Why portrait-orientation monitors are best

by Laurie Anstis on November 8, 2011

Most of my working day is spent working at a computer and looking at a computer monitor.

In the past, the standard computer monitor was a bulky 15″ CRT model. These days, flat screen LCD monitors have become the norm.

Along with that, there has been a trend away from the standard 4:3 display ratio to “wide screen” 16:9 or 16:10 displays. The trend towards wide screen monitors has been driven by their use for video viewing, and video or photo editing, where the wider display ratio works. The three things I can be sure that I am never going to do with my work computer are video viewing and video or photo editing.

In common with most office workers, I use my monitor to work on virtual documents. These will be emails or documents which are either actually going to end up printed out on A4 paper, or which are supposed to replicate paper in some way – such as an email, with its envelope icon mimicking the ordinary post.

These documents are almost always read in portrait format – with the height being greater than the width. There is a reason for this. Short lines are easier to read, a principle which finds its ultimate expression in the traditional newspaper column, where each line is about five centimeters wide, rather than stretching the full width of the newspaper.

The best way of working on such a document is to have a monitor that is also in portrait format – that way you can fit more of your document on the screen at once, while still keeping the width of the lines readable. This is particularly useful for lawyers, who may well need to cross-refer things like clause numbers from later or earlier on in a page of the document.

The worst way of working on such a document is on a wide screen in landscape format. A typical 15″ standard ratio monitor would have a width of 1024 and a height of 768 pixels. A typical 17″ wide screen monitor would have 1440 x 900 pixels. It is 40% wider but only 17% taller. If you stretch the document out to fill the whole width of the screen you will see less of the document than you would with the smaller regular monitor. If you leave the document the same width as it was, what is the point in having all the extra screen space?

The answer to this is to have a standard monitor that you use in portrait orientation. This will give you plenty of width, and in portrait orientation will display far more of your document at once.

Large monitors that can manage portrait orientation are not easy to come by. I use a Dell 2007FP, which is a 20″ standard ratio monitor capable of being used in landscape or portrait orientation. In portrait orientation it manages 1200 x 1600 pixels, which is plenty enough for an A4 document comfortably to be displayed, read and worked on a full page at a time. It cost around £200 in a clearance sale a few months ago, and has been well worth the money.

This kind of set-up is much better for web browsing too. If you have a widescreen monitor, visit something like the BBC News website and see how much of the sides of the screen are taken up with white space. With a monitor in portrait orientation, you can see the full width of the page and almost down to its foot.

Anyone else tried portrait-orientation for their monitor?


Interesting point… and one I hadn’t really considered before.

I guess the only counter-argument is that a decent size widescreen monitor gives you enough space to have two documents on screen side by side? Presumably your monitor rotates anyway so you could still do this.

Reading stuff on the iPad is the most obvious way to demonstrate the concept though… for any A4 document you are likely to flip it around into portrait mode so that it fits the screen. Maybe as people get used to this it will drive a market for flippable monitors?

by Jon Bloor on 9 November 2011 at 3:05 pm. #

Thanks for the comment Jon

Yes – I should have mentioned in the post that the monitor can be easily turned back to landscape if that is more convenient, and on Windows it is a simple key combination to switch the machine’s graphics from one orientation to the other. You can swap from one to the other in a couple of seconds.

by lanstis on 9 November 2011 at 3:18 pm. #

I agree that side by side is an option, but personally it is really confusing. I would just have a black screensaver so that portrait documents can be read easier!

by jason @ personal injury lawyer on 25 November 2011 at 10:59 pm. #