Blog Post

A Widescreen Skeptic’s Lament — Portrait View Anyone?

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

I was pleased that Apple (s aapl) resisted going to the ultra-wide 16:9 (WXGA/HDTV) screen aspect ratio that’s becoming popular in PC laptops for the new unibody MacBook revisions, sticking with the 16:10 (WXGA+/WSXGA) proportions carried over from the aluminum PowerBooks and older MacBooks.

By my lights, 16:10 is plenty wide enough, and I would actually prefer more vertical headroom than that. In many ways, the old XGA 4:3 aspect ratio used in older Mac laptop displays suited me just fine, and as one who uses my Macs primarily as work tools rather than entertainment centers I’m dismayed by the motion picture format-driven trend toward ultra-wide screens.

So apparently is CNET’s Rafe Needleman, who posted a blog this week entitled “The Myth Of Width: When Wide Screens Don’t Work”.

Rafe observes that the trend to wider ratio displays is contra-progress for those of us who use laptops in real world work environments, constituting an ergonomic step backwards.

I share Needleman’s concession that for entertainment content, widescreens do work, making sense for plasma and LCD television displays and CinemaScope movie screens, noting that our eyes are side-by-side and having stories unfold in a way that more closely emulates how we see in real life provides a more satisfactory viewing experience.

Excessive Scrolling

However, for doing production work on a laptop display, the mode of seeing designed “to spot a herd of jackals approaching us over the plain becomes irrelevant,” as Rafe pithily puts it. So true. Most people’s computer work is conceptually oriented toward portrait mode, with wide-screen displays offering scant benefits and substantial drawbacks, a prima facie one being excessive scrolling.

As with books, magazines, newspapers, and correspondence, most web sites have a dominant vertical orientation, which is what works for text-based material, since lines of text longer than about 60 characters, become painfully cumbersome to read.

Side By Side

Aside from their suitability for watching video, the single mitigating aspect, so to speak, of wide-screen monitors is that they do facilitate juxtaposing two pages or applications side-by-side for more convenient comparison, but the fact is that I can display two Text-Edit Plus (the application in which I do most of my composing, drafting, editing, and markup) side by side on the 1024 x 768 4:3 ratio XGA monitor of the Pismo PowerBook I’m drafting this post on right now with just a sliver of overlap, and I wouldn’t even have that if I switched my OS X Dock to bottom rather than right-side orientation. Spreadsheets are  one work environment where widescreens arguably offer some advantages, but I’m not a spreadsheet user, and for my purposes I’ve had a longtime yearn for a portrait orientation display. I hasten to concede that a portrait display just wouldn’t work with the standard laptop computer form factor. Keyboards are horizontal, laptop screens have to close over them. But for an external display, portrait would be a nice option.

Veteran Mac users may recall that Apple at one time marketed the Apple Macintosh Portrait Display, a grayscale 640 x 870 resolution 15″ CRT unit, which was big stuff back in 1989 (and expensive – a whopping $1,049). I coveted one of these in my Mac early days, but the price was just too steep. A flatscreen Apple Portrait Cinema Display would be pretty cool, but I expect the price in 2009 dollars would probably be in the same nominal territory.

How about you? Widescreen fan, or would portrait view be a welcome display option?

25 Responses to “A Widescreen Skeptic’s Lament — Portrait View Anyone?”

  1. For Nunuvyer Bzniz
    I just wonder why you find it necessary to be so obnoxious and pointlessly rude in response to a reasonable comment on something of interest. Are you so lacking in confidence that you have to insult others in order to bolster yourself? Though I do love the droll screen name / handle / identifier whatever – how clever – I expect you’re the sort of person who, like me, enjoys the idea of writing in aLtErN8iNg leters and cant spell or punctate to [email protected]
    Toodle pip

  2. mentalrectangle

    Allister – widescreen sacrifices vertical space for horizontal space. There are times when you need more of one or more of the other.

    Notebooks seem to come in 1440×900, 1280×800, or 1365×768 these days. Compared to the 1600×1200, 1400×1050 and 1280×1024 screens they could also have, you’re not gaining that much horizontal space, but you are losing a lot of vertical space.

    And I think for laptops in that size range (10-15 inches), the non-widescreen displays make a lot of sense. You do work on those screens. If you’re playing games or watching movies, you probably have the laptop plugged into a desktop screen, which could be WUXGA or something along those lines.

  3. Richard


    Had? I still do. It’s still going strong. BTW, can the Apple Portrait Monitor be repaired? Mine doesn’t start up any more. It just sits there and clicks.

    Obviously I prefer portrait mode.

