1680 X 1050 hell
Tuesday, May 1 2007
In anticipation of my new desk with all its slide-out shelves, today I replaced the last of my CRT-based monitors, a refurbished 19 inch ViewSonic that has given me flawless service at a resolution of 1600 X 1200 for six years. In its place was one of my two Samsung SyncMaster 204Bs, and in place of that, I installed a refurbished ViewSonic VX2035wm LCD panel with a resolution of 1680 X 1050 (it cost about $200 and arrived today). This meant that the four-screen setup on Woodchuck (my main computer) went from 7,070,720 pixels to 6,914,720, or a loss of 156,000 pixels. What I gained in their place was a more energy-efficient setup, which I wanted to have operational before summer (when waste electrical heat in the laboratory is least desirable).
In the past I'd steered clear of the 1680 X 1050 monitors just because of their unwieldy, unfamiliar geometry. But they are now just so much cheaper than proper 1600 X 1200 monitors (particularly when you can get refurbished units) that the choice was easy this time. In the physical location where I placed it, I usually keep the ViewSonic VX2035wm off, firing it up only in cases where I need to follow a spec, consult an email, or otherwise refer to a document I don't want to have to print out. My active workspace is usually restricted to the two Samsungs, though I keep a smaller 1280 X 1024 panel on for FTP stuff and music; it's attached to the ceiling. Notice that I'm not bothering to give the inch measurements of any of these monitors, since all that concerns me is how many pixels they can competently display. (Although I can't afford them, I have a special fondness for tiny monitors that can display 1600 X 1200.)
Once the new 1680 X 1050 monitor had taken its place, I set about trying to get it to display a block of desktop real estate at its native resolution. Unfortunately, this proved to be several orders of magnitude more difficult than expected. Usually when one installs a new monitor in Windows XP, it just works. And if it is displaying at something other than its ideal resolution, it's easy enough to go into the Display Properties control panel and set things right. But evidently these newfangled "widescreen" monitors don't have much support in either Windows XP or in the drivers for non-cutting-edge video cards (I have two monitors hanging from an Nvidia GeForce FX 5500 and the other two are attached to a GeForce FX 5200). I ended up having to download a monitor driver from ViewSonic, and when that didn't work I tried installing the latest driver for my FX 5200 video card. But still the Display Properties control panel refused to include a setting for a resolution of 1680 X 1050. There is actually an option in the special proprietary Nvidia tab of Advanced Display Properties allowing a user to manually enter new resolutions. Amusingly, this is available only through the "Classic NVIDIA Control Panel," not the "New NVIDIA Control Panel (Recommended)." But when I added a setting for 1680 X 1050, the result was a uselessly garbled screen.
I tried and tried different things for a couple hours, my frustration climbing higher and higher, like a one-man band performing "Stairway to Heaven" with equipment that had been left out in the rain. Inevitably, I did something careless along the way that ruined the icon arrangement on my desktop, one of the few places in my life where I have managed to keep entropy at bay. If I may go off tangentially for a moment, I wonder if this still happens in Windows Vista, because it's definitely one of the biggest weaknesses of all the Windows up to and including XP. It's as if Microsoft designed a library with spring-loaded bookshelves that, every so often, unpredictably fling all the books into a random pile atop the card catalog. (I know, there are utilities to back up the desktop arrangement - but I never got them to work or maybe I didn't want to pay for them — who knows, I've forgotten.)
Somewhere in the midst of all this frustration, I tried swapping the physical video cables (and the corresponding virtual arrangement of the monitors in Display Properties) between the two monitors controlled by the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 video card. One of these cables is a DVI and the other is a VGA, but since they both go to monitors that can accept either kind, swapping was an available option. And the amazing thing is that this worked! For whatever reason (and I'll let the theologians tackle this one), the GeForce FX 5200 video card cannot drive a 1680 X 1050 monitor from its digital DVI video port, but it has no trouble driving it from its analog VGA port.
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