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ATPM 12.10
October 2006



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by Mark Tennent,

17″ Is Just Not Big Enough for Some Men

Like an old car, it seems that as we age, bits of us pack up, slow down, or need a de-coke. More likely and legally, a de-wine (or insert favourite over-indulgence here). Get to 30 and your looks start fading. By 40, teeth need regular attention. Reach 50, and eyesight decreases so 7-point text might as well be on the moon—something younger graphic designers could take notice of, especially yellow condensed text on purple backgrounds and other such nonsense.

In some respects, reading onscreen helps. Not only are things a comfortable distance away, but screen contrast and brilliance can be adjusted and pages resized to make things more comfortable. Only one problem remains—using a monitor that is just not big enough. It doesn’t help having to design A3-landscape (420×297mm) pages on a 17″ monitor, either.

When I started computing for real, in the days of “Home Computers” powered by Zilog 8-bit chips and the like, my first machine had a black-and-green monitor displaying at 256 lines of 720 pixels. This was acceptable for text, even a few games, and good enough to get me into “design” via desktop publishing.

This first computer was rapidly followed by two Atari Mega ST’s, paid for from the DTP done on the Amstrad computer. The Atari screens were actually smaller than the previous ones but at least had color. Again, the financial results of the Ataris bought the first Mac, and I joined the big boys. Even then, the standard Apple 13-inch monitor was only just acceptable for DTP, its crisp resolution making up for the small viewing area. Eventually I worked with two Macs on my desk to share the load computationally and to get more applications available at one time.

Nowadays, our Macs are capable of so much more. Multi-tasking is taken for granted, RAM runs to gigabytes, and we can have almost every application we own running at the same time. It all makes for a messy screen, something Apple tried to address by sliding things in and out of the Dock and giving us Exposé. Some users swear by two or more monitors; just about all recent Macs have a video card that supports this. Personally, I prefer one screen on my desk, but the price tag on the really big ones is enough to buy a hundred square miles of prime Romanian real estate.

Which is why I looked at using virtual desktops as a solution. The forthcoming Leopard version of Mac OS X will have such a facility built in, called Spaces. Virtual desktops are nothing new since their introduction as Amiga OS scrolling desktops in 1985. Unix and Linux have had virtual desktops for years. Windows XP has them, but Microsoft’s own Power Tools only works with US regional settings and is unsupported.

The Mac world saw the world’s first commercial desktop manager, Stepping Out, in 1986, and currently there are at least three contenders, two of which are free: CodeTek’s $40 VirtualDesktop Pro, Rich Wareham’s venerable and free DesktopManager, and Tony Arnold’s free VirtueDesktops which is based on Wareham’s work but offering a fuller graphical experience. These are most likely doomed to the dustbin when Leopard arrives.

I chose VirtueDesktops to test the theory. It started with a simple matter of double-clicking to run the program. As a free piece of software, VirtueDesktops does exactly what it says it should. The program is a universal binary giving an unlimited number of virtual screens, a choice of transitions and window fading, and it is AppleScriptable and extensible to add additional features. I found it works well with Exposé, showing just the windows for the current desktop. I was able to turn VirtueDesktops off and on with no ill effects. The applications running in virtual desktops switched to the one, single desktop when VirtueDesktops was quit. Just about everything can be set to personal preferences, each desktop can have its own pattern, and applications can be “stuck” to a certain desktop. The transition effects are neat too, as shown using the standard Apple “Cube” transition effect.

After two days of complete confusion, losing track of what application was open in which desktop, virtual desktops gave me brain strain and didn’t really help anyway. Virtual desktops are more for people who like to have “environments.” Where, for example: one desktop can be set aside for programming and coding, with all the paraphernalia it involves; another can be used for different browsers and Web creation tools; a third desktop for music editing, and so on. As a designer, I find most Mac design software is well integrated so that clicking on a graphic in a page layout program results in Photoshop or Illustrator automatically coming to the fore to edit it. The other built-in tools of the Mac’s operating system cope with screen clutter created by multiple applications being open at the same time.

For me, the only solution is to buy a new monitor, not a second one to run side by side but a big big-boys’ toy. It’s just too hard to fit A3 landscape spreads onto two monitors side-by-side and still be able to read the text to edit it. The screen needs to be a 23″ or larger and will come complete with a cost that increases exponentially with size and quality. On the other hand, just a couple of years ago the price would have bought a pretty decent family car. Even now, for the same money I bought a reliable Toyota pick-up last year, when renovating my house. After I sold the pick-up I regretted the decision and miss its load-lugging abilities and go-anywhere ability. It was thirsty, though, averaging 25mpg, which in Europe is about half the mileage we expect from our vehicles.

What a dilemma! How does one decide among an Apple, Dell, HP, or LaCie—or a diesel Toyota Hiace?

The answer is staring me in the face. Not the cheapest monitor and a long way from the most expensive. Mid-range in features and quality but it looks great next to my aluminium G5. Between thinking of it and buying, Apple also reduced its price and increased the quality so I can give a five thumbs up the my new 23″ Cinema Display. Compared with my perfectly good 17″ LCD, it has 50% more screen, and it’s brighter and easier to read, which is something to bear in mind if your eyes are feeling the strain of on-screen working.

As for virtual desktops and the forthcoming Spaces…no thanks.

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Reader Comments (1)

TriangleJuice · October 2, 2006 - 10:39 EST #1
People who use yellow condensed text on purple backgrounds are not called designers, they're called FrontPagers ;-)

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