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Widescreens Cleartype


Rocky

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This week I joined the widescreen gaming community with the purchase of a 20" Samsung 204BW. While games are really awesome, there was one thing bothering me, and that was text ; reading text just isn't as easy or comfortable as it was on the trusty old CRT. Trying to resolve this "issue" led to an educational Google chase and an interesting call to Samsung support. Anyway, in my usual fashion, I got a strange impulse to document the whole thing, so here goes - if anyone stumbles upon this while googling for "cleartype", maybe the following will save you some further search time.

The Problem

The issue was that text just looked too faint in desktop work, like reading e-mails in outlook, or some text in webpages. Obviously at my new native resolution of 1600x1050 fonts were going to appear smaller, but that aside, the text was quite "faint". If I wasn't going to start suffering from eye strain, it was obvious a solution was required. Equally, if this was a fault with the monitor, then I needed to identify and confirm it so I could pursue an RMA and replacement.

Obvious Stuff First

The first thing was to make sure the monitor was set up correctly. I don'tknow about other flat screens, but this Samsung has a ton of options, including 6 presets for things like internet, games, movies etc. Additionally there's the usual brightness, contrast and other settings to tweak. I had already read that these monitos ship with the brightness up at 100, so that was the first thing I toned down.

There is also an Nvidia tool for setting up the colours correctly, that was a useful tool and it did make a visible difference to the display of colours, but not any difference to text.

However, after playing around with everything from brightness to sharpness, I couldn't really say that text was any easier to read.

The other obvious thing was drivers, so both graphics card and monitor drivers were checked and the latest versions installed.

Cleartype

This is where things started to get interesting. I remembered using Microsoft's cleartype technology on my CRT, and also on my Palm PDA - in both cases the text was very much improved, much bolder, without actually being "bold".

Here's the confusing thing about cleartype and LCD monitors though, one the one hand you will find sources like wikipedia saying that cleartype will

"improve the appearance of text ..., especially LCD flat-panel monitors"

On the other hand 5 minutes Googling will reveal user comments like

"Most people have found that ClearType reduces readability of text on LCD monitors. Best not to even try it in most cases."

So what do you believe? Well, what you believe is your own eyes, so the only thing you can do is test it out yourself and see how your monitor responds.

To activate cleartype in Windows XP, right click on the desktop and select Properties, then the Appearance tab, then Effects.

There's a smooth edges setting there, that's where you'll find cleartype. Once you click apply, you'll probably see windows do a quick display restart, and then the effect should be quite obvious. The problem for me, was that while text did become easier to read due to the cleartype effect, it also gained a new attribute, bleeding.

I found that the vertical strokes of small point text had a quite uneasy, almost un-nerving colour tinge that put me on edge. It was like, is it there, or am I imagining it? So the investigating started full force...

What Does Cleartype Do?

I wanted to check what this color bleed was, so to convince myself I was not seeing things, I took a screengrab of some email text, zoomed in (not enlarged), then took a screengrab of the zoom, this is what I found...

screen.jpg

As you can see, the vertical strokes do indeed have a coloured line, remember, this is black text on a white background. Even worse, in applications that had white text on a black background (like XFire for example), when I switched cleartype on, exclamation marks and also the number "1" changed from white to red and green!! That's just plain wrong.

So by now I am wondering if this is normal behaviour for cleartype, more Googling confirmed that this is in fact exactly how clreaytype works, and it's called subpixel rendering.

"Like most other types of subpixel rendering, ClearType actually involves a compromise, sacrificing one aspect of image quality (color or chrominance detail) for another (light and dark or luminance detail). The compromise improves text appearance because when viewing black and white text, luminance detail is more important than chrominance. The compromise works because it takes advantage of certain peculiarities of human vision."

That small extract from Wikipedia ticks my issue box - the issue of colour bleeding or as it is called elsewhere color fringing . Cleartype uses colours and anti-aliasing to remove the sharp edges that individual pixels on flat panel monitors cause.

This confirmed that I was not imagining the effect, but I already knew that because of anecdotal evidence gleemed from google again, like this random quote...

"Oh yes and PLEASE do not copy the ClearType thing as it sucks big time! On good LCD screens it leaves the impression of red and blue lines alongside the characters "

Here's another thing though, if this is an issue, and it's bugging me, why is cleartype heralded the tech world over as such a god send? the clue is here in this quote (thanks again to Wikipedia).

"ClearType and similar technologies work because human vision is much more sensitive to variations in intensity than it is to variations in color. The human eye can discern contrasts in intensity about three times better than it can discern contrasts in color; thus, when ClearType sacrifices color accuracy in order to increase level of luminance detail, the overall effect—as seen by human eyes—is seen as an improvement by
most people
."

Notice the bit I bolded. Most People. This explains why when I asked Mrs Rocky to look at the screen and tell me what she wrong with the text, she replied that it looked alright to her, and why it probably looks alright to the majority of the LCD using world - some people just don't pick up on it. Bad news for me, I notice it - not so much easily, but occasionally, and it's annoying.

So with the issue confirmed, what to do?

Tweaking Cleartype

I didn't want to give up on cleartype, as it did look like it was a solution to faint text, only that it came with an overhead. This could be the reason why Microsoft also have a cleartype tweaking tool available!

You can either download a version that becomes available in the Control Panel, or you can do it online through a web interface. Note that you need to use IE for this, it doens't work in Firefox. Surprise surprise.

The online tuner works by asking you to select which sample text looks best. Some will clearly have color fringing, those are the ones to avoid, select which ever text looks best to your eyes.

The download version is better though, because in the Advanced tab there is a slider that lets you select the exact amount of smoothing that you find comfortable. For me, that was basically all the way down at the minimum setting. At that setting there is a slight improvement over normal text, and not much in the way of colour fringing. If you find you can tune it higher up the scale, lucky you - you are getting a higher definition text - without any side effects.

For me though, my monitor "upgrade" comes at a price, and not just the £170 it cost me. Text is not as readable as it was on a 1024,768 CRT, plain and simple. And it's not just me, here's another random Google quote..

"Once you setup your shiny new LCD, you may have noticed that a lot of characters in email or word documents are harder to read than before. "

One other thing (and this wasn't mentioned in Wikipedia), but you might already be using cleartype and not even realise it. Why? Because Microsoft have it on by default in Internet Explorer 7. you can read about that from Mr Cleartype himself, in his blog, where he lets slip that it is also on by default in Vista.

So that's where I'm at, on the plus side though, GAMES LOOK AWESOME IN WIDESCREEN!!!!! :D

If anyone actually read all that, well done. :thumbsup:

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I read it all. Very interesting. Nice to see you still put way too much effort into documenting/explaining this sort of thing. :)

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