Does Apple Understand the Consequences to Your Eyesight?

May 19th, 2010

Even when finances don’t allow me to buy the latest and greatest gear from Apple, I do my best to spend as much face time with the products as possible so I can write about them meaningfully. That means frequent visits to dealers and indulgent clients to allow me to evaluate the good, the bad, and ugly.

Now way back when, screen resolutions on most displays were set at 72 pixels per inch or slightly smaller, said to be the ideal for being able to see text on the screen that was close to the size to the actual printed page. These days, of course, most of the information we read on a computer display will never appear in print.

In an effort to pack more content on the screen and make text appear sharper, display makers have increased the number of pixels. The fabulous 27-inch iMac, for example, has a maximum resolution of 2560×1440, which adds up to some 109 pixels per inch. What this means is that a document page viewed at 100% is actually much smaller than on the printed page, and text is proportionately tiner.

But it gets worse on recent versions of the 17-inch MacBook Pro, with a 1920×1200 resolution, which translates to 133 pixels per inch. Talk about putting lots of stuff in a small place, and all those pixels display ultra fast courtesy of powerful graphics chips and a superb display.

Getting that much content on a computer display may be well and good if you are young and you have near-perfect eyesight. For those who are a little older or whose eyesight is otherwise challenged, it can create serious problems when you actually try to read something.

This isn’t to say there aren’t workarounds. You can zoom the text in a word processor to a more appropriate level. I tend to set a default at 200%, which makes most documents quite readable, though it defeats the ability to view two pages side by size on the screen, which is supposed to be one key benefit of a large screen.

The zooming feature on my iPhone is constantly in use, but you have to expect that when you’re trying to read content on a tiny screen. The situation is better on the iPad, particularly when reading e-books, where you can see pages that are often not too far removed in apparent size from the original printed version.

When writing these columns, WordPress also displays text that’s quite small, but is otherwise fairly distinct. However, I often rely on the Zoom feature in Safari to double text size, to avoid eye strain and make it easier to catch silly typos. I still make mistakes, though not as often.

Yes, it’s possible to set a screen resolution to a lower setting in the Displays preference panel, which increases the size of text. But with an LCD display, departing from the native resolution makes text much fuzzier and that’s not an ideal solution, though I grant it’s necessary for some of you. This is a situation where the old fashioned CRT functioned better, since you didn’t suffer the negative consequences when you deviated from a “native” setting.

The real solution might be some sort of resolution independent system where you can scale the screen in a way that provides great readability and image sharpness regardless of the setting. But since I’m not in the business of developing display hardware or graphics cards, I won’t presume to understand the way technology must be altered to solve this problem.

Of course Apple isn’t alone in packing too many pixels onto a display. All the PC makers do the very same thing. Maybe Apple’s engineers simply have great eyesight, or they are required to submit to Lasik surgery before working on display hardware.

Or maybe, as is probably the case, enough Mac users aren’t complaining, so they continue to use the same approach. The more pixels the better, and may they some day double, even if the customer is hurt by that approach.

It may also be true that Apple expects you to zoom text or change the screen resolution if the default setting isn’t suitable, even if that approach forces you to take different steps for different functions, or put up with a subpar image.

But it’s not just folks with imperfect eyesight that are hurt. Even though the glossy screen on the latest Macs don’t hurt me in the least, there are loads of people for whom glossy means severe discomfort, because the tendency to pick up reflections. I do not pretend to know why, and it would be equally foolish to suggest they undergo therapy to see if there’s a way for them to change their perceptions or preferences.

For the iMac there is no matte or “Antiglare” option. Apple does offer that choice on the 17-inch MacBook Pro for an extra $50. If you want Antiglare on the 15-inch MacBook, you have to pay $150 extra, of which $100 covers the cost of “Hi-Res, which increases display resolution from 1440×900 to 1680×1050, meaning you have to put up with tinier text to get rid of the reflections.

Or maybe I should just acquire a magnifying glass and be done with it.

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16 Responses to “Does Apple Understand the Consequences to Your Eyesight?”

  1. john says:

    Being one of those whose eye sight isn’t what it used to be, my solution for reading on the web is to simply increase the default font size from 16pt to 18 pt. Makes your site’s font quite readable.

    But, yeah, with the increased resolutions, they should finally implement the resolution independence that they’ve been promising since before tiger shipped so that we can see sharper text instead of increasingly small text.

  2. dfs says:

    And then there’s the issue of brightness. Apple and a lot of other manufacturers seem to think that more brightness = better (they certainly use it as a talking point in their advertisements). When my iMac showed up the other month, it came out of the box with the brightness cranked up to the max, it was like trying to stare down a searchlinght and within a matter of minutes I opened the Displays panel and cut it back drastically. Now I run it throttled back a quarter to a third of the way, depending on whether it’s daytime or night. Looking at a too-bright display can’t be any better for your eyes than listening to too-loud sound is for your ears, and certainly Apple doesn’t ship its Macs with the sound cranked up to the max. When it comes to screen brightness, we all need some medical input: experts need to decide what the maximum safe limit is and this needs to be drummed into manufacturers’ heads.

