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.

  • Last updated 2014-06-11.*

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