Why keeping output to 80 columns (or less) is still sensible

May 6, 2015

When I talked about how monitoring tools should report timestamps and other identifying information, I mentioned that I felt that keeping output to 80 columns or less was still a good idea even if meant sometimes optionally omitting timestamps. So let's talk about that, since it's basically received wisdom these days that the 80 column limit is old fashioned, outdated, and unnecessary.

I think that there are still several reasons that short output is sensible, especially at 80 columns or less. First, 80 columns is still the default terminal window size in many environments; if you make a new one and do nothing special, 80 columns is what you get by default (often 80 by 24). This isn't just on Unix systems; I believe that eg Windows often defaults to this size for both SSH client windows and its own command line windows. This means that if your line spills over 80 columns, many people have to take an extra step to get readable results (by widening their default sized window) and they may mangle some existing output for the purposes of eg cut and paste (since many terminal windows still don't re-flow lines when the window widens or narrow).

Next, there's an increasingly popular class (or classes) of device with relatively constrained screen size, namely smartphones and small tablets. Even a large tablet might only be 80 columns wide in vertical orientation. Screen space is precious on those devices and there's often nothing the person using the device can really do to get any more of it. And yes, people are doing an increasing amount of work from such devices, especially in surprise situations where a tablet might be the best (or only) thing you have with you. Making command output useful in such situations is an increasingly good idea.

Finally, overall screen real estate can be a precious resource even on large-screen devices because you can have a lot of things competing for space. And there are still lots of situations where you don't necessarily need timestamps and they'll just add clutter to output that you're actively scanning. I won't pretend that my situation is an ordinary one; there are plenty of times where you're basically just glancing at the instantaneous figures every so often or looking at recent past or the like.

(As far as screen space goes, often my screen winds up completely covered in status monitoring windows when I'm troubleshooting something complicated. Partly this is because it's often not clear what statistic will be interesting so I want to watch them all. Of course what this really means is that we should finally build that OS level stats gathering system I keep writing about. Then we'd always be collecting everything and I wouldn't have to worry about maybe missing something interesting.)

Written on 06 May 2015.
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Last modified: Wed May 6 23:53:37 2015
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