Review: Espresso Display is an ultra-portable second monitor for road warriors

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Following a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2019 Espresso Display returns with version 2 of the ultra-portable USB-C powered second monitor for people who love to get things done on the go. Darrell tried out a prototype of the original version of the display a couple of years ago, concluding that “The Espresso Display stands out” and it looks like the company has taken the winning formula and doubled it down. I took a closer look to see how the display behaves on a 32,000 km trip to the other side of the world.

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There are many different ways to get the job done. Some people may use a laptop as their only tool for everything they do. Unfortunately, I am completely spoiled by my home environment; two 27-inch 4K monitors means I have almost endless screen real estate, and hell, I love having all those windows all over the place.

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I’m writing this in Australia – 10,000 miles from my usual home – and you won’t be surprised to learn that my usual gaming rig, with all its accessories, didn’t fit in my hand luggage. However, what was easy was Espresso’s innovative setup. The company sent me a 15-inch touchscreen display for review along with a range of accessories. A $749 screen plus a $99 espresso stand, a $69 espresso case, and a $119 espresso handle add up to a pretty hefty price tag of $1,036. This puts the screen within reach of the iPad Pro, which can be used as a second screen for your computer too, so you have to really want to take your show on tour to save that much money.

So, is it worth it? The Espresso screen is very thin, weighs next to nothing, and surprised me that it fits easily into a laptop bag along with a MacBook Air M1. The screen itself is powered by USB-C, so you can power it from your laptop. Now the miniature battery in the MacBook Air means the 7 watts the display draws consumes a lot of extra power. At first I suspected that this could be a deal breaker, but as I started using the setup a lot more often, I realized that it doesn’t really matter: as long as you’ve settled somewhere long enough that you have the time and space to set up a second display, you’re probably not far from a power source anyway. Connect your laptop to a power source and you’re done. Or, if you leave the second display set up for a while (like on a desk in a hotel room), you can connect power directly to the display. It has two USB-C ports and can supply power to a laptop; very smart and that means you only need to plug in one cable when you want to get some work done.

Espresso display in vertical mode

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Espresso Display in vertical mode. Image credit: Espresso

However, the curiously titled screen has a good story behind it: the name Espresso comes from the idea that espresso coffee gives you the boost of energy and productivity you need to be productive. “We think the display does the same thing—it’s portable, compact, efficient, and powerful, so our users can work from anywhere with maximum focus,” a company spokesperson told me. Nice touch: Each member of the Espresso team has their favorite coffee order in their email signature. Silly? Sure, but a funny detail nonetheless.

The Espresso display has a number of features that fall into the same category as the power consumption issue; at first glance this seems like a disaster, but when you use the display, the objections disappear. Another example is screen resolution; both the $529 13-inch monitor, the $669 13-inch touchscreen monitor, and the $749 top-end 15-inch touchscreen monitor are only 1920 x 1080 (roughly 2 million pixels). Compare that to the 12-inch iPad Pro, which is smaller but has a resolution of 2048 x 2732 (roughly 5.6 million pixels), and on paper the Espresso display doesn’t make sense. Not as fast, though, because the iPad, like the iPhone that introduced the concept of Retina displays, is meant to be portable. When you leave the espresso display on a protective cover or on a stand, it can be quite far from your eyes, which, in my experience, is not a big deal in most working situations.

This is where the inclusion of a pen as an optional accessory confuses the positioning of the Espresso display, I think: the screen is meant to be placed on your desk, further away from your face than a portable device. As a result, the slightly limited resolution doesn’t bother me at all. Take it and use it as a touch screen and everything will change at once; the text is not as crisp as it is on my macbook air. (That makes sense, too, since the Air has a 2560 x 1600 display, which is 4 million pixels, give or take, and text looks smooth as butter.) And, obviously, to use it with a pen, you have to stand up. close and personal with him.

Another issue I had was that the USB-C cables I took with me on the trip turned out to be power and data cables that the displays didn’t support. Completely my fault, of course, but feel free to rant here about cables that fit one connector (USB-C) really should be interchangeable with other cables that fit that connector. I know there are many technical and economic reasons why this isn’t possible, but using a USB-C cable that doesn’t have all the DisplayPort pins is terrible.

Espresso Display comes with some really smart software that enhances its capabilities even more. Rotate the screen sideways to landscape on the magnetic stand and it will report the orientation change to the computer, which will then respond by rotating the screen. Small details like this, dual USB-C ports, and other thoughtful design features make you realize that the team has come a long way in observing users and building a product focused on them.

The company told me that it plans to roll out additional features for displays via its espressoFlow software, including a number of features that will start to catch up with Wacom and other smart tablet tools for graphic designers. The company has delivered screens to over 10,000 people and the team has grown to over 20 full-time employees with ambitious roadmaps and aggressive expansion plans.

Will I spend $1,000 of my own money on this solution? It depends, honestly. I currently do most of my work in one of two modes: in the command center at home, where I have a permanent desk, 64GB of RAM, fast Intel i9 processors, and possibly infinite screen real estate. . The other mode is on the road — like when I’m at TechCrunch events, or browsing devices, or talking to the founders. In this mode, I only need my MacBook Air and voice recorder. In none of the operating modes, the espresso display makes much sense.

However, in the old days, when travel was easier, I definitely worked on the road for many weeks and months at a time. In this universe, I often yearned for a second screen and the extra flexibility to work from anywhere. Your mileage will of course vary, but for people who spend a lot of time on the road (or who need a quick solution for a second monitor), the Espresso Display might be just the thing.

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