Monday, 27 September 2010

Q. Why is my screen too small?

A. It’s a tradition.

Last month I mentioned the 25 year old RM Nimbus PC-186 and its 640x250 display. 250 was the number of lines displayable on a ‘CGA’ class CRT monitor of that time (more precisely at 50/60Hz non-interlaced). The 14" CGA was the only mass produced monitor available at a reasonable price in 1985 and it was that fact as much as the cost of the driver electronics that influenced the low resolution choice of display mode. By 1988, 14" ‘VGA’ type monitors were in mass production at 640x480 resolution and these soon gained higher definition 800x600.

During 1987-1993 one part of my job with RM involved working with a series of US Silicon Valley based companies who were growing the capabilities of PC graphics systems into the affordable market. Computer graphics has always been a personal interest so it was fun to be involved in bringing out the then emerging technology that is nowadays is taken for granted. My main role was writing device drivers for Windows and working with the chip designers to boost performance. During this period, the ‘holy grail’ was to reach 1024x768 24bit colour with an inexpensive design, a point we reached for the first time with a Cirrus Logic chip in 1993. This hit acceptable performance goals for Windows 3.1, removing the need for the transient 256 colour type displays popular for a while but problematic from an application programming point of view.

Two flies in the ointment. 1. Computer monitor manufacturers took a long time to come around to the obvious fact that 14"/15" CRT displays were too small for applications like word processing and spreadsheets. The sweet spot was 17"/19" but it seemed to take forever before it was accepted this was a volume market and the price benefits of mass production held sway (21" and above were cool but too unwieldy in CRT except for specialist applications such as CAD). 2. Most employers, schools and universities regarded it as acceptable to save a hundred dollars or so even if that meant seeing armies of highly paid employees and students hunched over small monitors peering at a fraction of a spreadsheet or page of text.

So much for history, though I’ll repeat the point that it seems to be a well-established tradition to use displays that are too small for purpose. Eventually things get better so nowadays good flat screen displays for desktop computers are very affordable. Although last year I visited the newsroom of a popular newspaper and it was almost laughable to see journalists and typesetters using displays that were obviously too small to efficiently work with a tabloid format. All to save the cost of a lunch or two!

Moores Law in the twenty first century. Electronics shrinking to give high functionality with reduced power consumption, and the consequential growth of small format computing: laptops, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, eBook readers. In each case the same pattern. Early devices have less than usable screen sizes and not just for reasons of manufacturing cost. Product marketing tries to avoid the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Keen leading edge users, in denial, claim its all ok. Markets learn and devices gradually move to something more ergonomic and pleasant to use.

This topic came to mind while I was tweaking an InScribe design for netbooks (typically a usable 1024x600 10" display nowadays after that unfortunate early fad for the 90s-retro 800x480 resolution on 7" in 2008). Reading today’s announcement of the upcoming RIM ‘PlayBook’ device (7" LCD, too small for its aspirations in my opinion. See the, I expect ill-fated, Dell Streak.). Not that 7"/8" is a bad format for many purposes (Note to Amazon with the 6” Kindle. And Sony. Try measuring a paperback book!).

Incidentally whatever the flaws in the first generation iPad, 9.7" is not dramatically smaller than the optimum size for purpose so kudos to Apple for bucking the usual pattern (although I personally think 11-12" touchscreen hits the right compromise between portability and function).

So if you find yourself peering at the internet through a 3.5" supposedly state of the art smartphone remember that for users to suffer for a while is a tradition, you are paying the price of being a part of history in the making, and things will soon get better (better for smartphones I suspect means about a 4.2-4.5" with narrow bezel compromise in current tech).

PS. Inches not metric; another tradition.

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