Multiple displays on a Mac sucks

So many people I’ve worked with have used multiple displays – typically a matched pair side-by-side – and sworn by them. It’s always mystified me, to be honest.

I’ve attempted the multi-display lifestyle a few times over the last thirty years. At first as a bourgeois indulgence, back when even having a single 17″ display was considered luxurious1, let-alone two displays. Just because I could. Then sporadically over the years in more practical attempts to expand my screen real estate.

The debut of 5k displays in 2014 relieved that pressure for a long while. It’s hard to overstate how profound that first 5k iMac was.

But in the last year or so I’ve felt a bit cramped – particularly as I’ve spent increasing amounts of time in Xcode, which is okay on a 5k display but not great. Especially if you try to do GUI design, whether AppKit or SwiftUI. Let-alone if you start working with iPad Pro simulators and the like.

So I’ve been considering, yet again, my options.


  1. I have an iMac Pro. Even if I were willing to waste the built-in display, I cannot – Apple does not allow iMacs to disable their internal displays.

    I wouldn’t necessarily mind replacing the iMac Pro (it’s been a pretty shitty computer since the day it was made) but Apple keep conspiring to discourage me from doing so2.
  2. There aren’t any great options for larger displays.

    Available 6k displays aren’t great3, although I’m glad there’s at least a couple of half-decent options. I never thought I’d be thankful that Dell, of all hardware companies, is still around and making better products than Apple.

    8k displays practically don’t exist – I don’t have the physical space to use an 8k TV4, which is otherwise actually the best way to go, and the one 8k computer display I know of is far too physically small for its resolution5.

As it happened, I had an extra 5k display left over from working at LinkedIn (they wouldn’t provide decent displays to employees while I was there, so I had to buy my own out of my own pocket6). So far as multi-display setups go it’s arguably ideal, since it’s basically the exact same panel as the iMac Pro’s display, so it should match quite well7. So a few months ago I went to some effort to rearrange my working space to accomodate it, and set to work with it.

And not a lot has changed in thirty years.

The Mac operating system still Just. Fucking. Sucks. at remembering where windows were, when relaunching apps.

For the first month or so it was mostly fine – a couple of apps would be occasionally problematic, but it was tolerable. Mostly. Xcode in particularly pisses me off in that it always forgets where the documentation window was, every time you open it8.

But then, something invisible to me apparently happened, and since then every single boot every single window resets its position onto the built-in display. Every single boot I have to spend a bunch of time digging buried windows out from the over-crowded main display and shifting them back to their correct positions on the second display.

I might dismiss this as particular bad luck, except I know from decades of experience that this is in fact normal. It always happens, sooner or later. And at some point it will unfuck itself and start [mostly] remembering where windows go. Only to inevitably repeat the vicious cycle.

Full-screen apps (mostly games) don’t handle the additional display(s) correctly.

This cuts both ways – some apps erroneously ignore the extra displays, while some erroneously don’t and do stupid things like put windows on the wrong display:

  • Games are the most common offenders in the former category, as they usually fail to dim or turn off unused displays. It’s very distracting having a bright display right next to one on which you’re trying to play a game. Every time I launch or exit such an app I have to manually open System Settings, go to Display settings, click the secondary display, and manually changes its brightness.

    My secondary display (LG 5k) doesn’t have a power button, and I found out real quick that unplugging the Thunderbolt cable confuses the hell out of macOS, resulting in windows going wild and some apps outright crashing.
  • In the latter, “WTF are you doing?!” subcategory are applications like Adobe Lightroom Classic, which will spontaneously move the entire window to a different display sometimes, and the only way to get it back is to quit & relaunch Lightroom9.

Side Docks aren’t practical.

When the Dock is on the side, it only appears on the display that is farthest to that side. Having to move the mouse across multiple displays just to get to the Dock is untenably slow and awkward.

I have the Dock set to auto-hide, because I’m not a monster. But that does mean I have to be careful about mouse movements near its edge of the screen.

