We're not all blessed with grids of monitors that seem to provide endless desktop real estate, and some of us like the simplicity of less. Regardless of your situation, if you don't have much screen space to work with, you don't have to resign yourself to a life of pain and suffering. Working on a small screen can actually offer a lot of benefits and there are plenty of ways to make the best of the limitations. Here's what you can do.
I used to use a desktop with two 24-inch monitors and my laptop was a 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 1080p hi-res display. Today I work with one 24-inch monitor on the desktop and an 11-inch MacBook Air (which is what I use for the majority of my work). I made the conversion because I realised that the extra space wasn't actually helping me and I wanted my technology to be more concise. Since making the switch, I've benefited from the added focus and portability, but that didn't happen automatically. Dealing with minimal screen real estate requires a number of adjustments, but once you've made them you'll start to see the benefits. In this post we're going to look at ways you can make the best out of a tiny screen when you're running Windows or OS X.
Hide What You Don't Need
By default, a significant portion of your display is occupied by various elements of your computer's user interface and there's no need for constant visibility. First and foremost, the Windows task bar and the OS X dock don't require constant visibility. While hiding these items may seem like a small gain, doing so makes a big difference on a small screen. You can also move your task bar or dock to the right or left side of the screen if you do want it to be constantly visible. This generally saves more space because you have fewer available pixels in your screen's height — especially if your display's aspect ratio is 16:9 or 16:10.
While there's little else you can hide with the operating system, there's plenty you can hide in other apps. Many IM clients allow you to dock your buddy list to part of the screen and only display when your mouse is near. You can also heavily utilise micro apps that live in your Windows system tray or OS X menu bar so you don't have to clutter up your desktop with another window for an app that performs just a simple task.
Use Virtual Desktops and Spaces to Host Single Apps
When OS X Lion came out I thought the idea of full screen apps was kind of stupid, but after migrating to a tiny screen I found that certain apps work very well when relegated to their own little space. My email, calendar and news feeds all have their own space and it makes it very easy to 1) block out other distractions when I'm focusing on email or news feeds, and 2) block out the distraction of news feeds and email when I need to be doing other things. Even if you're not running OS X Lion, virtual desktops have been around for ages and are easy to configure in any operating system. In earlier versions OS X, just uses the built-in Spaces, and on Windows, Dexpot and nSpaces are two great options. Regardless of your platform, just assign a single app to its own space/virtual desktop and you'll be good to go. This provides additional focus, and running the apps at full screen keep them from feeling small and confined.
Know Your Zooming Controls
Small screens aren't great for people with bad eyesight because they generally cram a lot of pixels into a small space. Even if you can see well, this is still frustrating at times because small text can be a strain on your eyes. When that happens, it helps to be able to zoom in. To do that, you need to know your shortcuts. In Chrome, Firefox and most other web browsers, Control/Command+Shift+= will enlarge a page and Control/Command+Shift+- will shrink it. On Windows, you can also hold down the Control key and scroll the mouse wheel to achieve the same effect. (Doing this on OS X will cause the entire screen to zoom in.) To zoom in on the entire screen you just need to use the Magnifier app in Windows hold down and scroll on a Mac. (You can also turn on additional keyboard zooming options in the Accessibility preference pane in System Preferences.) This will help you see when your eyes are feeling a little tired or haven't quite adjusted after waking up.
Keep Things Out of the Way
When you're using a tiny screen, you can't keep too much on it at once. Sometimes this is a tough task, but there are a few apps that can help you out.
Yoink ($3) will make it easier to copy and transport files. It acts as a middle man so you can just drag the files you want to move into a little draw that hides on the side of your screen and then drag those files out when you're ready to put them somewhere else.
Too Many Tabs (free) is an extension for Chrome and Firefox that saves all your dormant browser tabs so you can bring them back later when you're ready. If you're overwhelmed by the number of browser windows and/or tabs you have open — which can be especially troublesome when you're screen space is limited — TooManyTabs can help you keep things a bit more minimal and easier to handle.
Got any other tips for working better on a small screen? Share 'em in the comments!