It’s an almost-perfect monitor

So, I was on the phone last week with Michael Turner, a monitor guy from Dell, and although the ostensible reason for the call was for me to give him feedback on Dell monitor software, he was trying to impress me with the more-tangible wares in his stock.

I had recently been demo’ing a 34-inch Dell superwide, a curved number with fantastic pixel density (109 pixels per inch). Here’s a picture of it:

The Dell UltraSharp U3417W with special wide desktop background

When I wrote about it here, I included some criticisms of the way the software worked. Turner wanted to understand better what my issues were, and, with any luck, find a way to improve the product.

But as we got going, he drew me out on what my ideal monitor would look like.

You see, I like lots of real estate, but I’m a bit price sensitive. The 34-inch Dell UltraSharp U3417W goes for about $880 on the company’s site, and while the surround experience of curved glass is great, the form factor is a bit stubby. That is, the panel is only 13 inches high. Web pages look more like they do on a notebook, truncated, cut off. And unless you’re watching CinemaScope movies, you don’t really need all the width of a 21:9 aspect ratio. For most types of video viewing, the sides are black-barred. Nonetheless, it’s a magnificent choice for those monster spreadsheets with a million attributes. Perfect for the accountant in your life.

Back at the end of 2012, the economics of pixels weren’t nearly as favorable as they are today, but for Christmas, Endpoint wanted to buy me as many little points of light as possible for the new year. So, the IT department decided to strap together three 27-inch NEC MultiSync EA273WM monitors, each in vertical mode, using an AMD graphics card with Eyefinity display software. The software allowed the three panels to act as one in quite an elegant way (which has since been undermined by competing stack-management software from Microsoft, Intel, and whichever OEM is in the mix).

The setup looked like this:

Three panels work as one

Call it a “proto-curve,” but the three monitors — the one in the center straight on and the two on the sides turned in — were angled in just such a way as to all be about the same distance, giving me a clear view of every precious inch.

You’ll note that the shape of the overall rectangle formed by the three monitors is fairly boxy. Turns out, the total pixel map of 3240x1920 or 27:16 (1.69) is pretty close to 16:9 (1.78), the comfortably wide-ish ratio that’s more or less standard today. In contrast, the old CRT monitors were a boxier 4:3 (1.33).

So, my jerry-rig worked out pretty well, giving me more than 6 million pixels to play with, and all for $440 per display or $1,320 total, a bargain at the time.

I’m describing this luscious palette to Turner, who is making sympathetic noises, and I note that I’ve mostly gotten used to the black “posts” that interrupt the image a third of the way across on each side. The setup works most of the time, except for some of those pesky spreadsheets when the vertical lineup is off.

Taking up the challenge, he suggests he might have my ideal platform, the P4317Q, a 43-inch Ultra HD monitor he just happens to have in stock, a pixel palette of 3840x2160, which is more than 8 million, and billions of colors. A lot of real estate. And it’s the 16:9 letterbox movie standard: quad HD.

But I demur. I had been thinking of something more like 46 inches. My existing tri-rig is has that diagonal. No, no, he reassures me. This baby’s got 2 million more pixels than yours. But I’m still dubious. It’s got more pixels in slightly less space, which means they’re smaller. Is text still readable? We’ve fine-tuned text scaling for readability, he tells me. I’m like, okay, you got me.

Within a day — and I mean under 24 hours — FedEx was trying to deliver a parcel I hadn’t planned to be around for. Since I really didn’t want to go down to the depot to pick up a 75 lb package, the same guy had to climb the stairs twice by the time he got it to me a day later. Uncrated, the display weighs a svelte 35 pounds.

I wrassled the thing into place and fired it up. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, here’s an iPhone snap of the monitor set up with a background image of the master’s Trees and Undergrowth, 1887 (painted three years before his death):

Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Here’s what the P4217Q looks like in daily use:

You can still see a bit of the Van Gogh in the upper right and across the bottom

So, this is pretty sweet. Turner was right. Text is fine. For everyday use, I like to establish regions on the screen, general areas for doing similar types of things. With the old rig, I tended to favor vertical content grouped closely together, communications on the right, research and composition in the center, and file system and other on the left. That format works best on long Web pages, which are like long vertical scrolls. But with the P4317Q’s single large palette, the form of my areas immediately began to open up. They stretched comfortably over what before would have been borders, however subliminal. I admit, this panel is close to ideal.

Thing is, with that huge surface, the wings are pretty far away. I have to shift places to place to see different areas on the screen. Drag my wireless keyboard around with me. Gone are my angled panels. I’m trying to get used to moving. After all, a bit of exercise is a good thing.

But I begin to dream longingly about blending the best characteristics of all these configurations into a concept display. I’m convinced that 8 million is plenty of pixels, but I’d like to borrow the curve from the 34-inch UltraSharp and bring the wings in.

And while I hope Dell queues that product for its 2018 lineup, there’s a longer-term project I’d like to see go into the works.

Because most content is in rectangles (sometimes called windows), each of which is assumed to be a plane, a particular perspective on a scene, what’s needed is a single panel, articulated along two axes to mimic the old three-monitor alcove, flat planes angled just so, but with no borders. A single cast sheet of glass. Dell R&D ought to be able to yank that rabbit out its hat by 2020. Don’t you think?

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