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How to choose the right monitor layout for work

For those of us who spend hours working at desks, it's vital for our health and productivity that we have the best possible setup, and that all starts with the things you stare at the most: your monitors.
Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer
Person sitting in front of a desk with two monitors and two laptops.
atomicstudio -- Getty

Whether you work from home or at the office, or a mix of both, it's more important than ever that you feel comfortable and productive in your work spaces. One of the most impactful ways of ensuring that comfort and productivity is through an optimized and customized monitor setup. 

Some of us may be able to do all the work we need to on one small screen. But, for others, more display real estate is needed, sometimes far more.

Also: OLED vs. LED: What's the difference and is one better than the other?

This guide is designed to help you figure out which monitor layout is best for you, whether that's an additional secondary (or tertiary) screen, a larger monitor, or a less common monitor aspect ratio. We'll help you find the best situation for your workflow, budget, and space constraints. 

Which monitor layout is right for me?

My first and best suggestion is that you take a good, long look at your workflow and ask yourself the following questions:

Do I need more vertical or horizontal space? This will help determine several things. First, if vertical space is vital, you can eliminate both ultrawide setups and multi-monitor setups that don't include at least one portrait-mode display. 

If maximum horizontal space is most important to you, then the ultrawide category is very likely your best bet from a cost and efficiency perspective. If you require a mix of both, then a hybrid landscape/portrait multi-monitor setup or a single big-screen display is your best bet. 

How many monitors can my system support? It's absolutely vital to investigate this before attempting any major changes to your monitor layout. If the answer for your system is one, you're going to have to stick with either a single ultrawide or a single big-screen display, assuming your system can support 4K resolutions for the latter. If you have the option to connect multiple monitors, then your choices are far more varied. 

How much desk space do I have? This applies to both the width and depth of your desk. Wider desks may be able to easily accommodate big-screen and dual or even triple-screen setups, but they may not have the depth needed for a curved ultrawide. Similarly, deeper desks can fit an ultrawide with ease while they may struggle with the extra width required by some triple-screen configs. 

Also: Best standing desks for WFH

Your best bet is to carefully go over the dimensions of your prospective displays (with and without stands) and see which would fit best within your available desk space. 

How much will I need to spend on stands, mounts, or arms for my monitor(s)? Simply put, the larger or more creative your setup gets, the more likely it is you'll need to buy aftermarket mounting options. Some of these can get quite pricey, especially if you're looking for options with gas-assisted arms capable of moving the monitors attached to them vertically, as well horizontally. Even some wall mounts designed for 65-inch+ televisions can fail due to the massive leverage induced by the forward edges of their sharply curved display. 

If you want to save cash, look for monitors that include stands that will suit all of your needs, out of the box. Failing that, consider monitor risers that can add height to make existing stands more adaptable, or experiment with a hybrid approach that uses both default stands and wall or desk-mounted arms. 

And now, a breakdown of the three main types of configurations: multi-monitor setups, big-screen setups, and ultrawide setups. We'll go over the pros and cons of each, give you a basic idea of what kind of buy-in cost you might be looking at, and advise you on which types of workflows best suit each option. 

1. Multi-monitor options

Of the three setup options we'll be discussing, this is probably the one most people will be familiar with. We've all seen TV shows with day traders, 911 dispatchers, or hackers sitting in front of a bank of innumerable monitors wrapped around them like a glowing womb. To be clear, we're not talking about anything on that scale here. 

Also: How to clean any flat-screen TV or monitor

We'd suggest restricting yours to two or three monitors. This gives you the best bang for your buck by balancing screen real estate and available configuration options with the associated costs and hardware needed to run them. We'll cover both dual-monitor setups and triple-monitor arrays below.

Dual monitors

Person sitting in front of a dual monitor setup.
Nisian Huges -- Getty
Pros & Cons
  • Typically the cheapest option thanks to the need for only one extra display on top of the one you already own.
  • The easiest to run, with most laptops and modern desktops being able to support at least two displays.
  • Versatile enough for most workflows, and compact enough for all but the most cramped desks and workspaces.
  • Doesn't offer as much extra screen space as the other options here.
  • Symmetrical layouts can place the bezel centrally between monitors in the middle of the user's vision, while asymmetrical layouts can be annoying due to constantly needing to turn your head to the left or right.
  • Like all multi-monitor configs, differences in color accuracy, brightness, and other metrics may be noticeable if each monitor is not the exact same model with identical settings.
More Details

This is the easiest and usually the cheapest option for WFH warriors hoping to expand their available display space. In fact, many of us might even have an old monitor sitting around that we can add to an existing setup as a secondary display. A similar situation can also be accomplished by just using your laptop as a secondary display while shifting your primary display to a larger monitor, or by picking up an inexpensive portable monitor.  

