In my experience there are two reasons for programmers using multiple screens…
First, it does have some tangible productivity benefits.
A Short History Of Screen Resolution
When I was first learning to code, my family had a Packard Bell computer with a 14 inch monitor. This was in the mid 90’s so the common resolution was something like 640 x 480 or 800 x 600.
Writing code on a small monitor with very low resolution seems crazy now, but it wasn’t then. The way it worked is I would write code in Notepad, then switch to the Windows command line to run the compiler. Most of the time my code didn’t compile and I’d switch to Notepad to fix my code.
Years later I put together my own computer with a 17″ monitor. I believe the resolution increased to 1024 x 768 or 1280x1024. That was a big step up.
At that point it was far easier to run the compiler and the code editor side by side. Now, I’m pretty sure this was late 90’s or early 2000’s and I really don’t remember what code editor or IDE I was using.
Keep in mind that in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. A good IDE on Windows was hundreds of dollars and I was a broke high school student. We didn’t have nice software that is cheap/free like Atom, Sublime, etc.
Dual Monitors OMG!
In college my freshman roommate introduced me to his amazing dual monitor setup. He had dual 19″ CRT monitors. They were Sony or something. At the time I didn’t quite understand why you would want that, but it didn’t take long to figure it out.
Having a second monitor let him focus on his work on one screen and have the internet, AIM chat windows, etc, in a second window to use as needed. Also, he could run a compiler on one screen and code on the other.
That changed my world and as soon as I could I got a second monitor.
Also, it’s worth noting that computer monitors used to be pretty expensive. Also getting a good video card that would do dual monitors was relatively niche back then.
Two Screens Is Too Affordable
Fast forward a bit and LCD screens became cheap and good. Now getting dual screens that work well is less than $500. That used to be the price for one good monitor!
At those prices, having dual or even triple monitors isn’t crazy at all.
The other thing that keeps improving in the monitor space is increasing resolution. Now you can get 2560 x 1440 monitors at pretty reasonable prices even.
From a programmer standpoint…
…It’s An Amazing Time To Be Alive!
Put two high resolution monitors together and you get an effective resolution of 5120 x 1440! If you really want some screen real estate a large 4k screen would give you a very usable 3840 x 2160 resolution. That would be like having four 1080p displays stitched together without a bezel.
Now it is no trouble to have an IDE or text editor, command line terminal, browser, and whatever else you need running all at once with plenty of space to get work done.
I find that to be incredible and useful.
But There Is One Other Reason Beyond Productivity To Have Multiple Monitors…
It looks cool!
Do you remember the movie Swordfish with Hugh Jackman? He had a sick computer setup in that movie…
That movie came out in 2001. I was blown away by that setup. It just looked so cool. It seemed like the ultimate coder/hacker setup right?
The only problem is for as cool as it looked I’m not sure what I would do with all the top monitors. I’d probably start putting useless stuff on them like Netflix movies, Spotify, Slack, GMail, and whatever else just to fill space.
My Ideal Screen Setup
In the end, I think the most useful setup would be a large 4k monitor with one or two smaller monitors on the side for the work that I do. That seems like the best balance of being both cool/impressive while also being very productive.
Maybe someday I’ll make my own version of the Swordfish monitor setup just to make people think I’m Hugh Jackman. That would work right?