Digital Clock Standards, chapter 1
by Bill Smythe
A while ago, a prominent USCF member and I exchanged a few emails on the subject of digital clock standards. I am interested in the opinions of others, via their contributions to this website.
Most digital clock manufacturers seem to have concentrated on the programmability of their devices, ignoring the fundamentals, such as the clock's basic look and feel. In this chapter I shall start with the basics, and graduate to the specifics in later posts.
There seem to be two types of LCD digital displays available on chess clocks - medium-quality and low-quality. Both types of displays feature dark black digits, but there is a huge difference in the background against which the digits are displayed. On the medium-quality displays the background is light gray, while on the low-quality ones it is dark gray or greenish-gray.
I have never seen what I would call a high-quality display on a digital chess clock. Such a display, if it existed, would have a bright white background, similar to that on the USCF Master Quartz analog clock. Apparently, the technology does not yet exist to manufacture high-quality LCD displays.
Unfortunately, most digital chess clocks are equipped with a low-quality display, as are many other home devices, such as digital thermostats, most caller-ID devices, and digital watches.
As far as I know, only one digital chess clock has a medium-quality display, namely, the Chronos. I would describe all others I have seen as low-quality: Saitek, FIDE DGT, GameTimer, Dual, etc.
Actually, I have seen a couple of the newer Saitek models -- Saitek Two, I think they are called -- which seem to have an improved display quality, comparable to the Chronos. For identification, these newer Saiteks also have a lighter gray case. It's an interesting mnemonic. Dark gray case, low-quality display with a dark background. Light gray case, medium-quality display with a light background.
And the GameTimer seems to have improved a bit since its introduction, but not enough to bring it out of the low-quality category. Its adjustable brightness simply gives its owner a choice among bad, worse, and worst.
A side by side examination of various clocks -- Chronos, old Saitek, new Saitek, DGT, GameTimer, and even a Master Quartz for comparison - should make abundantly clear how different the various clocks are, and how important display quality is.
The feel of the play buttons is another extremely important issue, which greatly affects a player's impression of the clock. Here, too, the Chronos wins by a country mile.
Two factors determine the feel of the buttons: travel distance, and force required. The Chronos combines a high travel distance -- 3/16 inch from button-up to button-down -- with a light touch. Little force is required to press the button the full 3/16 of an inch. This is an ideal combination.
At the opposite extreme, the Saitek combines a small travel distance, perhaps 1/16 inch, with a much larger force required to press it. This gives the Saitek an unpleasant feel. A player may even wonder whether his clock has been stopped successfully. By contrast, on the Chronos one can easily feel when the button has been pressed.
The size of the buttons may be a factor too. On the Saitek they are too small.
The GameTimer has large buttons and a large travel distance, but a clunky feel, with too great a force required to press the buttons. Several years ago I thought that movable, one-up-one-down buttons were a good idea, but on comparing the GameTimer to the Chronos, I find I was mistaken.
The rocker arm on the DGT is OK, I guess, but the Chronos method is better.
Has anybody ever witnessed two players trying to press their clocks at the same time, for example when one player holds down his button after he stops his clock? Try this on the Chronos. It doesn't matter! If White holds down his button and then Black presses his, White's clock starts anyway. For some reason, this doesn't work on the Saitek. This may be why the Saitek has a reputation for crashing during blitz time scrambles. Of course, clocks with rocker arms, such as the DGT and GameTimer, are inherently unable to implement this Chronos feature.
Digital Clock Standards, chapter 2
Chapter 1 discussed the basic look and feel of digital clocks. This chapter will focus on the physical arrangement of the digits on the display.
Most digital clocks presently use two small, fixed displays, one for each player's clock face. I would like to see a digital chess clock with a single, larger screen, akin to a computer screen, which could display digits in different sizes and in different screen locations depending on the circumstances.
The two displays on the Chronos are each 3 and 5/8 inches wide, and 1 and 1/8 inches tall. A single display, perhaps 8 inches wide by 2 inches tall, would represent an enormous advance in chess clock technololgy. All information -- main time, delay time, move count -- could be displayed simultaneously, and in full. The display could look something like this (and I hope everybody's HTML is working well):
5 28 27 3
Because some viewers may not be able to read HTML, a description follows.
The main time would be displayed, in full five-digit format -- hours, minutes, seconds -- in large digits in the center of each player's display area. The delay time, in slightly smaller digits, would be displayed above the main time, in the outside corners -- to the left on the left side, to the right on the right side. The move count, in digits still smaller than the delay, would be displayed above the main time, level with the delay time, in the inside corners -- to the right on the left side, to the left on the right side.
