Computer monitors used to be a 4x3 aspect ratio across the board, and when widescreen technology became all the craze we jumped to 16x9 to match HDTVs. As computer screen and TV technology started to merge, manufacturers seem to have settled on a weird 16x10 aspect ratio.
So what's the big deal about the widescreen aspect ratio, and why does every manufacturer insist on sticking with it? We run through several computer use cases in a battle of widescreen vs. vertical to see who the winner really is (or should be), starting with probably the single most time consuming thing we do on our computers,
wasting time browsing the web.
Having run a web design firm for the past 10 years, one of the things we pay careful attention to is the amount of real estate we have available. We want our websites to show up well on everyone's computer, and screen resolution is something we have to carefully consider. We've very slowly inched up the maximum dimensions of websites that we create, but believe it or not we're only now starting to use 1024x768 as a baseline. Taking into account user variables such as scrollbars and toolbars, we actually design for something just shy of 1000x700. That's a miniscule amount of space to work with before content starts to be deemed "below the fold" - where the user has to start to scroll to see more content. While users are extremely hesitant to scroll left and right, vertical scrolling is slightly more acceptable, and generally considered the norm for websites.
Since websites are designed for the lowest common denominator in this sense, let's consider websites designed to fit within a 1024x768 screen. Using our very own Unplggd as an example, it's designed at a snug 1017 pixels wide. In the following screen cap, on my own expansive 1920x1200 screen, you can see that the space on the sides is completely wasted, and we can see one visible article and an ad space.
Now take a look at Unplggd with the orientation flipped to portrait view at 1200x1920. We can see two articles and an ad, with a second ad peeking through. Much, much better!
Watching Movies, TV, Widescreen Videos and Photos
Ok, so we get a screen that's formatted closer to modern HDTV content, widescreen movies to match the cinema experience. But let's face it, how is sitting hunched up at your desk watching your computer monitor anything close to an "experience." Eeven with a large monitor (23", 24", 27", 30" or what have you), that's still puny compared to the TV you have in your living room. Many of us consider 32" or even 42" small for the living room. Plus we get to sit on our comfy couch and relax.
For photos and videos such as those from YouTube, we're all generally viewing them in tiny reduced formats as part of a website anyway, so unless we're busting out with the full screen view, the content isn't always going to require your full screen resolution anyway.
Winner: Widescreen, but really why are you watching content on your tiny computer monitor?
Word Processing and Spreadsheets
One of the arguments for widescreen monitors has always been the ability to have two documents open at one time. Admittedly, we don't edit very many documents, and when we do we're working on them one at a time. So there's probably a use case out there that this comes in handy for. Plus, spreadsheets work great for the widescreen format.
So the score's 1 to 2 in the battle of vertical versus widescreen. There are tons more use cases such as specific software, games, of course, so your mileage may vary. We guess widescreen still has its place, and that's why manufacturers keep making them the way they do. But with most our computer use focused around the web, it really does start to make sense to go vertical.
So what's a guy to do? How about dual monitors - one vertical, one widescreen? :)
More on aspect ratios and vertical monitors at Unplggd: