Wide Scream

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/de/Aspect-ratio-4×3.svg https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Aspect-ratio-16×9.svg

It seems that nearly all computer monitors have now switched from a 4:3 aspect ratio popular several years ago to a "wide screen" 16:10 and now mostly to an even wider 16:9.

But screen sizes are usually measured by their diagonal length and those sizes have not changed. For example, before I had my Thinkpad X201, I had a X60 and a X35. They are similar laptops in the same product line with 12.1" screens. But 12.1" describes the size along the diagonal and the aspect ratio switched from 4:3 to 16:10 between the X60 and the X201. As the screen stretched out but maintained the same diagonal length, the area shrunk: from 453 square centimeters to 425.

But screens are not only getting smaller, they are also getting less useful. The switch to wider aspect ratios is done so that people can watch wide screen movies while using a larger proportion of their screens. Of course, the vast majority of people’s time on their laptops is not spent watching wide screen movies but in programs like browsers, word processors, and editors. Because most of our writing systems lay out documents from top to bottom, the tools we most frequently use to display (and then scroll through) the things we read primarily use vertical screen space — the dimension that is shrinking.

If you have a desktop monitor, you might rotate the whole thing 90 degrees and "solve" the problem. If you’re on a laptop though (as I usually am) this is clearly not an option.

I am not the first person to be annoyed by this trend. In fact, many recent desktop UI changes are designed to work around this issue. In the free software world, both Unity and GNOME 3 have made efforts to hide, merge, or otherwise get ride of title bars, menu bars, and panels that take up dwindling vertical space. I use Awesome which I’ve mostly set up to do two side-by-side terminals with very little in the way of menu bars.


Applications are the worst offenders and the solutions for those things that won’t run in a terminal (or people that don’t want to live there) are still lacking. I have been using Firefox’s Tree Style Tab extension to move tabs to the side and hand-customized toolbars that squeeze everything I need (i.e., back, forward, stop, refresh, and URL bar) onto a single menu bar.


But the situation still drives me crazy. I’d love to hear what others are doing.

25 Replies to “Wide Scream”

  1. Yes, the worst is for reading two-column pdfs like usenix papers.  I don’t have a good solution, just suck it up and scroll a whole lot.  With the netbook i guess rotating the display isn’t a bad idea.

  2. On the bright side, screens now have form factors closer to that of keyboards, which means we can have a more roomy keyboard on a small laptop than we used to.  My 12″ X220 has the same keyboard that my 14″ T42 had.

  3. If you changed the example svg illustration on top to have the same diagonal length it would better illustrate your point.
    How I cope with it: I try to make do with a really old laptop.

  4. I’m torn about this. On one hand, yes, vertical space is at a premium for reading stuff. Applications are generally horrible at conserving vertical space; I had to stop using Google Reader after their redesign as it ate too much vertical space to be useful. I love Ubuntu’s Unity desktop simply because the integrated menu bar gives me one or to extra vertical rows compared to other desktops.

    But on the other hand, a wide-screen laptop does give me enough horizontal space to edit and view two documents side by side. That is a huge boon to me. You can see your LaTeX file and the finished document and you can have two source files — or two views of the same file — side by side.

    And when I went to a wide-screen laptop I didn’t lose any vertical space. The new machine is the same model series as my older one. It is exactly as tall as the previous one, just wider. As Anon points out, I got a wider screen, larger battery and a much better keyboard without an increase in vertical size.

    I guess it depends on whether you see the trend as reducing your vertical space, or increasing your horizontal. Either way, this becomes like comparing film formats, where you simply can’t do a meaningful comparison based on a single number.

  5. I, too, use Awesome on an X2xx series Thinkpad. I rather enjoy the widescreen aspect ratio and in the past sought it out in Fujitsu Lifebooks.

    I sometimes read PDFs by physically rotating the whole laptop and holding it like a book, while rotating them on-screen. It’s a little cumbersome, but it’s plenty high-res. The only downside of this is if your screen has a poor viewing angle up/down.

    To help minimize Firefox/Iceweasel chrome, I use the LittleFox theme.

  6. On my X200s, I mainly use apps in full screen mode (browser, text editing, PDF). That’s a reason why I so much enjoy Unity and Gnome 3: by default they waste less pixels.

    When reading PDF, I sometimes rotate the latop on my lap.

