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Apple 30" Cinema Display

In the fall of 2007, the opportunity arose for me to do some of my consulting work at home instead of commuting to Silicon Valley (a one-hour each way when traffic is light).  The only hitch: the work required two monitors with 1600x1200 resolution, but the software for working remotely over a secure connection only supported a single monitor.  "Oh, good," I thought, "finally an excuse to get a really big monitor."

Luckily for me, the price of the Apple's flat-panel displays had been dropping steadily since they were first introduced in 1998.  Here's the price per megapixel:

As you can see, the per-pixel price difference between the models currently being sold has gotten very small, so there's no longer a big monetary reason to buy two smaller monitors instead of one big one — even if I'd bought two smaller monitors, I wouldn't have saved that much money.  I ended up buying a used 30" Cinema Display on eBay for $1500; even if I'd gotten it at Apple's list price ($1799), it would have cost less than the price of the first 15" flat-panel display Apple sold ($1999 in 1998, which is more like $2600 in today's dollars).

I don't mean to play favorites; Apple's products are nice, but you can get equivalent displays for less; I've added the data for Dell's 30" monitor to the chart; I've seen it for sale on eBay for $1000 or less.

The switch to this monitor would be more noticeable than the upgrades I'd gone through before, having the biggest proportional size increases in both dimensions ...

... and I'd prepared myself for that, but still, it was several weeks before I wasn't awe-struck when I walked into my home office.

What I hadn't thought to prepare myself for was how big a change it would be to use this monitor.

What's different with a monitor this big?

The first thing I noticed was that the number of times I printed out hard copies of documents went down.  Before, I would print copies of diagrams, specifications, and other reference material so that I could easily refer to them while working at the computer.  Now I have space on the screen to have these visible.  I wouldn't say I've made it all the way to the "paperless office," but it's gotten a lot closer (for example, I seldom use the document holder Douglas George and I designed for documents these days).

Within a few days I began to experience a much more significant effect, though: when more of the things I needed to look at were already in view, the amount of time spent on visual context switches went down.  For some kinds of work, this might make little or no difference, but my work requires that I constantly change my focus from one document to another.  Having more documents in view not only reduces the time consumed by the switch, but also the "recovery time" needed to remember, after switching to another context and back, what I was doing.  A related time savings is that when a document I may need to switch to is visible, it takes less time to realize that I need it.

Having a bigger monitor also means you spend less time resizing windows.  For example, when I open this window (make sure your browser's zoom is set to 100% to see this at the proper size) ...

... all of its contents are in view, so I would never need to scroll it.  It seems that now, the contents of most directories I look at frequently can fit on the screen, so I now use the full height as the default size; when I open a new directory window, it inherits that size.

I found that once I got used to the idea that most things could be expanded to a size that required no window scrolling, I began to "think big" about a lot of things: my spreadsheets got bigger, my diagrams got bigger — and more unexpectedly: the size of the kind of thing I thought I could handle got bigger; and because I was much less often having to chop things into smaller pieces so that they could fit, things got simpler.

To facilitate context-switching even more, I took advantage of the vertical dimension of the monitor by using directory windows and web pages as navigation aids.  Here's what my setup for programming in Matlab might look like:

In this case, I'm set up for a Matlab-centric workflow, with the Matlab window filling almost the entire screen; only the top, left and bottom edges are free.  The left edge has the trash can, My Computer, and a few files that I've recently started and haven't created a place to store yet.

The top and bottom edge show other things I might want to get to; here's what it looks like when they're being used:

At the bottom, the list of open Microsoft Word documents is visible (this is how Windows displays them when the "show in groups" option is turned on).  The tall window to the left of the Word documents list is a directory window (like the one shown earlier); this contains documents I might want to edit in Matlab; they can be dragged in the Matlab editor.  As you can see, there are many directory windows open, with just enough of their tops exposed to show their name; when I use one, it temporarly obscures some of the Matlab window, but once I go back to using Matlab, it's out of the way.

The tall window at the left is a web page that I've written to contain links to the directories I'm frequently opening; here's a close-up view:

There are some directories which exist in multiple "branches" (versions); for these, I've organized them to show the directory structure of each, and then provided links to each branch, e.g.:

I have a similar "navigator" web page at the far right for documents (it turns out that Windows Internet Explorer works well for directories, launching applications, and for opening Visio documents, but Firefox opens Microsoft Word documents better).

Other advantages

The display fills a lot more of my visual field — so much, in fact, that it took me a week or so to get used to how far away the left and right edges of the screen were.  In the end, I found that this made it a little easier to concentrate (since my attention was less often directed toward wherever I'd been keeping the notes that wouldn't fit on the screen).

The 30" Apple Cinema Display puts out a lot of light.  The biggest difference this makes for me is that even with sun streaming in the window, the display is still bright enough to see clearly; I am no longer tempted to close the blinds.  At night, I often turn it down to a dimmer setting to match the subdued lighting of the rest of the house.

The 1024x768 data projector is a common choice for conference rooms, and it's fine if one person is presenting a fairly low-resolution image and nobody else has anything important to look at.  For some uses, I've found the half-resolution (1280x800) mode of the 30" display preferable.  When the display is placed at the end of the conference table (the end closest to the projector screen), it's about as big (angle-wise) as the projector, but it's clearer, it has more pixels, it doesn't require the lights in the room to be dimmed, and it's completely silent.  This setup permits multi-person editing: I hook up several keyboards and mice to the computer (through a USB hub) and give one to each person.  Because the room lights are on, nobody has trouble navigating the keyboard (if they're not touch-typists) or taking notes.

Sample layouts

Here are some full-resolution images of what the 30" display looks like with Visio, Premiere, Sibelius, Microsoft Word, and a bunch of different applications.


I'm recommending a 30" inch display to lots of people (which is why I made this web page; it started seeming like it would save me some time).  I hope I've told you enough to let you decide whether you could use one.  I wish I'd bought one sooner!