The Best Computer Monitor Setup for Lawyers

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A monitor … is far more important than your computer’s processor’s clock speed.

Most people focus on the CPU — the box that sits on or under your desk — when buying a computer. You will find regularly-updated buying guides full of specs for processor speed, memory, storage, etc., just about everywhere. But most CPUs will handle a lawyer’s basic computing needs. Specs are not what make for a good computing experience. A monitor, for example, is far more important than your computer’s processor’s clock speed.

I used to work in an outdoor store selling canoes and kayaks. Customers regularly came in planning to buy a $2,000 kevlar kayak, then went straight to the cheap paddles and PFDs (life jackets, if you prefer). But it makes much more sense to buy a $500 paddle, a high-end PDF, and a cheap kayak than it does to buy a $2,000 kayak, a $50 paddle, and a $20 PFD. The paddle will be in constant motion, and your PFD will be shifting with every movement. Cheap products mean slower progress, fatigue, sore wrists, and chafing.

Similarly, you will spend nearly all your time staring at your computer’s monitor, not pushing its CPU to the limit. You can run Microsoft Word and whatever else you use to manage your practice on a five-year-old laptop (at least). But a fuzzy picture, poor contrast, and limited adjustment will ruin your eyesight and contort your spine. Get a good monitor and cut costs on the CPU, if you have to.

So what makes a good monitor?

Adjustability

A good monitor should be adjustable. When you place the screen about arm’s length away from you, the top should be at or slightly below your eye level, according to Ergotron (unless you use bifocals, in which case you should lower the monitor and tilt it back 30° to 45°). You should not need to tilt your monitor up and down, except maybe to reduce the glare from ceiling lights.

Many cheap monitors have stands that tilt, but few raise up and down. If your monitor’s stand does not let you raise and lower the screen, you will either have to be a perfect fit for it, or you will need to dig out your law school textbooks and stack them up under your monitor to adjust the height.

That does not mean you have to avoid inexpensive monitors. You can always get an aftermarket stand (Ergotron makes excellent ones), but you will generally save money overall by just getting a good monitor with an adjustable stand in the first place.

Size and Pixel Density

Size Matters

At a minimum, for legal work, your monitor should be able to display two full-width pages, side-by-side. The smallest size that works for this is about 22”. (Go ahead and take two 8.5” x 11” sheets of paper to the store and check my measurements.) However, more than two sheets of paper actually need to fit on the screen. There are sliders, window chrome, and all those buttons and task bars. Plus, room for margins makes everything easier to read. It’s nice to get an extra inch or two so that your margins are not too cramped by menus and scrollbars. After using several monitors 21.5” and up, I have found 24” to be about right.

Larger monitors do not really let you fit more than two pages. The aspect ratio is wrong. It would take a really wide (and relatively short) monitor to fit three pages. Although at around 30”, you can fit 6 pages at once, if you do not mind squinting a bit.

Some lawyers prefer to flip their monitors 90° to match the orientation of the page. This is a great idea, and it works best with multiple monitors. If you do this, 22”–24” is still about right.

Pixel Density Matters More

Consider these three monitors, all of which have the exact-same resolution:

PPI means “pixels per inch,” a measure of the size of the pixels. The smaller the pixels, the better everything will look — especially text.

I spent about a week with that 27” HP EliteDisplay, and my eyes were very happy to go back to my 24” Dell UltraSharp U2412M with its noticeably-better 94.34 PPI. And while my Dell is good, it is nowhere near as good as the 27” Apple Thunderbolt Display or the 27” Dell UltraSharp U2713HM, both of which have an awesome 108.79 PPI (I think they actually use the same screen component).

(All pixel densities calculated using the Pixel Density Calculator. Go ahead and use it yourself if you are shopping for a monitor.)

I’m pretty sure big pixels are one of the main reasons people do not prefer to read on a screen. When you ratchet up the pixel density, reading on a screen becomes tolerable, at worst. On higher-end monitors like the 27” Apple or Dell, it’s downright pleasant.

