A dismal sea of color

I have been deeply into audio equipment for as long as I can remember. When I was in high school, I was always scouring Goodwills and Hamfests for the next old thing that would bump up my hi-fi game and look good while doing it. The latter part wasn’t difficult; not everything was Bang & Olufsen, but audio equipment from the ‘70s and ‘80s pretty much universally looks interesting if not outright lovely. The first piece of new audio equipment I owned was a Roku SoundBridge M20001, a roughly rack-width aluminum tube that connected to a home network to stream from iTunes, a variety of other home music servers, and internet radio stations. It accepted no media of its own2, it was purely for streaming. Roku opted to keep the unit free of buttons; all interaction was done via remote control or computer. This meant that the front of the unit was made up of only one thing – a massive blue dot-matrix VFD. It looked like nothing else in my hi-fi stack. It looked like nothing else on the market; the display and the overall aesthetic were a direct result of the lack of physical media and the bold decision to omit face buttons.

By 2005, VFDs were the predominant displays on hi-fi and multimedia devices. A lot of things were largely the same shade of blue as the massive Roku. Pioneer largely used orange displays; these stood out. Before VFDs were ubiquitous, early adopters stood out. Companies that used LEDs stood out from one another by using different colors. Fast forward to VFDs being phased out and LED-backlit inverse LCDs (that is, LCDs that operate such that the backlight shines through to form the display elements)3 becoming popular, LED colors could once again be part of a brand’s products’ visual identities. Monochromatic OLEDs were a thing for a spell; I recently acquired a twelve-year-old Sansa Clip+4 which has a unique monochromatic OLED screen split into yellow for the status bar and that very OLED shade of blue for everything else.

The individual elements that make up a display were just as much a visual identity as the one or two colors that a company opted for. The shapes of the segments in a seven segment display, the use of more segments than seven, were the custom indicators words or beautifully-detailed icons? Something was lost as displays shifted toward dot-matrices. My beloved HP-41C calculator used a beautiful, 14-segment display for alphanumeric support; its later reimplementation, the HP-42S uses a more functional but incredibly bland dot matrix. Some of the HP-41C’s characters were a bit of a stretch, I do think the HP-42S is more legible for letters. But in general, I find seven-segment displays far more immediately recognizable than the fonts these companies opt for when given a dot matrix. When I was looking to upgrade up from my old Fluke multimeter, a large part of the reason that I opted for a Keysight U1272A instead of the comparable Fluke 2875 was that the Keysight used seven-segment numerics. There’s something to be said for a ‘font’ that’s as standardized and recognizable that we pick it up like the E-13B font in the MICR line of a cheque. Any given figure on a seven-segment display basically always looks the same, even if there is some room for variation.

The move to dot matrix displays genericized them; the move to full color even more so. Of course companies are going to make full use of this, but something is lost when everything is in full color instead of one color that a brand has made their own. I’m sure that color-coded waveforms on modern oscilloscopes are useful, but I have no desire to give up the monochromatic green of my early digital scope’s green CRT. It’s just easy on the eyes. Beyond that, full-color displays are all basically backlit TFTs or OLEDs now; they all look good from a technical standpoint, but they’re incredibly samey and boring. I have a TFT replacement screen for my WonderSwan Color, and I keep resisting installing it. The backlight will make it much more convenient to play, but it just looks… uninspiring compared to the almost pearlescent shine of its reflective unlit stock display.

I’ve name-dropped five or six products in this post that I love, that I regard as classics. I’ve posted several times before about products where the display is worth discussing. This is all largely because they don’t use modern, boring displays, and because someone had to deliberately establish an aesthetic for them around a restricted, custom display. They’re devices where the display is a part of the experience, not just an interactive means to an end. The Roku was stunning at the time, the HP-41C’s alphanumeric display was uniquely its own6, the orange glow of a piece of Pioneer equipment stood out among so many blue panels. These things all have character, and when I talk about these devices with others, the display is a notable thing, it’s worth describing. Now that so many things basically look like real life… well, they just blend into the background, uninteresting and mundane. I know we’re never going back to monochromatic phones7, but I’d love to see simpler displays coming back when applicable. I think the upcoming playdate handheld console may be a shining example of this – a monochrome display that promises high resolution and reflectivity. A point of pride for the engineering team. I hope to see more engineering teams taking pride in the aesthetic of their displays instead of just slapping in the most readily available TFT.

  1. Despite only selling boring multimedia streaming devices these days, Roku still has a web site for the SoundBridge line of streamers, though it only mentions the last model they produced, the M1001. When I got mine, there were three models – the M2000, which was rack-width, the M1000, which was half-rack, and the M500 which was the same size as the M1000, but with an inferior (inverse LCD?) display. When I was confirming the name of this last model, I stumbled across this 2006 review of the M500 which, if nothing else, flooded me with nostalgia. The three models were identical, save for the display. ↩︎
  2. The SoundBridge had a CompactFlash slot, but it was exclusively for a WiFi (802.11B only, if memory serves!) adaptor. ↩︎
  3. Technology Connections talks about an older, incandescent-backlit version in this video, and in many ways touches on what I’m saying in this post. A good watch. ↩︎
  4. Post coming about this. January, maybe? ↩︎
  5. No regrets here. On the tech specs side, each has some pros and cons compared to the other, but they’re quite similar. And I love my Keysight. ↩︎
  6. HP wasn’t the only company to use n-segment alphanumeric displays, of course, but these were so much less standardized than seven-segment numerics that the character choices make the HP-41C’s display iconic among calculator nerds. ↩︎
  7. Here’s one of those that’s notable purely for its display – the MOTOFONE F3, a slim candybar with an E Ink display. Beautiful. ↩︎