Bye bye Verdana

Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox

Online, the typography mantra has always been sans serif because computer screens were too lousy to render serifs properly. Attempting serif type at body-text sizes resulted in blurry letter shapes. Hence the predeominance of Verdana, Arial, Calibri and the like. And although the rate of progress with monitor technology is way behind other computer hardward advancements, that old guideline of only sans serif no longer applies given the groundswell of growth in higher-quality screens.

In June 2012, Apple introduced the first mainstream computer with a high-definition screen: the MacBook Pro with a resolution of 2880×1800 on a 15-inch display. This screen delivers a pixel density of 220 PPI (pixels per inch, corresponding to the DPI — dots per inch — that measure laser printer quality.)

Apple uses the propaganda term “Retina display” for screen qualities above approximately 200 PPI, under the theory that this is as much as the human eye can resolve. Of course, this is not true: we need around 900 PPI for a screen so good that adding pixels wouldn’t make it look any better.

Although Apple’s screen quality isn’t perfect, it’s dramatically better than anything on offer from other computer vendors. It’s a disgrace that the PC industry hasn’t recognizably improved screen quality over the last decade — despite the fact that we’ve known for decades that 300 PPI screens offer dramatically faster reading speed than low-density monitors.

The mobile-device market has done somewhat better; Apple has delivered HD screens on the iPhone since 2010 (model 4’s 326 PPI) and on the iPad as of this year (model 3’s 264 PPI). Many non-Apple mobile-device vendors also offer HD screens, including the Samsung Galaxy Nexus tablet at 316 PPI, the Nokia E6-00 phone at 328 PPI, and the Sony Xperia S phone, which seems to hold the current record at 342 PPI. The phone people can do it — why can’t the PC guys?

Maybe they’ll have to, after Apple upped the ante with its retina display. Read more of Jakob Nielsen’s analysis at his Alertbox …