A Widescreen Skeptic’s Lament — Portrait View Anyone?

I was pleased that Apple 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?


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