Screen size, ratio and focus

Posted by Chris Rosser on Wed 24 May 2017
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The first three laptops I owned all shared one thing in common: a 12 inch screen with an aspect ratio of 3:2. This almost-square shape was the aspect ratio of televisions and CRT desktop monitors for decades. Widescreen, for a long time, was the preserve of cinema and film. This changed in the early years of this century. TVs -- and TV shows -- got wider and bigger thanks to advances in LCD technology. Consumers with growing collections of DVD box sets were more than happy to buy them for the compelling slice of living-room cinema the experience offered.

My first widescreen laptop was a 2007 black MacBook with a 13.3 inch screen at 1280x800 resolution. I'll admit the difference in display felt strange. The wider display made it great for watching films and TV episodes with my wife in bed. The additional horizontal space made it easier to position two application windows side-by-side. I appreciate the shift...for some things at least. Today, when I sit at a desktop, more is better: more screens and more pixels equals better multitasking--at least in my day job.

Writing in widescreen felt...odd for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. It's been almost 10 years since transitioning to widescreen and I've spent more time in 16:9/10 than I did in 3:2. But those years before 2007 were no less important; they were my formative years as a writer. I wrote my first stories and all my undergraduate essays on a 800x600 screen.

That's our goal as writers--to reach that almost meditative Zen state...

Writing, particularly writing fiction, demands focus and attention. My mother-in-law once noted that watching me write made her believe I was channelling (she's rather Bohemian, I'll admit). In some respects she was right. That's our goal as writers--to reach that almost meditative Zen state where words and story move from our subconscious to the page. Getting into that state can be difficult and distraction is the enemy of focus.

The quest for focus is the reason why many writers love so-called distraction free editors or modes. These offer a graphical interface that is minimal to an extreme. Scrivener has one; Ulysses is one.

4:3 feels closer to paper pages and books

To this day, I still prefer drafting in the 4:3 aspect ratio; either because of my early years or perhaps because 4:3 feels closer to paper pages and books. Thankfully, Scrivener's distraction free mode allows me to adjust the text frame's size and border. I can set nice fat black margins, adjust the text and create a canvas to suit my needs. Scrivener and macOS is great for that...

...but the iPad, is already like that. Released in 2010, it bucked the trend of widescreen displays. Its shape and aspect ratio has more in common with those early laptops and CRT monitors than our modern laptops. That's were early Android tablets with their 16:9 1080p displays cocked up. My first tablet, the Nexus 7 was only good for watching movies--it never felt like a productive device to me. Google, Microsoft and Samsung have learnt their lesson at last, but it's too late to tempt me to shift platforms.

The iPad, unlike my MacBook Air or my 1080p desktop monitor, doesn't need tweaking to offer the Zen-like simplicity I need to zone out. iOS apps already default to full screen. There's no visible docks, file menus or other windows cluttering up the display. The default editor on Scrivener for iOS already feels like its desktop counterpart's distraction free mode. I open the scene I'm writing, switch on my keyboard and the UI melts away.

It's got me thinking that a larger iPad pro coupled with a keyboard would be pretty damned close to the perfect, portable writing studio--at least for drafting (editing is another matter). Is Apple's iPad, with all its shortcomings as a general-purpose computer, actually the ideal typewriter for our busy, distraction filled digital world?

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