Paper & Pixels – or "Why I need another monitor & my own printer"

My really big display

On the right side of my desk there is a 40-inch diagonal, color, flat panel display. It can simultaneously show output from several PC’s, graphics resolution is excellent, and is visible in bright sunlight.  I have no idea what brand it is, but it cost about twenty five dollars brand new.  If you haven’t guessed, it’s a cork-board covered with laser print-outs held by push-pins.  I find it quite interesting that the only relevant characteristic it doesn’t share with my (much smaller) monitors is real-time updates.  That is, updates require waiting for the printer and then tacking the paper to the board.  Basically, if I can stand that delay (and the ~5¢ per-page cost), paper and cork are pretty good monitor substitutes.  Of course, I’m not recommending anyone toss their monitors and start using teletype terminals - but I am saying that pulp-based “static displays” need some consideration.

What are you looking at?

In the beginning (1981), the typical IBM and Apple PC was configured with a monitor sitting on top of the CPU.  For the next two decades - unless you used a CAD package - it seemed that 1-to-1 ratio was essential to PC technology.  Except with proprietary hardware or software, the average DOS/Windows user could not have more than one monitor until Win98.  Even then, monitor prices still tended to enforce the limitation.  The surprising thing is that, some pundits continued the 1940’s fantasy of the “paperless offices”.  Somehow, that tiny 1 square foot of screen was supposed to replace the 12 square feet of paper-ready desk on which it stood.  That’s not to say heroic feats of window cascading and screen tabbing weren’t performed on a daily basis; it’s just that constantly hitting “Alt-Tab” is no substitute for having everything right in front of you.  Incidentally, Post-its were introduced shortly before IBM’s PC – obviously anticipating everybody’s need for little yellow “screen extensions”.

And my point is...

Some data is static, some is dynamic, and some is interactive.  Depending on your job, you need varying degrees of access to each.  The trick is to find the right set of appropriate interfaces for your workspace.  Sometimes that means multiple monitors; sometimes that means a good local printer, and sometimes a scanner.  Whiteboards and projectors are also appropriate for collaborative environments.  Obviously, I don’t know everyone’s job and my opinion is subjective, but I’m pretty sure of one thing: when the data you need is more than a head-turn away, you’re probably wasting time.  I also suggest that you know situations where having a single monitor is going to cause that problem.  For example:

Of course, you can use my pulp-based “second display” method to get around the problem. Unfortunately, unless you were planning to keep the output for a while, printing time and resources might be wasted instead. So... at last, here’s my point: almost everybody needs at least two monitors.

A second point

While I refer to the importance of paper at the beginning of my essay and then put it down in the previous paragraph, I want to make my position clear: personal printers are really important.  Moreover, if the printer isn’t within arm’s reach, you’re probably wasting time.  Useful and re-usable reference material is definitely worth having somewhere in your peripheral vision.  As soon as you realize you need it, you should be able to put a copy on the cork board or cube wall as soon as possible – and then get right back to work.  Print-outs also have an important feature that no monitor has: they have no size limits. I’ve seen people struggling with single screen views of a large spreadsheet or diagram when 3 or 4 sheets of paper (and a little tape) would have put everything right there on the desk.  When comparing some products, I’ve occasionally hung 4-foot feature lists side-by-side on the wall to get a good overall view.  Basically, I have two criteria regarding my paper and pixel-based displays.  If it’s persistent or large, print it; if it’s transient or interactive, just use the monitor.

Let’s do some math

Ultimately, all my talk about saving time and getting extra monitors and printers has to have some financial benefit.  First, let me propose some reality-based numbers that you can easily replace if you want to do the calculations yourself.  Note: Although the references are a bit out of date, the relative costs haven't changed that much.

Typical Salary $52,000/year
Info Worker Level I to II
Power – monitor 35 W 22-inch LCD (measured)
Power – printer .0017 kWh/page
6 W (at rest)
Brother MFC7340 (measured)
Cost – power 18¢/kWh New York, commercial, July DOE
Cost – monitor $150 22-inch Viewsonic, Samsung Tiger Direct
Cost – video card $40 EVGA - GeForce 8400 (dual) Tiger Direct
Cost – printer $150 Brother MFC7340 (~1500 pg) Tiger Direct
Cost – toner $44 Brother TN360 (~2600 pg) Amazon
Cost – paper $38 8½ x 11 Case (5000 sheets) Office Depot


Second, let’s make some convenient assumptions:

Now for some calculations (with rounding where appropriate):
Adding two monitors to a desktop

Adding a personal printer

OK, I cut some corners: shipping, tax, and installation were not included in the costs.  On the other hand, I didn’t mention some of the peripheral benefits like the fault tolerance from having multiple monitors – if one breaks you can still work with whatever is left . If you had started with 1 monitor, you wouldn’t be able to work very well at all.  Having distributed printers also minimizes the impact of any one printer breaking – in contrast to everyone being affected when a high-capacity department printer/scanner/fax machine breaks.  Aside from time savings, there are timeliness advantages as well. For instance, an urgent e-mail that was visible (and responded to) instead of hidden (and ignored) could easily pay for all the hardware at once.  Similarly, a plainly visible quick reference guide could avoid potentially expensive application misuse or accidental abuse.

In any case, the numbers show that these added peripherals are pretty cost effective.  The extra mouse clicks and alt-tabs, re-finding your place in a swapped window, and re-reading what you forgot when a screen was covered can waste much more than a couple of minutes a day.  Similarly, not having regularly-used information within view can waste even more time while you search for it again (and finally walk down the hall to print it).

What I recommend

Having (I think) made the financial case, here are some suggestions on how to arrange the items in a workspace.

Although I didn't explicitly say this before, I find that 3 monitors offer the ideal amount of screen space. Although, they can offer a continuous Windows desktop, I tend to semi-dedicate each one to a particular purpose.

Primary Monitor

Position: centered (between the other two).
     Properties: largest of the three monitors (if not equal); has task bar and start menu
Purpose: workspace for creating/editing documents, spreadsheets, drawings, programs, web sites, etc.; also for important business-specific app used most of the time.

Secondary "Reference" Monitor

Position: which ever side of the Primary monitor you would read printed materials.
     Properties: similar in height (if not aspect ratio) to the Primary monitor.
Purpose: web search, reference documents, transcription source, file management, preview results (from primary monitor), expansion space for primary, secondary business apps.

Communication Monitor

Position: opposite the Secondary monitor; possibly separated from the other two
     Properties: smallest of the three (if not equal); may even be a separate CPU, like a laptop – although direct cutting and pasting might be handy.
Purpose: mail, chat, news, reminders, alarms, and other real-time information.

Multi-function Monochrome Laser Printer

Printer: one color is usually enough for reference material.
Scanner: really useful for something I did not mention: getting rid of extra paper and making document retrieval easier (for ones that didn’t merit being put on the cork board).
Fax: although not that popular anymore, has legal status that e-mail doesn’t; still the lowest common denominator for rapid document transmission.
Copier: one less trip down the hall if 8½ x 11 copies are all you need.
Sheet Feeder: automatically scans, faxes, or copies a small pile of paper.