The Best Computer Upgrade Ever

Forget about a faster processor. Splurge on a bigger screen.

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Whether you’re a PC or Mac user, the humongous 24-inch iMac that Apple unwrapped on Wednesday drives home a point: Speed is good, but spread is better. For the past year, I’ve been working at two offices. Office A has a fairly new 17-inch Mac I bought so I could crank out more freelance work without having to turn off iTunes. But lately, I find myself making the longer trek to Office B to use an older, slower machine. Why? Because a generous Office B colleague updated the slowpoke with a 23-inch monitor.

Speed freaks are stoked that Intel has finally replaced its aging Pentium processors with a speedier design called Core 2. Apple went for broke and stuffed the new iMac with a dual-core Intel processor and a 24-inch monitor. But it’ll cost me $2,000-plus to buy my dream machine. PC users get a choice: Dell will sell you a Core 2-powered PC for $1,200 or a 24-inch flat-panel monitor for around $700. If you’re feeling stymied by your computer, buy the monitor now and wait until Windows Vista comes out to upgrade the rest of your PC. You’ll get more Core 2 for your money by then, and you’ll already have a panoramic screen to let Vista live up to its name.

Don’t be fooled by all those Intel commercials: A faster CPU isn’t always the best upgrade. Dell hawks its Core 2 Duo PCs as the “ultimate multimedia and gaming experience.” What bigger multimedia buzz is there than a giant screen? I’m not a gamer, but I spend a lot of time with Word, Excel, Firefox, and iTunes. I watch a lot of YouTube by day and often slide a DVD into my desktop machine at night. I’m fascinated by Google Maps and Google Earth. For these applications, a faster processor doesn’t really help. But you know what’s better than a million pixels of Google Earth? Two million pixels of Google Earth.

Prima donna software developers who get anything they want have traditionally awarded themselves second, third, and even fourth monitors. You could cite the industry studies that find increased productivity among multiple monitor users, or you could just accept the formula of computer graphics veteran Jon Peddie: “Can’t have too many pixels.” Besides, flat-panel displays have gotten so big and so cheap that you no longer need to cable together four screens. Just buy one big one. Thirty-inch mega-monitors first appeared two years ago for $3,300. Today, you can get one for $1,800 that puts more than 4 million pixels on one panel, equivalent to three or four 17-inch monitors or two HDTV screens. A 20-inch model with close to 2 million pixels is only $350.

Apple’s Web site flogs a third-party study by Pfeiffer Consulting that concludes 30-inch monitors aren’t a luxury. “When working on a computer, we lose much more time than we realize through user-interface manipulations,” Pfeiffer’s researchers wrote—even if we’re handling only e-mail and Web pages and not Photoshop. I dismissed the report as marketing collateral, but after a few weeks at my own widescreen I’ve reached the same conclusion—it’s surprising how much more work I crank out lately. Co-workers praise my newfound motivation. The truth is, I can finally see what I’m doing.

While a faster processor lets you do what you’ve been doing more quickly, extra display space lets you do things that were previously unthinkable. I can put two versions of an article side by side, editing one while eyeballing the other. I used to squeeze two shrunken windows onto a smaller screen or flip between edit and review windows. That doesn’t compare to editing and reading both at actual size at the same time.

A screenshot of the layout on my wide-screen monitor

I bought a faster computer for Office A so I could juggle multiple windows and apps more quickly. On Office B’s 1600 x 1200 pixel screen, I don’t need to juggle at all. I’ve even got extra turf to keep background tasks onscreen. If I get an instant message while on deadline, I can scan it in my peripheral vision without moving my hands on the keyboard. If I need to reply, I don’t have to shove my work aside. I can keep an eye on inbound e-mail while writing and click to zap an annoying song from iTunes without fumbling for the application. I’ve even squeezed an analog clock and a weather widget into a spare corner so I needn’t remember to check them.

With everything in plain sight and within reach, my computer’s desktop finally looks like a real desktop. That wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t almost the same size as one. Rewriting this article at home on my 17-inch screen, I feel cramped and frustrated. What PC makers call a desktop has been closer in size to the back of a book. Isn’t it about time you threw away the book and sprawled out a little bit?