Wide Screen Display: Productivity Enhancer?

Rafe Needleman from Crave (CNET) wrote an interesting piece titled, “The myth of width: When wide screens don’t work.” He makes the point that for people who engage in “boring old square work” it is more productive to be using “boring old squarish computer screens”. The reasoning behind that is most of the work we do benefit from a portrait display and not a wide display. Needleman isn’t anti-wide, he does recognize that wide displays enhance our experience for entertainment such as watching HD videos and makes sense for LCD and plasma TVs to be wide. But what has prompted him from writing this article? His new Apple MacBook.

The 13.3″ MacBook has a pixel format of 1280×800, which translates into an aspect ratio of 16:10. 16:10 is fairly standard in the world of notebook PC displays. “The column came about because my new MacBook has a wide-screen display. 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,” laments Needleman. When he mentions scrolling he is refering to vertical scrolling. This is interesting to me.

Vertical scrolling should not be a concern since a great majority of notebook PC displays have only 800 pixels. Except for the Lenovo X300 (has a 1440×900 LCD option), nearly all 13″ notebook PCs sport a 1280 x 800 pixel format. So MacBook or otherwise you’re stuck at 800 vertical pixels. If you want more vertical pixels you could opt for a LCD that sports 1680×1050 or 1920×1200 (or 1920×1080 on some of the more entertainment oriented gear). But you’ll need to get a bigger LCD: 15.4″, 15.6″, 16.4″, 16.8″, 17″, 18.4″ (I think there are a few more sizes that I missed).

“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.” I will have to disagree with this statement.

Before the notebook PC displays began shifting to wide the most popular sizes were 14.1″ and 15.0″. Both of these sported a 4:3 aspect ratio and a pixel format of 1024×768. There were 1400×1050 and 1600×1200 options but again most consumers opted for the “XGA” pixel format (1024×768). Even the squarish 12″ and 13″ notebook PCs at the time had 1024×768 pixel formats. So the boring square displays had 768 vertical pixels and now the new wide displays have 800. Needleman should be happy that he’s now getting more vertical pixels so he can scroll less, not more.

To be fair, not all wide displays benefit those who mostly work. If you want a dual-window setup you will need at least a 1920×1200 pixel format so each window has 960×1200 to work with. The 960×1200 pixel format is not ideal for surfing the Internet since most websites are designed around a 1024 horizontal pixel window, but most of the websites have small borders around them that the absence of 64 pixels can be dealt with without too much hassle. The other window can be used for Word, Excel, etc. A dual-window Word setup is really helpful when you’re editing. I have experienced a significant jump in productivity with dual-window setups for many applications.

With a 1920×1200 pixel format Microsoft Outlook is now quite usable with the “Reading Pane” set to the right. The extra screen real estate helps a great deal in Excel when you’re working with a lot of numbers. Of course it is great for entertainment uses too. But a 1920×1200 display isn’t for everyone since it is limited to slightly larger notebook PCs and is about a $100 option over the 1280×800 that you typically see. The bottomline is: wide displays can certainly boost your productivity but you’ll need to get a wide display with a 1920×1200 pixel format.

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