OS X should embrace multiple displays

Dan Moren
24 February, 2012
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Apple's LED Cinema Display

For most of my life, I’ve been a single screen kind of guy. I spent the vast majority of the last several years working from a 13in MacBook. When I did eventually add a 27in Cinema Display to the mix, it took at least two weeks before I was willing to finally stop piling all my windows into roughly the same amount of space as that MacBook screen.

Unsurprisingly, I adjusted. iTunes migrated to the MacBook screen, while I arranged my most frequently used apps – Mail, Safari, Adium, my Campfire client – on the larger display. No longer did it require repeated invocations of Command-Tab every time I wanted to check something in my web browser while composing an article in BBEdit. I grew fond of my multiple displays, embraced their ability to help me do my work more efficiently.

And then came Lion. Lion, with its easy-to-swipe spaces and full-screen mode apps. Lion, with its apparent “Who the what now?” approach to multiple monitors.

Multiple monitors have long seemed like an afterthought to Apple. The original Mac – and most of the models that immediately followed it – had built-in screens. So did arguably Apple’s most famous model, the iMac. Most of the computers the company sells these days are laptops with their own built-in displays. And now, with the focus on iOS devices like the iPad and the iPhone, the company seems to see secondary displays as vestigial organs, lumping their users in the same category as those power users longingly waiting for an update to the Mac Pro.

On the one hand, I think Apple is looking forward and seeing a future in which we’re more likely to use multiple devices with single displays than single devices with multiple displays; on the other, the company still sells a pretty darn attractive display that seems like it was separated at birth from the MacBook Air.

While I may be a relatively recent convert to the dual-display lifestyle, they say that there are none more zealous. And though Lion’s embrace of multiple monitors is paltry, Apple has an opportunity to reinvigorate the capability with Mountain Lion, if only it chooses to do so.

Lion’s dirty linen

What’s so bad about Lion’s multiple monitor support? In some ways it’s no better or worse than previous incarnations of OS X. You have a choice to mirror the screen or extend the desktop and the freedom to choose which monitor has the menu bar and how the two monitors are arranged. Simple enough.

But there’s a real problem with Lion and multiple monitors and its name is full-screen mode. Full-screen mode’s goal is to remove distractions, let you focus on a single app at a time. And, boy does it work – probably a bit too well, in some cases.

On my 11in MacBook Air, full-screen mode is actually pretty handy. I can put Mail or BusyCal or iTunes into full-screen, not only avoiding cluttering up the small screen with a bevy of overlapping windows, but also making them easily accessible with a simple swipe on the trackpad. There are disadvantages, too, of course – try composing a message in Mail’s full-screen mode while referring to another Mail message and you’ll see what I mean – but the feature has its utility.

But move the same feature to my desktop, a 21.5in iMac hooked up to that 27in display and full-screen mode for most apps becomes laughable. Not only because a huge screen like the 27in can easily display multiple full-sized windows with little problem, but also because if you full-screen an app on one display, this is what you see, by default.

I sure hope you like that linen pattern that Apple seems to be using everywhere now, because if you’re using multiple monitors, you’re going to get an eyeful of it.

Now, if the app has multiple windows, you can size a second window to fit on your secondary display, but in many ways that seems antithetical to Apple’s goal of a single-window, iOS-esque experience in full-screen. Again, Mail – which actually behaves differently in full-screen mode – would seem to be Apple’s gold standard for a full-screen app and you’ll have a hard time making use of that secondary display with it.

But what if you could full-screen Mail on your secondary display, while your primary display was still being used for other apps? There might be a utility to that. Or, to take a somewhat more common use case, what if you want to full-screen a video in QuickTime Player on your secondary display while working on your primary display? Give it a try under Lion and you’ll end up with a main screen full of linen.

Be fruitful and multiply

Granted, there are challenges here. If you’re extending a desktop over two displays, Apple treats it all as the same space. But full-screen apps are also treated as their own spaces, which makes it tricky if you want to put an app in full-screen mode while still leaving other windows available in that space. Still, I’m convinced Apple could find a way to meld these approaches to allow the option of having a full-screen app available on one display while other windows or apps available on a secondary display.

The current previews of Mountain Lion don’t seem to make any improvement to the situation for those of us with multiple displays; the feature is basically unchanged. And Apple recently put up a support document, helpfully entitled “OS X Lion: Full-screen apps appear on the display containing the menu bar,” for which read: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” Regardless, it’s a shame: The paltry support for multiple displays remains one of my few quibbles with the state of Lion. But thus far, Apple seems to have other fish to fry with its next update to the Mac operating system.

I don’t think, as many seem to, that Apple is iOS-ifying OS X and that some day we’ll all be running giant, full-screen apps on our devices and loving it or else.

The company’s smart enough to realise that it’s downright useful to be able to refer to one window while doing something in another – say, writing in a text file while looking at relevant details on a webpage. Or if you’re a graphic designer, a web designer, an artist, a film editor, a programmer. The list could probably go on.

What it comes down to, I think, is that Apple sometimes gets overenthusiastic about an idea, without thinking through all of the repercussions and such is the case with this process of bringing iOS and OS X into a more perfect union.

In fact, as long as the company is looking to unify elements of iOS and OS X, it could do worse than figuring out a way to bring the idea of multiple apps on the screen to its mobile operating system. That’d certainly be one way to make working on the iPad even more attractive.



