In the 80’s, the newly-identified yuppie women were fond of saying ‘you can’t be too rich, too thin, or own too many silk blouses.’ My computer version of that mantra is ‘you can’t have too much RAM, too much bandwidth, or too big of a monitor.’ Notwithstanding the astonishing gains in processor speeds, I think those three things — RAM, bandwidth, and monitor screen area — have the greatest effect on productivity when working with electronic documents. Of those three, it’s the monitor that has the greatest effect on our day-to-day ‘paperless offices.’
People prefer paper — no monitor can approach the resolution of laser toner on paper, and the lower resolution of electronic documents, along with glare and lighting issues, can add considerably to your fatigue. There are, however, things that can enhance your ability to work electronically.
First — there is just no substitute for sheer screen area. The typical lawyer may have a 15′ or 17′ monitor attached to his PC. On that screen, you can see most of a single page of text — whether it’s a Word document or PDF. On a 17′ monitor set to a screen resolution of 1280 x 1024 pixels, you can get two pages side by side, but the text is pretty darned small.
Look at it this way — what if, instead of spreading books and papers out across your desk, you had to work on a single clipboard, on which you could see about two-thirds of only the topmost page? Any one of the many pages you must read can only be accessed by bringing it up to the top of the stack, where you can view two-thirds of it. How much would that slow you down? Yet we continue to work with such a system on our computer screens.
My PC at work has a 17′ LCD — it’s okay. I use it because I have to. I’ve also used a 20′ Hitachi, and a 21′ Cornerstone CRT — each about the size of a Miata — which had the advantage of sheer screen area. I could have two full pages open side by side. That makes a big difference in getting work done. LCDs are the way to go now, though, as they are easier on your eyes due to lack of screen flicker and reduced glare.
Second — it turns out that some operating systems just draw the text better. I have an Apple 23′ Cinema Display (circa 1999) in my home office, and just turning that thing on makes me feel happy. And it’s not just the size of the screen. I don’t begin to understand all the technical bits, but Mac OS 10.3 (any of the OS X versions) just creates clearer screen text, which makes it a lot easier to work with electronic documents. I haven’t spent much time on the newer Apple displays, but they seem like more of the same — beautiful, big, and bright. My experiments with Linux (on an old Powerbook) and Windows tell me that the operating system does make a real difference.
Third, we are seeing what I think is a paradigm shift with regard to monitors, and it is one that will have implications for people who work in electronic documents. The ‘computer’ is starting to disappear, and the screen — the interface with our real work– is gaining more prominence. In some instances, like the new iMac G5, the computer has literally disappeared into the screen. The Mac Mini seems to be another harbinger of this. PC manufacturers like Gateway and Sony are also making 1-piece computers. Even my PC at work is stuffed under my desk, and I never even look at it unless a CD won’t eject. This is just the beginning — we are only beginning to explore what it means to have a visual interface with our information — wherever it may reside.
In conclusion, I believe that using as many high-resolution monitors as you can reasonably fit on your desk is the way to go. I could replace the processor in my PC with one that runs at double or even triple the speed, and it would not make any real difference to me. Put a 23′ flat screen (or better yet, TWO of them!) on my desk, and it would make a substantial difference in how I work, and how much I get done.
Prices on LCD monitors are coming down drastically, and the productivity gains from large, multiple, LCDs are making the ROI better all the time. Do the math.