Archive for the ‘Hardware’ Category

Entering the world of high-DPI displays

With a Retina iPad and my recent purchase of a Yoga 2 laptop with a “Quad HD” display (3200×1800) I’ve been dragged into the world of high-DPI (more precisely PPI) displays. For years, DPI was “standard” at either 96dpi (Windows) or 72dpi (Mac OS), with a logical/software pixel being equivalent to a hardware pixel on the display device. A higher resolution monitor meant the content on your display got a bit smaller but you gained a couple more thousand pixels to work with, but the recent and massive increases in pixel densities seems to be the end of the 1:1 mapping between software and hardware pixel references. Below are a few notes on my experiences dealing with high-DPI displays and content so far.

  • Windows 8.1 support is terrible. Both application support and operating system support for high-DPI displays is abysmal. See the post Living a High-DPI desktop lifestyle can be painful by Scott Hanselman which reflects many of the issues I’ve encountered with my Yoga 2 as well. There’s a large list of issues: for non-DPI aware applications Windows scale text but not icons and layout, applications lie about being DPI-aware and are rendered too small, and some applications simply crash (TourtiseSVN’s diff… no clue why, too many pixels?!). It’s easy to wag a finger at application developers, but legacy support is clearly something the operating system needs to handle. In addition, despite Windows 8.1 touting automatic, per-monitor, DPI detection, it’s all based off of the DPI of a “primary monitor” and content on the other monitors is scaled to match. So dragging a window for an application from the Yoga 2 display across to a HD/96dpi monitor results in the window being scaled down (and visibly blurry). Worse, all applications undergo the same treatment – so if you’re thinking you can just use non-DPI aware applications on an external display until support comes around, guess again.
    ArsTechnica did a piece mentioning this issue in particular, and Windows 8.1’s high-DPI support is general.
  • Web support is only half-way there. The best thing done to support high-DPI displays was defining the CSS2 reference pixel to be independent of hardware pixels. Beyond that you have media queries and higher resolution background images, but there’s still no good way to specify alternate foreground images, though the <picture> element may gain support soon. In general, outside of CSS things gets messy, as is the case with a high-DPI <canvas>.
    One problem with the web that I don’t see a proposed solution for is handling low-resolution image assets for which you can’t get a higher resolution version. This is a problem I face with this blog. There’s a lot of images (old screenshots, low-resolution photos, etc.) for which I can’t get a 2x, 4x, etc., higher resolution version and there’s no way to prevent upscaling the images or specify how the upscaling is done. The typical 2x-bilinear-filtered upscaling, done by most browsers, is not always desirable. In addition, as display vendors pack more pixels in, what happens when the “high-resolution” version needed is 4x or 8x?
  • SVG/Vector-based images aren’t always the answer. There’s a lot of benefits to vector-based formats, but they’re not the holy grail many think they are. For vector-based images, rendering costs grow as you add details with polygons and paths. It’s why video games still rely heavily on texture mapping, even as graphics hardware has progressed to handle rendering millions of polygons per frame – the additional geometry and computation for fine details is enormous.

Ugly software

I’ve gone through multiple motherboards, multiple audio chipsets, and the associated software seems to just keep on getting worse. This is the VIA HD Audio Deck in my latest motherboard:

VIA HD Audio Deck

VIA HD Audio Deck

Functionally, yes, it works, but there isn’t even at attempt at any sort elegant layout or UI here – it’s difficult to navigate and an eyesore to look at. Sadly, judging by the custom widgets, it seems a significant amount of work actually went into creating this monstrosity.

Multitouch

I came across the following video of a toddler using an iPad for the first time. It’s amazing to watch and see how quickly she is able to acclimate to the touchscreen interface and navigate to and launch the apps she wants. I certainly haven’t seen kids able to do this with the traditional mouse/keyboard combo much less a touchpad on a laptop or netbook.

This is exactly the reason I was optimistic for the JooJoo … and why I’m optimistic for the iPad and the HP Slate, and touchscreens in general … it’s the touch-based user input which is poised to radically reshape and simplify the personal computing experience.

The accompanying blog post at laughing squid provides a nice write-up and analysis of the UX experiment. The concluding remarks are interesting:

Most of all, though, it’s cool to consider that as one of the new Children of Cyberspace, her expectations about computing will be shaped by the fact that she’s growing up in a touchscreen world.

The video along with this remark instantly reminded me of the TED conference where Jeff Han presented his multitouch interface and expressed his disappointment, in regards to the $100 laptop, of introducing a new generation to computing with the standard mouse and pointer interface.

It’s also amazing to remember seeing this video is 2006, where multitouch seemed like some conceptual idea that would never find its way into any real consumer-level product – only about a year later the iPhone was introduced.

The JooJoo

The hate for the joo joo (formerly the Crunchpad) has been palpable,

From Silicon Alley Insider,

At $500, this Web-only tablet is very expensive. And it doesn’t do much — just a Web device.