    • You see the same problem with almost any new TV. Brightness is turned up way high to make them look stunning at your local electronics emporium, but that’s not the way you want to see the picture at home. My iMac’s brightness is set about 50%; it’s about two thirds on the MacBook Pro. I also wish Apple would let you selectively disable the keyboard adjustments to change brightness, since that’s an adjustment you’d want to set and forget, rather than have to alter if you press the wrong key. What I’ve done is to change the setting in the Keyboard preference panel to require the “fn” key before activating any of those functions.


  3. Kirk McElhearn says:

    Well said, Gene. I have the same problem. My eyesight is not great, and I even have a special pair of glasses for working on my computer. I increase font sizes everywhere: my default in Safari is 16 pt, and in Mail I use 18 pt. Increasing the resolution is a good thing, but not at the expense of overall screen size. I’m currently working on a 24″ screen, and the sizes of menu texts are ok, but my son has a 15″ MBP, and when I look at it, I find that everything is quite small. It’s too bad the technology doesn’t exist that will allow for different resolutions on a flat screen without fuzziness.

    • K Dubb says:

      @Kirk McElhearn,
      Windows 7 allows you to increase font sizes, objects, everything; and, the resolution is clear as the tiniest fonts. What’s up with Apple? IDK???
      I think Apple’s problem is that they are focused on the youngest of consumers. 15-25 yr olds don’t care.

      • I am far older than 15-25 years and I have no problem changing sizes and reading stuff on my Mac’s screen? Where do you get this nonsense? No wonder you’re using Windows 7.


      • BrianM says:

        @K Dubb,
        Apple has been working on full resolution independence (think a simple slider to scale everything on screen, so everything remains crisp & clear no matter how massive the pixel count on a screen)

        of course, it requires major work on all aspects of the system, and a way for 3rd party programs to deal with it as well. It was first talked about back before 10.5, and keeps getting pushed back, maybe it’ll be one of the big features of 10.7 or 10.8

  4. Joe says:

    I find that I constantly use the ctrl key/2 finger zoom for most web surfing. I would love to see resolution independence also.

  5. Phillip says:

    Regarding brightness, the above comments are correct: my iMac’s brightness is way down, almost all the way down. And increasing the default font size helps too. But I prefer dense (high) resolutions in spite of the resulting issues because I always feel limited by the available real estate. If you wear glasses, a great solution is dedicated computer glasses that compensate for the increased distance from your eyes to the screen as compared to say, reading a book. Standard bifocals are not intended for use with the typically-increased-distance of the computer screen. If you wear contacts, your eyecare professional can prescribe special computer glasses for you.

    That said, the title of this article “Does Apple Understand the Consequences to Your Eyesight” is misleading, for high resolution computer screens have no consequences to your eyesight per se. It reminds me of the old wives tale, that “if you sit too close to the television you will damage your eyesight.” That is simply not true, and it is likewise not true that high resolution displays have any adverse affect on your eyesight. Biological age, however, does have an adverse effect 😉

  6. Mork says:

    Kirk, the tech does exist and we’re really in the midst of a hidden transition to it. Resolution Independence is coming eventually, a decent amount of UI elements are ready, but many still are not. Soon, hopefully.

  7. Lawrence Rhodes says:

    While the long-promised full resolution independence has yet to be implemented, increasing font size in Safari and Mail is a limited example. You can also increase the font sizes the system uses with the (free) TinkerTool utility. The larger-font options give prettier results than non-native screen resolutions, as they display each character in more pixels rather than just blurring the pixels. This still leaves GUI graphics like buttons and title bars unscaled, but I’m less sensitive to those variations.

  8. Brian M says:

    Apple has been working on Resolution Independence for Mac OS X… as a couple of others have already commented. They originally thought they could do it for 10.5, but that had to slip, and the same with 10.6… so hopefully it’ll be one of the big features of 10.7.

    The technical hurdles are quite high, since it requires making everything scalable… much of the core things were not originally designed to do this, so requires a pretty major overhaul of almost everything in the OS.

    When this happens the additional pixels will not be a negative for those who don’t already appreciate them… it will mean that everything looks crisper & clearer. (I hate jaggies, in the UI, fonts, pictures, and 3D games, finally most video cards can do at least 4xAA to smooth out the edges in games)

    I do agree with the default brightness on most things… fortunately it is very easy to change with the brightness controls being right on the keyboard for the desktops and notebooks.

  9. Scott says:

    These high resolutions are why I’m running a MacMini instead of a new iMac. It’s connected to a 22″ Viewsonic display at 1680×1050. The finish is matte as well – another advantage.

    I wouldn’t even consider one of Apple’s current laptop offerings – too many pixels crammed into too small of a space. My PC laptop, a Toshiba running Windows 7 (not too shabby) has a 16″ screen with a native resolution of 1366×768. It is so easy on the eyes – no need to tinker with font settings or window zooming. Desktop icons are on the left and the taskbar is on the right. I don’t feel constrained by the limited vertical space.

    On more of a subjective note, I still prefer the text rendering under Windows as opposed to OS X.

  10. Going blind! says:

    I use a PC laptop for work and macbook at home. I think I work at about the same distance yet I’ve noticed extreme blur with my mac not the pc. I’m at the age where I will be needing glasses! This is a good explanation tho – will need to do some comparisions to see exactly why. Thanks!

  11. Does Apple Understand the Consequences to Your Eyesight? | Bad EyeSight says:

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