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December 12, 2003

Screen Widths: It's in Pixels

Three times this week I've had this conversation with bright people so I thought I'd have to blog about it. The issue of computer screen widths, website design widths, personal photos on the web, all involve either a great frustration or an understanding of pixels.

The web does not care what size (inches) monitor you have, or even if it is a monitor- it could be a cell phone or PDA. But the browser you're using cares about what pixel width your screen is set for.
Your screen could be set at 800 (wide) by 600 (height), or 1280x768, or any one of a dozen settings. And your browser will try to present the web within that setting.

But the web specifies images in pixels. So (bear with me) a picture that's 400x300 pixels will take up a quarter of an 800x600 screen, but it'll only take up 1/8 of a bigger screen. And this has nothing to do with the number of inches on your monitor; it has to do with the number of pixels you've told your computer to utilize. It doesn't matter how many inches are in your monitor.

The general conservative practice in web design is to build sites that fit within an 800-pixel wide screen. Allow for a vertical slider bar on the right margin, and now you build a website for a 770-pixel wide screen. And if you do that, your website will appear within the screen width of 95% of the computers out there (some older machines are 640x480, and we're not focusing on them).

Now some sites (Slate, NYTimes, Kennywood is my fav example) will present non-essential content to the right of the 800-pixel point. Then people with the wider screen settings will see the right-margin info, and the people with the smaller screen settings won't, and that's okay because there's no essential content in that right-margin space.

You might target a bigger screen setting is if you're in an intranet where you're absolutely certain the computers are all set to a certain point.

But the dark geek secret is that when a high-power executive gets a "boss box" - a new computer with all the capabilities that they'll never tap - the geeks generally leave it set at 800x600 pixels for two reasons- 1) it's standard and it'll work, and when somebody swaps the monitors it'll be ok, and 2) if the 45-year old executive is on the normal curve, they suffer from O.G.S. (Old Guy Syndrome) and they won't be comfortable reading the screen at a higher setting.

So the affluence of your audience and the size of their screen doesn't matter. The screen settings measured in pixels is what drives the day, we can't control what people set their screens at, and we build websites that target 800 pixel wide screens unless there's a special circumstance.

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