I prefer having the Dock on the left-hand side because it’s the least intrusive place – there’s relatively little you have to mouse to or interact with on the left edge (the right side is second-best, but notably is the home of scrollbars). It’s also slightly easier to mouse left (or right) than down, because moving the mouse ‘down’ (towards me) has extra tension from the USB cable.

With multiple monitors (in a typical horizontal arrangement), I’m forced to use a bottom Dock, which is the worst place to have the Dock because so much stuff is placed right at the bottom of the screen – window resize widgets, toolbars & their buttons, horizontal scrollbars, etc. It’s immensely irritating to have to finesse minute mouse movements in order to avoid triggering the Dock while somehow still getting the cursor within a few pixels of the edge of the screen. Sometimes it’s necessary to move the entire window just to interact with its bottom parts – which can in turn require first resizing it from the top, in order to allow it to be moved upwards.

The menu bar is particularly petulant when multiple displays are in use.

I have the menu bar set to auto-hide, partly for reasons of visual cleanliness and to save a little screen space, but also because the menubar ruined my previous iMac’s display by burning in, hard.

I also use the menubar a lot more than for just activating menus with the mouse – I have iStat Menus and a host of other monitoring utilities in there as well. So I’m frequently mousing up to the top of the screen to reveal the menubar. Which is not a burden in itself – flicking the mouse to the top of the screen is a completely trivial operation.

But it doesn’t work half the time, when you have multiple displays, because the menubar will only deign to reveal itself on the “active” display, which is often at a glance visually indistinguishable from the “inactive” display (thanks to Apple’s long-running war against clarity).

That defeats the instinct and muscle-memory to just flick the cursor to the top of the display in order to see the menubar. Worse, since macOS has some design flaws regarding menu bar reveal (e.g. it refuses to reveal if the frontmost application’s main thread runloop isn’t idle, and whenever an application is launching), you can’t immediately tell if it’s refusing to reveal itself because the cursor’s on the “wrong” display. So inevitably there’s wasted, distracting moments of pause and investigation, and possibly movement to a whole different display. For an operation that happens hundreds of times a day, wasted seconds add up.

Windows appear on the wrong display sometimes.

Enough said, really. I have no idea why they appear in the wrong places, but then so much about macOS’s window management is inexplicably buggy like this, such as why some modal dialogs appear behind all existing windows.

Multi-display ergonomics tend to suck.

If – in a typical horizontal arrangement – you give the two displays equal priority in placement, you end up with one to your left and one to your right, with a very irritating gap between them in the one place it’s natural to look – straight ahead of you. Neither display is aligned with the keyboard or mouse, which I find impairs typing and mousing accuracy (especially with a treadmill desk where I’m constantly moving). And I find I get a sore neck no matter what, because I’m spending all my time looking anywhere but centre.

If you keep a “primary” display front and centre, and put a second one off to a side, the second display becomes much less useful because it’s even more uncomfortable to actually look at. Which couples with the fact that…

Splitting work across multiple displays is hard.

More so than it seems it should be. In practice there’s a big difference between two windows side-by-side on one display, and two windows on separate displays (especially if the displays aren’t identical, or aren’t aligned on horizontal or vertical axes). Maybe it’s as a simple as the difference between moving your eyes and moving your head.

Whatever it is, I just cannot get comfortable moving between displays frequently. That then forces me to not put anything important on the second display (especially if it has an ergonomically inferior position compared to the primary display), so it ends up being kind of a dumping ground for stuff I don’t actually use that often – e.g. calendar, clipboard viewers, calculators, etc.

And since I don’t actually use them that often, there’s really not much advantage to having them on a second display, versus just bringing them to the front on the main display and then hiding them again when I’m done. In fact, sometimes it’s counter-productive as irrelevant animations on the second display distract me, whereas they’d be safely out of sight behind other windows on the main display.

The only meaningful use-case I have so far for genuine simultaneous use is moving information references – e.g. Xcode’s documentation window – to the second display. In fact that was the specific use-case that made me go to the trouble of hooking up the second display, since it’s practically impossible to fit a non-trivial Xcode project into just half a 5k display, and having to constantly toggle between code & documentation is irritating and a little disruptive – there’s often a lot of rapid back-and-forth between code & docs, which is of course much easier if they’re simultaneously visible.


There’s a surprisingly long thread on HackerNews about this post. And I was pleasantly surprised to find mostly commiseration and honest attempts to help, as opposed to vitriol. It’s worth looking over if you want to dive even deeper into this topic.

Addressing a select few points raised in the HackerNews comments:

  • I’ve been a Mac user for about thirty-five years, and always focused on the Mac. So assertions that I’m “doing it wrong” because I’m secretly a Wintel or Linux stooge are misguided. 🙂
  • A lot of folks also brought up problems with even getting external displays to work reliably, which I can definitely relate to – that LG 5k I’m using was a real bitch, frankly, before I replaced what turned out to be a faulty Thunderbolt cable that it came with. Even then, it never worked reliably with my work MacBook Pro, for some reason. Seems to work just fine with my iMac Pro. 🤷‍♂️

    I chose not to go there in this post because somehow I’m not having those sorts of issues right now (🤞) and because I feel like that’s a whole other can of worms. But yes, it’s definitely a big problem for the Mac, too.
  • One or two folks suggested that my problem is that I should just get a bigger single display. To which I agree, that is my problem. That was covered in the opening of the post. 🙂

    Quite a few people suggested or at least evangelised using ultra-wide displays. I’m open to it, if one is ever released with decent pixel density. e.g. 5k is a decent number of pixels in 23.5″ (the horizontal width of a conventional 27″ display) but is way too few on a display that’s like 50″ wide. Abysmally few. I touched on this topic tangentially in the footnotes, but to reiterate: a decent display has a pixel density of at least 100 PPD (pixels per degree) at a reasonable working distance. Apple’s “Retina” displays all have this. To my knowledge no ultra-wide display ever made has this – not even close.
  • The specific setup I’ve been using recently is with my iMac Pro in its traditional place front and centre, and the LG 5k off to the left side by about 45°.

    In prior attempts at the multi-display lifestyle I’ve used many other setups, including symmetrical horizontal arrangements, stacked vertical arrangements, and even ad hoc “diagonal” arrangements with things like my iPad Pro or laptops. I don’t think there’s a reasonable layout that I have not tried.
  • I don’t use Spaces. I’ve used it in the past (mostly way back when it was new to Mac OS X, and earlier on Linux) but it just never really felt nor worked right. It also has its own family of window management problems & bugs, with things like new windows (particularly modal dialogs) silently opening in the wrong space. 😔
  • I don’t full-screen apps (except in very limited circumstances, such as some games which only run full-screen).

    For years I did, on my work MacBook Pros, but only because I felt forced to by the small laptop screen – there are so many bugs around full-screen mode in macOS. And it makes very little sense for most apps when you have a decent-sized screen, as you end up with massive areas of wasted space in margins etc. In fact I got so sick of the bugs that even on my little 12″ MacBook Air I don’t use full-screen mode anymore, and just suffer through the loss of screen real estate. And, more importantly, I don’t do any real software development or photo/video work on laptops anymore – mostly just writing and web browsing.
  • A few folks seemed surprised that I use the Dock at all, which I found surprising in turn. I’d never really considered not using the Dock.

    Reflecting on it, I mostly use the Dock for:
    • Switching applications.

      I use ⌘⇥ too, of course, but with multiple displays it’s unpredictable as to which screen the app palette appears on, making it hard to efficiently use the mouse with it (and merely hitting tab over and over again is far too slow when you have tens of apps open).

