Thursday, January 24, 2008

Widescreen vs. Narrowscreen

Widescreen monitors are all the rage at the moment, but I just don't get it. While they are good for watching movies, for most common computer tasks the extra screen space on the sides is wasted. Instead of a widescreen, what is much better is narrowscreen, by which I mean a widescreen monitor that has been rotated from landscape to portrait mode (like the monitor on the left).

I think widescreen monitors are more popular than normal monitors because they are less expensive. This is because a widescreen model has 12% fewer pixels than the same sized normal model. Why is this you ask? Because screens are labeled by their diagonal measurement rather than their square inches. For example a 20" widescreen (16x9) monitor will have a width of 17.4" and a height of 9.8" for a total of 170.5 square inches. A 20" normal (4x3) monitor will have a width of 16" and a height of 12" for 192 square inches. Because the average American consumer failed geometry in high school (Pythago-who?), they are unaware of this fact and think the lower priced widescreen models are a deal. Personally I think monitors and TVs should be labeled by their square inches not diagonal inches to put an end to these shenanigans.

While the customer thinks they are getting a deal, the widescreen gives less vertical space and therefore shows less content on the screen for most applications. The craziest thing I have seen is the new Yahoo Mail on a widescreen 13.3" laptop monitor. Windows has its start bar at the bottom which takes up some space at the bottom. Internet Explorer has a title bar, a menu bar, a navigation bar, a links bar, and a Yahoo bar on the top and a status bar at the bottom. Then Yahoo Mail has their logo up top, some tabs for each folder, a button bar, and a list of emails in the currently selected folder. When you are ready to read an email, you left with just 5 vertical lines to view the content!

Narrowscreen is vastly superior for most common computer tasks. It allows you to display an entire .pdf page on the screen rather than having to continually scroll up and down when a .pdf page doesn't fit on the screen. It allows for more web page content to be displayed in your browser at one time (really handy when reading news articles or blogs). You see much more of your text when using Word (or composing posts in Blogger), many more songs when creating a playlist in iTunes, more bookmarks displayed in Firefox, and more files when using File Explorer.

Some people say that it is nice to have a widescreen because you can have 2 windows open side by side. While this is true, I find that only 10% of the time do I want this. The other 90% of the time I would rather use the entire real estate for the task at hand (especially when you can use alt-tab to switch between applications).

Ideally what you want is the ability to rotate between portrait and landscape orientations to choose the best option for the task at hand. I love my 22" HP w2207 monitor because it allows me to do just that. I find that I spend most of the time in portrait alignment, but when I am watching movie trailers, playing games or viewing certain spreadsheets I switch over.

For reasons I can't understand, few monitors have the ability to rotate. I think it should be a standard feature on all new models. If you are looking for a monitor that can rotate, besides my HP 22" monitor, Dell sells both a 19" and a 24", and if you are willing to throw down some serious coin, you can pick up this Eizo 27" model.

I would also love to see a laptop that had the ability to rotate the screen 90 degrees. Tablet PCs will switch orientation when you use the touch screen, but I would really like a laptop that would allow the monitor to rotate while still being able to use keyboard. Apple, get on that.

If you have a widescreen monitor that doesn't rotate, here are some tips and tools you can use to get the most out of your screen real estate.

First, you can set your Window's Taskbar to be vertical rather than horizontal.

Second, you can use GridMove to easily position two windows side by side vertically (along with many other screen configuration). Windows is really lame about organizing windows, giving you only the marginally helpful options of "Tile Windows Vertically", "Tile Windows Horizontally", or (the option I have never seen anyone ever use) "Cascade Windows". Windows really needs to include some better options, especially now that people use multiple monitors. Microsoft, get on that.

Third, you can can setup Firefox to use space more efficiently. Widefox allows your tabs to go vertical. Split Browser allows you to open multiple windows within each tab. The GoogleMonkeyR Greasemonkey script lets you setup Google to display results in multiple columns. The Mulit-column articles Greasemonkey script displays newspaper articles in multiple columns taking advantage of all available screen space. What isn't available, but would be really cool if there was, is a Firefox extension allowing you to have multiple columns. A long web page (such as a news article) would wrap onto the second column taking advantage of the otherwise wasted space on the right (like a book with a left hand page and a right hand page where they are a continuation of each other). Open source geeks, get on that.

And if you still aren't convinced that narrowscreen is the way to go, I leave you with one final advantage. It allows you to use a portrait of Stephen Colbert (not to be confused with Colbert Portraits) or Cosmo Kramer (wow, who knew you could get a framed version from Amazon) as your desktop background. Giddyup.


Rebelfish said...

Rotating screen? That's pretty cool that someone finally came up with that.

And I agree w/ you on how widescreens aren't that good. You also can't put normal sized camera photos on them as a background.

Fat Knowledge said...


Yeah, rotating screen is the way to go. You can also pick up the old 1901FP-1907FP 19" Dell monitors on eBay for a decent price. I also found this stand for sale, where you can add the rotating feature to Dell monitors that didn't come with it.

That is a good point about camera photos. I ran into that at Christmas time when I was buying a digital picture frame. Kodak models had some cool features, but in the end I couldn't buy them because they were widescreen and none of my photos were. I went instead with a 4x3 8" Pandigital frame.

But, after buying it, I realized that most new cameras allow you to shoot widescreen photos as well. I am tempted to switch over to shooting widescreen photos, as TVs and monitors are all going that way, and you can print out widescreen photos just as easily.

nipun said...

Fat Knowledge, you really bring some original posts! Great riff here.

Personally, widescreen comes in especially handy when doing software development work, across multiple applications. For most personal uses, though, focus is often more useful; and the cell phone platform is becoming the ultimate proof of that. On the other hand, as the line between TV and Internet starts to blur, your screen is going to be more of an experience than mere utility.

And don't know if you've read this, but here's how Bill Gates works.

Fat Knowledge said...


Glad you liked it. Thanks for the Bill Gates link.

mike said...

the EIZO 27" is actually really good value for what it is, it has a huge colour gamut and has great color management features..

Fat Knowledge said...


Good to know. Still a little pricey for my budget though.

Pariuri Sportive said...

Imagine a cookout in your backyard. Kids splashing in the pool. Some friends over to watch the big game...and the whole backside of your house is a HDTV! Of course, to keep from bothering the neighbors, your guests have 7.1 earbuds.

A guy can dream, can't he?

Gail Gardner said...

Can any monitor be rotated and made to work with just a stand? What controls whether content displays vertically versus horizontally on the monitor? How does your PC know which direction the text should run?

I looked at display preferences in Linux Mint and I have "left, right, and upside down"?

Fat Knowledge said...

Hi Gail,

The rotation is handled by the Operating System, the video card and the drivers for the video card. If they will support rotation then yes all you need is a stand.

It sounds like you will be able to rotate and it is easy to check. Just select one of the other options and see how it changes your monitor. If it gives you the rotation you want then get a stand that will put it that way.

Good Luck!

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