Pages 3.0: The problem with the lack of sub-pixel anti-aliasing is that we have to live (and work) with it today

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Anti-Aliasing Hall of Shame, Pages
December 4th, 2007 • 4:31 pm

Like John Gruber, I agree with Sven S.-Porst that sub-pixel anti-aliasing is essentially a temporary hack and that it will become unnecessary (and undesirable) when the resolution of our LCD screens is high enough that text rendered with standard (greyscale) anti-aliasing looks great, and not too “thin” as it does today.

The problem is that, apart from the iPhone (which John Gruber says has 160 dpi), most LCD screens used by Apple users today do not have such a high resolution.

My worry is therefore that, because of some future hardware improvements that will eventually make sub-pixel anti-aliasing irrelevant, Apple is simply not bothering to implement sub-pixel anti-aliasing consistently across all its applications today.

The problem is particularly crucial in an application such as Pages. It is, after all, a word processor (and page layout) application, which means that it is an application where people are staring at text all day long.

Is it really acceptable that sub-pixel anti-aliasing is not supported in Pages today because, say, five years from now, many Mac users will be able to use LCD screens whose resolution is high enough to make sub-pixel anti-aliasing irrelevant? Do we really have to live (and work) with this flaw on a daily basis for years while waiting for our hardware to catch up?

Unfortunately, Apple’s track record with the software/hardware disconnect in recent years suggests that the answer is “yes.” I still remember trying to use early versions of Mac OS X on a G4 and observing the scandalously high amount of CPU power that was purely and simply wasted on useless eye-candy, to the point that the whole work environment was slower than it could and should have been. Did Apple ever eliminate or streamline the eye-candy? Of course not. They just forced us to live with it for years, with the huge amount of time wasted associated with it, until the hardware was fast enough to make the waste of CPU power largely irrelevant.

I suspect that they are going to do the same here. Which means that, yes, we are going to have to live (and work) without sub-pixel anti-aliasing in iWork applications until our LCD screens have a resolution that is good enough to make it irrelevant. That is years of having to stare at subpar text rendering.


7 Responses to “Pages 3.0: The problem with the lack of sub-pixel anti-aliasing is that we have to live (and work) with it today”

  1. Warren Beck says:

    I think that it is debatable whether sub-pixel anti-aliasing produces a better image. To my eye, the sharpness obtained by this method is heterogeneous; it depends on the typeface and further it depends on the glyph.

    At far field, sitting back from the monitor at my normal working distance, the sharpness from the standard anti-aliasing is comparable. Perhaps my eyes are not as good as yours, though.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I think Sven S.-Porst does a good job of providing pictures that illustrate the difference. To my eyes, standard anti-aliased text just looks too “thin.” There’s not enough black/white contrast. It is obviously not a deal-breaker (I am still using Pages quite a bit), but it’s disappointing not to have the same font rendering quality in Pages as in other Mac OS X applications.

    I’d be curious to see what your feelings are if you change the “Font smoothing style” setting to “Standard – Best for CRT” in the Appearance pref pane. This will change the font rendering to standard anti-aliasing throughout the Mac OS X environment. Do you still feel the same way?

  3. Warren Beck says:

    I agree with you that the “Standard” mode looks “thinner.” Right now, I’m working with the “Standard” mode on my Apple Cinema displays, and using my working distance (roughly an arm’s length; maybe 1 m) and my reading glasses, the images of small text are about the same in sharpness (maybe for me this should be read as “fuzzyness”) are equivalent in sharpness in the two modes. However, I see your point that the display is darker (or more contrasty) in the sub-pixel mode even though it might be a little fuzzier if I lean in close to the monitor.

    The other thing I should note is that I tend to work (editing manuscripts) with text at 200% zoom in Pages and in Wolfram’s Publicon. Here it is clear that even with sans serif typefaces, it doesn’t really matter what mode of antialiasing is being used—the text just looks better with antialiasing on, a lot better.

    So, I guess I agree with you that in certain situations the sub-pixel antialiasing produces a better image, if more contrast is what you want. I think that I prefer sharpness, again perhaps because of my vision and choice working distance. This may be especially because I use mathematical equations, which have lots of different characters and different type sizes (superscripts, subscripts) in a dense arrangement sometimes.

    It would be better if we had 144 pixel/inch displays that operate effectively at 200% zoom with respect to the old Apple scaling of 72 dots/inch so that we’d get true WYSYWYG again. If we had 288 pixel/inch, like the old laser printers, we could forget this whole problem. Perhaps by next year?

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, a higher zoom setting obviously makes a big difference and makes the font smoothing less important.

    As for higher screen resolutions, I suspect it will take a few more years still. We seem to have reached some kind of plateau right now. They have higher resolutions in the smaller devices, but the big screens are still stuck at the same level.

  5. AlanY says:

    For editing documents I’ve always toyed with idea of picking up one of those greyscale LCD monitors they use in radiology for viewing x-rays. Rather than having color subpixels, there are only greyscale pixels. Naturally the pixel density is higher. It seems like this would be a fantastic solution for working with documents without the compromises of sub-pixel rendering.

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    Never seen those. But if the pixel density is higher, the color/greyscale issue becomes irrelevant. With high enough pixel density, you don’t need sub-pixel anti-aliasing at all.

  7. AlanY says:

    Here’s a link to some models of that style of monitor if you’re interested:
    As a bonus, most have very uniform backlights and wide viewing angles, which would also contribute to text readability. Unfortunately only one model is vaguely affordable ($2300) and its resolution isn’t all that dense, but some of the intermediate models could make sense as business expenses for professional writers, or would be great to buy used.

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