GUIdebook: Graphical User Interface galleryHome > Articles > “Making good GUI sense”
Go backArticlesMaking good GUI sense

Reprinted from PC Magazine, March 31, 1992, pp. 99-100.

Illustration by Ned Shaw
This image can be zoomed
Windows 3.0 has spurred on the software industry, and it’s driving video hardware sales, too.

I said here a year ago that I thought the success of Windows was going to redefine how we thought about PC display systems. It turns out I was right, but I didn’t go far enough.

Making good use of a graphical user interface demands a lot of screen real estate – so you can see what’s happening in a window, and so you can have more than one usefully large window open at once.

The old 13- to 14-inch standard for PC displays just isn’t big enough for GUI environments. That’s aggravated, of course, by displays that hide a lot of the tube behind the bezel, or – worse still, and very common – don’t fill the part that is visible from corner to corner. (There’s no mystery here: The engineers couldn’t get a sharp image from corner to corner, so they just masked-off the outside half-inch or more of the tube. What a big difference that makes in the image size!)

This year’s new 15- to 17-inch displays deliver a lot more viewable area than the old 13-inch units, but bigger screens alone aren’t enough. Eliminating screen flicker is also critical. A scanning rate of 72 Hz or higher reduces this flicker, which can tire your eyes.

Because GUIs are notorious computer-power hogs, they also demand very fast video cards to drive these new displays. And we compound the speed problem: Not only do we insist on faster screen redraws in an inherently slower GUI environment, we also want lots of resolution with lots of colors.

Lots of resolution translates into at least Super VGA’s 800- by 600-pixel array, and maybe super-Super VGA’s 1,024-by-768 matrix. Of course, real performance buffs demand nothing less than 1,280-by-1,024 screens.

And lots of colors means not just the 16 colors of basic VGA but the 256 colors of the VESA-Super VGA standard. I don’t want to think about the 32,000 simultaneous colors from a palette of 16 million colors offered by today’s 24-bit graphics boards.

Combine, say, a 1,024-by-768 display with 256 colors and you have one heck of a lot of pixels to push around. So even with fast display cards, screen redraw times go through the roof – along with your patience.

The obvious answer is an accelerated video board, using chips such as the Texas Instruments 340x0 series. These are widely available but still expensive – a thousand bucks or more, at typical street prices, for the ones you want. When you’ve just spent something over a thousand dollars for a new, larger monitor, the idea of spending another grand for a new video card is distinctly unappealing.

If price is no object, indulge yourself with a fast, accelerated video board.

But if, as for most of us, price is very much an issue, or if you’re looking at a corporate purchase of monitors and boards for your workers as you proliferate Windows beyond the early adapters, then consider the nonobvious solution: software acceleration.

Some time back I saw a demo of what was to become Panacea’s WinSpeed. It’s a set of improved, much faster Windows video drivers that work with most popular video boards. Panacea worried that you and I would be unwilling to cough up $50 to $70, the planned street price, if the product was called a mere video driver kit, so it came to market as a “Display Accelerator for Microsoft Windows.” Never mind the hype: I was skeptical, too, but the finished product is a gem.

Panacea claims up to a fivefold speed improvement. I’ve never gotten that, but I have seen improvements of 100 percent and better with several video boards. That’s $50 well spent.

If you’re willing to stop at 800-by-600 resolution with 256 colors, I’m almost certain you’ll find WinSpeed plus a speedy Super VGA board with a meg of video RAM fast enough. If you want to push on to 1,024-by-768 with 256 colors, WinSpeed will probably still be enough, but make sure you try the combination for a week or two before buying the hardware.

Bigger is smaller?

Before you take any of these leaps beyond standard VGA’s 640 by 480 pixels, let me add one little kicker many Windows users don’t discover until it’s too late: the very small character sizes that you’ll get onscreen at high resolutions.

Higher resolution doesn’t mean larger, sharper characters; it means smaller, sharper characters. For many of us, the tiny screen fonts used in Windows running at 800-by-600 resolution on a 15- to 17-inch monitor are about as small as we can go. Move up to 1,024-by-768 and graphics will be pretty and text may be almost unreadably small.

There are ways around this. Using the IBM 8514A character set is one that’s become pretty well known; using high quality high-resolution display fonts such as the Crystal Fonts supplied with ATI’s video boards is another. Even so, you may not like what you see – especially if you have to look at it for several hours a day.

And liking what you see is what displays are all about, isn’t it?

I restrain myself to Panacea’s 800-by-600 resolution (via a VideoSeven VRAM II card) for most work – and sometimes even fall back to 640-by-480, especially when I have a few people looking over my shoulder. On a top-quality 17-inch display such as the new NEC MultiSync 5FG – or on Radius’s new Precision Color 20, the best big (20-inch) color display I’ve ever seen-800-by-600 looks fine, and I’m happy.

When I’m assembling pages in Page Maker, I switch to 1,024-by-768, to see more on-screen – but invariably return to 800-by-600 when I’m done.

Be wary of cranking your display up to the highest resolution it and your video board will support. The result may be impressive – and unpleasant. And before you spring for an accelerated-hardware video board, try WinSpeed. It’s no panacea (sorry!), but it’s a great answer for most of us.

Jim Seymour

Page added on 13th December 2004.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.