Design Philosophy: Apple v. Microsoft

Joe Dombrowski, The Verge:

The trend continues into the modern day of the competing text rendering philosophies of Microsoft and Apple. To apple, the font is king. For example, on a capital ‘A’, the middle bar might appear between two pixels. On a Mac, the font would not move the bar, but use two rows of pixels at a lower intensity to accurately render the original font proportions. On the other hand, a Windows system would simply move the line up or down so that it aligned to the actual pixel grid. The result is sharper text, that is easier to read, but does not correspond to the appearance of printed text (Spolsky, 2007). Additionally, Windows does not use a linear scaling of fonts; again, this leads to better readability, but at the expense of the integrity of both font and layout (Guard, 2007).

Fascinating. I did not know this. Would I choose sharper and easier to read text at the expense of it not looking like what it is suppose to look like? No doubt Microsoft ClearType engineers did a lot of homework, even integrating display hardware into the equation. But there seems to be something lacking, a deep understanding of what we want to see on our screens. I like sharpness and readability, but give the either/or choice I would always choose integrity.

I’m no expert, but I figure properly rendering typography on displays is extremely difficult. It’s like trying to make a circle with small squares. Actually, it is trying to do just that. The way Microsoft is solving the problem feels like there are little lies in them. Verdana that only looks 95% Verdana. That doesn’t sound right. Apple’s approach, on the other hand, is truthful even to the detriment of clarity and readability. Helvetica that looks 100% Helvetica even if it doesn’t look good. With the problem of little lies I am not sure, but the problem of clarity can be solved by improvements in display technology. The concept is simple: Make the squares smaller to the point where our eyes can’t distinguish each square. We saw this in the iPhone 4 with the 3.5-inch 960×640 Retina Display. By doubling the resolution to 326 ppi pixels, at about 12 inches from our eyes pixels simply disappeared. Problem solved. I expect Apple is now working hard to solve this very problem on the next iPad as well as Macs.

On occasion I switch to 960×600 HiDPI mode on my MacBook Pro just to taste what a Retina version would look like. I’m typing this post in this mode now. Let me tell you typography looks absolutely wonderful, the way they should look. Pixels disappear. It’s as if every time a key is pressed real ink is printed on the screen.

In 1994, our family purchased a Macintosh Performa 630CD. The bundled 800×600 12″ monitor seemed positively enormous at the time, but is dwarfed by the giant monitors we use now. The 15 and 17″ 1024×768 monitors we purchased alongside our next two computers (Compaq Presario 4860 and Compaq Presario 7360), though larger, didn’t fare much better. This meant that through Windows 98 and Mac OS 8/9, information density was far more important than design […]

I don’t agree. The 12-inch monitor with a 800×600 pixel format translates into a resolution of 83.33 ppi. The 15-inch with 1024×768 isn’t that much better with 85.33 ppi. The 17-inch monitor most likely did not have 1024×768, but rather 1280×1024. And with that pixel format the resolution does increase a bit to 96.42 ppi. These minuscule increases in resolution, or pixel density, do not indicate “information density” was more important than design. What Dombrowski probably meant to say was that per monitor more pixels and therefore more content was displayed than previous smaller ones. I keep going back to the iPhone 4, but with the Retina Display Apple completely changed how things are done. Before the iPhone 4 a higher ppi on the same display meant more information. Those information bits were smaller, but there were more of them. After the iPhone 4 a higher ppi doesn’t necessarily mean that. More importantly it could mean quite the opposite: the same level of information density, but sharper more readable information, especially in the form of text.

Apple’s design seems to never go out of style. It’s the black slacks and white button down shirt, never at the cutting edge, but always appropriate.

Trendy versus classy. I know the article is about software, but the same conclusion can be applied to hardware. The unibody MacBook Pro I’m using was manufactured in mid-2009. The crazies at Apple probably designed it much earlier than that. Except for a few niggles, I wouldn’t change a thing. And I don’t expect I’d want to for quite some time. The only thing that would force me to seriously covet a new 17-inch MacBook Pro is a quadrupled pixel format of 3840×2400. Thankfully I think it’ll take a few years for Apple to get to that. I want to make the most of my investment and make it last. My choice? Classy over trendy, every time. Who knows? Maybe classy is the new cutting edge.