Update: Could a 30-in. monitor help you do your job faster?

A French IT consultant says yes, but productivity experts disagree

Providing employees with 30-in. computer monitors can boost worker productivity at companies where 17- or 19-in. monitors are typically used, according to a French consultant hired for a study sponsored by Apple Computer Inc.

The study, which evaluated Apple's 30-in. Apple Cinema Display, concluded that large screens can offer gains of up to 50% to 65% in productivity on a variety of specific office tasks and can earn back their extra costs in time savings over several years. The 30-in. display costs $1,999.

But other experts say those conclusions are wrong, arguing that the productivity improvement estimates are too high and that using two monitors side by side would likely be a better productivity booster than one larger monitor. The 40-page study was conducted by Andreas Pfeiffer, principal of Paris-based Pfeiffer Consulting, for Apple, which paid for the research (download PDF).

Pfeiffer looked at a range of computing tasks, from moving data between Microsoft Word and Excel files to image manipulation using Adobe Photoshop. In addition to studying the 30-in. LCD display from Apple, Pfeiffer also did the comparison using a 17-in. Samsung SyncMaster 172x LCD monitor. The Apple monitor has an optimal resolution of 2,560 pixels by 1,600 pixels, compared with 1,280 pixels by 1,024 pixels for the Samsung monitor.

One study found that using a single large monitor such as Apple's 30-in. Cinema Display can boost productivity.

One study found that using a single large monitor such as Apple's 30-in. Cinema Display can boost productivity.

The productivity gains, he said, occur because workers using larger monitors can avoid repetitive tasks such as switching between overlapping application windows. Instead, they can have more windows open side-by-side on a larger monitor.

The time savings are for commonly performed tasks and not meant to indicate overall productivity increases for workers, Pfeiffer said. Using a larger screen will only improve specific tasks where data is moved or manipulated quickly.

Pfeiffer's testing showed time savings of 13.63 seconds when moving files between folders using the larger screen -- 15.7 seconds compared to 29.3 seconds on the 17-in. monitor -- for a productivity gain of 46.45%. The testing showed a 65.09% productivity gain when dragging and dropping between images -- a task that took 6.4 seconds on the larger monitor compared to 18.3 seconds using the smaller screen. And cutting and pasting cells from Excel spreadsheets resulted in a 51.31% productivity gain -- a task that took 20.7 seconds on the larger monitor versus 42.6 seconds on the smaller screen.

"There's a very, very clear and strong correlation between screen size and productivity," Pfeiffer said. "If you're used to a having a 15-in. or 17-in. laptop and then go to a smaller resolution laptop, you can realize [the difference]. There are certain things that can really slow you down."

A larger monitor is as important as higher resolution, which allows more of an image to be shown on the screen, he said. "Of course individual behavior will impact productivity," he said. "A user who insists on using [program] menus will be slower than one who uses keyboard shortcuts, for instance."

But several personal productivity experts who evaluate how hardware and work habits affect productivity disagreed with Pfeiffer's findings. And an Apple spokeswoman noted that users shouldn't view the choice of monitors as an either/or proposition.

"I can surf the Net on one monitor and do something else on the other," said Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta-based personal productivity expert and principal of PSC Press. "It all goes back to seeing more stuff at one time. But, in my opinion, productivity is increased more by using dual monitors."

Productivity experts said that some workers can be more productive using multiple monitors at the same time.

Productivity experts said that some workers can be more productive using multiple monitors at the same time.

Laura Stack, owner of The Productivity Pro consulting firm in Denver, said Pfeiffer's estimated productivity gains are way too high. She would estimate a maximum 5% productivity gain for workers using a larger monitor. "But you're not going to see the boost in productivity you'll see by adding a second screen," which could increase productivity as much as 30%, Stack said.

"People are not robots," Stack said. "It's impossible to see those kinds of productivity gains" as measured in the Pfeiffer study.

Neen James, a personal productivity expert in Doylestown, Pa., who runs Neen James Communications, said a single larger screen could provide health benefits for workers such as less eye squinting, but she agreed that dual monitors would likely offer more verifiable productivity gains. "Those sorts of claims are fabulous from a marketing point of view," she said of the study, "but you can make statistics say anything."

Teresa Weaver, a Mac hardware manager at Apple, noted that her company's hardware can easily run one large monitor such as the 30-in. Cinema Display -- or multiple monitors at the same time.

"The Mac platform has supported the multiple monitor setup since the first expandable Mac called the Mac II in 1986," Weaver said in an e-mail statement. "It is a common to see a Mac user with multiple displays setup to view their work. Today's Mac Pro and MacBook Pro [laptop] systems easily support multiple monitor configurations.

"Users can increase their work space by choosing a larger Apple Cinema Display (like the 30-inch mentioned in the report) or by adding a second or even third display to their system, thereby increasing the number of pixels [available for use]," Weaver said.

Another productivity expert agreed that either solution -- a single large monitor or dual displays -- could help workers, depending on what they do. "I think it would be a very personal decision," said Jan Jasper, principal of New York-based Jasper Productivity Solutions. "There's no contest to having more space [to work]."

Akilesh Bajaj, an MIS professor at the College of Business Administration at the University of Tulsa, reviewed the Pfeiffer report but said more research is needed before accurate conclusions are reached. "There's a lot of image processing [in the study] so it's easy to see where [the larger screen] would increase productivity," Bajaj said. But anecdotal remarks from colleagues estimated that they would not see substantial gains in their own work from having a larger screen, he said.

One multiple-monitor fan, Martin Doucet, owner of Vaixe, a small Montreal-based book publishing company, said he uses one primary 19-in. CRT monitor and two additional 17-in. CRT monitors to get his work done more efficiently in his home office. Doucet said he has been using the system for two years, with one screen for manuscript proofreading, another to follow the author's story plan and the third for communicating via e-mail or instant messaging.

"Having that much room makes it easy," he said. "I have everything at a glance. It saves time because you don't have to ALT-Tab all the time."

Apple's 30-in. display hasn't had much competition in that size range since its introduction, but Samsung Electronics America Inc. will debut its own 30-in. LCD monitor later this month at an estimated $1,999, said Andy Weis, a product marketing manager at Ridgefield Park, N.J.-based Samsung. The company has not done any specific research on productivity increases tied to larger screens, he said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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