The one monitor experiment

I’m fascinated by this whole minimalism concept. I don’t practice it very well, and I don’t feel terrible about that. I have to admit, though, that all of those pictures of barren desktops and minimal computer systems actually appeal to me. That was the first motivation for this experiment.

For the record, I know that the concept of minimalism doesn’t eschew necessary peripherals, but the desktop photos I’ve appreciated most did not have multiple monitors (or cables coming out of every available port). Since the day it was feasible, I’ve had two monitors on every computer I’ve owned. I know quite well how to make use of the extra space efficiently. I have trouble getting along without it. However, my last three computers have been laptops, and I get so used to using them with external monitors and peripherals that I have trouble using them as mobile computers. This frustrates me, and became the second motivation for this experiment.

The goal

What I wanted to do was see if I could get along with a single display for at least one month. I had previously swapped out my fancy keyboards for Apple’s bluetooth aluminum keyboard, which I have fallen in love with. The fact that its layout matches my MacBook Pro was a big deal, and once I got good with it, mobile computing became that much less awkward (obvious tip: the Function key [fn] is your friend). Next, I had discovered that the Magic Trackpad completely relieved my RSI. I was having wrist pain to the point where I could’t even work, and since getting the Magic Trackpad, I have had none. That’s a little off-topic, though. The point is that I had already “minimized” my peripherals, I just hadn’t done away with the second display.

The test

I got a HengeDock and set it up behind my primary display. This allowed me to hide my MacBook Pro from view and still have access to all of its ports. It worked pretty well, with a 24” display, Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad. I did it for 6 weeks and thought I was getting used to it, for the most part.

The fail

The thing that bugged me the most was using CSSEdit, along with other programs where I want room to edit and room to preview at full size. Constantly swapping foreground windows is annoying to me. Annoying enough, in fact, that the experiment failed. I added a 23” display to my setup using the newest Sewell USB-to-DVI adapter. It felt like, I don’t know, trying a drug after you’ve been clean long enough to forget about it. I was instantly at home with the situation, and once again wondering how I had lived without it. I did soon decide that two 20”+ monitors was more than needed, so I went back to my original configuration: my MBP on a stand next to my 23” monitor. I plugged back in my Huey, my Drobo and LaCie Rugged clone drive, my USB speakers, my Oxygen 49 keyboard, my iPad and iPhone and a host of other peripherals. I feel at home now.

I did get better at using my laptop as a laptop, a very beneficial side effect, but I don’t think I will ever again skip the chance to plug in an additional display.

Oh, and despite my surname, I am actually more Irish than Dutch, so happy St. Patrick’s day to you!

Brett Terpstra

Brett is a writer and developer living in Minnesota, USA. You can follow him as ttscoff on Twitter, GitHub, and Mastodon. Keep up with this blog by subscribing in your favorite news reader.

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