From ZDNet,

You can get a far better device for far less money. Who does Fusion Garage think it is, Apple? the price alone, makes this device a FAIL. Forget that it’s from a name you’ve never heard of. Forget that it’s Linux. Forget that it’s a really cut down Linux distro that’s totally hooked to the web. Forget that chances are not a single machine will ever see light of day because it’ll become a casualty of litigation.

From CNet,

it’s priced out of reach of most consumers, and functionally doesn’t offer much more than a $300 Netbook, although arguably it performs many of the same functions with a lot more style.

(Though it seems more recent, hands-on reviews of the tablet have been a lot more favorable)

the joojoo

Call me an optimist, but I think the joo joo has a lot going for it, and many of the negative comments directed towards it seem to be based on the fact that it will be competing against similarly priced netbooks, and that’s only a valid comparison if you think netbooks (or laptops for that matter) are comparable devices; in my view, they’re not, tablets are a new form of computing devices, one poised to become more powerful and user-friendly than the netbook/laptop form. My primary reason for this view, user input.

A while back I noticed something, I do very little typing when browsing the web, the majority of the time I’m reading, browsing, or scanning a page’s content or scrolling; when I do type, it’s typically in short bursts – long emails and blog posts are not frequent activities for me. I suspect the same behavior is true to a certain extent for others as well. Given this behavior, the mouse can be viewed as the primary input device, with the keyboard being secondary. Of course on a laptop or netbook you don’t have a mouse, but a touchpad, which is, in my opinion, a terrible input device. The touchpad tries to replicate the functionality of the mouse, but never really hits the mark; it does not provide the same level of fine-grained precision, it’s not as comfortable, and it feels fairly awkward to use. The nipple is only slightly better, and has the added disadvantage of bruising your index finger after extended usage. This is why I’m optimist for the joo joo, and tablets in general, it provides a form-factor and input device that eliminates the horrid touchpad, and provides a computer with a form of user input that matches or, in some cases, rival the mouse.

The joojoo is not a netbook or a laptop, and it shouldn’t try to be one. As for some of the other criticisms,

  • When did everyone become an expert on pricing?! $500 is steep, but not necessarily for early adopters. New graphics cards and CPUs can hit or exceed the $500 mark (note, that’s $500 for a single component, where there is typically no software out that can push it to the limit). The iPhone debuted at $600, and that was before the app store.
  • I don’t like that it’s a web-only device, but it seems to be a necessity here, as there isn’t a real hard drive, which makes sense; a conventional hard drive would kill a tablet (too heavy, too bulky, too much power consumption) as would an SSD (too expensive).
  • There is no problem with this device running Linux. Linux is a very capable operating system.
  • I have no comment on the litigation issue, I have no knowledge of what the relationship was between Arrington and Fusion Garage (and I doubt anyone else does either, beyond the parties involved). I was under the impression that Arrington was founder of the company making the device, that was obviously not the case.

Searching for DAVE

As hinted in my previous post I’m working on some bluetooth stuff. Specifically, I’m working with the OBEX-based File Transfer Profile. I’ve been utilizing my cell phone for all testing and cell phones are the likely target for this functionality in the product I’m working on (more on that in a later post). Having played around the the technology for a few months and written a library for file I/O on top of Windows’ sockets functionality, I have a fairly positive impression of the technology. As with all wireless tech, it’s great not having to deal with cables (especially vendor-specific ones), but more-so it provides a nice bedrock for device-to-device communication, which is something that’s not quite trivial with Wi-Fi.

With my love of bluetooth, it’s become quite perplexing to see such a dearth of devices that actually support it. I’m not referring to cell phones or headsets for cell phones, but other devices such as digital cameras. It could be argued that communication over bluetooth is slower than a USB cable; this is true, but bluetooth v2.0 has a respectable 2.1Mbit/s (respectable in the sense that most people have about the same throughput with a low-end broadband connection), and it’s certainly cheap enough to have a bluetooth adapter in addition to a USB port on a device for instances where convenience takes precedence over transfer speed.

In searching for any bluetooth devices out there other than cell phone and headsets, I came across Seagate’s DAVE; a battery powered external hard drive, supporting bluetooth, wi-fi, and usb connections. Now this seemed like a really cool idea, a completely wireless, external hard drive, in a beautifully small form-factor. The first mention of DAVE seems to be at San Jose’s Tech Museum in Jan. 2007, coming in 10gb or 20gb flavors. The next mention of DAVE seems to come over a year later, in Jan. 2008 at Digital Life, with DAVE now 60gb in size and the unfortunate mention that Seagate does not plan to sell the device directly, but instead sell it to smartphone manufacturers to rebrand and resell (and quite certainly limit compatibility to only their product lines) to users.

Unfortunately, 12 months later, and there’s no sight of DAVE from Seagate or a rebranded DAVE from any smartphone vendors. No Seagate product page exists on DAVE and this cool little hard drive seems to have disappeared from existence.

As for similar devices, I found an old announcement for the Toshiba Pocket Server which seems to have never seen the light of day. There was also the BluOnyx which was shown in early 2007, then a corporate merger (Agere – LSI), then new signs of life, but alas this seems to be another cool product that won’t make its way to market.