEND money. They’re rarely interested in MAKING any.

    My favorite quote these days is:
    “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s unwise to pay too little. When you pay too much you lose a little money, That is all. When you pay too little you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do.

    The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It cannot be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.”

    John Ruskin (1819-1900) English Author, Art Critic and Social Reformer

  •     Tips on Hacking CSS » Continuous Learning
    · January 27th, 2007  · 9:47 pm  · Permalink

    […] Use multiple lines with each style: when there are multiple declarations on a single line, it is hard to tell how to modify it, especially when viewing through a SSH terminal. While it might look nice on a 24 inch monitor (I would assume most designers would have the best monitors they can buy, it is still easier to scroll down, then scroll left or right. […]

  •     FollowSteph.com » The #1 Programmer Excuse for Legitimately Slacking Off
    · August 15th, 2007  · 9:38 pm  · Permalink

    […] And we haven’t even started talking about the advantages of larger monitors! […]

  •     nonebody
    · August 25th, 2007  · 6:59 pm  · Permalink

    size of monitor sq inches $/sq in $/1000 pixels
    19 162.247191 $1.23 $0.15
    22 217.5280899 $1.24 $0.15
    24 258.8764045 $1.93 $0.22
    27 327.6404494 $3.11 $0.44
    30 404.494382 $3.30 $0.37

    For a dissenting view
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/screen-productivity.html

    What is measured by the Apple and other stories is OPERATION efficiency. How long did it take to do an operation, this isn’t necessarily that relevant to how long it takes to get tasks done. Having more monitors is as big/bigger than a single large monitor according to your stories. Given the cost for additional screen real estate, two 22 or maybe two 24″ monitors seems like it would be much more cost effective.

  •     Steph
    · August 26th, 2007  · 10:20 pm  · Permalink

    Hi,

    My personal take on the whole thing is to leave up to the employee. Some people are more comfortable and productive with one large monitor, others with multiple smaller monitors.

    The thing to take away is that businesses shouldn’t try to cheap out on such small cost items as monitors. No matter if you get one very large monitor or several medium monitors, or even several large monitors, you will come out ahead. People will be more productive.

    I personally use a 24 inch UltraSharp from Dell which I bought 2 years ago when it was retailing for about three times it’s current price. I find that when I move to a smaller monitor I can’t get nearly as much done as on this computer.

    To be honest, I’m starting to think these days that the monitor(s) is more important than the CPU/RAM on most development boxes… I’d trade a less performing box for more screen real estate.

  •     FollowSteph.com - Where to Get Blog Article Ideas
    · February 11th, 2008  · 11:10 am  · Permalink

    […] A Large Monitor is Actually Cheaper Than a Small Monitor […]

  •     Cana Lewis
    · April 14th, 2010  · 6:00 am  · Permalink

    Yes, you are right. HDTV is a large computer monitor. It’s too cheap than a small monitor. I have a Pioneer plasma TV, I use as a gaming monitor as well, with a DVI to HDMI cable to keep the connection all-digital. It is the best monitor. You can buy it easily.

  •     Nathan
    · September 3rd, 2010  · 11:40 am  · Permalink

    Given the choice between one large monitor and two smaller ones, I would always go for multiple monitors. It doesn’t work for everyone but I personally find that I can get a lot more work done when I’m not constantly alt-tabbing, There are good multi screen support systems available, so it isn’t as though your desk is going to be cluttered with monitors.

  •     Steph
    · September 28th, 2010  · 1:10 pm  · Permalink

    Since I wrote that post, I’ve adjusted my view. I now work with a minimum of 3 large monitors, all at least 1920×1280 resolution. What a difference it makes to get the best of both worlds ;)

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