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The Difference Between Resolution and Size: Or, My Abstraction Leaks More Than Yours, so there!

Speaking of leaky abstractions, I just ran across this interesting problem in Doug Mahugh’s post, Doug’s World » What Resolution is best?.

What resolution is best for images on blogs? Everyone has an opinion, and mine is that 1024×768 is ideal.

I love (that is, hate with intense envy) the photographs that Doug posts on his site.  If he doubled the pixel dimensions of his images, I’d still find some way to look at them.

The problem with Doug’s analysis, of course, is that 1024 x 768 is not a resolution.  Resolution has to do, roughly, with pixel coverage in a unit area.   (In photography and imaging that’s not quite right, which shows that even straightening this out is an improvement but not the whole story.)  There needs to be something about the quality of those pixels too (8 bit, 24 bit, 32 bit color for example) and the fidelity with which they are imaged on a display surface.

A second problem is that any browser report on “resolution” is presumably about the pixel coverage of the entire display and we have no idea (1) what the physical dimensions of that display are nor (2) do we have any idea how much of it is being used by the browser and (3) how well the browser is rendering the image.

This handling of abstractions is so leaky (and so commonplace) it is not clear there is any abstraction at all.  It’s just noise about two numbers that are taken to be measures of something.

Of course, I could simply be objecting because my 19–inch LCD monitor provides 1280 by 1024 pixels and, in my normal way of working, there are browser pages that don’t fit properly even when I go to maximum screen and I usually don’t want all of my screen consumed by a single application.  When I am on Quadro, my tablet PC, 1024 by 768 is the best I get, making it even more difficult to browse some sites (and use some applications).  If I change to a portrait view (that is, 768 by 1024), it may be even more difficult.

So long as Doug puts up decent thumbnails and lets me choose which ones I want to see done large, I am very happy.  As a regular visitor to his blog, I also know what to expect: Viewing his pictures is invariably worth the effort to bring them to my browser.  I can also compensate for the browser changing the dimensions (resizing) and then resampling the image on me, especially now that Internet Explorer 7 makes it easy to detect and over-ride that behavior.  It doesn’t hurt that I am getting 4 Mbps downloading on my DLS ADSL broadband connection.

Here’s the lesson I want to emphasize:  What Doug is doing is like guessing the ideal bench seat setting for everyone’s car, based on some averaging of ergonomic statistics.  This does not mean his choice is a bad one.  It is just that his analysis doesn’t answer the real question, which is what really works for his readers.  (My using two computers makes it more like bucket seats for very different people, so now what?  When I’m on wireless on the Tablet changes everything, of course, as if I’ve got a Ferrari and a Vespa in the same garage.)

This is a common pitfall in the design of software and computer-based systems generally.  Useful examples are important to notice.  And yes, the difference between coverage/density, size, and resolution will be on the quiz.  The difference between those technical metrics (gotten right) and what works for the user will be on the final.


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