My monitor resolution problem – or is it a problem?

About three days ago, the computer monitor attached to my main desktop died. It had been giving trouble for several weeks by that point, with the backlight resolutely refusing to illuminate the screen unless it was left for several minutes with the power on in advance. Eventually, as this wait dragged on to almost an hour, my patience ran out. Fortunately, I had a spare monitor which I have occasionally used for my other desktops, including my Power Mac G5, so after some fumbling with wires, I had the backup monitor in place and ready to go.

I had some trepidation in using my backup monitor. The monitor which I had been using wasn’t exactly top of the line; at 17 inches and a maximum resolution of 1280×1024, it seemed distinctly dated by the standards of the widescreen 1920×1080 monitors which are now commonplace. The problem, as I saw it, was that the backup monitor is even older – a 15-inch screen with a maximum resolution of 1024×768. I was concerned – what would a modern operating system look like with such a low resolution? Would I experience problems with dialogue boxes, as I have with my netbook with a somewhat similar resolution?

It turns out that I needn’t have worried that much. I’m currently sitting in front of my backup monitor, and things are going fine. I hadn’t recognised that I used the extra resolution of my bigger monitor as little as I did, because most programs that I’ve used haven’t been overly inconvenienced by the lower resolution of this screen. OK, there are some advantages of a higher resolution that I’d like to get back to as soon as possible, like being able to fit multiple Emacs or terminal windows on one screen without overlap, but these are not so critical as to make my computer unusable.

Something that I have noticed, however, is that the ostensibly superficial difference in resolution between my backup monitor (1024×768) and my netbook monitor (1024×600) does actually have much more of a difference than that between my dead monitor and the one I am using right now. For some time, I have questioned the advantages of the extra horizontal pixels provided by widescreen monitors, particularly those with 16:9 aspect ratios, over the more limited horizontal space provided by a monitor with a 4:3 aspect ratio. I have rarely used a computer and wished for vastly more horizontal space; it is instead vertical space that is at a premium. While I recognise that you can rotate the screen display on many modern operating systems such that the vertical axis lines up with the longest side of the monitor, it still makes me wonder why exactly the horizontal axis is given such high priority.

I understand that some of it is to do with media consumption, including movies and television programs. Those aren’t, however, activities which take up most of my time on a computer. Most of my activities instead involve reading or writing things in one of many text formats – types of formats which benefit from substantially narrower viewing angles than watching movies or television programs. What’s more, coming back to the difference between my backup monitor and my netbook, the 1024×600 resolution of my netbook, along with its small screen size, provides limitations on using my netbook as a video consumption device anyway. The extra 168 vertical pixels per column would have come in very handy with my netbook, but instead, it’s lumbered with a 16:9 aspect ratio when it neither needs nor benefits from it.

Until my dead monitor gave up the ghost, I had considered holding off on buying a new monitor until 16:10 aspect ratios became more affordable. Unfortunately, this looks like it won’t ever happen; such monitors look like they have become decidedly niche devices. Instead, I will replace my monitor with a more affordable 16:9 monitor, but I still doubt that actually having a widescreen monitor will give me an incentive to find additional uses for the extra horizontal resolution.

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Evince and the Detriments of Oversimplification

Very recently, the newest version of Ubuntu, 13.10, was released and I, running Xubuntu on my netbook, upgraded to it. While, as with most software version updates, most of the programs which were upgraded either remained at a level with imperceptible differences or improved, one specific program which I use rather frequently was changed drastically.

The program in question was Evince, the GNOME-developed document reader for PDF, DjVu and other similar files. Clearly, somewhere between the last version of Evince that I had used on Xubuntu 13.04 and the new version on Xubuntu 13.10, somebody in the GNOME team decided that it would be a good idea to dramatically change the graphical interface. Away went the menus and, as far as I can tell, the ability to customise the icon bar and in its place was placed the sort of user interface familiar to users of Google Chrome, with minimalism the order of the day, a few icons across the top and a single menu button placed on the right-hand side of the screen rather than the left.

I’m not a fan. My very first post for this blog criticised Google Chrome for exactly the same reasons, but at least Chrome started out like that. Evince had a serviceable interface, if not exceptional by my standards, but the new changes are not at all to my taste. The context provided by the menus to the options contained within them has disappeared, the remaining menu options are placed on what I perceive to be the wrong side of the screen and the removal of the icon bar customisation options make it slower to do what I want.

At this point, some of you may be thinking that the way to get around the minimalism of the user interface is to learn the keyboard equivalents of the commands I want. To be fair, I have used some very minimalistic and very idiosyncratic programs, including the ed text editor and other programs with very little graphical indication of what is going on. On the other hand, PDF is by its nature a graphical medium and it would therefore fit to have a program which uses graphics extensively in its interface.

On my main desktop, I use openSUSE 12.3 with the KDE interface, and my document viewer in that operating system is therefore Okular, the KDE equivalent of Evince. While I understand that KDE’s heavyweight support of features over minimalism isn’t to everybody’s taste, Okular is one of the best PDF readers that I’ve used, with an interface that I can tool closer to my liking than many other document readers, with an accurate depiction of the typography of the page. (Compared to this, I am not impressed by the typographic depiction done by Evince; it appears on my netbook at least to align typefaces to pixel boundaries rather than subpixel boundaries, giving a very disappointing image with many misaligned fonts.)

I’d be inclined to use Okular on my netbook as well, if it wasn’t for the fact that to install Okular, you need to install the entire KDE desktop environment on your computer. There wouldn’t be much point in doing that without using KDE as the desktop environment – and on a netbook with an Intel Atom processor running at 1.6GHz, there isn’t much hope of it running quickly enough to satisfy my needs. This doesn’t leave me with many options – Adobe Reader and Foxit Reader are both too proprietary for my liking, Evince’s interface is poor and its font rendering is, at least in my experiences, shoddy, Okular requires an entire desktop environment to be installed and most other options are too obscure or too old to consider.

Perhaps the best step would be to move towards an even more minimalistic document reader in the guise of MuPDF; at least with this, the minimalism is to be expected and the keyboard shortcuts are therefore correspondingly more intuitive. All I can hope is that not everybody decides to go towards a Google Chrome-style interface – I’d rather use command-line programs all day long than have to deal with that sort of compromise.