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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