Mac Musings

Browse Different

Daniel Knight - 2000.08.18 -

I've used a lot of browsers over the years, starting with Netscape 2 or 3. I didn't care for early versions of Internet Explorer, so I stuck with Netscape up through about version 4.7.

Then we had Internet problems at work. I learned that there was some brain-dead thought behind Netscape: it couldn't print the page it was displaying without reloading the entire thing off the Net. With our Internet connection at a crawl, that was unacceptable.

So I tried Internet Explorer 4.5. Now I could load and print pages without having to get them off the Web a second time. Very nice. It didn't handle things quite the same way Netscape had, but it was good enough. Best of all, IE made it easy to choose Claris Emailer as my mail client.

One of my favorite features of IE 4.5 and iCab was a pair of buttons: larger and smaller. On Netscape, you had to open the preferences to change your font size. It had a bad habit of bombing when you did that. With IE 4.5 and iCab, you could make text bigger or smaller by clicking a button. There was a very limited range in which IE 4.5 did this, but it was a nice feature - especially when visiting sites designed with the minuscule fonts typical in the Windows world.

Internet Explorer 5 improved that. As with iCab, the range of font sizes was practically unlimited. You could go smaller until you couldn't read it or so large you could read it across the room.

Microsoft made two other significant changes with IE 05. 96 dot per inch graphics and 16 point default type. The 96 dpi thing really only matters when you print, but since the Mac displays at 72 dpi, I changed it back to the setting that matched my display.

I used to surf with 12 point fonts and sometimes even 10 point ones. Verdana, my typeface of choice, looks just great at those sizes. But a lot of fonts, especially serif ones like Times, look horrible below 14 points.

The Problem

I visit a lot of sites. Some, such as Low End Mac, display in whatever size you've selected as your default. We reason that you know how big you like your onscreen type, so we shouldn't try to override it. (We used to. We learned our lesson.)

A lot of other sites are not so accommodating. They'll use type one size smaller as their default (which we used to do) and even use type two sizes smaller once in a while. Some of the sites designed for Windows, where 9 point appears like 12 point does on the Mac, use fonts as small as 7 or 8 points. These are pretty much illegible on the Mac.

Pet Peeve: Webmasters should never specify type in point size, pixel size, or any other absolute measurement unless they don't want to give their visitors the option of choosing a comfortable onscreen size. The larger and smaller buttons don't override fixed font sizes. These webmasters want too much control over final appearance and should be creating PDF files, not Web pages.

For the most part, I can use the larger and smaller buttons in Internet Explorer and iCab to get the onscreen type to a comfortable size. In fact, I tend to make adjustments as I switch between sites, knowing some are normally too small, others too large.

The Solution

Here's an idea for Netscape, Microsoft, iCab, Opera, and anyone else working on browsers: add some intelligence. For better or worse, browsers already accept cookies. Unless you override defaults, they also keep track of which pages you've visited.

My suggestion: browsers should keep track of what type size you prefer to use on each site you visit. If you always go to As the Apple Turns and bump the type one size larger, as I do, the browser should remember that and do it for you.

After all, computers are supposed to handle dull repetitive tasks and make life easier. Maybe someone will add this kind of intelligence to a next generation Web browser.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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