Ultrawide Vs Dual Monitors: Which Are Better For Productivity?

Ultrawide vs Dual Monitors: Which Are Better for Productivity?

We love multiple monitor workstations, but "Ultrawide" displays, packing resolutions that rival two or three panels side-by-side, are looking better and better these days. After all, having more than one monitor doesn't automatically make you more productive. Here's how these new ultrawide monitors differ from a dual-screen setup, and when you might consider buying one.

What Are "Ultrawide" Monitors?

Ultrawide monitors are traditionally any display that's about 21:9 aspect ratio, designed to have a similar aspect ratio to traditional movie theatre screens. Depending on the size of the display you purchase, you're looking at screen resolutions of around 2560 or 3440 pixels wide by 1080 or 1440 pixels high, in display sizes from 29" to 34" diagonally. 29" models are often competitively priced, but 34" designs generally attract a premium

Either way, that's a lot of horizontal working space, sometimes more than you might get by jamming two or three displays together. Plus, a single, ultrawide monitor gives you a seamless working (and gaming) experience without bezels in between windows or documents, and without multiple connectors to your computer's video card to drive all of those displays together. Dell, LG, AoC and ASUS are amongst the more prominent producers of ultrawide displays.

Essentially, the dream is to have one display on your desk (or maybe two) with more working space than three or four smaller displays combined, all using just a couple of connectors on your video card. Ultrawide displays also allow you to run native resolutions on current-generation video cards (and for gamers, even run games on your current graphics card) without having to upgrade to cards with more power, more ports, or in some cases, two or three cards just to make everything work smoothly.

Of course, that's the promise. The reality is a little more complicated, but that doesn't mean ultrawide monitors don't live up to it in some cases.

Can Ultrawide Monitors Make You More Productive?

Ultrawide vs Dual Monitors: Which Are Better for Productivity?

The question we set out to answer is whether or not ultrawide displays are better than dual-monitor setups for productivity (or just about anything else.) The first thing to remember is that the number of monitors you have doesn't matter when it comes to productivity. It's the actual real estate those monitors offer that matters, and how you use it.

If you have two or three tiny displays and you still scroll and struggle to work with the documents, spreadsheets, and web pages you need to read, they're not helping you. In that case, one, really large display that can accommodate all of that information cleanly (or rotating it so it's vertical) would be a bigger boon for you.

29" ultrawides almost universally come in 2560 x 1080 varieties. That's great, but that screen resolution isn't anything you can't get with a standard 30" 16:9 display (or better yet, a 16:10 display). Unless you're just a huge fan of the 21:9 aspect ratio at 29", it doesn't seem to make that much sense when you can spend the same (or save a little) and get one or two larger displays for the same (or more) real estate. Plus, in order to keep costs down, many of the 29" ultrawide panels we checked out ditch useful features like a tilt/swivel stand, VESA mount, or extra video inputs in order to keep things affordable.

34" is where things get interesting though. At 34", you start to have more than enough room to work, and resolutions like 3440 x 1440 give you enough space to open up three or four browser windows, documents, or applications side-by-side or tiled without text getting too small to read and menus impossible to navigate. Plus, since the 34" ultrawides are usually flagship models, they include all the ports and connectors you'd ever need, VESA-compatible mounting, auto-rotating and fully adjustable stands. Here's Linus from Linus Tech Tips explaining how this LG 34" became his daily driver. Using a 34" ultrawide is a lot like that feeling you had the first time you put two monitors on your desk and marvelled at how much room you had to work.

A note for gamers: We've talked about setting up triple-monitor gaming setups before. Ultrawides still come with the same in-game challenges that an AMD Eyefinity or NVIDIA Surround gaming setup would have, but you don't necessarily need a new or more powerful graphics card to drive an ultrawide setup. With two or three standard monitors, your graphics card (or cards) have to drive each monitor with decent refresh rates. With an ultrawide, you only have to worry about powering one (and connecting one.)

Of course, 3440 x 1440 is a lot of pixels, so low-end cards will still strain, but a decent band-for-the-buck graphics card should do, and you probably won't need two cards or multiple connectors (which also means less cable clutter!) Of course, not every game supports widescreen resolutions. Many will break (or add huge black bars on the sides), but the Widescreen Gaming Forum is a great place to dig into those issues, and they have a database of widescreen-friendly games.

The Bottom Line: Great If You Can Afford Them

Ultrawide vs Dual Monitors: Which Are Better for Productivity?

