Going ultra-wide for productivity purposes

A 34" Ultrawide monitor connected to a laptop

Someone on Twitter DM’d me about my home set-up and use of an Ultra-wide monitor. Read on if you are the sort of academic/knowledge worker who concerns themselves with workflow.

What is an Ultra-wide?

So an Ultra-wide is a class of monitor that is 21×9 or other ratios that stretches the horizontal bias rather than the standard 16×9 ratio. The monitor I have is a 34″ Philip 346B. You can see below how this compares to a standard 25″ monitor (1).

This is a simple of two rectangles to show how an ultra wide is much longer than a traditional monitor.
1: The difference between in size between the 34″ Ultra-wide I’m using (Purple) and a normal 25″ (green) monitor.

Ultra-wide monitors are more expensive than other types of monitor but are coming down in price and worth considering if you are upgrading. My advice is go 29″ or if the budget allows it 34″ as at 25″ you end up with as much vertical space as a 19″ monitor.

If you are a Laptop user with USB-C, get a monitor that has a USB-C hub to both charge and allow you to plug everything else (keyboard, mouse, headphones) into the monitor and attach the laptop via one cable. Something else to be aware of is that most allow you to plug in multiple devices and switch between them with a couple of taps or PiP (Picture in picture) where you can have two devices on one screen (2).

An ultra-wide monitor on a desk connected to a laptop.
2: A laptop plugged into an Ultra-wide – this is connected via a single USB-C cable and the monitor has 4 USB ports on the back.

Using an ultra-wide for productivity

The major benefit for knowledge workers is that when reviewing and editing documents you can see more of the document at any given point. In word at normal size, you can see multiple pages at once – a minimum of 4 pages at normal zoom and more if you decrease the zoom (3).

An image of Microsoft word on an ultrawide monitor. It demonstrates you can see four pages on one screen.
3: Four pages at once in Word.

Similar benefits are found in Microsoft Excel and at normal zoom, I can see from A to BA (52 columns) in one go (4). This makes dealing with financial planning documents easier (but no less painless).

An image of Microsoft excel to demonstrate you can see 52 columns in one go.
4: Excel – Rows A to BA

The other advantage of using an Ultra-wide is that you get the real estate of dual monitors but without a gap. I’m a windows user and just using the built-in Windows snap, you end up with two very large usable windows (5).

This images shows how you can have two applications at one open in large format on an ultrawide screen.
5: Standard two application version

Microsoft does provide something called Fancyzones that allows you to reconfigurable more complex ‘zones’ to divide up the screen. Here I’m using 3 columns to allow me to using multiple programmes at once (say a reference manager, word and a library search – 6).

This image shows that you can be more complex and have three programmes open at once side by side on an ultrawide monitor
6: Here I have WordPress, PowerPoint and Excel all open at usable sizes.

Issues with Ultra-wide monitors

Ultra-wide monitors have a number of quirks that it is worth understanding. The first is that the web is not designed for them. If you have one browser tab open, websites have massive amounts of white space (even more if you are a pihole user like myself).

In the image below, you can see that the Guardian for example does not take advantage of what an ultra-wide can offer. I tend to mitigate this by having multiple windows open and always using it as if it is two screens (7).

This shows if you go to the Guardian - because it's not formatted for an ultrawide, it's main white and grey space.
7: I like a wide open space…

Another thing to watch out for – if you are a google docs user, it absolutely sucks on an ultra-wide because in 2020 it still lacks a multi-page view (8).

This shows that google documents is not set up for multi-pages and shows google docs open with a single page showing and lots and lots of white space.
8: Google docs and its “one page is plenty” world-view.

Overall

Having used two monitors for a number of years and now switched to an ultra-wide, I would not go back – I find the ultra-wide experience superior in every way.

Managing the Digital Divide as a manager

A couple of weeks ago I put up a short post that poked fun at well.. people like me.

UK Higher Education is spending a lot of time thinking about the ‘digital divide’ and the impact on progressing and new students. Most UK universities are settling around blended delivery and are carefully planning for that mode of delivery.

In my home set-up, I have two large desks (see below) both with desktop PCs so myself and my wife Andrea can both work. The *slowest* machine in the house is a laptop with a brand new 10th Generation i7 processor and 16GB of ram. Each machine is equipped with a HD webcam and professional headset. The smallest screen in the office is 25″ and I use a 34″ ultra-wide. Oh and my broadband connection is gigabit (well 910mps)…

Me at desk 1 – there is another identical desk to the right of this set-up.

I do not mention this to brag but to acknowledge that I exist in a bubble. As a manager, rather than an educator, I need to think very carefully about how this influences both my own practice but also any policy discussions I am party to. Higher Education managers tend to be older, wealthier, more settled and therefore be able to mitigate issues at home.

The physical campus environment, regardless of my own home set-up, was shared by other staff. Therefore the limitations and opportunities were shared, regardless of our individual ability we felt the same frustrations. If I taught in a lecture space with a dodgy projector, it was a problem for all of us. This provided a level of collective understanding when the photocopy was yet again jammed.

We are in a period where gaps have opened up between staff because of the individualised nature of producing content from home (I am discussing the technical and avoiding problems such as the gendered research gap that is opening up or the nature of caring responsibilities). The challenge for managers is to think about the tension between creating a high quality experience for students and the technical limitations faced by staff.

It would be easy to think this could be solved by providing kit. However kit is no good without training and also a systematic pedagogical framework to operate within. Therefore as a minimum (remember I’m only looking at the technical) you need:

  1. Kit (a machine capable of what you need to do)
  2. Infrastructure (a connection fast enough to benefit from 1)
  3. Training (an idea of what to do with 1 and 2)
  4. Time (Space to work out what to do in the context of 1, 2 and 3).

Universities have control over 1, 3 and 4 but for many academics, 2 is likely to be a bottleneck and a difficult one to solve. Some Universities are looking to solve this by providing 4G hotspots to staff or other means. However it will be a problem come September for staff who never settled in geographical locations based on an assumption that they could deliver online….

The other part of the digital divide we need to consider is in recruitment. All employment interviews are being conducted online and we have to take care not to confuse the production quality with the professional quality. In *theory*, we should treat all candidates the same but how do we mitigate for the fact that one candidate is streaming in HD with high quality audio while another keeps cutting out and sounds like a dalek due to the low quality of their equipment and their broadband connection.

It should not influence our decisions but I think it will and we need to think systematically how we avoid this as a sector. Answers on how we deal with this gratefully received…