  4. Allister

    You’re completely missing the point! Do you think that NOT having a widescreen display means you will get more vertical pixels? Of course not. You seem to think there are a certain number of pixels available and Apple have to decide how to arrange them. That’s silly.

    By all means complain that you don’t have enough vertical pixels, but more horizontal pixels isn’t “wrong” for anyone. It’s more space!!

  5. Nunuvyer Bzniz

    Get a clue, whiner. If you use a laptop in a production environment without an external display, you are an idiot and won’t last long anyway. Simply get a VESA mount and an Ergotron Display arm and shut up. Apple includes portrait view in display prefs, if it’s so important to you.

  6. Fred Peterson

    One of the reason why apple went widescreen a long time before others is they understand the desktop metaphor as opposed the windows explorer system. Think about how you use a desk (a real one). Documents get opened and placed on it. If you are right handed as an example then you need space to put your tools so pens and pencils get put down on the right. Yes you could put them at the top but unless you have gorilla arms there is a limit.

    So in the electronic environment after opening a page(s) you need space on the right to put things down ie see the desk top. This can be reversed for lefties of course.

    How many desks do you see that are in portrait mode? In theory we should have enough room to flick pages from right to left rather than scroll up and down but not much software seems to be written that way.

  7. With my new external display, the Honeywell Arius 22″ widescreen, attached to my MacBook Pro (early 2008), I have the best of all possible worlds: tilt, swivel, height adjustment, and portrait mode. I prefer portrait when offline and working in Word and Excel. It keeps me focused on the task at hand in one vertical window. When surfing online, I prefer widescreen mode where I like having many windows open to switch back and forth quickly to accomplish my goals.

    It took me awhile to figure out how to set the Display Preferences for portrait. I think it’s correct now. On the MacBook Pro in Arrangement, the Arius is on the left and the MacBook Pro on the right. I dragged the menu bar to the Arius. I unchecked “Mirror Displays.” Then, I physically raised the Arius monitor to its maximum height and turned it to the left to portrait height. In its L22 Display Preferences, I changed Rotate to 270 degrees and the display was then set to its native 1050 x 1680.

    Other than the Apple Cinema Displays, this Arius is the best display I’ve ever owned. Text is incredibly sharp and color is stunning. It has a DVI and VGA port, fast response at 2ms for movies and games, a viewing angle of 176 horizontal and vertical, a built-in USB hub, mic, and web cam that works without drivers. (You can test it with the app “Video Viewer.”) It lists for $350 but can be found online for much less. Soyo manufactures it for Honeywell.

    Years ago we had the Radius portrait displays for the Mac. Now, with the Arius, we portrait lovers are back in business.

  8. I actually owned an Apple Portrait Display back in the day and loved being able to see a who page on the screen. I recently purchased two HP 2207 LCD monitors which I have attached to MacBook Pros. The 2207 rotates 90 degrees so that you can use it in portrait mode – and it only costs about $250. A whole lot less than the original Apple Portrait Display. You can also use both your MacBook’s screen and the 2207 at the same time – which gives you a whole lot of screen real estate to work with.

  9. SimpleLife

    About 2 years ago, I was a portrait layout fanatic. That’s what I have on my desk, two 20 inchers. I rarely use them now.

    I’m now converted to widescreen. It has nothing to do with entertainment. For me, I’m much more productive with widescreen. Easier to work with multiple windows.I don’t have to rely on Expose or Spaces as much. Easier with palettes. Easier to write and test my personal ergonomic/automation Applescripts. Easier when tweaking any type of preference pane. Easier when I’m doing file management and need multiple Finder windows open wide enough to see full file name, date modified, and file size.

    As Sky states, two page up display.

    For me ergonomically, it’s easier on my neck to not crane up and down, and instead just scroll with my finger: That’s what my Mighty Mouse scroll ball is for, and why I invest so much time cleaning it, so it won’t get clogged up (any scroll wheel mouse will do obviously); and that’s one reason Apple made the new trackpads so, so big.

    Many times, not always, my windows themselves are in portrait view, such as my browsers and PDF’s. My display is not my reading medium; it’s my working and productivity medium.

    Ultimately, it’s a preference issue like so many things. I’m just glad my preferences just happens to be in line with many things Apple decides on. Although, in the beginning when Apple makes changes such as with glossy screens or chiclet keyboards, I often resist. I’ve kinda learned to give new ways of doing things the benefit of the doubt nowadays.

    I don’t agree with the article at all, but it’s very nicely written and argued, and I’m sure it’s very relevant and important to many portrait format fan out there. Obviously, I like the last line of the article and that’s why I’m posting.

