This is going to be another long-winded, nerdy entry, but it’s perhaps a dash more ranty than the last one. I believe that by examining these two entries with modern instrumentation, it may be possible to discern the atomic value of entertainment!
I have a user here in my workplace who just got a new, extra-big flatscreen, and wanted some help with setting it up so that it’s usable. The screen’s native resolution is 1280×1024; he’d been running at 800×600, and his fonts didn’t look quite right because of it. So his request was, “I want my fonts to have nice crisp edges, and I want them to be big enough that I can read them easily with these old eyes.” Simple?
Well, not so much.
A display’s “resolution” is the number of pixels tall and wide that it is displaying at any given time. CRTs can change the number of pixels that are packed into a certain size of display, so the number of pixel-sized slots on your screen is always the same as the number of colored blocks your computer wants to put into them. Not so, LCDs – An LCD has a fixed native resolution, so regardless of the number of pixels it wants to display, it’s going to to display that using the fixed number of pixels the monitor will permit. So the the colors around what should be crisp transitions from white to black, for example, will look like they’re bleeding a bit of grey between them.
A “point” is a typographical measurement that’s meant a few things to a few different people over the years, but if you’re working with computers it means 1/72
If like my colleague you are working in Windows, some fonts are measured in pixels, others are measured in points. There are many other units of typographic measurement out there, and the primary benefit of learning them is the fast and easy identification of pedants and conversations you’d rather avoid.
This is where the problems start.
When you are looking at a document in Word, the document itself displays a font measured relative to the width of the displayed page of text, in points. WYSIWYG, this is called, meaning What You See Is What You Get, terminology that mattered quite a bit twenty years ago. In Word, you can control the size of the font in the document by changing its point size, which will affect its size on the printed page, and with the Zoom option, which will affect the that document’s presentation on the screen. Neither of these options will change the size of text in the menu bars or option screens.
If on the other hand you are looking at a document in Internet Explorer, you have two ways to change the size of the displayed fonts. One is the Text Size option under the View menu, where you have the options of changing the default size of the displayed font. Your options are “largest”, “larger”, “medium”, “smaller” and
“smallest”. More fine-grained control is impossible, and changing it away from “medium” is very likely to break your web-browsing experience in surprising ways. You do have the option of ignoring the font sizes specified on the web page itself, but that will make about two-thirds of the Web look like somebody sneezed a faceful of Alpha-bits all over your screen.
Changing your menu-bar fonts has a similar disconnect; in your display settings, you have the option of “normal”, “large” and “very large”, but the screen real-estate given over to what’s typed in those fonts won’t always change so once you’ve made your fonts big enough to read, you won’t be able to see all the text. Trying to fix that? Good luck. It’s tedious and finicky and a huge pain in the ass; Windows doesn’t automatically rearrange icons, despite the “auto arrange icons” setting, when you change how they should be laid out. You’ve got to uncheck, then recheck that option to see the results, and adjusting the fonts without adjusting the icon spacing, for example, means they’ll just run over each other anyway, so you’ve got to go back and fix that, ad nauseum.
So why would anyone do any of that? The answer is “Outlook”. Outlook uses the same widgets to display HTML mail that Internet Explorer uses to display anything else, so if you want to be able to read your mail in the fonts of your choosing, rather than the six-point microfonts that Bob down the hall thinks are cool, you need to go into your IE accessibility settings and tell it to ignore the font information specified on web pages and use your own. Read that again, because it’s super-awesome: if you want your mail to be reliably readable in Outlook, you need to deliberately break the way web pages are displayed in Internet Explorer. And that’s before we even get the message-list windows set up; they have their own set of configuration options hidden away in an obscure Outlook submenu.
And it only gets better.
Setting your screen’s resolution to anything higher than 800×600 means that in addition to your fonts being too small, big chunks of the internet are going to be a blank, monochromatic space. This is not because of a problem with your screen, or your computer, or anything except for the apparent fact that web-designers
are idiots. Setting your screen resolution to anything higher than 800×600 means that web pages generally have great big empty margins. At 1400×1050, my laptop’s native resolution, the Internet is about half-empty. This is not accidental; web designers have, apparently en-masse, decided that the entire world
runs at 800×600, and that they want per-pixel control of how their webpages display. If you’ve got a big screen, head over to the CSS Zen Garden and click around for a bit if you want to see it in all its meathead glory. Here’s a screenshot of one of their pages as rendered on my laptop. by no means the sole or most onerous example.
So, to sum up, on modern computer screens:
- Leaving your screen’s resolution set to 800×600 looks like
- setting it to the native resolution might make your
fonts too small to read without your nose five inches from the
- the only ways of fixing that either break something
else, break lots of something-elses, will drive you insane, or all
three, and finally,
- the fact that an awful lot of web designers are a bunch of goddamned monkeys is not excused by the fact that a bunch of OS UI designers are a bunch of goddamned monkeys, too.
- I strongly suspect that all of this stuff is related to the fact that virtually all accessibility software is a sick joke.
But you people don’t come to me just for the rants, no! I provide straightforward solutions to your practical problems, and that’s why you love me so. So what to do? The answer, it turns out, is ““suck it up”. Either you can easily read tiny little fonts and go with native resolution, or you can crawl into that sewer on your hands and knees and drown. Or you just leave it at 800×600, and if you don’t like it you can choke on it. Use Firefox for
your web-browsing, because it lets you (control-plus, control-minus)
quickly and easily change the font sizes. If Outlook is mandated
at the office, at least you can close out IE and never look back.
Desktop configuration in every version of Windows up to and including
XP/Pro doesn’t work right, and never will. The Web doesn’t look right
in IE, and never will. Most of the web will look like crap no matter
what you do, because self-satisified, asshat web designers are so
attached to their pixel-perfect layouts that basic, trivial stuff
that worked right ten years ago may never work properly again.
Truly, we live the future!