The Sideways State of Screens

In the late 90’s and early 2000s, DVDs took off. DVDs, the successor to the CD in the same physical dimensions and capable of holding many more gigabytes of data, soon became commonplace and expected. Every computer started shipping with a DVD-rom drive. At the same time, operating systems started to support DVD playback. To match this, computer monitors started shipping in widescreen to support video at native dimensions. Today, every laptop, desktop, and external monitor is in landscape orientation.

And it’s absolutely terrible.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that 98% of what anyone and everyone does on a screen consists of two things: reading and writing. I watch movies and TV shows on my laptop fairly often, but it nowhere near matches the time that I’m working with documents, reading, or writing. And for working with documents and reading, a taller screen is far, far better.

Look at the iPhone. All models up to the iPhone 5 had a 3.5 diagonal screen. The 5 increased this to a 4 inch screen by adding rows of pixels at the top and bottom. This means more content on screen and less scrolling down lists. I honestly think that computer screens should be re-worked in that way to significantly boost productivity and reduce scrolling.

At my office, I have access to a perfectly square screen, and I absolutely love it.

Here’s what’s available on my widescreen 13.3-inch MacBook:

This is a view that I and many others are accustomed to on their laptop screens.

This is a view that I and many others are accustomed to on their laptop screens.

Compare that to the use of the square external screen in iTunes:

Notice the big difference on usable space: there's more vertical space, and no horizontal space sacrificed.

Notice the big difference on usable space: there’s more vertical space, and no horizontal space sacrificed.

That added space is real. That’s useful. That’s awesome. I use iTunes constantly—not just every once in a while. There are 10 more useful rows of content there, and no need to scroll (notice the lack of scrollbar, compared to the first photo). iTunes isn’t the only application that benefits here. Word Processors, browsers, anything that requires you to scroll (which, I’ll bet, is 95%+ of the applications you use) benefits.

I lament that computer manufacturers moved away from screens with a 1:1 or smaller ratio. I would personally love either a 1:1 screen or something akin to 9:16 that rotated depending on the kind of content that was shown, not unlike our current phones.

I say write all of this to say, if you’re in the market for an external screen, or you get the opportunity to work on a square screen, don’t be afraid. It is conducive to a more productive environment, and allows you to see a lot more of content that you work with all the time, as opposed to video sometimes. Your scrolling hand will thank you.

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