      I do use Spotlight to launch & switch apps, but I try to avoid it for commonly-used apps as Spotlight is very unreliable:
      • Sometimes it takes a non-trivial amount of time to show the floating text input window, and keystokes in the interim may be silently ignored or go to the wrong place.
      • Sometimes it just doesn’t work. I type some letters and nothing happens, or it just shows me that infuriating “indexing” indeterminate progress bar. Try again later, apparently.
      • It randomly changes what frequently-used character sequences mean. e.g. I might have been using “te” for TextEdit for months, and then suddenly it decides that “te” means some random fifteen year old PDF file. It’s absolutely infuriating and inexplicable, and there’s no apparent way to fix it when this happens.
    • Accessing minimised windows. I don’t know of any other way to get at these.
    • Accessing the contextual menu for an app’s Dock icon – most often to force quit it, but also some apps put important functionality there which isn’t readily accessible through any other means. And I know that I can ⌥⌘⎋, which I use sometime too, but for whatever reason I prefer going via the Dock.
    • Monitoring (e.g. unread message counts).
  • A lot of people tangentially critiqued the Mac’s lack of window tiling and gesture functionality, particularly those coming from Windows it seems. These are fair and broadly accurate critiques, but they did seem to overlook that while macOS doesn’t have a lot of such gestures & tiling features, it does have some (e.g. what Apple calls “Split View“).

    But, “Split View” is essentially a specialisation of full screen mode, with many of the same design problems and bugs.
  • There were a lot more display and window management utilities than I thought – many people come forth with suggestions and recommendations I’d not yet encountered (e.g. Stay, Display Maid, Phoenix, Rectangle Pro). I might look into some of those, and will perhaps do a follow-up post if they substantially improve things (but, keep in mind that problems like Dock and menubar accessibility, let-alone fundamentals like the ergonomics, aren’t addressed by these utilities).
  • A few people responded with essentially “huh, none of this happens to / bothers me”. Which is fair to say, but not surprising – different strokes for different folks. I was pleased to see that most weren’t trying to dismiss my opinion out of hand, merely noting that there are other opinions. Which is totally fine and important to remember.
  1. Apple’s first so-called 17″ display (it was actually only 16.5″) was the Apple Multiple Scan 17, released in 1994 for USD$1,100 (not counting taxes). That’s equivalent to about $2,500 today. For a display that could do just 1024×768 – but, in a time when 640×480 was the vastly dominant standard, so that was a huge leap up in display resolution – 156%! It’s the same as going from a 4k to 6k display. ↩︎
  2. I say that with some sense of humility and humour, of course. But the effect is real, even if arguably irrational. Nobody likes buying something that they know is about to be replaced, nor something that’s a bit outdated even at its start, irrespective of whether it’s functionally sufficient for their needs. ↩︎
  3. Apple’s 6k display is stupidly over-priced, even by Apple standards, and uses a severely compromised design with its coarse backlight zoning system. That results in significant blooming, which is annoying even for casual use but particularly problematic for photography and videography. I’d rather have a uniform display with lower contrast – like existing 5k displays – as the lesser of the two evils, since that more faithfully reproduces images.

    Dell’s 6k display is a better option, having made better decisions on key design compromises, but it’s still a bit pricey and it’s a bit dim at just 450 cd/m². Good enough for coding in a not too brightly lit room, but it’s pretty useless for working with HDR imagery. ↩︎
  4. The smallest I can find is 65″, which would mean sitting at least a metre away from it to avoid seeing its individual pixels. Not impossible, but deeper than most people’s desks. And a corner desk (like mine) has a lot less usable depth due to the angle of the walls, making it completely impossible to fit a 65″ display at all, let-alone while maintaining a practical viewing distance. ↩︎
  5. Apple pretty much nailed it with their 5k displays, right from the start; 27″ is a good size for them. At a healthy viewing distance of about 70cm, it’s about 111 PPD (pixels per degree) which is close enough to the limit of even excellent human vision (~130 PPD) to make it genuinely a ‘retina’ display (where you can’t typically distinguish individual pixels) for most people without wasting a lot of pixels. And if you have exceptionally good vision, situating yourself a little farther away is plausible in most setups.

    Dell’s 8k display, on the other hand, is a mere 32″, yielding a PPD of 143 – way higher than necessary and meaning you can’t actually utilise its full resolution at typical viewing distances – it’d require being within 50cm, which might not sound all that bad but try it; 50cm is really close to any computer display, let-alone a relatively large one at 32″.

