Are Your Users Getting All They Can from High Screen Resolutions?

Apparently not, according to an informal survey

Recently, I've been using several applications, primarily little system utilities, that have an annoying feature in common: Each wants to run at a specific screen resolution—and a fairly low resolution at that. I broached the topic of screen resolution in a commentary for Windows & .NET Magazine's Windows Client UPDATE, a weekly electronic newsletter that focuses on administering client systems. Much to my surprise, I received hundreds of reader responses. Although I wouldn't have thought so, confusion about how best to make use of high screen resolutions is a problem that IT administrators and developers must deal with on a regular basis.

My fundamental premise is this: Although the Windows platform has included high-resolution capabilities for some time, few users take advantage of, or even understand, those capabilities. And many applications won't display correctly at resolutions higher than 1280 * 1024. I began running my desktop systems at a resolution of at least 1600 * 1200 * 24-bit with the release of Windows NT 3.51. Currently, I use two computers on my desk every day; one runs at 1920 * 1440 * 32-bit on a 20" monitor, and the other runs at 1600 * 1200 * 32-bit on a 19" monitor. Both computers use NVIDIA GeForce4 Ti 4400—based display adapters that are capable of even higher resolutions, but the resolutions I've chosen are the highest that I can comfortably work with day in and day out. These resolutions make my computing experience more productive. For example, I can open documents side by side in full-page views or keep a Web site open and in view when I'm conducting research.

To help put my choices in context: I'm 45 years old, just got my first pair of bifocals, work at an arm's-length distance from the monitors, and spend 10 to 12 hours a day in front of my computers. To increase the usability of the display resolution, I use an OS feature in the Control Panel Display Properties applet that lets me change the default font size. The two standard settings in Windows are Normal, at 96 dpi, and Large, at 120 dpi. I set my font sizes to Large. Windows also offers a custom setting in the Display Properties applet that gives you the option to scale the system fonts from 75 percent to 200 percent of Normal. Given the problems that setting fonts to Large can cause with most third-party applications, I'd be amazed if anyone can make use of custom font size selection on a daily basis.

My Rants
I have three complaints about the way application developers and vendors preclude user choice of screen resolution. My first complaint is that most applications fail to properly support the Windows Large font feature. The most noticeable manifestation of this problem occurs when an application opens a dialog box and the text no longer fits in the developer's target window. And in fixed-size windows, users have to guess what the text says. Even worse is when a window includes function buttons or check boxes and you need to tab around the window and hope you're clicking the appropriate button.

My second complaint is about the ubiquitous presence of small fonts on Web sites. Web developers who want to cram as much information as possible into a single page and use tiny fonts to do so evidently don't realize that viewing the site in resolutions higher than 800 * 600 make the site virtually useless. Even worse is when Web developers decide that their work must be viewed exactly as written and fix the fonts so that viewers can't change the font size. I guarantee that I won't read something that looks like a 2-point font on my screen, no matter how interested I am in the site's contents.

My third complaint is about applications that use display windows that users can't resize. These development practices always presume that viewing will take place on a low-resolution screen, and I find it irksome when a new, expensive application can't take advantage of the screen real estate I've gone to some trouble to make available.

An IT Perspective
The questions I posed to Windows Client UPDATE readers were, What screen resolutions do you use, and What problems do you see? The answers I received are interesting.

One of the most common responses was from IT pros who have undertaken complete upgrades of their environment's desktop systems and faced significant opposition from users when moving from 640 * 480 resolution to 800 * 600 on 17" monitors. Most of the complaints occurred during the planning process; few users seemed to notice a difference when their screen resolutions increased, and I presume they attributed any difference they could detect to the OS upgrade that accompanied the new hardware.

Overall, 800 * 600 seems to be the screen resolution of choice for corporate users. Many respondents made the telling point that their users simply left their screen resolution at whatever the vendor delivered to their desk. Most of these respondents stated that if they quietly made resolution changes to individual user desktops (usually from 800 * 600 to 1024 * 768), users rarely reacted, most likely because they didn't notice.

Responding readers whose job responsibilities were developer oriented almost always run their own PCs at resolutions of at least 1280 * 1024. Most respondents overall stated that 1600 * 1200 was the highest resolution that their monitors would support; otherwise, they'd be happy to go higher. Many respondents sang the praises of multimonitor setups, with virtual desktops spread across two high-resolution displays. Some use two low-resolution monitors, running 1024 * 768 displays on each because their budget won't support the cost of dual high-resolution monitors and there are plenty of 15" monitors sitting unused in the office.

Dual-monitor use is popular among users with desktop replacement notebooks, probably because the new notebooks with Windows XP support the use of an external monitor in addition to the built-in LCD. Notebook users are very happy with high-end LCD panels that support 1400 * 1050 and 1600 * 1200 screen resolutions.

A couple of readers pointed out that most shops spend computer upgrade money in the wrong places. These readers said that when they purchase high-end monitors (rather than bells and whistles) for PCs, the monitors survive two or three upgrade cycles, saving on costs in the long run. Better monitors also mean that users can run at higher resolutions without experiencing flickering screens or fuzzy fonts.

Many users in the 800 * 600 crowd are in the process of being locked into that resolution for the foreseeable future because their employers are purchasing fixed-resolution LCD panels, despite objections from the IT department. A 15" 800 * 600—only LCD display is significantly cheaper than a good multimode monitor. The saddest comment I received was from an IT professional whose company mandated 21" monitors for all of its desktop systems. He related the painful tale of discovering that almost every one of his users continued to run their display at 800 * 600, despite how huge that makes type appear on a 21" monitor.

Entering the Twenty-First Century
Microsoft has done a fairly good job of developing the Windows OS to support high resolution and a clean display system. Windows offers many configuration options and features, such as ClearType and the Magnifier tool, which lets you make anything on the screen look bigger. But we still have a long way to go before users and many vendors leave the 1980s and learn to take full advantage of the benefits that high screen resolutions provide.

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