Layout: Side-by-side

This is the most common multi-monitor setup out there: two monitors, usually of similar size, situated next to each other. The obvious benefit is a doubling of the screen, with the option to keep your active work on one monitor with references, Slack chats, Zoom calls, or anything else you like on the secondary monitor. I've often run across people who don't fully understand just how useful this simple extra screen can be. That always changes the first time they spend a day without switching between windows hundreds of times for a single project. The saved time and effort provided by having everything visible at once over the course of an eight-hour shift can be life-changing. 

Even if you don't have two similarly sized displays, a larger main display with a smaller secondary screen can be just as useful. Sure, aesthetically pleasing configurations with two perfectly matched monitors separated by tiny bezels might be ideal, but don't let a vain desire for such a thing stop you from enjoying whichever version of a dual monitor setup would work best for your budget.

Layout: Landscape-portrait combos

While the most obvious setup that comes to mind might be a simple side-by-side configuration with both monitors in traditional landscape orientation, don't discount the possibility of putting one of those monitors in a "portrait" format, where its longest dimension is its height. This may add a bit of difficulty if your display's built-in stand doesn't support rotation, but it's well worth the extra cost of an inexpensive desk mount, wall mount, or replacement stand for the right user. 

That additional vertical space can be incredibly useful for everything from seeing a larger segment of your Spotify playlist, to being able to read entire press releases or articles at once without scrolling, to just stacking two smaller windows vertically. In a world where so much content is produced to be displayed on tall, narrow smartphone screens, you may be shocked at how much better the formatting looks on some of your favorite apps and sites as well. 

Triple monitors

Desk with three monitors and a keyboard setup.
loonger -- Getty
Pros & Cons
  • Arguably the most versatile option, with tons of varied layouts based on your particular need.
  • Still uses relatively cheap, smaller displays and can support a grab-bag of sizes and resolutions.
  • Requires a PC with three video outputs, likely limiting it to standalone video cards and high-end laptops, though some workarounds exist.
  • Requires probably the most desk space of any option on this list aside from the largest big-screen displays or super ultrawide monitors covered below.
More Details

Triple-monitor displays obviously require more of an investment, both financially and in physical space. However, they provide some real-world benefits to the right worker beyond just additional desktop space. They also offer even more flexibility than dual-display setups thanks to the option to keep all three displays in landscape mode, or flip anywhere from one or all three of them into a portrait configuration. We'll cover the simplest side-by-side-by-side configuration and more exotic options below.

Layout: Side-by-side-by-side landscape displays

This is once again the simplest layout in which all three monitors are organized in a landscape configuration across a horizontal space before the user. Setups like this were popularized, in part, by gamers who wanted an immersive experience for genres like flight and racing sims, but they provide a variety of benefits for the most serious-minded and practical worker as well. 

Once again, those benefits follow the dual-monitor equivalent and expand upon them by adding a third display. Imagine keeping that spreadsheet or document on a primary display while your reference lives on your right display and your Slack chat stays on your left, all three instantly available at a glance.

Layout: Triple-monitor setups with a portrait display

Another popular orientation for triple monitor layouts is one in which a central display is used in landscape mode while two side displays are oriented in portrait mode. I've heard this called everything from a "Tie Fighter" layout (referencing the Star Wars ship's vertical side-wing orientation) to the emoji-inspired "I=I layout" (mimicking its appearance), to a selection of other configuration names. While this setup (seen in the foreground of the image above) may not have a standardized name, I personally find it to be one of the most useful and versatile. 

Like the dual-monitor examples with a vertical component, this layout supports a variety of workflows, offering both horizontal and vertical spaces for whichever aspect ratio best supports the window in question. Working on a long spreadsheet? Toss it on a side monitor in portrait mode. Creating a wide banner for your website? Use the central display in landscape.

2. Big-screen monitors

Need more screen space? Get a bigger screen! It seems like an obvious answer to a common problem, but it wasn't always as easy or affordable a solution as it is today. The expanding availability of 4K resolution monitors and televisions, as well as PCs powerful enough to run them, means that larger displays with pixel densities high enough to withstand the proximity most users need are more widely available than ever. Along the same lines, the prevalence of those displays has also pushed prices down to the point where a single 35-inch+ monitor can often be had for less than $500. 

