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Given that nearly 30% today are still running at 800x600 - and that top chrome and toolbars on IE can run 150px easily (that's a Google toolbar plus a Yahoo! toolbar on one of my computers) I'd say 420 pixels or so is all you've got to play with.
I've completely stopped any concern about vertical scrolling. In fact, In New Orleans I gave a short talk about "long copy" - where you have 20 or 30 screens of scrolling -- essentially a microsite all on one page. And it really works well whent the copy is solid.
However, I also know that some "image conscious" work cares very much about being less than a screenful. I beleive that Netflix launched their business just that way. Of course, PDAs were not very common then (nothing like a handheld device to mess up your plans!)
Is the google and yahoo toolbar the ones that most people use?
Do you think people would use both at the same time?
How far should I take this just to allow for the 30% of people that use 600 by 800?
What is the percentage of the next size up users and what is that screen size?
I want to know what are the percentages of people that are using their browsers with just a plain browser setting
Just to answer, I will never have/use an annoying toolbar on my screen but most web users do.
I would say the next percentage is around 40-50% taken by 1024x768, a recent site I produced was under strict orders not to vertically scroll..4 weeks into the project and 10 pages scroll simply because I couldn't get the required content in a presentable way without scrolling.
To get better results also have it set a session cookie, so only one image request per session is made.
The main issue would be database loads on the remote server, that's a major consideration, but anyone with a dedicated server could easily support that, since the actual bandwidth would be negligible, it's just a question of serverside resource consumption in terms of a lot of db queries.
Not a bad idea though, and very easy to implement, and it would definitely provide the answer to this question in a relatively short period of time, you'd really only need to run the script once in a while, since statistically the percentages really won't change that much day to day, week to week, month to month.