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In our company a lot of people using a laptop with an external screen. Recently the question arose how to arrange the virtual screens.

The physical arrangement is like the following:

Laptop left lower side, big screen right side

The virtual arrangement could be either

a) Standard arrangement.

screens virtually on the same height

Usability problems:

  • Moving the cursor from on screen to other is on a different vertical line and you often lose the cursor.
  • Corners in the center are breaking Fitt's law. Discussed e.g. at ux.se: multiple monitors and screen corners

b) Mimic physical arrangement

screens mimic physical arrangement

Usability problems:

  • The cursor can get stuck at the middle edges.
  • If you lost the cursor it's harder to find it again.

What is the best way to arrange screens? How someone can support them physically or virtually?

Update 2017: After a few years of testing this. Actually it doesn't really matter, but I can recommend to use the standard arrangement as you may slightly rearrange the screens from time to time. Meanwhile the angle of the laptop screen is different and little behind the main screen so the jump of the mouse cursor is fluid in the 3d space ;)

  • Also note very often there is a scaling issue because the resolution (DPI) and screen sizes do not match, which in turn makes behaviour of both (a) and (b) models "inaccurate" in implementation. The degree of distortion may affect whether (a) or (b) is better fit. – Jason A. May 11 '15 at 9:27
  • My personal solution is simply to use a wide-screen monitor, and turn the laptop display off. The different sizes/resolutions are too much of a distraction otherwise. – jamesqf May 11 '15 at 17:49
  • This is a purely personal preference. Not a great UX question. There is no 'best' way. – DA01 May 11 '15 at 18:04
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    I don't believe this is necessarily a "purely personal preference." Given tasks and multiple configurations, what works best for the larger population for completing their work in the most productive way? While I might prefer one way, the optimal configuration for usability may very well differ -- despite there always before exceptions in how some people work (as there always are). – Evil Closet Monkey May 11 '15 at 21:55
  • @EvilClosetMonkey it's like asking what the best desk is for people. It's going to be overwhelmingly a personal preference. If we had a specific task to evaluate, then maybe there'd be a configuration that would be a better default option, but there'd still be so much variance in preferences. – DA01 May 14 '15 at 2:42
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I tried many configurations both at home and at work and I found that setting my laptop and external monitor vertically aligned made the most sense and it was easier on my neck.

Voila option D (forgive me if this solution has already been proposed)

Vertically aligned screens System Preferences Display alignment

In my specific case I handle all browsing/email typing in my laptop screen while tasks that require a larger screen live on a 27" screen, like Xcode, Photoshop, Illustrator, Unity etc.

I can't say that this configuration is the best for everyone, but I found that moving your eyes/head vertically (up and down) was a lot easier than moving horizontally (left and right) so I have the same configuration working in my office and home.

In addition, I have a third screen at home (portrait orientation) to the right so I can see all my code and full browser window, so it works great but that's because I have two large screens supporting the 15" laptop screen.

Just try all configurations possible, at the end your neck and eyes will tell you.

See what works for you

2

Option A.

1: People are so used to virtual space mapping differently to normal space that when they do match more closely it could cause confision. Consider the gulf between the two screens and it could really be argued that the two don't line up in a straight line anyway- why can't the bridge between them be diagonal? They're two completely seperate spaces; if you had two monitors connected to each other it would be a different story.

2: As you say in your post itself it is the standard option. Unless you have evidence that doing things a different way is better you should always stick with what users are used to.

Option A all the way if you are setting up the computer for someone else. Whichever you prefer yourself is neither here nor there. Users should be allowed to change it to suit their own preferences though.

As a little P.S to my post might I also suggest an Option C: Have the monitor on the right offset to a slightly lower level than the one on the left. The top right corner of the screen is one of the most frequently used areas of a screen (minimise, maximise, close) and here the potential to accidentally skip onto the other screen could be a bit of a pain. Having the screen to the right offset slightly below the other stops this happening however.

  • option C is a good idea. It's similar to Windows 8 behavior that the cursor is stopped when you try to move to the 2nd screen on the most upper/lower pixel line – Gustav May 11 '15 at 10:30
  • Option C is brilliant! It's always bothered me that with a multi-screen layout I'm losing that "magic pixel", and now I don't have to. Already changed mine. Thanks! – Vitaly Mijiritsky May 14 '15 at 4:55
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In my multi-monitor setup, I use option b). I want cursor to appear where I would expect it when moving it across the monitors.

1

Use the physical layout....

  • It's disruptive to a user to move the mouse offscreen and have it appear in a different location. This is even more frustrating when dragging objects,since they end up in a different place on the new screen.

...but it's better to rearrange the screens first

  • First, for Windows machines (which the screenshot indicates), the laptop is probably better on the right side.

    • Assuming you want to use the larger monitor as your primary: (1) workspaces tend to be left-aligned, and (2) the Windows start menu appears on the bottom left, so it's annoying to move the cursor to the left and have it skate offscreen. So it's better to place the laptop screen on the right where it can function more ergonomically as a secondary monitor.
  • Second, it's not that hard to raise the laptop. Get a stand, a phone book (if your laptop doesn't run hot), or any other makeshift platform for your laptop to align the screen to the bottom of your monitor. I bet it will take 5 minutes or less to find a suitable stand, and will result in a MUCH better workspace.

1
+50

As with most questions, I guess context and the individual user preference has a lot to do with what the 'best' answer might be. However, I am offering a way to consider how you might come up with that decision.

The first thing you need to think about is the relationship between the devices. I read a good reference article by Luke Wroblewski on the subject of cross device design (mind you it was from a while back... like 2012) which talks about the interaction or relationship between devices. And I think that's the starting point.

Then you need to consider whether there is an overlap or redundancy between the two screens (and whether it needs to be like that or not) because that will solve the problem of not being able to split the content on the two screens nicely.

Then you need to consider the workflow for the task that you perform and whether it logically maps to the arrangement of the two screens and the arrangement of the contents in each of the screens.

  • the cross device design reference is good hint to put this specific problem in a broader context – Gustav May 14 '15 at 8:14
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I would suggest option A as the user is more like not to consider the physical location in any more detail than "left screen or right screen"

Also, generally, when connecting a laptop to an external screen, the laptop should still form the 'primary' screen as this is the one you will use more often than the external screen: you'll use it when you're not connected to the external screen in AND when you are connected.

However, I think this would benefit from some proper study using solutions A, B and D against a range of applications (creative, administrative, productive, etc) testing for efficiency in use, speed of adaption, intuitability (I think I just made that word up), physical comfort, etc

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I work on thre displays (17" laptop + 2x24"), so her is my solution.

Laptop - best idea is to have it on stand with display aligned bottom to external screen - it is the easiest way to maintain head on same level and use eyes na little right-left move of your head in horizontal.

Also - put main screen on external display, because checking time and starting apps from "Start" will be much easier. It should be your main screen and laptop is for support only.

Putting laptop on stand gives you a little space on your desk - for a mug for instance and - makes your laptop safer :))))

With such configuration external mouse and keyboard are necessary - but, believe me, it will only increase your comfort and efficiency.

Having laptop on your left is also handy, especialy if something goes wrong with connection with external devices - you can use easily laptop's keyboard with your left hand.

enter image description here

I hope Apple fans will forgive me using Mac for this visualization. Certainly laptop stand should be on different angel.

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