Multiple Monitors

There are good reasons to consider a second — or third or fourth — monitor. There are also some bad reasons to have extra screens.

In fact, at least one study found that a single 24” monitor was more productive than multiple (or larger) monitors.

Let’s dispense with the bad, first. It is tempting to use an extra monitor as a “dashboard” for your email and calendar (Outlook), or your social media, or whatever it is you think you might want to have visible at all times. This is a bad idea. There is no such thing as multitasking and all you will accomplish by keeping so many things visible at once is to distract yourself. In fact, at least one study found that a single 24” monitor was more productive than multiple (or larger) monitors.

If you can use your extra screens to help you work more effectively on one thing at a time, though, go for it. For example, it is harder to spread out more than one document if they are on your computer. If you can put two pages side-by-side on one monitor, you can put three or four together on two monitors — and so on. Or you can flip a monitor 90 degrees to see more of the document you are drafting or reading, or to zoom in and still see the whole page.

So, despite that study, if you are paperless and you frequently need to look at more than two pages at the same time, get a second monitor.

And if you are going to get multiple monitors, match them. Get two or three or four of the same one, instead of mixing and matching. Even small differences in pixel size will make the lower-density monitor look fuzzy. If you have ever plugged your laptop into an external monitor, you know what I mean. Most laptops have pixel densities that exceed all but the best desktop monitors, and it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the non-primary monitor. If you are trying to quickly look back and forth between two monitors, it is easier (and therefore more efficient) if they match.

If you decide to get two or more monitors, you probably don’t need to go as large as if you only have one, but you certainly can. Stick to a minimum of 22”, but go ahead and get two great big 27” monitors, if you want to and you have the money.

What to Buy

I still think the 24” Dell UltraSharp U2412M is the best overall bang for the buck. I recommend it over the 23” HP ZR2330w, even though the HP has higher pixel density, because the Dell is taller in relation to its width. That means you can fit more lines of text on the screen on the Dell, which is better for working on documents.

My recommendation is the same if you are going to buy more than one, or if you want to flip it on its side. (That said, you definitely will not be disappointed with the HP if you decide to save some money; it is still a great choice.)

If you want a bigger screen, get the 27” Dell U2713HM (or the 27” Apple Thunderbolt Display if you are a Mac user). You’ll spend a lot more — you could get almost three 23” or 24” monitors for the price of one 27” monitor — but if you prefer to have just one screen, or if you want the best monitor(s) for all-day computing, you cannot beat these two.

This was originally published on October 3, 2013. It was updated, revised, and republished on June 11, 2014.

Featured image: “Mission Control Room” by Kiyo is licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

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  • http://www.ashevilletechnologyservices.com Dan Brown

    Great post Sam, thanks.

    I recently purchased a slightly lower resolution, still IPS 1080p display Dell S2740L 927M9 Dell 27″ LED monitor for less than half the price of the one you referenced… $299 from Amazon. It’s amazing, and I’ve received many compliments from others.

    http://www.amazon.com/Dell-927M9-IPS-LED-27-Inch-LED-lit-Monitor/dp/B009H0XQPA/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1380968896&sr=1-1&keywords=dell+27+inch+monitor

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      If you think 81.59 pixel density is amazing, you really ought to try a higher-quality monitor to see what you are missing.

  • Attny

    2 years ago I purchased a Dell 15″ Inspiron Laptop for <$500 and an extra 21 in monitor for about $100 extra (at 1366 x 768 resolution).. I use both all the time: the 21 Inch monitor for my main work screen (when I am in my office) and the 15 inch for comparing documents. This setup works great and again.. it only cost me about $100- to $150 extra than the price of the laptop. I may upgrade when I get another computer but ..

  • Ashkaan Hassan

    Single monitor set-ups are absolutely the way to go, but don’t forget about 30″ers!

