landscape monitor dual setup

The advantages of a dual screen setup

 A couple of years ago, I decided it was time to buy a new computer and kick my photography and graphics work up a notch. I made the move from working on a laptop with a 17 inch screen to a desktop pc with various display options. The first decision I had to make was whether to have one large 4K monitor or 2 smaller 1080p ones. Sounds simple, but there were many things to consider. Admittedly, 4K has come down in price since then, but I still think a 1080p dual screen  setup is the way to go at present. In this post, I shall go through a few of the considerations, as well as pros and cons.

Monitor – price vs performance

Getting two regular-sized 1080p monitors is still much cheaper than a single large 4K one. There is a massive choice of 1080p panels out there, and even the more premium models are affordable. For the same sort of cost, you’re looking at the ‘budget’ end of the 4K market. Even the cheapest 4K monitors are pretty good, but just not quite as good as the (still cheaper) upmarket 1080p models. The dynamic range, colour gamut, coatings, and refresh rate you get can all improve if you’re willing to spend a little extra.

Currently, high quality 1080p monitors will set you back around £150 each. Budget 4k panels, while a little larger, are around £500. That’s a £200 difference.

System – price vs performance

A system with a 4K (UHD) monitor is pushing twice as many pixels as one with two 1080p ones. That comes at a cost to performance. Most decent newer graphics cards can handle a second monitor with relatively little extra overhead, and some will even have three outputs. 4K requires extra processing power in addition to a better graphics card, so the PC (or Mac) you need for running it will be more expensive. That’s around another £200 difference.

dual screen vs laptop vs 4k

Fidelity vs ease of use

The amount of virtual space you have – not the physical dimensions, but the number of pixels – is often referred to as ‘screen real estate’. Obviously, there is more of it on a 4k monitor. However, more important than how much total space you have, is how usable that space is. This is where I’ll get a little geeky. The pixel pitch on a 23” diagonal (20” wide) 1080p monitor is 1920/20 = 96ppi. That is the resolution I currently have work with (although there are numerous uses for the term ‘resolution’, the one I am referring to is the pixel density – the pixels per inch, or PPI – of a display).

Here are the pixel densities of the most common 4K screen sizes:

28” 4K monitor = 157ppi 32” 4K monitor = 137ppi 43” 4K monitor = 102ppi

Things that require pixel-perfect precision – such as grabbing the nodes of a vector path, or accurate photo retouching, becomes difficult to use when pixels get too small. The result is you end up squinting mere inches from the screen. I’d need a 46” 4K monitor to give me the same pixel pitch as I have at the moment. A compromise would be a 1440p monitor, which at 27” is 108ppi, or at 32” is 92ppi.

Adding to the difficulties is the comfortable viewing distance that is needed. A larger monitor requires the viewer to sit back further from it when watching full screen content. Of course, movies can be viewed in a window using part of the screen, but who wants that?

If you wish to calculate the resolution of your current display, or one you are considering purchasing, here’s a link to a useful screen dimensions calculator for those of us that aren’t too good at Pythagoras (myself included).

Dual screen orientation

The best way to arrange a dual screen setup for has got to be one landscape, one portrait. Not only do they take up less space on your desk this way, but portrait aspect photos and artwork can be viewed full screen. It’s really quite something to see all those extra details that weren’t apparent when the picture was only taking up a fraction of a landscape monitor.

The extra resolution at 4K is great for landscape images. However, you only have a little bit more vertical resolution for portrait images than a portrait 1080p panel does – 2160 pixels vs 1920. This means portrait images don’t look as impressive as the do on a portrait 1080p panel, due to them only filling around a third of the space on a 4K screen.

landscape vs portrait

Other small advantages

I’ve noticed a few other things with my dual screen landscape/portrait setup:

  • Multitasking is easier. I just put a couple of applications on different screens. Better than using alt-tab to switch between windows.
  • Tool pallets for graphics programs like Photoshop and CorelDRAW can be moved to the second screen to allow full screen editing on the primary monitor. I can switch them to either side depending if I’m editing a portrait or a landscape image.
  • I can preview how pictures will look on a phone screen, as most phones are 16:9 1080p resolution, and are held in a portrait orientation.
  • Most webpages are designed to only be 1000 pixels wide. This is because some people still have lower resolution screens, and the website creators want compatibility with the largest possible number of devices/screens. Because the start bar, title bar, and toolbars take up some vertical space, you will find that viewing a website on a portrait 1080p screen shows TWICE as much as 1080p landscape. Looks better, too.
  • 1080p video looks great on a 1080p panel, but tends to appear soft when scaled to a 4K panel. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I’ve seen the effect first-hand, and I can only assume it’s to do with the interpolation of the image during upscaling.
  • The portrait monitor goes all the way to the surface of my desk, and my landscape monitor is low enough that I can look over it. Ok, so this won’t matter to most people, as desks tend to be against a wall, but in my setup, it’s useful.
Portrait monitor dual setup

The space I have for portrait images is huge. A dual monitor setup allows two applications to be separate and used in the most productive way.

Wrap up

For the TL;DR crowd, here’s a summary of this article’s key points:

Dual screen 1080p Single large screen 4K
Affordable with good quality Expensive with good quality, affordable at budget end
Will run on a reasonable system Requires a high-spec system
Larger pixels makes editing easier Smaller pixels makes editing more difficult
One monitor can display full screen portrait images Portrait images letterboxed either side, only use a third of screen
4 megapixels (2mp each) of screen space 8 megapixels of screen space
Landscape images are standard resolution Landscape images look amazing in high resolution
A dual screen setup looks cool You have a BIG screen

 

So for the moment, and for what looks to be at least the next couple of years, a dual screen 1080p setup seems the clear winner. I certainly don’t regret my decision to get two 23” screens over a single 4K one. I may use my main landscape monitor around 75% of the time, but I would REALLY miss my second screen if it wasn’t there.