I have completed my hardware upgrades to the new Mac Pro. The system is now sporting 5 GB of memory as well as a second video card. That second video card now gives me the ability to expand beyond two monitors. Since I had plenty of LCDs sitting around, I decided to put them to use. I now have FOUR monitors attached to my Mac Pro.

Why? Because I can.

But, now that I am doing it, is it all roses? No. So, which operating system is better in this department? Windows XP or Mac OS X?

Fitts’s Law

One of the things that constantly strikes me about this issue is how both camps have such rock solid opinions. Well, truth be told, it seems it is the OS X users who get the most defensive about it. Apple is, of course, thought to be the king of interface design. In most areas, I would agree. When it comes to multi-screen support, I disagree.

Fitts’s Law is often quoted. Wikipedia defines it as:

Fitts’s law (often cited as Fitts’ law) is a model of human movement which predicts the time required to rapidly move to a target area, as a function of the distance to the target and the size of the target.

It has an equation and everything. More simply stated, the idea is that the larger the target, the easier it is to use. So, the idea with the top menu bar in OS X is that it covers the entire top of the screen. The mouse cursor cannot move beyond it. This means that any flick of the mouse upward will hit the menu. Very large target.

Beyond Fitts’s Law

OK, Fitts’s law is a workable model. But, how does this translate into real-world use? That’s where I fail to see the point of it in the design of OS X. Let’s look at REAL WORLD use of multiple screens in both operating systems.

In Windows XP, multiple screens is easy. You install the video cards, install the drivers, and then all the screens will appear in your Display Properties. You can move them around in relation to one another, etc. When you operate an application on a particular screen, the menu bar goes with the program. So, no matter where the application is, the menu bar is within a short distance of your workspace.

Now, let’s take OS X. Driver installation is a non-issue because Apple so tightly controls the hardware. It does properly detect all screens. It doesn’t always detect the proper native resolution for the monitor, but that is an easy thing to correct. Changing arrangement and settings of multiple screens is really easy with OS X. You can give each screen it’s own background (harder to do that in Windows). Visually, the interface for managing multiple monitors in OS X is solid.

Practically, though, it is a nightmare. And that is due to the simple fact that the top menu bar is tied to one screen. Sure, you can easily choose which of your screens is primary (and hence which displays the menu and the Dock), but it does not move. That top menu bar is used for every application. All of Apple’s GUI design genius looks really stupid when they can’t think of something better than this.

So, I have four screens attached to the Mac Pro. If I am working with an application on the far screen, I have to scroll over TWO SCREENS to get to the menu bar for the program I am working with. I cannot barely put into words just how frickin’ idiotic that is. Here is a picture from my office to demonstrate:

OS X Multiple Monitor Hell

The Verdict

OS X multiple monitor support is strong. I actually like the way it handles it better than in Windows XP. But, practically, it loses BIG TIME to Windows XP. Windows is so much better than OS X when it comes to ease of use in a multiple monitor environment.

To get around this, Apple needs to do one of the following:

  1. Make the menu bar follow the active application.
  2. Give an option to the user to embed the application menus inside the program menus.

#2 might be harder to implement because it could involve the cooperation of the developers of all applications for OS X. The top menu bar has been a staple of OS X for awhile now and it is hard to change. I understand that. But, #1 should be easier to implement. Until Apple does something to make this easier, I guess they’ll just have to continue to condition Mac lovers why this idiocy actually makes sense (some think so).

Until Apple grows a brain on this issue, leave it to a third party utility to help make things a little easier. The utility is called DejaMenu. It will allow you to set up a key combination that will duplicate the top menu bar in contextual style. So, if I am working with that application in that far left monitor, I can hit that key combination and I get the entire contents of my top menu bar (which is TWO SCREENS away, mind you) right at my current cursor position. Not as easy as Windows XP, but this makes it much easier.

So, in this match of Windows versus OS X, Windows wipes the floor with OS X and then spits on it. OS X is just plain harder to use when you have more than one monitor. And it is disappointing that users like myself have to outsmart the stupid design by using third-party add-ons, becoming kings of keyboard shortcuts, or speeding the mouse cursor up to light speed to flip across several screens.

This should be easier, Apple. There is so much smart design in OS X. Why not this?