In the above example, White's main time is 1:42:07 while Black's is 1:26:53. The delay times are 5 seconds and 3 seconds, respectively. White has played 28 moves, Black 27. Thus, the game is being played with a 5-second delay, it is Black's move, and Black's clock has been running for 2 seconds, so that he has 3 seconds of delay time remaining.
Due to the limitations of HTML, the bottom edge of the delay times (5 seconds and 3 seconds) are shown above as lining up with the bottom edge of the move counts (28 and 27). It would be better if the top edges lined up instead, to push the delay and the move count as close as possible to the top of the display.
Another desirable display feature (not shown above) would be a thick vertical line -- as thick as the digit 1 on the main-time display -- between the two clock faces, running all the way from the top edge of the display to the bottom edge. There should be a horizontal space the size of one or two (small) digits between this vertical line and the move counters on each side.
The main time should be displayed in characters at least 11/16 inch high, or preferably, 3/4 inch. The first three digits should be zero-suppressed and colon-suppressed. That is, when the time drops below one hour, it should be displayed as 59:59 rather than 0:59:59. Likewise, below ten minutes it should appear as 9:59, not 09:59. Below one minute it should appear as :59. The minutes-seconds colon, unlike the hours-minutes colon, should remain visible at all times, and times below ten seconds should still be displayed as :09, with two digits. This helps distinguish the main time from the delay time.
The main time should be center-justified. When the time drops from 1:00:00 to 59:59, the four digits still visible should move to the left slightly. The same should happen again when 10:00 drops to 9:59, and yet again when 1:00 becomes :59. This will keep each player's main time centered on his side of the display.
The delay time, at the outside corner of each player's display, would be displayed as a single digit. If, by any chance, the delay were set to 10 seconds or more, it would appear as a double digit until the delay time dropped to 9 seconds, at which time it would revert to single-digit format. This single digit would be left-justified on the left side of the clock, right-justified on the right side, so as to create a symmetrical appearance, and to keep the delay time as close to the edge of the display as possible. A delay of over 1 minute should also be permitted (up to 9:59). In this case the delay would appear as 3 digits with a colon. When the delay time drops to 59 seconds, the first digit and the colon would disappear, and the remaining digits would left-justify on the left clock face, right-justify on the right face. The left-justification on the left clock face would progress as follows:
-- while, on the right, the progression would right-justify:
When either player's delay time counts down to zero, the zero should continue to be displayed -- it should not become blank. Then, when a player makes his move and presses his clock, his delay time should jump back to 5 seconds. Thus, with a 5-second delay, one player's clock will always show 5 seconds (the player whose clock is not running), while the clock of the player on the move will show the remaining delay time, 5 through 1, or 0 when the delay time is used up.
If the players have elected not to set the delay, the delay digit should be blank, rather than zero, on both sides at all times.
The above scheme makes it very clear, to players and TD alike, whether the delay has been set, and for how many seconds. It also makes it very obvious whose move it is.
The move count, at the inside corner of each player's display, would always be displayed as 2 digits, even if the move number is 00 through 09. The count should start at 00, not 01. When White's clock is first started, 00 should remain displayed on both sides. When White makes his first move and presses the clock, the count on White's side would become 01. Thus, each player's move counter would always show the number of moves already played.
Three-digit move numbers should also be possible, up to 999. When the move count advances from 99 to 100, a three-digit display would replace the 2-digit display. The move-count display would be just the opposite of the delay display -- right-justified on the left clock face, left-justified on the right. That keeps the move-count display as close as possible to the inside edge of each player's clock face.
On the left clock face, the right-justified progression for the move count would look like this:
-- and on the right, the progression would left-justify:
FUNCTIONALITY AND SYMMETRY
The details described above are designed to generate an easy-to-read, comfortable display for the players. The symmetric locations and different sizes of the digits, along with carefully planned zero-suppression and justification, should help the players remember which display locations are used for which purposes. Mnemonically, the two delays are as far apart as possible, since one will always be at 5 seconds while the other is 0 most of the time. The move count, by contrast, is always the same (or within 1) on both sides, so they are close together. Since the delay is arguably more important than the move count, the delay is larger. The number of digits -- usually one for the delay, always two for the move count -- further distinguishes the various functions.
I am preparing further material on the use of these clocks, and welcome reader comment, which should be sent to this website.