    I’ve recently started using Emacs for writing, and I rather enjoy “M-x follow-mode” + “C-x 3”, wich makes the text flow in 2 buffers put side by side.

  7. Hello,

    May I ask why you keep such a “16:9 unfriendly” layout for you blog then ? ;-)

    This kind of layout where the main part does not get stretched on browser resize drives me crazy….


  8. I do not feel that bad about wide screens. I think they are more appropriate to our vision, since we are probably naturally more used to look sideways than up and down. This is probably why movies use larger screens.

    Also, for desk computer use, I think these wide screens are very appropriate for tiled window management.

  9. Well, I’m still using my nearly 6 year old laptop. 1920×1200 at 16:10…

    But like you, I’ve switched to awesome wm, and use loads of terminal applications.

    So at least the machine flies. To take advantage of tiling further, been using uzbl browser sans tabs.

    So if I switch to a 16:9 display, I’ll be ready to get the most out of the vertical space… :)

  10. Vertical panels.

    I use a vertical panel ~180px wide. That allows me to have well over a dozen windows open on a desktop, all with their icon and the first few words of the window title visible, allowing really easy window management. And I’ve still got room to have a couple of not-too-narrow windows open side-by-side in the remainder of the (1680px wide) screen, or a decent sized window with room round the edges so I can keep an eye on my desktop widgets.

  11. Excellent post, I agree fully. I’ll be sure to share this onwards. :) On the other hand, the point Anonymous made about wider keyboards on laptops is also good.

    What I do with my firefox is use this: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/prospector-lessChrome-HD/

    It automatically hides the navigation bar so you can see more of the web page. You can always bring it back up with your mouse or ctrl + L.

    Finally, as a response to E. Charlier/Etienne: Stretched text is horribly unreadable. There is a reason why you wont’t find a single newspaper or magazine that doesn’t have text columns.

  12. I’ve been using 14″ Dell laptops with a 16:10 aspect ratio since 2005
    without minding the vertical dimension (in fact, I like these models
    better than the 15″ “square” Dell laptops).

    I think my main tricks are:

    * Focus-follows-mouse to overlap multiple large windows on a small desktop
    * Super-LMB bound to “move window” to allow windows with a larger vertical
      dimension than the screen
    * Global key-bindings for programs that I don’t need to look at (e.g., Amarok)
    * A yellow pad or notepad so that I don’t have to do all of my thinking
      on the screen

    It may help that I spent my formative years on 80×25 character terminals.

    And, because I can never pass up the opportunity for a desktop tour,
    here’s the tl;dr notes on the windows that I usually have open:

    (all dimensions are width x height)

    Dell Latitude D630 14″ “widescreen” @ 1280×800

    KDE 4 (Kubuntu Lucid) with single panel @ top of screen ~30pixels high
    (leaving 1280×770),Amarok (or Quod Libet) in system tray and bound to super keys

    6 virtual desktops, 3×2


    super-LMB bound to “move window”

    alt-f2 for program launch

    Paper and pen — this is where I do all my “vertical” outlining of flow charts,
      query strategies, math, etc.

    Main desktop (top left):
      Emacs: 80 characters wide, no icons, no menu bar
      –> 800×700 main buffer, 20 pixel command buffer
      Konsole ~1250x280pixels (~179×18 characters), tab titles on top

      Recently, I’ve been adding an IPython Qt-console, toggling between
      the same size as Konsole & full screen mode.

    Single-desktop maximized windows:
      Firefox: menu, status, and location bars, leaving 1280×640 canvas
      Resized to ~100 characters wide for text-heavy pages

      Konqueror: mostly for tabbed-pdf browsing
      1260×630 main window with lots of horizontal/vertical frame splitting
      for reading papers (e.g., simultaneous views of text, figure, and refs)
      or comparing pdf plots from R.