  10. Widescreen works with big monitors, e.g. 24″ or 30″, because it’s possible to display two full pages side-by-side. For smaller monitors I agree with the writer that 4:3 has some advantages in an office environment.

  11. Charles Moore

    Hi Simon;

    I agree on the point. I hate side-scrolling worse than I detest vertical scrolling worse than I destest vertical scrolling. However, I don’t find that a problematicl issue with the 4:3 aspect ratio of the screens on my older laptops.

    (Sidebar here: using a mouse with a scroll function that works sideways as well as up and down helps ease the pain. Right now I’m using a Targus for Mac Wireless Mouse with wheel-less optical scrolling that scrolls in four directions by brushng your fingertip across the optical sensor – very cool)


  12. I have to put in a vote for widescreen.

    2 big factors why:

    I have a screen that’s more than tall enough (24″ iMac), so I love having multiple full pages open at once without any overlap. On a notebook, I generally find more use in having multiple side-by-side windows than I find difficulty with any sort of scrolling. My 4:3 work laptop is worthless to work on without an additional monitor side-by-side with the docked laptop, but I am frequently working with spreadsheets and other relational databases that have mostly landscape-oriented windows.

    The 2nd reason widescreen works for me is that I do love the multimedia aspect. I got a 24″ iMac that now has more viewable area than my TV, and with an eyeTV hybrid and a $15 radio shack antenna, becomes an HD TV.

    All that said, I do have fond memories of the Page View display I had side-by-side with my old Mac IIse back in the day.

  13. In a more technical job widescreen rules, I don’t mean tech as in websites, code and and afterthought of design.

    I mean things like Matlab, LabView, MacSPICE and on windows MultiSim, MathCAD, Lassie etc.

    When circuits get big or you are analyzing 200 sets of MOSFET Id-Vgs curves you just can’t beat spreading out.

    Also as a side point, aren’t 90% of tool pallettes in the vertical diretion once you get past standard font and copy/paste? Surely when working in portrait mode you are left with very little “mid screen” landscape area? There’s nothing worse than having to scroll left to right and back again to edit pages/word docs

  14. I LOVE my 16:10 MBP. I just made the switch from PC’s and the extra height makes so much difference. I really don’t like the portrait view, I suppose because I see it as gaining width instead of losing height.

    I keep my firefox tabs on the side, not at the top. Works much better this way. and I often need to reference between my regular word processor and Final Draft, so being able to have them open side-by-side without any side scrolling in either window is awesome.

  15. MarceloR

    I’m a big fan of using my displays in portrait mode. There is one problem though, the rotated mode is not accelerated so things like scrolling a pdf that covers a good chunk of the page become very painful. For long I’ve searched for a desktop video card that provides hardware acceleration but have been unable to find a suitable one even though my search was not limited to a card that would run on a mac. It’s strange because in the past five years or so I’ve used TabletPC’s instead of laptops and for all of the machines I’ve had, they had very good performance in portrait mode as well as landscape mode.

  16. I have always been complaining about the increasing need for vertical space. Menus, title bars, toolbars (bookmark bars, status bars, etc), the dock, all consume more vertical space than horizontal. And monitor trends squeeze vertical space even further, leaving little space for content.

    It was nice back then when I could have 1600x1200px in my old 17″ CRT!

  17. Gazoobee

    Widescreen is good for me as long as it’s big enough to display a single standard page from top to bottom. I find it amusing that some of the sexiest netbooks like Sony’s are going with a super-short, super-wide ratio when portrait mode is what you really want when the screen is that size. These oh-so-sexy devices will seem instantly stupid when Apple comes out with it’s portrait oriented netbook.

    Just for giggles, the reason Apple goes with 16:10 instead of 16:9? It’s the Golden Ratio.

    I just *love* the fact that the whole world is 16:9 but that Apple has decided that the “right” ratio is 16:10 and sticks with it.

    It’s smart, it’s correct, it’s something that other manufacturers would never have even thought of, and it’s the stuff legends are made of. :-)

  18. Todd you shouldn’t need drivers for OSX, when you go into the display preference there’s a pulldown rotate menu with options for standard, 90°, 180°, 270°… from my understanding this isn’t monitor specific

  19. I’ve got a Gateway 20″ widescreen monitor that came with drivers for Windows that enables it to function in portrait view automatically when it’s rotated 90 degrees (no going into any setup screens required to switch, just turn the display). I wonder if anyone has drivers like that available for OS X.

  20. Well technically OSX supports display rotation. You just need an appropriate mount and you can use any cinema display in portrait mode… Obviously the Apple symbol won’t be on the bottom. I have a dual-monitor setup with one in portrait and one in landscape. There really are times where one is better than the other, especially with editing photos.