Portable Monitors: The Amazing Productivity Gadget You Didn’t Know You Need

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Hybrid workers like me tend to bounce back. At home, I’m in the quietest place. At the office, thanks to Covid-19, I am hot-desking. And right now, at the Airbnb where I’m enjoying a working ski vacation, my desk is a kitchen table.

Laptops make all of this possible, but their relatively small screens tend to limit productivity. A flagship year 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah found that participants who used a larger screen completed tasks 52% faster. Several years later, researchers at Wichita State University concluded that using two monitors increased productivity regardless of screen size.

Xebec’s Triple Monitor Laptop Mount can be used on the couch, as long as you have something to prop up its kickstand.


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NICOLE NGUYEN/ THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

So if you want to be more efficient while working from anywhere, you’ll need a monitor, not a heavy desktop computer. New, lighter portable displays are hitting the market, and now there are other ways to turn older devices into additional displays. Here are your main options:

  • USB powered displays often cost as much as traditional monitors, but they’re thinner and lighter and draw their power directly from your laptop. Some products include two additional side monitors.
  • Second screen software turns your existing tablets (and computers) into extended displays. Apple has integrated it into the Mac and iPad operating systems, and Windows is now compatible with some Samsung tablets. There’s also an app that lets you choose other devices.

I went through four different multi-screen scenarios that made my work tasks easier. Whichever screen or app you choose, be mindful of your laptop’s battery (pluggable screens use a lot of power) and your potential neighbors. On a plane, don’t pull out your mega three-screen setup unless you’re lucky and have the line to yourselves.

Espresso’s sleek aluminum standalone display offers the most traditional external monitor experience, with the added benefits of touchscreen.


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Espresso displays

EspressoDisplay v2 Touchscreen Monitor

The call : Big screens, sleek design

Price: $439 for the 13-inch, $499 for the 15-inch at Espresso

Compatibility: More Mac, Windows, and Chrome computers

Advantages: The Espresso display looks like an ultrathin iMac. Colors are vivid and pixels are barely noticeable at the screen’s 1080p resolution. Even the larger of the two models weighs less than 2 pounds, and the magnetically attached stand, sold separately, folds flat to fit in a computer bag.

There are two USB-C ports on the side of the display: one drives the display connection, while the other can connect to a power supply to charge your laptop, if its own ports are insufficient. The Espresso is tactile, even for Macs, which do not natively support this feature. You can use two fingers to scroll or pinch to zoom. The screen can also be used in portrait orientation.

The inconvenients: At maximum brightness, the Espresso still isn’t as bright as my MacBook Air M1, and the screen is reflective, so it can be hard to see in some lighting. You need to download software called EspressoFlow to adjust settings like brightness and volume. Setup is expensive: Essential accessories like the stand ($69) and protective case ($39) cost extra. What if your laptop is still using Mini-DisplayPortthe old mobile video standard, the adapter costs $29.

The Xebec Tri-Screen 2 adds two 10-inch screens that can retract when not in use and a kickstand for support.


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Xebec

Xebec Tri-Screen 2 Laptop System

The call : More screens, compact platformPrice: $499 at thexebec.com

Compatibility: More Mac, Windows and Chrome Laptop

Advantages: The Tri-Screen 2 adds two slim 10-inch screens, each with 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution, to either side of your laptop. An expandable case attaches to the back of your laptop screen. A rear kickstand supports the extra weight (about 2 pounds). The style is ideal for small spaces. You can even work on the couch if you have a sturdy pillow or something else to support the kickstand. As with the Espresso, an additional USB-C port supports laptop charging.

The inconvenients: The screens are small and you have to change the resolutions of the screens to make the text readable. My laptop, a Late 2020 MacBook Air M1, required additional configuration: additional configuration adapter ($49), two dongles and a cable, plus a driver download, since the computer natively supports only one external monitor. These cables must be disconnected each time you retract the screens. Alex Levine, the company’s chief executive, said his team is working on bigger screens and simpler setups.

Sidecar, a feature built into Apple devices, turns supported iPads into extended displays for Macs running macOS version 10.15 or later.


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APPLE

Sidecar for Mac and iPad

The call : Apple AAPL Ready -2.02%

users

Price: Free, but requires a supported iPad and Mac

Compatibility: Mac running MacOS Catalina or later, and an iPad using iPadOS 13 or later

Advantages: Sidecar is built into Macs and lets you use an iPad as an extended display. It even works with the base 10.2-inch tablet model (which starts at $329). Both devices must be signed in to the same Apple ID. Sidecar can work wirelessly via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but I recommend using a USB cable for the most stable connection.

The feature provides basic touch interaction. Sidecar even unlocks some limited Apple Pencil functionality, so you can select and tap items on the iPad screen. Some apps, including Apple’s preview, also support drawing and markup.

The inconvenients: There is no iPad camera support, so you should always use your Mac’s camera for video calls. Touch gestures are limited to scrolling, copy/cut/paste, and undo/redo. You cannot use an iPhone as a second screen. You also cannot customize the iPad screen resolution to adjust the text size. Sidecar will not work on older devices or devices that cannot be updated (eg, some employer-administered devices).

Duet is an app that lets you give your laptop a second screen using a device running iOS, Android, or Chrome OS.


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Duo

Duet Second Screen app

The call : Works on different platforms

Price: $15 for iOS, $10 for Android/Chromebooks, free for Mac/Windows, pre-installed on some HP computers; $20 per year for premium features; at duetdisplay.com

Compatibility: For iOS, Android, Windows 10, Chromebooks and Mac devices

Advantages: Duet is completely platform independent. With a Mac or PC as your primary display, you can use a variety of other devices, from an Android tablet to an older iMac, as a secondary or mirrored display. At the touch level, there’s a bit more functionality than Apple’s Sidecar: you can click with a tap and right-click with a long press, or use your finger to pan in Google Street View or virtual real estate tours. Duet also supports portrait orientation. Owners of the new HP Envy and Specter models get free access to Duet’s iOS and Android apps.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How has a portable external monitor or other tech gadget helped you improve your productivity? Join the conversation below.

The inconvenients: Subscription required for wireless connections, Apple Pencil input, additional touch gestures, and remote desktop access. Also, you cannot use the cameras of these connected devices for your video calls.

Coming soon: Samsung’s giant Windows-compatible tablet

Samsung recently announced new tablets, including a massive 14.6-inch Galaxy Tab S8 Ultra, the largest tablet on the market to use high-contrast screen technology found mostly in high-end smartphones. Galaxy Tab tablets, from S7 models from last yearcan be used as a wireless extended display for Windows 10 computers over a Wi-Fi connection. I haven’t had a chance to test the new tab yet, but it looks like a promising portable Windows monitor – for $1,100.

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