Life in 1080p

Posted: 2023-08-12

I recently got a smaller computer screen. It’s actually not that small, it’s 27", but the resolution is modest compared to what is available. And in short, it’s fantastic. It’s not an expensive screen, it’s not a fancy screen; but it’s comparatively a small screen.

For a few years I was using a 34" ultra-wide monitor, which has been causing me nothing but grief. It’s sort of crept up on me that so many small annoyances in my computer-use all originated from using this screen. I want to elaborate on what’s been chafing. I want to be explicit that these are my experiences as someone who primarily uses a computer screen for programming. If you’re using your computer for something else, your experiences may differ.

First is a parenthetical Linux complaint, but Linux’ support for HiDPI is awful. I’ve been using Linux for well over 20 years, since the heydays of XFree86; I’ve had to modify the kernel to get barely functioning drivers to work with my particular device. Nothing I have ever come across on this operating system has been close to as janky as HiDPI support in 2023. Fractional scaling is a complete deal breaker with these screens, and I only got it to work consistently in like 70% of the applications I wanted to run. Don’t even get me started on setting a sane resolution for the frame buffer.

Since this is more of an indictment against the Linux ecosystem and not large screens, from this point I’m assuming you somehow got it to working tolerably well as I eventually did. Mostly.

If you get a very large screen with the notion that you’ll be able to have more stuff on screen and be more productive from not having to alt-tab as much, that hasn’t really been my experience. At best I ended up having more distractions on screen. Email clients, web browsers, that sort of thing. Yeah I have five digit Hacker News karma but that’s a somewhat questionable badge of honor. I also ended up having a bunch of tabs and junk open in my IDE that I wasn’t actually ever using because I had no reason to close them amounting to nothing more than visual clutter.

It’s been my hypothesis for a while that the supposed decrease in attention spans that has been widely reported is actually an increase in the amount of distractions. Thus, to safeguard the ability to concentrate, distractions ought to be removed as far as is possible. It’s been a bit of a personal mission of mine for a while to explore non-distracting design, as demonstrated with the Marginalia Encyclopedia, which is deliberately laid out like a print book and does away with inline links and images.

The reality is that most applications aren’t designed to make use of a physically large screen, especially not with a weird aspect ratio. Most desktop environments aren’t dealing well either. This means that you constantly end up either only using a small area of the screen, or having important information in your peripheral vision. Every application becomes harder to navigate in the latter case. Embrace the frustration of “uuuuhh where’s the button to do this again,” as you’ll be feeling it a lot as actually scanning through such a large screen takes a good while.

For everyone who isn’t a horse, an ultrawide monitor will push screen space into the peripheral vision, and screen space that is in your peripheral vision as it turns out, is not all that useful. Turning your head to view stuff at an awkward angle of your screen isn’t that much better than alt-tabbing something into a good viewing angle.

Even if you’re using software that makes good use of the screen, your mouse accuracy will be worse. Whatever is a comfortable range of mouse movement for pointing on a small screen will need to index many more pixels on a large screens. The inevitable result is reduced mouse precision. With a smaller resolution it’s fairly achievable to move your mouse to any given pixel at will. With a higher resolution, you’re lucky if you arrive within ten pixels of your intended goal.

I’ve used multi-monitor setups in the past. I mean it works, but I do think having downsized the actual benefit maybe wasn’t as great as I was imagining at the time. There was a cool-factor to having many screens though, I think that’s primarily what roped me in. I didn’t think to ask if I needed it.

It’s strange though. I’ve been productive on a 14" CRT that had a postage stamp resolution of 800x600. I made due with that and it worked pretty well. I’m not sure if physical size and pixel count is what matters though, not as much as the ergonomics of field of view and mouse accuracy. Pixel count and resolution aren’t irrelevant, don’t get me wrong, but I’m very much enjoying the focus granted by having a single screen that doesn’t fit all too many windows.