Also: I switched to a 16:18 monitor. Here's why you should, too

35-inch+ displays with 4K resolution

Woman typing on a big-screen monitor setup.
Gorodenkoff -- Shutterstock
Pros & Cons
  • Offers just as much screen real estate as some double or even triple-monitor displays, while maintaining the simplicity of a single-monitor solution.
  • Requires only a single video output, making it easy to run with any PC supporting a 4K video output.
  • Adds the possibility of using lower-cost 4K televisions as displays (although this does come with the caveat that not all TVs are able to go into standby if you like leaving your PC on at all times).
  • Requires additional software to bring the organizational possibilities in line with multi-monitor options.
  • Likely represents a more costly initial outlay, unlike multi-monitor setups which can be purchased piecemeal.
  • Finding aftermarket stands and mounts that can support larger displays can be difficult and very expensive (often $200+, at least).
More Details

Big-screen monitors are ideal for users who like having tons of windows open at once, especially if you're all righ with those windows being situated in irregular patterns across the screen. It's the easiest thing in the world to toss a needed window up into one corner while your word processor doc takes up the center and your other necessities are scattered around both. If this potentially chaotic array of windows sounds like heaven to you, great! If it sounds like the other place, you still don't need to discount big-screen monitors as a possible option. 

Also: The 10 best large monitors

For those who get sweaty just thinking about using a window that wasn't properly maximized and aligned, there are many, many window management options out there that can make a single, large display just as ideal for windows organization as several smaller displays. Windows and MacOS both include their own, basic window management features. 

For Windows, it's simply a matter of dragging the window you choose to an edge or corner and letting the operating system do the rest. For MacOS, a long-click or hover over the green full-screen button on the top left of your window will provide basic options to snap to the left or right side of your current display. It will even provide options to move the window over to compatible Apple devices, such as iPads, via the new MacOS/iOS Universal Control feature.

We've even created a pair of handy video guides to help you learn how to use the time-saving window management features of Windows 10 and MacOS in just a couple of minutes.

3. Ultrawide setups

Ultrawide monitors are a category of typically curved display that takes the traditional 16:9 aspect ratio most of us are intimately familiar with from our televisions and stretches it width-wise to ratios like 21:9 or even 32:9 on some "super" ultrawide displays. These monitors have been around since long before the current upswell of big-screen setups, and were originally designed to be more immersive than multi-monitor displays by eliminating the associated bezels between screens in favor a single, wider monitor.

Ultrawide 21:9 and super ultrawide 32:9 displays

An ultrawide monitor with a space shuttle lifting off.
Cigdem -- Shutterstock
Pros & Cons
  • Provides a one-product way to get a side-by-side or side-by-side-by-side layout while buying and running only a single monitor.
  • Does not require the more advanced windows control apps that some users might need to make a big-screen display viable.
  • Provides as much screen space as two or three monitors using only a single video connection.
  • Particularly difficult to mount due to the leverage brought on by the front-heavy nature of monitors using curved displays.
  • Super ultrawide models can be extremely expensive for their given resolution and refresh rate specs.
  • Curved displays require deeper desks to accommodate their full depth.
More Details

This format of monitor became a fast favorite of the aforementioned racing and flight sim users looking for a single-screen option, and also quickly gained a cult following among productivity enthusiasts for their similar ability to replace a side-by-side setup with a one-screen solution. 

Like their big-screen counterparts, ultrawide monitors can require some additional windows management trickery, but generally not as much. This is due to the fact that the screen is being expanded only across the horizontal axis, as opposed to the horizontal and vertical expansion caused by using a large 16:9 display like those mentioned above. 

Also: The best curved monitors

Standard ultrawides (typically 21:9 models) can perform the same duties as a pair of side-by-side displays, while some super ultrawide models like Samsung's Odyssey G9 lineup can actually replace a triple-display setups by forming nearly a half-circle of screen.

This reliance on horizontal space can make ultrawide displays less than ideal for the types of users who were excited by the earlier promises of long spreadsheets and press releases being visible all at once via extra vertical space. However, many users who never find themselves in need of so much Y-axis room see the ultrawide form factor as the perfect balance of convenience, immersion, and space-saving design. 

Bottom line

Revamping your personal monitor setup may not have occurred to you before, or it may be something you thought was too expensive to consider. Hopefully, we've shown you just how easy it can be to plan after a little reflection on what your most pressing needs are. With these options in mind, it's time to start thinking about your budget, designing your workspace, and picking out wallpapers for your new layout. It'll take a bit of elbow grease, and as much expense as you choose, but when it's done, you'll understand a whole new level of WFH comfort you may never have realized was possible. 

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