By Stephen H. Wildstrom Odds are that the article you're reading is shaped the way it is because of a historical accident. At the dawn of the film industry, movies were shot in frames that were 1-1/3 times as wide as they were high, dimensions dictated by the shape of the negative. When television came along, it seemed natural to retain this 4:3 aspect ratio, resulting in screens with four units of width for each three of height. And when computer monitors came on the scene, it was logical to modify existing picture tubes and retain the 4:3 standard.
Various attempts to change the shape of computer monitors have failed. The simplest rotated the display 90 degrees to better emulate the shape of a sheet of paper -- both the 8.5 x 11-inch page that's standard in the U.S. and the European A4 page are pretty close to a 3:4 ratio. These vertical monitors never caught on, in part because they were more expensive and, I suspect, because they were ugly.
PRICEY BUT PRACTICAL. Now, the growing popularity of wide-screen TVs and even of so-called letter-box video on standard sets has led most people to regard wide-screen computer displays as natural. And that turns out to make a lot of sense. Apple introduced the first successful wide-screen laptop with the PowerBook Titanium, and a couple of wide-screen Windows notebooks are scheduled to hit the market early in 2003.
Sony's Personal Entertainment Display brings this approach to the desktop, and its superior quality and versatility help justify its somewhat steep $1,000 price tag. High-definition TV and wide-screen DVDs use a 16:9 aspect ratio, but the Sony uses a slightly deeper 15:9 shape, which leaves extra room for a toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Since it's intended to be used primarily as a computer monitor, this is a very practical choice.
The screen has a 17.1-inch diagonal measurement and has a total area slightly smaller than a 17-inch display with a standard 4:3 ratio. The resolution translates to 1280 x 768 pixels. Not all video cards support that particular resolution out of the box, but Sony supplies software that will update most video systems for the wide-screen display.
DVD DELIGHT. This design turns out to be very useful for anyone who uses a computer to edit photos or videos, create drawings, design Web pages, or just about any other creative project. You get a nice window in the middle to display your project with plenty of room on the sides for tools, palettes, and all the other accoutrements of creative work. In the more workaday world, it's also ideal for spreadsheets, which tend to be laid out horizontally.
Not surprisingly, the Personal Entertainment Display does a nice job of showing DVD movies. Most flat-panel displays, whatever their size or shape, do poorly with fast-moving video. Although the quality here isn't as good as you'd get with a first-rate CRT display -- say, a Sony FD Trinitron -- it's still a lot better than most flat panels.
The Sony display is also works well with game consoles. It comes with a full complement of video connectors, including analog PC, composite, component, and S-video. You can hook up your computer through the PC connector and your game console through another input and just switch between them using a button on the side of the display. The built-in speakers produce decent, though not earth-shattering sound.
Oddly enough, the Personal Entertainment Display actually makes more sense matched with Microsoft's XBox than with Sony's PlayStation 2 because the XBox and most of its games include a wide-screen option.
UPS AND DOWNS. I have one quarrel with Sony's design: It has no provision for raising or lowering the screen. Although the base provides for an adequate, if not overly generous 60 degrees of tilt, the ability to slide the entire display up and down would greatly enhance the ergonomics. Unfortunately, height adjustment adds significant cost. Leaving it out on budget-priced displays is forgivable, but not in the $1,000 price class.
You can buy a good 17-in. flat-panel display for a couple of hundred dollars less than the Personal Entertainment Display. But if you want a screen that's really well designed for creative work or the flexibility to use your display for wide-screen movies or games, the Sony can be well worth the extra cost. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online