    At $1080 on amazon, you can get the Dell U3014 with 2560×1600 resolution at a steal.

  • Bennett Myers

    Good cautionary note about the side screen as”dashboard”. I did this for a while and incoming emails tended to be disruptive. However, I am thinking of giving it another shot.

    I just opened my own office and am working off just one middle-of-the-road laptop, and have switched to Office 365 (cloud-based Office) and Clio (practice management). With these changes, I am thinking that the upcoming Surface 2 tablet would make a great “dashboard” that’s also ready to travel in place of a laptop (in many situations). It would sit on the side (using the kickstand) and be used mainly for two things that are more useful than distracting – time entries on Clio, and calendar on Outlook. These two applications are also situations where I find mousing cumbersome and where touch is easier.

    That same tablet would then be a “lite” version of the whole Office suite when I’m on the move. With MS putting out great hardware with the Surface and having developed a good virtualized Office experience for mobile, this seems more seamless than just building out one local computer or working an iPad into a Windows-based practice. There are a lot of critics of Windows RT, the “metro only” version of Windows 8, but when you start moving all of your information to the cloud on an always-synced basis, it seems that a second screen can be a lot more than a passive extension of your one local computer.

  • John Boy

    It is idiocy in today’s world not to have at least two monitors.

    At $250, if you save an hour of time, you covered the cost.

    Research open on one monitor, a word document on the other and email on the third. If you are a numbers guy, you will have excel open on one and a general ledger or tax program on another.

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      It is not “idiocy.” I have used multiple monitors in the past, and I prefer to have just one. I am more focused and productive with just one. It would be counter-productive for me to have multiple monitors.

      There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the number of monitors. Get two or three if it works for you, but don’t feel like you have to.

  • JC

    Thanks Sam . . . very informative and helpful advice–thanks. After many years, I am making the move back to Mac from PC. Regarding laptop screen size for MacBook Pros what size would you recommend? Had a 14″ Thinkpad for many years . . . MacBook Pros 13″ and 15″ not only refers to screen size (as you no doubt know), but lock you into either a dual core (13″) or quad core (15″) CPU. Love the 13″ size for convenience, but the 15″ screen real estate coupled with the quad core CPU (and possibly discrete graphics card if go high end 15″) is also compelling. I want to like the 13″ (2.8 GHz i7,16GB RAM and 512 SSD)–great little machine, but will I regret not having the 15″ MBP for the screen real estate (to view multiple docs), quad CPU and possibly discrete GPU (if I really want to break the bank)? Likewise, if went with MBP 15″, would I regret the less convenient form factor? Your thoughts would be most appreciated–thanks!

    • http://samglover.net/ Sam Glover

      I assume you are looking at the Retina MacBook Pro, not the regular one. There’s no good reason to get spinning disks and a low-resolution-by-comparison display.

      In my opinion, 15″ laptops are way too big. I have a 13″ Retina MBP and love it.

      I’m not sure what this has to do with desktop monitors, though. This would have been better off posted in the Lab, I think.

      • JC

        Thanks Sam, new to your site . . . just discovered while searching for laptop screen size and lawyers (directed to this page–great article). Yes, was curious about the rMBP. As previously suggested will move follow-up question to forum. Thanks!

  • http://www.LawyerMarkJones.com/ Mark Jones

    I have found that 27 inch monitors are far too large. Go with no more than 23 inch monitors for day to day use. Dual monitor is the only way to go.

  • Andrew Mitton

    13″ MacBook Pro with 27″ Thunderbolt Display. Then use Spaces for different groups along with Magic Mouse with swipe of two fingers to go back and forth between Space and use double tap for LaunchPad. Moom then allows you to program keys to arrange windows on screen. Works like a charm. I don’t have any hard copy files and rarely print things with this arrangement. This places the display front and center without having to look from side to side with dual monitors. I can also use the MacBook Pro as another screen if I want to.