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Espresso displays: hitting the sweet spot for portable displays

The Australian startup has designed top quality hardware that is perfect for those who really want two screens wherever they may work.

Seamus Byrne
Seamus Byrne
5 min read
A laptop and Espresso display on a busy wooden table.
Espresso is making the best portable displays we've ever used.

Portable displays have lived in a strange in-between for a long time. Espresso Displays has set a benchmark for what they should be doing to make having one alongside your laptop feel like it should.

Saying 'a long time' is probably not really fair. Laptops took a long time before they were small enough and powerful enough to make second screens viable with the right kind of ports to make it easy to both power and interface.

But for this 'long time' it seemed like display makers simply didn't bother giving this category much thought. I've tested a few over the years from specialists in monitors and they always lacked the build quality I want from something that will get bounced around in my bag for most of their existence. Likewise the efforts usually included a built-in stand of some kind that felt flimsy or tacked on. Never something that felt 'right' sitting beside a premium laptop on the desk.

Comparing dedicated portable displays with tablet devices through the same era, there was a distinct quality gap. But tablets do not perform that job of being a slick, happy, confident 'second laptop screen' the way a dedicated display can. So it's just floated along as a niche within a niche...

The issue, of course, is whether there is a big market for second laptop screens. Which raises the chicken and egg question – is the issue the market or the lack of a good option to buy that would trigger a bigger market?

To confuse the metaphor, Espresso Displays has laid the egg. A truly excellent portable display range that will prove whether this market has just been waiting for a great product. It is an outstanding product, well thought through to serve the niche in a way that makes me think anyone who sees one in a cowork space or elsewhere in public will be asking "where did you get that?"

Smart choices for a solid second screen

I've been testing the 15-inch model for a few months and the build quality is rock solid. Options include a base 1080p 13-inch non-touch model, 1080p 13-inch and 15-inch touch models, and a 4K 17-inch touch model.

The construction feels as premium as a MacBook, and the screen clarity is excellent. Again, those earlier portables I've tested always felt like a low quality display. This looks accurate and crisp with good viewing angles.

But the clincher is the magnetic stand. It collapses into a very tidy puck that will slide nicely into your bag, while having plenty of weight to confidently hold your screen in vertical or horizontal orientation to suit your preference. Most models seem to be bundled with the stand now, which is great. This feels like a must have option, even if you do choose the microfibre case for some needs.

There's also a Pro stand that offers a low incline option when you want to use it like a drawing tablet.

Images of the Espresso stand open and closed against a white background.
The Espresso stand is the killer feature.

In practice, it does take a little getting used to aligning the screen just right with the magnetic plate. The positioning is quite flexible, it's just a question of getting the weight distribution right. But it doesn't take long to get your eye in.

Connectivity runs over a single USB-C, with cable options to use HDMI or DisplayPort if you need (those two cables sold separately).

Espresso works best with the free EspressoFlow software that adds screen management features to your laptop (Mac, Windows, or Linux), letting you arrange app windows easily and arrange multiple desktop windows. Plus for Mac users this is where you can confidently enjoy all the touch features of the display within your typical macOS workflows.

Tablets versus Espresso

The most obvious question is why you would want a dedicated display instead of just having a second screen that is a tablet.

The issue I've found is that tablets aren't happy just relaxing and letting themselves be nothing but a display for your laptop. Even if they have that mode, it tries to either be too clever or it allows interruptions which break the 'dedicated' need of being a two-screen laptop user.

I've also encountered another problem from time to time – just forgetting my tablet because I was watching TV in bed. Or that same issue means it isn't charged up and ready for the next day.

These displays from Espresso are beautifully made in a way that makes you feel like the commitment to a dedicated second screen is worth it. Checking the relative weights, these are also very similar to any tablet with a keyboard case being in your bag. But they're also far bigger in screen size, delivering something often bigger than your actual laptop – they almost become your 'main' screen alongside your laptop and not just something off to the side.

An Espresso screen in a 'tablet' mode with a hand drawing on screen.

Beyond portable: put it on your desk too?

Espresso also makes a VESA mount option that turns any traditional monitor arm into a magnetic home for your screen. This elevates (OK, literally... but metaphorically) the display from just for portable work to be your second screen at all times in all places.

The value add here is big – if you've ever swapped a laptop between multiple multi-screen setups, your computer tries its best to remember which monitor is where and which app windows are where, but it gets messy quickly. Having the exact same second screen in all places means your apps will always be exactly where you left them. You're back in your flow wherever you go.

Pens and jots

Espresso also offers a pen for their touchscreens and special Jot software for marking up almost anything on your screen and sharing notes collaboratively with others, as well as a version dedicated to PDF work. The pen costs $119, the Jot software is free.

They seem to be building a solid community online for Jot and are actively developing the features they offer around these ideas. It didn't really blend into my workflows, but it's nice to see them not leaving the whole idea of what can make these touchscreens even more useful up to other people to decide.

Verdict: I need two

After a few months of having this display in my home, it has been hijacked by my wife as her permanent second screen. It has a place on her desk and when she needs to move elsewhere to work she knows exactly how she does her alternate desk setup to keep working without skipping a beat.

So as I now consider buying more, I do think the 15-inch is a sweet spot for the portability factor and will probably end up with two of them. The 4K 17-inch is tempting, especially thinking about the VESA mount option. But right now I have the big 4K screen I need when I'm at my desk. So it's the perfect dual screen roadwork setup I'm looking for and that's probably the 15-inch option.

I've really been looking at Espresso measured against the best monitors I've ever used. I've ignored the fact it happens to be a homegrown Australian company that saw the need for great, thin, high quality portable displays. They've nailed it.

Every highly mobile laptop user who wishes they had a second screen on the road should buy an Espresso display. It's a massive boost to road productivity or just general satisfaction and pleasure. It makes your laptop better.


Seamus Byrne Twitter

Founder and Head of Content at Byteside.

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