Screen resolution: The (not so) Big Picture

I really love those parenthetical titles! The software industry – and in fact anyone who wants to sell something – is driven by either addressing customer needs and wants, or trying to invent a need/want so that customers will buy a product.

Push email is a good example. Do you need it? Maybe. Does everyone need it? Probably not. Do you want it? Maybe. Do you need it because you want it, or because your job depends on you actually being able to respond to an email within one minute even when you’re taking a pit stop? That depends entirely on you and your boss. Or do you want it because someone says, “Push email is big!” [Incidentally, here’s an article about why Push Email may not be so great  over at Modern Nomads that touches on the issue of want vs need.]

This post is about screen resolution. Screen resolution has gone up fairly steadily over the years. My parents’ first computer had a 15″ CRT monitor that cost $500 and could just barely handle displaying 1280×1024 resolution at eye-melting 60hz. Now, a 19″ CRT that can easily do the same at readable 85hz costs $90 from OfficeMAX. The 17″ LCD I’m using right now can easily support that resolution natively and cost about $200 – a similar one I just sold that I’d purchased in May of 2004 was $440. When my parents bought their first computer, the whopping 30″ Apple Cinema Display was completely unheard of as something a mortal could purchase, but now Dell has equivalently-sized displays that aren’t so crazy. Television screens used to be the size of a small toaster – today, even a college student can afford a plasma display (your college student may vary.)

We want bigger, we can have bigger, so we get bigger. What about PDAs? Instead of getting bigger, we want smaller. Witness the relative explosion of the Smartphone market as opposed to the palm-sized handhelds of various flavors. Smartphone devices are pretty cool any way you slice them – except for one thing.

The screen is really small! All Windows Mobile 5 Smartphones use ‘QVGA’ displays, 320×240 pixels. However, these phones don’t display any more data than the previous 176×220 displays – they just make it look prettier with more pixels. The same goes for VGA Pocket PCs, or high-resolution Palm-powered handhelds – a 640×480 Dell Axim X51V can’t display any more data on the screen than the 320×240 Axim X5 could, nor can my Treo 650 put anything more on its 320×320 screen than the original Palm could with its 160×160 screen.

It really is possible to cram more data on the screen – you just use a smaller font size. We get requests all the time – especially for ListPro – to add ‘high resolution’ support to our applications. The way I’ve seen this done, the screen font size is halved. My DateBk6 program on my Treo 650 can do this easily. The problem is… I can’t do it. I’m young, and even though I am nearly legally blind without my glasses, I can see pretty well with them on. That doesn’t make reading characters any easier when they’re as big as this period –> . [For a look at how this works out on ultra-portable and UMPCs, take a look at this blog post by JKOntherun]

We want smaller and bigger at the same time – smaller dimensions, higher resolutions. “QVGA is too small! It’s too ugly low-res!! Why would I want a Treo 700w when the screen is only 240×240! I want more pixels! More pixels! 10 megapixel cameras! XGA Pocket PCs!

Do people really need these tiny screens? Do people really want them? Are they being told they want them by marketing? Are they assuming that more pixels is better? Tech people aren’t immune to ‘more is better’ – I bought my new digital camera partly because it was just $20 more to get 7.1 instead of 6MP! Why get a regular value meal when you can biggie size it (disclaimer: biggie sizing no longer exists at Wendy’s) for just 40 cents more? Why get an Axim X51 (320×24) when you can get the X51V (640×480, four times as many pixels) for less than $100 more?

So what do we as a company do? Do we spend a lot of time adding a feature to our software just to make it more flexible, giving people the option to squint at their 2.5″ screen to see 300 lines of text instead of 150 (disclaimer: I made that number up.) Do we have to climb on that bandwagon in order to make sure we stay relevant? Or do we try to make software that is easily used on a 2.5” screen by people with average fingers and average eyeballs?

I certainly don’t have the answer. I would love to be able to see more of my shopping list in ListPro on my Palm, but I don’t think I’d be happy trying to check off “Get eye exam” using my thumbnail when my nail’s thicker than the item I’m trying to poke on the screen. Maybe the ideal solution is a compromise – give people all their data when they want it, and readable data when they need it.

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About Kevin

My dad brought a laptop home from work one day when I was in 5th grade, and it was all downhill from there. I've owned Palm PDAs, Pocket PCs, Handheld PCs, and Windows Mobile Smartphones, and finally found one that I could settle down with. Hopefully. I also graduated from the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, with a B.S in Computer Science.

3 thoughts on “Screen resolution: The (not so) Big Picture

  1. Marc

    “Innovation for the Sake of Innovation” rather than “Innovation for the Sake of a Better Product” is certainly a danger in this industry. At the same time there is the very real challenge that everyone wants something different. For a long time I ran such a high resolution on my monitor here that it made other people’s eyes bleed just to look at it. Meanwhile other folks use resolutions that, from my POV, look like children’s books because everything is so big.

    The trick for software developers like us is deciding where to draw the line. Is a new feature actually a benefit? Or just one more shiny bangle that complicates the product and really doesn’t help the user? Is it the latest fad? Or the next trend in the mobile market?

    I believe hardware manufacturers are making the same sorts of decisions. Unfortunately, the only way to discover the answers to these questions is to send the product out there and let time sort out what works and what doesn’t.

  2. Pingback: Ilium Software Blog » Blog Archive » Screen Resolution Rant VS. Samsung Q1:Fight!

  3. Mark Jones

    I use Listpro for everything. I use it for my calendar, my tasks, planner, archive of info, client notes, agendas and on and on. But I have to disagree about the font sizes. When I set the comfortable viewing font on my pocketpc, it then is way too small on my laptop (which admittedly is very hi rez). Is it really all that evil or difficult to make them independent of one another? No, I don’t want to see 300 lines of text, but 15-18 would be nice and still be able to see it on the laptop. This would genuinely help me. I don’t aim to climb on the bandwagon of bigger (or smaller) is better; but sometimes it may be.

    Again, I love listpro. What is there in comparison? Nothing, but since you admit to getting many requests about the font, how about giving it a think?
    Thanks for listening.

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