At the end of the day, ultrawide monitors can be great. They may even be the future of traditional workspaces. However, the benefits of an ultrawide monitor only really appear once you get over 30", or bigger and wider than most people already work with one or two displays. The difference is pretty stark -- gamers and movie fans will love the full surround experience without bezels in the way, and productivity hawks will love being able to keep multiple applications up side by side or tiled without actually having to resize anything to make them all usable at once.

Plus, if you like having your displays angled a little on either side of your desk (like I do), those curved displays are especially nice. Every direction you glance your eyes are more centre-on than if you had a flat display that wasn't angled towards you, so everything feels a little more wrap-around and natural-looking. Of course, that brings us to the biggest drawback, at least for now: price.

Ultrawide monitors are still a significant price premium, especially for those 34" models that feel so great to use. Even so, if you have the money to get an ultrawide -- especially one of the curved models -- it can make work and play a whole new experience.

If you're on a budget, or don't like the idea of spending as much on a monitor as you would on a whole new computer, you may want to just grab a pair of 27" displays, call it a day, and keep the change in your pocket. For now, that is. After all, prices come down and competition heats up (not to mention 4K/5Knd what it might mean for ultrawide monitors). Eventually, this is likely to be an affordable approach for everyone.


Comments

    I find the issue with ultra-wide and multiple display monitors usually comes from Windows and the applications you're running. All sorts of issues exist that if fixed would make ultra high resolution and multi-display systems so much better.

    High DPI support would be pretty high up on the list of things needing the get fixed. Even in Windows 8.1 there are still in-built system dialogs and screens that aren't high DPI aware/capable.

    Multi-window applications are needed as well. Most web browsers handle this well these days, being able to just tear off a tab into a new window. But things like excel (pre-2013) still won't let you run multiple documents in separate windows (unless you go down the path of running separate instances of Excel, which causes problems with data interaction...).

    The first thing to remember is that the number of monitors you have doesn’t matter when it comes to productivity. It’s the actual real estate those monitors offer that matters, and how you use it.

    I've been doing it since the late 90's and I find the opposite is true. High resolution is helpful, and certainly the resolution must be above a minimum level, but for the productivity increase it's more important to be able to easily manage applications accross that space. That's why multiple monitors works well. You just drag and maximise (or Windows Key+Directional). It easily breaks down the content of the screens into more than just a scatter shot of open windows.
    If you just have a big open free for all area it's great when all you want to do is run a full screen program with all the tool bars laid out and ready to rock, but I don't really find that hugely beneficial compared to the also great method of extending the application over two screens and just throwing the tools on the second monitor. It's obviously a little better at that specific task, but you lose the flexibility.

      I didn't even see this post, must have been while I was writing mine. I agree with you completely.

      Hear, hear! I myself am happy with two monitors at work - 24in 1920x1200 as main monitor (desk depth is 75cm so larger sizes would not work) and auxilliary 17in monitor on side that's rotated into portrait (1024x1280) and is the same make and height as the main one. I put all Word / PDF docs on the side, maximize it and just PgDn/PgUp with a single keypress, no scrolling. Main monitor is the "hacking space". I can't imagine a simple way to do the same on 21x9 aspect easily. At home, I might do the same but with 30in 2560x1600 and 20in 1200x1600 since my desk depth is 100 cm here. For watching movies I've got BRAVIA, it's 4K. "Tall" side monitors also work well for browsing, since most webpages are scrolling horizontally; you can even cut the side ads out if you zoom in a bit ;)

      Last edited 07/04/15 10:49 pm

    I've used both ultrawide and multi-monitor setups during my career, and I have to disagree with some of the assertions made in this article. For me, multi-monitor is generally the better option.

    Most people run applications maximised and switch between them from the taskbar. So far I've not seen any good implementation of zoning or program docking on large single screens that is equivalent in function to having multiple windows maximised on separate monitors. Even Windows 8's left/right docking is limited in that it only divides the screen into two vertical sections (so no simulating a 3+ horizontal monitor setup or vertical monitor setup), but windows docked to the sides of the screen are treated as normal (non-maximised) windows so their full window frame is shown instead of being hidden. I've had similar problems with X11 on Linux, and the last time I used OSX (a few years back) it didn't have any good solutions either.

    Separate monitors work perfectly in all operating systems I've tested with. Their arrangement is also much more configurable, and you can change the number of monitors on a whim. Ultrawides are stuck in one configuration, the one they were manufactured in.

    DisplayPort, Thunderbolt and HDMI all support daisy chaining, though HDMI seems to have the least hardware support, so the whole 'multiple cables running to your GPU' isn't really true.

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