PCNS Labnotes Dec 2007
Issue: Bill, one of my customers, has an IBM Thinkpad X61 laptop. This model
features a 12.1" Screen, of 1024 x 768 resolution. This is commonly referred
to as XGA resolution. He has the IBM Media base, which allows a large monitor to
be connected to it. He has a 20" flat screen monitor, capable of displaying
1600 x 1200 resolution. On the large monitor he arranges his Desktop Icons. Program
file icons and commands are located on the top left of the screen, going down the left side.
Towards the bottom he arranges Data files in groups of three. He arranges by extension,
so there are groups of Word Documents, Excel Worksheets, PDFS, and Visio Drawings
accordingly, as shown below:
(requires a high resolution display of at least 1280 x 1024)
(wide aspect monitors may distort the images)
When Bill undocks the laptop, the display reverts back to the Thinkpad's 12.1" screen. Bill
is upset when all of the arranged Icons he has set above are jumbled and disorganized.
What happens after going to the laptop screen:
When Bill reconnects the large screen, he is disappointed to find the Icons are in just as much disarray:
Though we may play with this on a periodic basis, some of us adjust this more, who have
laptop computers, and drive an external monitor which has different display
characteristics from the laptop. In many cases, the external display is
much larger so it will afford the user lots of screen real estate to perform
their work. Why don't Desktop Icons stay in the same place when Bill changes
screen resolutions between the large external display, and the smaller laptop display?
First a primer is in order.
Let's suppose our laptop is a mainstream laptop, with a built in resolution of 1024 x 768.
What do those numbers mean? These numbers (1024 x 768) refer to a measurement of Pixels, in X and Y
coordinates. In this case 1,024 Pixels (x) Width by 768 pixels (y) High. A large
screen monitor, say a 20" Flat Screen, (we talking standard not a wide screen monitor) has a
native resolution of 1,600 x 1,200 pixels of resolution. All things being the same
(specifically our monitor) when you change from 1024 x 768 pixels to 1600 x 1200 pixels,
icons will be much smaller in 1600 x 1200 mode. This is because you are making the
playing field much larger. Think of flying, and the pilot climbs altitude a few
thousand more feet. What happens - you see more square miles as you look down
through the fixed size airplane window, but homes, cars, and roads look smaller. Now imagine
your Monitor is that fixed size aircraft window. As you increase Pixels, images on
the screen get smaller. A larger monitor uses higher pixel resolution because the
screen is larger, and the larger screen stretches the screen area compensating, somewhat,
making Icons larger and more readable.
Why does a large screen monitor have to make Icons smaller? Put it this way, before high
definition televisions, as you upgraded your old glass style Television, say you went from a
19" screen to a 30" TV, images on TV got larger, but the picture coarsened, especially if your
viewing distance from the TV did not change. This is
because in standard broadcast/cable Television, the 525 Scan Lines must remain constant so we
can view the broadcast signal. As the picture tube size increased, scan lines became visible.
When you drag, move, and group Icons while in high pixel mode (on the 20" screen), and then
you change to low resolution, Windows makes a mess of your icons, because it rearranges all
the icons so you can see them on the smaller display field. This is by design. Why
doesn't Windows put Icons back when switching from High to Low resolution like we might expect?
Consider a practical standpoint - suppose you had a completely full parking lot, 1600 x 1200 feet in size.
You then reduced the parking area by 40% to 1024' x 768'. Could you get the same number
of cars in the smaller area (without crushing or stacking the cars?).
In Windows, when you change resolutions from very high to very low pixel setting, it's as if
Windows zooms in on the desktop. Icons, taskbar, and desktop items grow larger.
That's the basic purpose of going with lower resolution - so we can makes items more legible
and easier to read on our eyes. Windows has to take into account the entire desktop area
and resize it, not just the icons occupying the desktop.
But, Windows throws in some trickery - it rearranges the desktop icons which would have been hidden
off the screen, so you can locate
them, and in the process it tries the best it can, but at times, it scrambles them.
The goal is to make your Icons available
when lowering display resolution. What would be the point - if by switching 1600
pixels to 1024 means some of your Desktop Icons would disappear off screen, is that such a
good idea? If you had 45 Icons on a 1600 Pixel desktop and expected Windows to
put them in the exact order and groupings when reducing screen resolution by 40% then
the Icon sizes shrink dramtically. That would defeat the purpose of lowering
your screen resolution. Instead of Icons getting larger (to be easier to read)
they would get smaller! Here's an actual photo of the Dell C400, at 1024 x 768 Pixels of
resolution (note you should view with the highest resolution screen possible to avoid side
Now if Bill had his way, and wanted all icons on 1600 x 1200 pixels to line up correctly on a Pixel
landscape that is 40% smaller, this is how our Icons would look on our Dell Laptop. I am
overlaying the Dell Display with the Adobe Illustrator image, zooming down the image to fit the
screen, so this is an approximation. What we're finding is the Icons would be fairly miniscule -
you might need reading glasses to see them, and this would not be a mainstream notebook. You should
resize your Browser window so the diagonal image (from top Left to bottom right) should measure about 12",
to match the actual size of the Dell Display.
Even if you were to use Microsoft's Shell Extension Addin
Layout.dll, Save/Restore Desktop Icon
Positions, this function can only restore to the confines of the current pixel resolution.
What makes this hard to swallow for laptop users is they position their Icons on the
high resolution display, and expect Icons to be in the same place when the undock their
laptops, relative to the smaller screen. This of course results in a jumble of icons.
For maintaining consistent Icon positions on the desktop on both the small and large display,
the user needs to do the Icon arranging on the smaller, lower pixel monitor and
then Saving the Icon Positions with the Shell Extension Option.
Copyright 2008 PCNS