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The myth of width: When wide screens don't work

Posted: 28 Jan 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:screen wide? blog? display?

By Rafe Needleman

The displays of the world are getting wider. For those of us who work, this is not progress. Sure, wide-screen computer screens look cool, but in the real world of working on laptops, a wide-screen display is an ergonomic step backwards.

Before I slam the move to wide-screen computers, I will gladly admit that for entertainment content, wide-screen works. Our eyes are side-by-side, after all, and having a story unfold in a way that more closely respects how we see gives a more engrossing, absorbing experience. Wide-screen plasma and LCD television sets make sense, as do CinemaScope movie theaters.

But when we have work to do, the fact that our eyes are set up to spot a herd of jackals approaching us over the plain becomes irrelevant. For most people, the world of work is in portrait mode, and wide-screen displays offer scant benefits.

Like reading a page of text or a book, most Web sites are set up with strong vertical orientation. That works for text-based material, since wide lines of text, longer than about 60 characters, become hard to read (the reader has a hard time finding the beginning of the next line).

What happens with modern "stretchy" sites or apps that let the user read text in a wide-screen format where line lengths get long? Pages get tiring or hard to read.

One argument given for wide-screen monitors is that they allow users to put two pages or applications side-by-side, for easier comparison. This is true, but in many cases it comes at the expense of usability for single apps. Most popular sizes of wide-screen displays show fewer vertical pixels than the more-square sizes they directly replaced, reducing the amount of text that can be comfortably shown on one screen without scrolling.

People who work with spreadsheets may take exception to this, as do those who use very large monitors that have sufficient vertical resolution. But for most people, more square, or even portrait-mode monitors would actually be easier to read.

You won't see monitors go portrait-mode for the mainstream market, though, for two reasons: people work and play on the same displays, and since keyboards are horizontal, laptop screens have to close over them.

One area where I believe we should (but probably won't) see continued releases of consumer portrait-mode displays, though: personal navigation devices. Recently the PND companies have started to offer wide-screen navigation units. How does this make sense? When we use a computer-generated map that's always rotating to show us where we're going at the top of the screen, why do we care what's out the side windows? It's what's coming up that matters. Serious navigation products for back-country hikers are portrait mode. The wider you make a map display the more you sacrifice useful information for distractionalthough, again, it makes the devices look cool.

The column came about because my new MacBook has a wide-screen display (as do almost all new laptops). It's gorgeous and great for watching videos, but it does not help my productivity one whit. I have to scroll more when I'm reading and writing, which slows me down.

So maybe it's just me, but I miss boring old squarish computer screens. Because I use my computers for boring old square work more than for play.

- Rafe Needleman writes about start-ups, new technologies, and Web 2.0 products, as editor of CNET's Webware.

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