WYSIWYG displays tend to be unkind to the eyes COMPUTERS

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March 01, 1993|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

Computer screens are not kind to the eyes, and the diminutive Macintosh Classic may be the unkindest of them all.

The tiny 9-inch screen on the Classic and its compact predecessors -- the SE, Mac Plus and the original Macintosh -- were obviously designed by young people for young people.

The Mac's WYSIWYG display -- "What You See Is What You Get" -- was an exciting breakthrough at the time the Mac was born. It produced an image of a document that closely approximated the results that appeared on paper.

But there was a fallacy in the design, which the little Mac retains to this day -- and which has carried over into virtually all WYSIWYG systems. People generally view computer screens from a greater distance than they read a book, say 24 inches vs. 18 inches. So type that's perfectly easy to read from a printed page becomes a chore on a computer screen.

If your eyes are young, they can probably compensate. But as your eyes get older, type seems to get smaller and smaller, and it's harder to make the adjustment. Don't blame the folks at Apple for this. Back in 1983, when the Mac was designed, there weren't many middle-aged people using computers.

Which brings me to Steven Toth, an Edgewater engineer, JTC telecommunications consultant, Macintosh enthusiast and proprietor of STSI Inc., who began cogitating on this phenomenon a couple of years ago.

"The Mac display is cool if you're sitting very close to it," he says. "But if you're further away, an inch on the screen should really be an inch and a quarter to be comfortable."

After quite a bit of tinkering, Mr. Toth came up with a cheap and effective solution to the problem. He calls it the MacNifier, a $14.95 gadget that attaches to the front of a small Mac screen and magnifies the image by 20 percent.

The MacNifier consists of a flat plastic Fresnel lens mounted in a cardboard frame. Assembly requires a few minutes of tucking Tab A into Slot B, Tab B into Slot C, and so on.

You'll have to spend some time tweaking the MacNifier to eliminate distortion. You'll also have to sit right in front of the computer and look directly at the screen. And from an aesthetic standpoint, it's not an elegant solution.

But it works. The 11-point Times Roman type that you could barely make out without sticking your nose against the glass is suddenly readable. Score one for the eyes.

While the little Mac may be a worst-case scenario, virtually all of today's graphical environments, including IBM-compatibles running Microsoft Windows and Macs with larger monitors, are tough on the eyes.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, they try to emulate on the screen what you expect to see on a piece of paper. But they don't give you nearly as much visual information, which means your eyes and brain have to work harder to decode it.

Consider that a standard laser printer produces characters with a resolution of 300 dots per inch. Books, magazines and other material may be produced on typesetting systems with eight times that resolution. The dots are so close together that the pattern-matching corner of your brain turns them into solid characters without much trouble.

If you've ever read material produced by a cheap, nine-pin dot-matrix printer, you'll notice that it's harder to read. That's because each character is made up of fewer dots. With less information available, your eyes and brain have to work a lot harder to turn the dots into understandable characters.

Computer screens aren't much better than crude dot-matrix printouts, if they're better at all. The original Mac had a screen resolution of only 72 dots per inch -- which, not surprisingly, matched the resolution of the low-end Apple Imagewriter printer.

The Super VGA monitor I use has a resolution of 800 horizontal by 600 vertical dots. That's for the whole screen image, which is about nine inches across on a so-called 14-inch monitor. It's a little better than the original Mac, but not a quantum leap.

Also, the software that drives screen displays doesn't necessarily use a higher monitor resolution to produce better-defined characters. It just makes everything smaller. You'll get more of a page on a 14-inch screen, but it won't necessarily be any easier to read. In fact, it may be harder.

Finally, no matter how much your screen looks like a printed page, your eyes see it as something else entirely. When you read a printed page, your eyes are dealing with an image produced by reflected light. That's the way they're used to seeing things. But when you look at a computer monitor, you're actually staring at a dim light bulb and trying to glean information from the tiny dark areas. And you wonder why you get a headache.

There are a couple of ways to ease the eyestrain. One is to get a bigger monitor. Most graphic artists working for large companies with deep pockets use 19- or 21-inch monitors as a matter of course. These are wonderful, but at $1,500 to $3,000 each, they cost more than an entire computer system with a standard 14-inch monitor.

As a compromise, manufacturers are starting to turn out 17-inch monitors that produce readable displays in graphical environments. But at $1,000 or so on the street, they're still pricey.

If you have an IBM-compatible computer and don't care about a WYSIWYG display, you always have the option of using an old-fashioned DOS word processor, which uses the computer's standard text generator to produce a friendly and readable screen.

We can also hope that Mr. Toth decides that people with bigger monitors -- and all types of computers -- need a MacNifier, too.

For information on the MacNifier, contact STSI Inc., 3910 West Shore Drive, Edgewater, Md. 21037.

(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)

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