      Cytoscape / JALVIEW: These are the most annoying since they tend to have
      lots of sub-windows confined to a single app window (so they don’t get
      ideal focus-follows-mouse behavior, and they can’t be spread across
      multiple desktops)

    Multi-desktop workflows:
      Comic drawing:
      Inkscape — duplicate maximized windows on two desktops
      (one zoomed to current detail on current layer
      one zoomed to full page with easy access to brushes layer)
      Additional Inkscape window on its own desktop for reference pages

      Full screen with menu, tool controls, palette, and status bar
      gives ~1270×700 canvas (depending on tool)
      Maximized gives ~1270×640 and makes avoids a graphics glitch

      Comix — full screen on its own desktop, for viewing multipage renders
      in double page mode
      (“git commit” and rendering via “make all” happen on the main
      Emacs/Konsole desktop)
      KColorEdit on top of reference images as needed for palette tweaking

      JACK-based recording:
      Ardour maximized on “recording” desktop
      Rackarack as two windows + vkeybd on “playing” desktop
      QJackctl, QSynth, Fmit, and Kmixer on “control” desktop
      Hydrogen on its own desktop
      Lilypond rendered sheet music on the Konqueror desktop
      Recording notes, lilypond editing, and command-line JACK tools on
      the Emacs/Konsole desktop

  13. In the office, I used to use a 1050×1680 (inverted 22″) screen. I don’t really understand why people say horizontal screens are “better for you”; if you write a letter you don’t turn the paper horizontally do you?

    Now, I either use my 14″ laptop screen or a 24″ at home. On the smaller screen the space wasted in IDEs by putting messages at the bottom of the screen is really annoying (don’t most IDEs seem to be designed to waste as much screen space as possible)?

    Task-bars are easy to deal with (in KDE) though: I have a bottom auto-hide bar and a tiny overlay bar at the top showing just time, CPU/mem stats and battery charge. Placed in the right position this usually doesn’t hide any important parts of the app.

  14. I generally share your feelings about wide screens, but I managed to minimize harm using Vimperator (Firefox addon) and XMonad (tiling WM). Those sites that doesn’t limit theirs width frustrate me a little, but I can change their appearance easily using Vimperator’s builtin styling (which is basically just overriding CSS).

    As for terminal apps (and that is what I use most), two-pane tiling is a good solution. And when it isn’t applicable (i.e. when there’s just a single window) I use AlmostFull layout which centers a window and limits its width to some bearable value.

  15. Assuming two rectangles, if they have the same diagonal length, they should also have the same area:

    (c = diagonal, a=l, b=w)

    a^2 + b^2 = c^2
    4^2 + 3^2 = 5^2
    2.25^2 + 5.33^2 ~= 5^2

    l * w = A
    4 * 3 = 12
    2.25 * 5.33 = 12

    (not that it matters, but 5.33:2.25 is, more or less, 16:9)

  16. Ben: Let me see if I can explain.

    4:3 is the ratio given a particular known diagonal, not the actually lengths of the height and width. You have to constrain the h and l based on the ratio (or by its reciprocal), but you can’t just use the values of the ratio as the height and width or the length of your diagonal will change!

    To get the area, height, and width given a ratio (r) and given a diagonal (d), you will use the following equations:

    A = d^2 / (r + 1/r)
    h = d / sqrt(r^2 + 1)
    l = d / sqrt(1/(r^2) + 1)

    Think of the extreme cases to understand why this is the case. Imagine a screen which is one pixel tall and 12.1″ across. It’s “diagonal” is 12.1″ (or just barely more than that) and it’s area is going to be 12.1″ * (height of 1px) which will probably be pretty close to zero! It should be obvious that a square with the same 12.1″ diagonal has a much larger area. The area will move from 0 to that maximum value as the aspect ratio increases from 1 (1:1) to infinity.

  17. btw, the wide screens are not pushed for watching video, but because it seems to be massively cheaper to fabricate 2N 16:9 panels instead of N 16:9 TV-panels and N 4:3 PC-panels.

  18. Actually, many modern (sub-)notebook screens have a resolution of 1280×720 (“HD-Ready”), which vertically is even less then our old-fashioned x40/x60.
    I’m suprised that noone brought fonts and font size into discussion. As a former Ubuntu user, i was used to having oversized fonts everywhere, even in the terminal. Esepecially DejaVu becomes unreadable and “blurry” if chosen too small. I recently switched to terminus and fixed, which offer incredible readability even at very small sizes, both a my laptop, and at my 1920×1200 24″ monitor, with quite some distance between me and the monitor.

  19. Try Pentadactyl for Firefox.  It lets you use vim-ish keybindings, and reduces the UI to a single, small bar at the bottom of the screen.  It makes even 1024×600 mildly usable.

  20. Well, one possible advantage of widescreens is that you can write really long pipes without a line break.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *