What is the ideal monitor setup for productivity?

Two monitors setup. Imac and apple monitor.

My monitor history

Like many of you I’m working with computers most of my adult life (and even before that). My first monitor was a monochrome black and white 12” CRT CGA. The computer was a Hyundai with an Intel 8088 CPU and a whopping 20MB hard drive. I believe I was the first kid at school to have a hard drive.

Ever since that first computer till today, my #1 complaint was always this: The monitor and it’s resolution are too small. Eventually I went on to get a new computer with a new monitor many times until today. I have used monitors of all sizes up to this day. 12”, 14”, 17”, 19”, 21”, 24”, 27”, 32”. Having used virtually all sizes from tiny 12” to whooping 32” I believe I am qualified to offer my advice.

Current setup

Today I’m using a 32” Samsung 4K monitor and I’m here to tell you that for the first time in my life, my monitor is way too big. The resolution I’m using is a “feels like”  3008×1692. This means that MacOS takes the 4K-3840×2160 resolution and renders it as 3008×1692.

MacOS display settings.

Why is that? Simply because even on 32 inches the 4K resolution is way too big for computer use. If you use 4K as is, everything looks tiny. Therefore I’m using the 3008×1692 which is the equivalent of a 6K retina display like the Apple Pro Display XDR. Of course the retina display has a PPI (Pixels Per Inch) number of 218 while my 4K monitor has “only” 138 PPI.

Is it the same? No way. The retina display is super crisp and you can’t see pixels no matter how hard you try. Does it matter though? I don’t think so. In a normal working distance of 40 to 50cm from the monitor I can’t see pixels either. And the difference in cost is huge! The Apple Pro Display XDR costs $6000 while my humble 4K Samsung costs a mere $400.

How big you can go?

Ok. So the resolution is fine. But what about the size of the monitor? Here my friend lies the problem and the reason I’m writting this post. You see, when you are reading code on the bottom left side of the screen, you can’t see the top right side of it. The reason is that it’s physically too far.

You would have to move your head to the top right corner of the monitor to read what is there. And the problem is that you can’t change the resolution because that defeats the whole purpose of a big monitor. 

The other problem is that if you work with a computer like most of us do, you are expected to sit at least 8 to 12 hours a day in front of a computer. So here comes the other big problem. Eye strain. All the time you work at your computer you have a 32 inch surface emitting brightness at you. How much can you take in a day?

What about multiple monitors?

Multiple monitors you say? Been there, done that. In that case the above mentioned problems multiply. There is a lot of head moving and much more brightness in a dual monitor setup. Below you can see my previous setup with the 32 inch Samsung 4K, a Dell 30 inch 2560×1600 and my 13 inch Macbook air on the side.

My (previous) dual monitor setup.

People like Wired’s Simon Hill are huge fans of a dual monitor setup. However, read a bit into the linked article and you’ll find the following lines: “But sacrifices must be made. I am slowly training myself to swivel my chair rather than twist my body”.

The point being here is that if your main monitor is big enough you don’t need a second/third monitor.

The “sound” problem

Another problem with way too big monitors or dual monitor setups is sound. If you like to listen to music while you work, like I do, you need a decent pair of speakers. This means speakers with at least 5 inch woofer. This brings the speaker size to about 20cm wide. You simply can’t have speakers of this size with a dual monitor setup.

For all the reasons mentioned above I’m not considering some “exotic” configurations such as 40 inch: 5120×2160. 

A Dell 40 inch ultra widescreen curved monitor.

What is the best size for productivity?

After all that back and forth between monitor sizes I have concluded that the best monitor setup for productivity is a single 4K 27 inch monitor. It’s big enough so that you can work comfortably and at the same time it’s not causing the problems we mentioned above.

I have two great recommendations depending on your budget. The first one is Dell S2722QC which is a very affordable 4K IPS monitor. Much better than the Samsung I’m having. It retails for $400 or less depending on the retailer.

The Dell S2722QC. An affordable 4K 27 inch monitor.

The other recommendation is Apple’s Studio Display. It’s a 5K true retina display with 218 PPI. And if you’ve seen one in person you know you can’t beat that image quality. However it starts at $1600 and I understand that it’s not for everyone. 

Apple’s $1600 5K Studio Display.

Personally my next purchase is the Dell mentioned above which retails for €280 in Greece.

Keep a small monitor available

However if you want to have maximum productivity, I recommend also keeping around a laptop with it’s small screen. The reason being that many times you can get tired of the larger monitor. Other times you need to focus more. The small laptop monitor helps with that.

The ideal laptop for a variety of reasons would be the Macbook Air. It comes in 13 and 15 inch configurations, it’s relatively affordable, and has passive cooling making it completely silent. I kept around my 13 inch for remote work and to keep my ability to focus and rest.

I recall 37signals’ DHH and Jason Fried praising the focus they get out of the (now defunct) 11 inch Macbook Air. It’s very interesting that Jason Fried had to say this about the tiny laptop:

I originally purchased an external monitor because I thought I’d need the extra space, but I’ve found I like the smaller screen of the 11”. I don’t use the external screen at all. The smaller screen keeps me focused and it’s the right size to run full-screen apps.


Some people swear on dual monitor setups. Indeed there are some workflows that require multiple monitors. This includes video editing, image editing etc etc. However if you know that you require multiple monitors then this post is not for you. 

This post describes the ideal monitor setup for productivity of people doing relatively simple work. Like software development, email, some office suite etc etc. For them/us the best setup is a single 27 inch monitor. So don’t rush to buy a 32 inch although you can afford it. You might find yourself with more real estate than what you need.