6 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. David Everingham says:

    Taking your argument further:

    Apple is conflating two concepts. One is having the application work in a different way (being… without windows). The other is having the application take up the whole screen. One obvious way to un-conflate them would be to have a “window” on the desktop machine — which has plenty of screen room — that is where the “full-screen” mode goes. (Of course, actual full-screen mode is actually appropriate for, for instance, video, regardless of the size of the screen. As you pointed out, that is still not the whole picture, for some desktop machines.)

    I am very annoyed with the whole trend of Apple and Microsoft bringing features of the user interface of hand-held devices to desktop machines. Sure, some of them represent progress, or useful ways of doing things. So what! (For instance) windows are a useful way of doing things, but they are not putting them on hand-held devices. Why? Because it is inappropriate for the nature of the device. (For instance) drop-down menus are a very important and useful way of both cataloguing all the features of a program *and* making all those features available. So why do they not have drop-down menus on hand-held devices? Because it is inappropriate for the nature of the device. (Now we have www browsers (not to mention operating systems) with a little icon for the whole menu system — just more work if you want to use a menu item.)

    I am happy for Microsoft to ruin Windows 8 on the desktop by optimising it for a machine without a keyboard, with a trackpad, and with a small screen; traditionally, Microsoft does not design its offerings. Apple, however, is supposed to be a company that actually thinks about UI.

    … So here is some advice, Apple.

    Given that it is a good thing to converge the operating systems of hand-held and desktop machines…

    Put in an abstraction layer for the user interface!! The machine has a track-pad — y/n. The machine has *only* a trackpad — y/n. The machine has a mouse — y/n. The machine has a (proper) keyboard — y/n. The machine has a screen small enough that this should inform the user interface — y/n. The machine has enough screen area that this should inform the user interface — y/n. The machine is (particularly) not intended for proper work (“content creation”). The machine (particularly) *is* intended for proper work — y/n. (The machine has a 3D screen — y/n. The machine has a glove interface — y/n. The machine has tactile feedback — y/n. The machine has physical-disposition sensors [GPS, movement, orientation] — y/n.)

    How are you going to make the same operating system work appropriately on • a touch-screen portable phone, and on • a machine with 64GB RAM, two 24″ screens, a keyboard, no trackpad, a mouse with three buttons and a scroll wheel, enough files to require managing… without the OS • knowing what the machine is, and is for, and • actually behaving appropriately for that machine?

    Apple and Microsoft both seem to think that the answer is “to go with the future” — which is a euphemism for going with the machine that is not intended for proper work. I expect better of Apple.

    Incidentally, that is why I am annoyed; my machine is intended to be able to be used for proper work.

  2. Daniel says:

    About time that this issue comes up in major mac news. Spread the word!

  3. Ritchey says:

    There is quite a discussion going on in Apple’s Support Community pages, calling it the ‘Dual monitors and fullscreen fiasco’:

    I hope this draws more attention and the “feature” eventually gets fixed.

    Thanks for this good article!

  4. H Badorties says:

    To make the problem of full-screen mode absolutely clear:

    When you make an app go into full-screen it will occupy the entire monitor (the one where the menu bar is) and will BLANK OUT the other monitor(s) with that linen background rendering the other monitors completely useless.

    The only work-around I have found it NOT to use full-screen mode.

    A discussion of this can be found in the Apple Support Community – search for “Dual monitors and fullscreen fiasco, is there a work around?”.

  5. D Solomon says:

    Please please please handle this properly. I have multiple screens everywhere – I hang a huge, beautiful 23″ LED monitor off my MacBook Pro 17″ and that allows me to do Windows or run Remote Desktop or something on one screen and other stuff on the other screen, including watching videos, proofing documents, etc etc etc. I want full screen on either or both monitors, and the freedom to keep working on the other.

    I’m a 100% Apple convert, but if you can’t resolve this and there’s serious disimprovement in the interface as you embrace the iPad interface for my desktop machine, I will, simply, abandon this platform and find a way to work that doesn’t drive me nuts.

  6. Nique says:

    With 10.5 came spaces; which (imho) is the absolute best solution to multiple physical AND multiple virtual desktops (or spaces, rather); I’m talking best…better than anything linux has to offer, and better than windows without a doubt.

    Then Lion came along and….that all changed. Poof…gone. It’s sad really. The worst part is that many people would like to NOT run 10.7 on their newer machines, which of course is extremely hard if not impossible in some cases, since apple prevents the “downgrade” (imho it’s an upgrade) of an OS that the machine shipped with. I tried for a long time to get my 2011 Mac Air to run 10.6.8; I gave up due to kernel panics after a week of nothing but frustration.

    So, what was so good about spaces and expose in 10.5 and 10.6? First, you could configure the number of virtual desktops, and even their horizontal and vertical placement – also simply dragging the windows to a side or top of the screen would automatically put them in a new space…GENIUS!

    With 10.7 that’s gone, there’s no more user configurable virtual spaces; well there is but it’s crippled. You can click the “+” icon in mission control and create a new desktop yourself if you want, but there is no vertical or horizontal orientation control. It’s all horizontal basically.

    And of course; the absolute worst part about 10.7 -the fact that mission control makes no distinction between a physical space and a virtual space.

    With 10.7 and 10.8 so far (DP3), mission control thinks two different monitors (we’re talking two physically seperate entities in the REAL world) are in the same virtual space or desktop. Think about that for a second…Does anyone think that’s a good idea at ALL?

    Even if you do think it’s a good idea, FFS Apple, give us a way to turn it off. It’s a smple fix, allow us to “unlink” multiple *physical* desktops from the same *virtual* spaces.

    This guy has the right idea:


    That is the perfect solution and would satisfy everyone imho.

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