After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2019, the Espresso Display is back with Version 2 of its second USB-C powered ultraportable monitor for people who like to get things done on the go. Darrell tried out a pre-production unit of the original Display a few years ago, concluding that “the Espresso Display manages to stand out”, and it looks like the company took a winning formula and doubled down on it . I took a closer look to see how the screen behaves on a 32,000 km journey halfway around the world.
There are many ways to do the job. Some people may use a laptop as their only tool for everything they do. Unfortunately, I’m completely spoiled with my setup at home; two 27-inch 4K monitors mean I have a near-infinite screen, and ho boy, I like to spread all those windows everywhere.
I’m writing this in Australia – 10,000 miles from my home – and you won’t be surprised to hear that my usual gaming rig with all its accessories won’t fit in my carry-on. What easily fitted, however, was Espresso’s innovative setup. The company sent me a 15-inch touchscreen to review, along with an assortment of accessories. The $749 Display plus the $99 EspressoStand, $69 EspressoCase, and $119 EspressoPen add up to a pretty hefty price tag of $1,036. This puts the screen within reach of an iPad Pro, which can also be used as a second screen for your computer, so you must really want to take your show on the road to spend that much money.
So, is it worth it? The Espresso screen is super thin, weighs next to nothing, and surprised me by fitting easily into my laptop bag along with my MacBook Air M1. The display itself is USB-C powered, so you can power it from the laptop. Now, the MacBook Air’s small battery means the display’s 7W draw draws a lot of extra power. At first I suspected it might be a dealbreaker, but when I started using the setup a lot more I realized it didn’t matter: if you settle somewhere long enough to have the time and space to install a second screen, you’re probably not far from a power source anyway. Connect the laptop to power and you’re ready to go. Or, if you’ll be leaving the second display installed for a while (say, on your hotel room desk), you can plug power directly into the display. It has two USB-C ports and can power the laptop; super smart, and means you only have to plug in a cable when you want to get some work done.
The curiously named screen has a good story behind its name though: The name “espresso” is derived from the idea that an espresso coffee gives you the energy and productivity you need to get things done efficiently. “We believe the display does the same thing – it’s portable, compact, efficient and powerful so our users can work from anywhere with maximum concentration,” a company spokesperson told me. A nice touch: each of the Espresso team members has their favorite coffee order as part of their email signature. Clumsy? Sure, but a fun detail nonetheless.
The Espresso display has a number of quirks that fall into the same category as the power consumption issue; at first glance it seems like a disaster, but when you use the screen, the objection disappears. Another example is screen resolution; both the $529 13-inch monitor, the $669 13-inch monitor with touchscreen capabilities, and the $749 high-end 15-inch monitor with touchscreen only with resolutions of 1920 x 1080 (approximately 2 million pixels). Compare that to the 12-inch iPad Pro, which is smaller but packs a 2048 x 2732 (about 5.6 million pixels), and on paper the Espresso display doesn’t make sense. Not so fast, however, because the iPad – like the iPhone, which introduced the concept of retina displays – is designed to be held in the hand. When you leave the Espresso display leaning against its protective cover or on the stand, it can be far enough away from your eyes that it doesn’t make much of a difference in most work situations, in my experience.
This is where the inclusion of a stylus as an optional accessory confuses the positioning of the Espresso Display, I think: the screen is designed to sit on your desk, further away from your face than a portable device. Suddenly, the somewhat limited resolution does not bother me at all. Pick it up and use it as a touchscreen, and things change right away; text is not as sharp as on my MacBook Air. (That also makes sense, since the Air packs a 2560 x 1600 display, or 4 million pixels, more or less, and text looks smooth as butter.) And obviously, to use it with the stylus, you need to get up close and personal with it.
Another issue I ran into was that the USB-C cables I brought with me on my trip turned out to be power and data cables that didn’t support displays. Entirely my fault, of course, but feel free to insert a rant here about how cables that fit into a socket (USB-C) really should be interchangeable with other cables that fit into that socket. I realize there are a ton of technical and economic reasons why this isn’t feasible, but it’s a terrible user experience to have a USB-C cable that doesn’t have all the wires to carry the DisplayPort standard.
The Espresso display comes with some really smart software that further enhances its capabilities. Rotate the screen sideways to landscape orientation on the magnetic mount, and it signals its change in orientation to the computer, which then responds by rotating the screen as well. Little details like this, the dual USB-C ports, and other clever design features make you realize the team has come a long way in observing users and creating a user-centric product.
The company told me that it plans to roll out additional features for displays through its espressoFlow software, including a number of features that will start stepping on the toes of Wacom and other smart tablet tools for graphic designers. . He’s shipped screens to over 10,000 people and the team has grown to over 20 full-time employees, with ambitious roadmaps and aggressive expansion plans.
Would I spend $1000 of my own money on this solution? It depends, honestly. These days, I do most of my work in one of two modes: at the command center at home, where I have a standing desk, 64GB of RAM, fast Intel i9 processors, and maybe also be an infinite screen. . The other mode is on the go – for example, when I’m at TechCrunch events, or reviewing devices or talking to founders. In this mode, my MacBook Air and an audio recorder are all I need. In neither working mode does the Espresso display make much sense.
However, back when commuting was easier, I definitely worked on the road for several weeks and months. In this universe, I was often looking for a second screen and the added flexibility of working from anywhere. Your mileage will vary, of course, but for people who spend a lot of time on the road (or need a quick-to-store second monitor solution), Espresso Display might be just the ticket.