Screen Size Matters—More is Better!


by Mike Elliott

Two months ago, I started covering the topic of monitor screen size and the relationship to the less understood but equally important element, resolution. As I attempted to point out, it’s the resolution combined with the screen size that determines how much content and detail you can view at one time on your computer monitor—something often referred to as “desktop real estate.” If you think about this in terms of a physical desk, the larger the desk, the more space (or real estate) you have to place your work. The difference is that when your desktop is digital (on the computer), everything is scalable—an 8½ x 11” piece of paper can be represented in perfect clarity at ½ the actual size with a monitor of sufficient resolution.

Take a look at the photo below of 2 nearly identical notebook computers but with different screen sizes and resolutions. The one on the left is a 15.4” diagonal screen…that is, if you measured from one corner of the visible screen to the opposite corner, it would be 15.4 inches. The resolution on that system is 1920 x 1200 (horizontal pixels/lines by vertical pixels/lines), while the resolution of the 14.1” diagonal screen on the system to the right is 1440 x 900.


You can see that when viewing the exact same spreadsheet at the exact same zoom level, you can see a good bit more of the large spreadsheet on the system to the left. That’s what greater resolution does for you. Note: that if you had two radically different-sized monitors but both running at the same resolution showing the same spreadsheet, you’d have identical amounts of screen real estate—that is you’d see the same parts of the spreadsheet on both systems. You could probably back away from the larger monitor and still see the content well, but it would look a good bit more grainy close in.

So let’s assume you’re buying a new computer (if you’re not—don’t leave me yet—there’s still a solution for existing systems). We’ve looked at many of the other components in past issues, but what would you look for when selecting a monitor? It’s not a decision to be made lightly since this is arguably the one component you’ll interact with the most. I suggest you think of these factors in this order: 1) your visual ability, 2) planned use, and finally 3) affordability, or your budget.

Visual ability refers to your ability to discern finer details on smaller objects. I’m blessed with reasonably decent eyesight (although I must wear glasses) and I pick up on very fine details in images and even text and font renderings on the computer. However, not everyone is the same. For instance, take my mom. She’s had to manage with sub-par eyesight from an early age. She’s done remarkably well with what she has, but where a very high-resolution 16” laptop monitor might work fine for me, she wouldn’t be able to read a thing on it. Text would be much too small, and the extremely fine detail of images would be wasted on her—her decreased visual ability would require a compromise right off the bat. We’d either want to go with a much larger monitor at the same resolution or we’d pick something with far lower resolution while keeping the larger screen. In a shared-use environment where one person has better eyesight than another user, there’s always the option to lower the resolution in software, but this often leaves scaling artifacts on LCD screens that distract folks like me (most people call that being “picky,” but I believe I’m just more “detail oriented” than most).

Truth be told, I see a lot of computers being used at resolutions lower than “ideal,” but the owners simply prefer the view that’s easier on their eyes. I can guarantee it wouldn’t bother my mom who simply can’t pick out those details.

Before leaving this topic, there’s also zooming, which is supported in most operating systems and applications these days. For instance, if I’m trying to show my mom a spreadsheet on my monitor, I would probably just use the zoom feature in the application to make the part I want to show her bigger and readable (typically by holding the Control key down while scrolling the mouse wheel—up to zoom in and down to zoom out—this even works for desktop icons in Windows Vista).

Planned use alludes to considerations for what applications will be run on the computer and how they’ll be used. If the primary use will be writing a novel with a simple word processor—and if you’re most comfortable with an old-school dictionary and thesaurus by your side—then you’ll probably be fine with a 17” monitor running at 1024 x 768, which is also referred to as XGA resolution (more on that in a minute). If, on the other hand, you use several computer-based or online reference tools while you’re writing, you’ll want more screen real estate to allow simultaneous viewing of your word processor as well as the reference sources. If you’re sketching out the architecture and dimensions for a room addition to your house and you’re using a drawing program, you’ll want even more. If you’re designing commercial airliners in a sophisticated CAD system or need multiple windows open for software development tools, you may have still greater requirements for available space on the screen in which to “spread out your work” and see the big picture.

Budget is what it is. Most of us will have to compromise on one component or another to maximize the effectiveness of a system for our particular purposes while avoiding an argument with the finance committee (my wife holds all the seats on the one in my house). But if there’s a place in the budget to “fudgit,” it’s on the display.

Resolution Acronyms vs. Measurements

In the early days of computer graphics, it was pretty easy to keep up with the options for monitor resolutions. There was VGA (640 x 480 pixels), SVGA (800 x 600) pixels, and XGA (as mentioned earlier). As graphics adapter processor and technology have become more sophisticated, along with LCD manufacturing capabilities, we’ve seen an explosion of resolution possibilities, and the applications to take advantage of it. For instance, HDTV broadcasts at the higher 1080p level requires a display resolution of 1920 x 1080 to show the full details properly. Most computer monitors at this level have 1920 x 1200 resolutions for various reasons, but the benefit to you is that 120 pixels of space exist above or below a movie, which is perfect for your icon dock bar and for an array of video controls.

If you’re interested in seeing how many pixels make up one window or another, download a trial or freeware version of Screen Calipers (available for Windows and Mac—search Google). To get a fantastic rundown on all relevant computer display standards, check out the Wikipedia page at which covers every standard from the beginning of time.

Due to space and time limits, I’ve had to abandon discussions on Aspect Ratio, pixel density (Dots Per Inch or DPI), and font rendering. I know you’re probably upset. If you have follow-up questions on these topics or anything regarding display resolution, please let me know. Next time I’ll dive into the best option to extend your digital desktop using multiple monitors—yes, there’s still very compelling ways to enhance what you’ve got without throwing out your old smaller monitor!

Send your feedback and suggestions to [email protected] And thank you for reading Information Upgrade in the Crozet Gazette!