Mac Musings

Surfing Large

14 April 2000 - Daniel Knight

I came late to Internet Explorer. In fact, I was using Netscape 4.7 when I decided it was time to try living with IE, not just use it to test web pages.

I made this decision when we were having Net access problems at work. Any time I wanted to print the page I was viewing, Netscape had to reload it from the Web. I can't imagine why it couldn't use the cached page files, but that's the way it worked.

Switching to IE 4.5 meant I could print the page I was viewing without a need to cache.

Internet Explorer 4.5

There were things I didn't like about IE 4.5. As a webmaster, my greatest objection was the extra space it placed above headers. Pages that looked great in Netscape looked a bit off in IE 4.5.

The other thing I didn't like was a complete inability to set my default font size. Microsoft decided what it would be, and I was stuck with it. I could make text larger or smaller within a fixed range, but that was it.

I didn't care for the tabs on the left side of the browser window, but quickly learned to turn them off.

On the positive side, IE 4.5 integrated nicely with Claris Emailer, so I didn't have to use Microsoft's email client. I long wished Netscape had that feature.

Overall, it took a week or two to get used to it, but IE 4.5 soon became my browser of choice.

Internet Explorer 5

Then came Macintosh version 5, almost one year after the PC world got the Windows version. It was ugly, displaying everything in 16 point type - but this version of IE let me change that! Even better, the larger and smaller buttons don't seem limited to a fixed range of fonts. Very nice.

I still am not fond of the mono-hued icons. My computer is capable of displaying a lot more than a limited range of blueberry shades (or whatever color you prefer). I'd love to see a set of full color icons for IE 5, but that's a small complaint.

IE 5 is the most stable, full-featured browser I've ever worked with. It no longer puts extra space above headers. It's a very comfortable working environment.

Netscape 6 Preview

I had high hopes for the new version of Netscape, but gave up on it in a hurry. It takes forever to load, displays huge text, and refuses to show me anything in the preferences window, so I can't change the type size. It's ugly. If Microsoft couldn't kill Netscape completely, it looks like AOL will finish the job.

Surfing Large

But this isn't a review of browsers; it's a look at browser behavior. In particular, it's a look at how Microsoft and Apple think differently from each other.

Ever since the original Macintosh of 1984, the Mac standard has been one pixel equals one point. Twelve point text would map to twelve pixels from the top of capital letters to the bottom of descenders (the "tails" in letters such a g,y, and j). Coincidentally, or perhaps very deliberately, the 9" Mac monitor displayed 72 dots per inch - and there are 72 points in an inch.

The idea was that what you see on the screen would translate to what you printed on your ImageWriter, which supported 72 and 144 dots per inch. Later, it also mapped nicely to laser printers.

I don't know when or why Microsoft elected a different standard for Windows, but they did. Windows displays type at 1.33 points per pixel, so 12 point text doesn't occupy 12 pixels of height, but 16 instead. For Mac users, Windows looks chunky, designed for people with failing eyesight. For Windows users, as I discovered in a meeting this week, Mac text just looks small.

This also explains why Windows users have long needed larger screens to work efficiently. The common 800 x 600 Windows screen actually shows text less than the 640 x 480 Mac screen. Likewise, the iMac's 800 x 600 display has room for more text than a 1024 x 768 pixel monitor on a Windows computer.

There are pros and cons to each approach. When working with small type, as I do when designing books with 7 or 8 point footnotes and 10 point body text, I generally zoom FrameMaker to 125% so the text is more legible. That would make 12 point type 15 pixels high - almost exactly what Windows does by default.

But print is a different environment. We can get away with 6 point type on the printed page, as long as it's not used heavily. But on the computer screen, anything smaller than about 9 or 10 pixels is hard on the eyes. For the Mac, that means 9 point and 10 point Geneva tend to be pretty legible. For the Windows people, though, with 1.33 pixels per point, 7 point text comes in at about 9 pixels and 8 point text at about 10. That's part of the reason you'll often find pages with such small text that you can't read it at your normal (Mac) browser setting.

Microsoft addressed that with IE 5.0, as did Netscape with their preview release of Netscape 6. By setting the default on both Mac and Windows versions of the browser to match what 90% of the world uses, Mac users can finally access those pages with otherwise-miniscule type.

On the other hand, as someone whose been surfing on the Mac for several years, the Web just doesn't look right with a default of 16 point type. The characters are more fully formed at that size, but they're also huge.

As a compromise, I've tried working with 14 point as my default text in IE 5.0. It's better than 16, but not as nice as 12. The only benefit of using 14 as my default is that I'm less likely to need to hit the "larger" button to read smaller type - but pages designed around normal type just look to chunky with 14 or 16 point text.

Thank goodness IE 5.0 lets you change that setting. In the end, I've concluded that Apple was right all along: one pixel on the screen should match one point of type, and 12 point type is ideal for reading on the screen.

At this point, I'm glad I made the switch to Internet Explorer last year, and I'm even more pleased with the performance of IE 5.0. Not only does it display PNG images (IE 4.5 did not), but it gives me more control than any other browser I've used.

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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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