Tuesday, May 31, 2005

How to Improve Display Readability

It's been a long day at the computer, and you can barely read the screen anymore. Is it that you're overworked, or is this an equipment problem? Most likely, the display is at least contributing to your bleariness. It may seem harder to read because it is harder to read. With new monitors, resolution has gone up even faster than display size, yielding more dots (pixels) per inch. The result is crisper photos (good), more windows you can put on a screen (good for productivity), and type that's smaller (not good).

Most users are comfortable with standard fonts on a display with a resolution of 100 dots per inch (dpi). That's XGA resolution (1,024 by 768 pixels) on a 13.3-inch notebook (96 dpi) or a 15-inch CRT. If you switch to SXGA+ resolution (1,400 by 1,050 pixels) on the same size display, text will only be four-fifths (81 percent) as big. As LCDs get larger, their fixed resolutions increase too. This means that fonts don't get much bigger and may sometimes shrink, since they are programmed to appear in a given number of pixels, often 8 wide by 12 high for a screen font.

To see how far we've regressed, try opening a DOS window and see how small the fonts are. Before the advent of Microsoft Windows, the so-called "DOS box" of 80 characters by 25 lines filled the entire screen. Each 8-by-12 pixel character was about 0.133 inches wide, roughly eight characters per inch. When you open a 640- by 480-pixel DOS box on an SXGA+ screen, fonts are less than half as wide, 0.061 inches, or 16 characters per inch. Manual typewriters, in comparison, typically provided 10 characters per inch; fewer cpi indicates bigger, more readable type. A 100 dpi display (such as a 13.3-inch XGA) would show about 12 characters per inch. Between the fixed resolutions of LCD panels and Windows font-scaling difficulties, it's little wonder your eyes get bleary.

Click here to view the DPI: Crispness vs. Readability table.

Font-Enhancement Utilities

Windows Font Sizes
Windows does provide some help in making fonts and menus easier to read. To increase the size of menu, dialog-box, and task-bar fonts, go to the Windows desktop, right-click on a blank area, left-click on Properties, choose the Appearance tab, and select Font Size (normal, large, or extra-large). If you want to make everything—not just fonts—bigger, choose the Settings tab and click on the Advanced button and then the DPI selector. "DPI" is a misnomer; it actually magnifies the entire screen. Choosing 120 dpi instead of the normal 96 makes everything 25 percent larger. Doing so may make some elements of certain applications display incorrectly, with fonts spilling outside list boxes or not aligning properly.

Try ClearType, Microsoft's font smoothing technology for color LCDs. Go to the Windows desktop, right-click, choose Properties, Appearances, and then Effects, and select ClearType. (Do note, though, that some users say they find ClearType harder on the eyes.)

Liquid View
Consider using Portrait Display's Liquid View utility, which does a more sophisticated—but not perfect—job of intelligently scaling Windows fonts (as well as tools in Microsoft Office), and doesn't require a Windows restart to take effect. Download the software for $30 at www.portrait.com . Two other utilities improve the sometimes tiny type on Microsoft Internet Explorer: Portrait's Liquid Surf ($20 download), which amplifies the browser window, and Ion Systems' Web Eyes ($25 download, www.ionwebeyes.com ), which reformats and enlarges the page. All have free trials. You could also change to a different browser, such as Opera, that does better sizing.

Office Apps, E-Mail

Most office apps let you magnify the work area and use font utilities to enlarge the type on the menus. To enlarge fonts in Microsoft Office, select View and then Zoom, and try setting it to 125% or 150%. Also consider changing your default font from 10 to 12 points so printouts are easier to read. Choose File and then Open, select the file type Document Templates, open normal.dot, and choose Format, Styles, and then Formatting. Then, right-click on the Normal style, right-click on Modify, change the typeface and point size, click on OK, then save the file.

For e-mail, using a larger font helps both you and your recipients. To modify font size in Microsoft Outlook, choose Tools, select the Mail Format tab and then Fonts, make your changes, and click on OK. Instead of using Arial, consider display-friendly fonts such as the slightly wider Verdana or the slightly narrower Tahoma. Try Georgia instead of Times New Roman. Book Antiqua is an excellent printer font and is also good on screen.

Mac users running either MS Office or Internet Explorer will have Georgia, Tahoma, and Verdana (it's part of the installation), and all Macs have the Book Antiqua equivalent, Palatino. But Microsoft has discontinued the free TrueType fonts download program that allowed Mac or Linux PC users to install these typefaces.

Fine Tuning the Display

Setup and adjustment can be monitor- specific. In general, let Windows try to auto-discover the resolution and refresh rate. If not, choose a moderately high refresh rate for CRTs (around 85 Hz) and a low refresh rate for flicker-resistant LCDs (60 Hz is fine; faster than that will slow down the graphics). With CRTs, you can pick a comfortable resolution and then adjust the image size and screen geometry. With LCDs, you absolutely should stick with the native resolution. If there's a one-button auto-set or auto-tune adjustment, use that and then try minor manual adjustments using the maker's tuning patterns or DisplayMate's DisplayMate for Windows ($69 download, www.displaymate.com ). With a digital LCD, only a few adjustments are possible or necessary, so that kind of display is your best bet for a great image.

Dust on a monitor may block half its light output. Clean it gently with a microfiber cloth soaked in almost-hot water. If possible, orient the monitor so neither you nor the display face a bright window. A dark shirt, if it suits your style, cuts reflections. To reduce glare from overhead lights, tape matte board with a six-inch overhang over the top of the display and wear a baseball cap.

How to Improve Display Readability

Upgrade Your Monitor

If you've had it with your current display and want to start anew, focus on LCD technology. LCDs are easier on the eyes and less sensitive to indifferent setup. Wide displays (16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio) are useful for showing side-by-side apps on one screen, but they don't necessarily have more total pixels or space than a comparable 4:3 display, because they may be an inch shorter as well as an inch wider.

With virtually all laptops and some desktop PCs, you can run dual monitors. You could use one for word processing, for instance, and use the second for your music player, e-mail, and utilities. Activation is simple (providing you have either two graphics cards or a card with two outputs): Plug in a second display, and in the Display Properties Settings tab, check the box "Extend my windows desktop onto this [second] monitor."

Dual displays aren't as crazy as you might think: Two $200 to $500 15-inch LCD panels have slightly more screen area than a single $1,000 to $1,500 21-inch LCD. The single panel is better for video or photo editing, and it will also let you view two full-size 8.5-by-11 pages side by side. A pair of 17-inch displays, which will still cost less than one 21-inch display, will have one-third more screen area.

These days, though, your best bet for big, readable type without scaling is a 19-inch 1,280-by-1,024 (SXGA) digital LCD. For more information on these eye-savers, check out our LCD Product Guide.

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