    8k displays should be about 44″, to be optimal. ↩︎
  6. And lest you think I was just a fussy princess, know that quite a lot of my colleagues did the same. You could look around the office and get a pretty good idea about who really cared about their work (or at least their eyes), by looking at whether they had the company-issued displays or not. ↩︎
  7. In practice it doesn’t – they differ substantially in temperature, with the LG display being too warm, but I could probably fix that by properly calibrating the LG display… I just haven’t bothered. I used to obsess over monitor calibration, years ago, until I became more aware of just how incredibly situational and subjective human colour perception is anyway (and how well-calibrated Apple’s displays usually are already, out of the box).

    It’s largely pointless stressing over small errors in colour when you have no control over the viewing context anyway – let-alone the fact that most people view content on tiny little phone displays that are comically not colour-accurate, and can’t see anything anyway. ↩︎
  8. But then, it essentially forgets the windows contents themselves, anyway. It preserves only the first open tab, not any of the others. When I’m in the middle of development and I accidentally close the documentation window – losing a dozen open tabs that were very precisely tied to what I was working at that exact moment – I want to throw my whole god damn computer through a wall.

    So, Xcode is an infuriating piece of shit even on one display, in that respect. Somehow that’s little consolation. ↩︎
  9. Yes, Lightroom’s Window menu has a “Move to <other display>…” item, but it doesn’t do anything. ↩︎

15 thoughts on “Multiple displays on a Mac sucks”

  1. Honest question – why are you shutting down and then doing fresh boots of your mac?

    I fully shut down a mac only for software updates, the rest of the time, it just goes into sleep mode, and when it wakes, windows are where I left them.

    • I do turn my iMac off when I’m done using it, yes. It uses a lot of power while “asleep”, which is wasteful (I turn power off at the wall for my entire desk, when I’m not there – between all the various accessory devices and external drives etc, it’s something like 50W even before I push the iMac’s power button).

      I also find that frequent reboots helps hide other problems that otherwise reveal themselves on a workhorse machine that runs for an extended period. So I’m inclined to do them anyway.

      Tangentially, until only about a year ago, my iMac Pro wouldn’t go to sleep at all. It would immediately wake itself up, and then just sit there at full power with the screen off, indefinitely. I spent a lot of time debugging this years ago, ruling out any connected Thunderbolt and USB devices, etc. It seems like it was a software problem, presumably fixed in some recentish software update. Just one of many, many long-standing flaws with the iMac Pro.

      Once I discovered it is now able to sleep, I have started using that function occasionally, but only where I know I’ll be back shortly – e.g. across a lunch break. It’s just too wasteful (of electricity) otherwise.

    • Thanks. I’m aware of them but indeed have not really looked at them (recently, at least – I vaguely recall using one or other of them a few years back).

      I didn’t write about it in the post – because I rarely change display brightness other than to essentially turn one ‘off’ temporarily as I noted – but it’s true and very weird that Apple’s normal display brightness controls just don’t work when you have multiple monitors (meaning, they only affect the built-in display, not the others).

      Tangentially, I’m aware that there are quite a lot of window management utilities, some of which might alleviate some of the multi-display problems. e.g. Mosaic ( has an “Auto Layout” feature which sounds promising. Unfortunately most if not all window managers [for the Mac] seem obsessed with snap-to-grid functionality, which isn’t really what I want. I’ve searched for one that simply lets me record window positions and reset them at a click, but I haven’t found anything that actually focuses on that use case.

  2. I think it’s an hard to solve problem. In special way if you are using a laptop that changes monitor configuration every time.
    It’s a little better for systems (desktops) that almost never changes the layout.

    Windows sucks at multiple displays (ok, even with one display only)
    App position is … always random. Some applications cannot split windows on separate screens and let’s avoid the topic if the two monitor have different scaling resolution.
    Moreover, it does not remember screen resolution and relative positions if you change monitor configuration.
    But it can’t handle virtual desktop. There is the functionality, but it simple works very very very badly, so it is basically useless and unusable.

