Small Is Beautiful

A few nights ago, we recorded LugRadio. In this episode, Season 5 Episode 7, which is released on Mon 17th Dec 2007, we did a review of the Asus EEE PC, and we are also giving one away in a competition.

One of the distinctive traits of EEE PC, and many other sub-notebook, MID and smaller computing devices, is that they run with a smaller screen resolution than typical desktop machines. I am pretty sure that most desktop machines that people are running Linux on will be running on a minimum of 1024×768, and likely a higher resolution. One of the things that I have noticed in recent years is that an increasing number of Open Source applications look terrible on lower resolutions. A great example is the Preferences Window in Evolution which on my main computer’s resolution of 1368×769 is too tall for the screen. If anyone has resorted to learning Alt+Drag on a window, we have lost.

With the conveyed wisdom suggesting that Linux is a far better suited choice for low power machines, it is likely that we will see more and more of these sub-notebooks and embedded devices cropping up, and as such, in the wider upstream world we need to be conscious of this screen real-estate issue.

In my mind this is a QA issue, pure and simple. We need better testing, bug-reports being filed, and users actively checking and ensuring that software works well in lower resolutions. I also believe it forces us all into a world of more intelligent, usable design – hugely tall windows crammed with a million preferences or super-thick toolbars are not usable interfaces. One could infer that having to be conscious of lower resolutions will make us think more about the usability of our applications and ensure we don’t cram a million-and-one buttons into a window.

This is not a specific bollocking for the Evolution developers, a great many upstream applications are guilty of not running all that well on lower resolutions. The only aim of this post is to raise the issue in as many upstream minds as possible – we have a real opportunity to kick arse on these types of devices, but if the integrators need to spend a significant amount of time hacking on upstream code to make the applications work on these smaller screens and resolutions, it is a lot less desirable than the applications just working because the problem has already been solved upstream.

Its an exciting time folks, and there is such opportunity here. Oh, and don’t forget you can bag yourself a free EEE PC in the LugRadio competition, so tune in and take part when the show is released on Monday. :)

  • Chris

    This reminds me of when I was installing Ubuntu (Feisty I think) from the live CD on my Shuttle SN41G2. The on-board video card wasn’t recognised, so X defaulted to a resolution of 640×480. At this resolution the installer was unusable, because (if I remember right) the Next/Back/Cancel buttons were off the bottom of the screen, and I couldn’t resize the window. I got around it, but I can’t remember how.

    One of the things that’s nice about small touchscreen devices like the new Nokia and Apple devices is that it forces a rethink on the user interface design. Not without its disadvantages, it must be said, but it certainly solves the problem above.

  • Alex H

    I think the age of the single-UI application is coming to an end. Even if portable devices get higher resolution screens, they’re not really going to get physically bigger, which is an equal problem.

    There’s not really any way an app is going to run comfortably both on an eee and on my Dell (1900*1200) – even a web browser’s relatively simple UI needs to be pretty different.

    It’s about time GNOME apps decoupled the business end from the UI, so you could either do ‘evolution –heavy’ or ‘evolution –light’, and it loads up a different glade/whatever to suit the device it’s running on. And maybe adjusts how hard it whacks the cpu/gfx too, or something.

  • imbrandon

    Yea the Ubuntu installer is also bad about this, as the person above mentioned, I was installing on a iMac PPC 333Mhz and was forced to use 800×600 on the live cd, the buttons and some options were off the screen :( Now I’m just as guilty as the other devs ( Being a Ubuntu Developer myself ) for not providing patches to fix this but it is an issue we all need to think about more.

  • Stu

    Maybe a testing vmware image is needed, that defaults to lower resolutions

  • Vincent

    The two commenters before me have already pointed this out, but I thought I’d yet emphasize it some more 😉 The installer doesn’t seem to work at 800×600. The bug is apparently already reported, with a “high” priority and 32 duplicates up til now. The shocking thing, however, is that this bug was reported on 2006-04-06, which is since (before?) Dapper and still hasn’t been fixed. In fact, I’m a bit surprised I hadn’t heard of it before that blog post I linked to.

  • Jon

    I have a similar issue with Firefox’s pref pane; it’s not too large for my x40’s screen, per se, but when operating mouse-less, I can’t resize it so that the controls don’t disappear at the bottom of the window. So actually the window is too small. Maybe I should switch window managers come to think of it (whilst I wait for a replacement thinkpad nipple)

  • mattj

    I got mine on tuesday, It is an excellent piece of kit. I have two desktops that I was using every day, and an old dell laptop. I havn’t used the old laptop or the powermac since. It has completly changed what I want in a laptop(or possibly Kneetop!) I would never have a full sizrd laptop again, I can just chuck the eee in my bag when I go to college, I don’t need to think about taking a laptop bag, charger etc.

    The screen resoution can be a bit annoying at times, but hopefully, this will get solved (Ubuntu mobile maybe?)

    Did you just use the Xandros OS or install anything else. I couldn’t stand it so I put some Ubuntu goodness on it. Its lovely.

  • Maxo

    I was just going to post about how bad the installer is on this issue as well. Many of the settings, both administrative and specific to the user, are done through windows that don’t fit on a screen running at lower than 1024X768. One easy solution to me, it seams, would be for GTK to make the windows fit int he screen and then add scroll bars. This is how most programs who have large screens on small displays work in Windows.

  • Maxo

    Oh, I was also hoping that in the future, Jono would keep his fetish of small things out of his blog. :mrgreen:

  • Michael

    Yeah, I use an Eee PC so I know first-hand the difficulties of having to Alt+Drag almost everything. Compizconfig-settings is BRUTAL, to the point of being useless on the 800*480 resolution. I for one, wouldn’t mind an alternate way, without all the prettiness perhaps, to change my compiz settings.

    I think I will start a thread on the forums asking people to submit information on programs that need to be dragged on the Eee. If we do compile a list of programs, what do you recommend we do with it?

  • Tony Yarusso

    Absolutely – things that push the limits like Evolution don’t even fit on my screen, and that’s 1024×768! Maddening.

  • Emmet Hikory

    There are actually a couple factors in play here. It’s not just about picking something that works at a given resolution, but making things work for a variety of resolutions and DPI settings. Someone with 800×600 at 75 DPI (13.3″ screen) wants something different than someone with 1024×600 at 200 DPI (e.g. Sony UX). In the former case, small is “clean”, wheras in the latter case small is “unusable”. The trick is to get widgets & applications to set heuristics for display based on the combination of DPI and resolution to make something work nicely.

    To put it another way, an interface that looks excellent at 800 x 480, 200 DPI (common MID-type device) tends to look lousy over VNC when pixel-mapped to a 17″ 1024×768 display.

  • Langan

    Posts like this are whatt keep me coming back for more. Thank you!