    Linux is a little better, but not too much.
    It identifies monitors and when you connect some specific monitors, it remembers the position, resolution and scaling for that particular configuration. That’s very good. But
    You can’t use different scaling because some programs (also DE) read scaling only at some point of their life and when you drag windows across monitors you see fireworks.
    But you can overlap monitors (it’s useful only in a very few cases, but it’s useful)

    About de’s toolbars, that’s another pain in the neck. I also like some widgets on the left, but it saves the position as absolute in the whole destop area (that covers all the monitors), so if a toolbar is at 0;100 coordinates, and the first monitor starts at 0;500 … you can imagine what happens.

    So the problem is not Mac/Linux/Windows, it’s the concept itself. It was not designed at the beginning, it was developed as a bunch of patches added here and there from time to time, users now have some expectations and it’s very hard to change them.
    I personally don’t like Apple, but if even Apple can’t force their user to follow a path … the problem is not Apple. The problem is way lower.

    • That’s interesting, hearing about the experience on Windows & Linux. I don’t recall ever using multiple monitors with them (I have used and still use Linux quite a bit, but in a headless manner… and Windows is only very rarely inside VMWare Fusion).

      I’m not sure it’s as untenable (in principle) as you suggest – most of the macOS problems I’ve seen are design flaws and bugs, which in principle can be fixed. Then again, the fact that these problems have persisted for decades does empirically suggest you’re right.

      I can certainly believe that the dynamic display case – e.g. a laptop that’s only sometimes connected to a desk display – might conceivably be intractable. I didn’t even touch on that in my post here, but in the past some of my dallies into the multi-display world have been the typical office setup of a laptop and Thunderbolt display(s). I didn’t enjoy that either.

  3. I’ve been an Apple/Mac user since 1988 with some ups and downs on different models. So far, with my M1 Macbook Pro, I have been running 3 monitors with zero problems: LCD, thunderbolt, HDMI. Maybe this model is better designed than the one stated here, but at least the OS has been solid. No complaints whatsoever.

    • It’s certainly possible – and I like to think the actual case – that Apple Silicon Macs have fewer issues here. Note how they can switch display resolutions instantly, for example, rather than after that weird pause and black out period that we just assumed was normal for decades beforehand.

      I just need Apple to make a high-end Apple Silicon Mac that doesn’t feel two years old on the day it’s released. 😝

  4. The Samsung QE55QN700BTXXU is a 55″ 8k screen. Haven’t tried it, but to me that size and pixel count seem pretty much perfect – like having a 2×2 grid of 27″ 4k screens.

    • Ah, that’s very interesting – I had not found that model before. 55″ isn’t too far off 44″… ideal working distance is about 85cm, which is a bit far but maybe not impractical. I’ll keep that display in mind, for when I replace my iMac Pro. Thanks!

      (I am rather hesitant to buy a Samsung product, though, given their gross business practices… not sure how to resolve that… 😕)

  5. I’m constantly dealing with application windows disappearing from one monitor and appearing on another after the displays go to sleep. It seems to be worse when I have a lot of windows open, so I try to limit that, but due to how I work, I usually have many dozens of windows open at the same time, though they’re spread across multiple “desktops.” In addition to windows moving from one monitor to another, I also have windows move from one desktop to another, sometimes on the same monitor and sometimes not.

    For reference, I have a Mac Studio with 128 GB of RAM and four displays (an Apple Studio Display and three Dell displays), and I’m on the latest macOS version/patch. I don’t have any specialty applications installed, so it seems it’s just a buggy window manager in the OS. This was a problem on my late 2013 Mac Pro that I was using up until a year ago, too. I’m happy with the Mac Studio, but I’m disappointed that upgrading to it and to the latest macOS didn’t solve the windowing problems I’ve been having for years.

    The strangest thing I’ve seen is that when I have way too many windows open, waking the displays from sleep (the computer doesn’t sleep) causes the desktop background photo to disappear entirely, leaving a plain black desktop background, and the dock appears shrunk by about 40% and is placed about 40% up the screen from the bottom where it normally is. To get everything working properly, I have to open System Settings → Displays, click Arrange, and move one of the display screens slightly. This forces a “refresh” and everything is back to normal.

    It’s not a huge problem, but it’s annoying for sure.


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