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Macs indicate 24-bit color depth by using the term "millions of colors", while Windows calls it "24-bit" or "32-bit". (I'm aware that Windows "32-bit" color simply adds an alpha channel that doesn't really add anything to the color gamut, but eases the display of transparent objects.)

While the term "millions of colors" is readily understood by inexperienced computer users, it may be less precise than "24-bit", especially to more experienced users (224 = 16,777,216). Should technical concepts like these be simplified to ease understanding at the cost of precision?

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

A lot depends on your audience and your product, but in general the term "Millions of colours" isn't particularly helpful. Do you mean 2 million or 786 million?

If you're selling a new DSLR camera, the common jargon is 12-bit, 14-bit, etc. and not the number of colours - so that is what you should stick to.

If you're talking about software (especially mass market software), I would argue that it is best to give the colours in a shortened form, as well as the colour depth.

16 Million colours (24-bit).

This way you focus on what most people would understand, but also give the technical information for those that need it.

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Be aware that the shortened form is not always understandable as such. Small anecdote: back in the days of dumbphones, I was talking to a non-techy acquaintance about which phone he wants to pick, and he said that he wants the first of two options because its screen has more colors. The first had 65536, the second was said to have 65 thousand in the prospect. He just wouldn't believe me that the number must be rounded even though I tried my best to explain it with examples from rounding in a decimal system. He was convinced that 65536 >> 65 thousand, and based a purchase decision on it. –  Rumi P. Nov 25 '13 at 11:33

I would describe the options in terms of "quality", with technical footnotes. This teaches the user at a high level what a phrase like 16 bit vs 32 bit means. It also provides the information for more technically minded users to get exactly what they want.

Color Example:

  • Low Quality (8 bit)
  • Medium Quality (16 bit)
  • High Quality (32 bit)

Audio Example:

  • Low Quality (32 kb/s)
  • Medium Quality (128 kb/s)
  • High Quailty (320 kb/s)
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+1 for using simple language (quality). –  rk. Apr 29 '13 at 23:51
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+1 for providing the user with an experiential reference to a number –  uxzapper Apr 30 '13 at 1:56

The Apple terminology dates back to a time when the options in the list were:

  • Black & White
  • 4
  • 16
  • 256

The System 7 monitors control panel

Later, it changed to:

  • 256
  • Thousands
  • Millions

The MacOS 9 monitors control panel


The amount of millions doesn't matter for two reasons:

  • The number is really a relative measure of size and is presented in sequence with others like it. "Millions of colours" in isolation isn't meaningful, but it is when the alternative options are "256" and "Thousands of colours".
  • A direct representation of the impact of your choice is shown beneath the selection (a colour palette). As you turn down the colour depth, you see the colours begin to band and separate accordingly. You could therefore visually understand the impact of your decision.

It's worth noting that in Mac OS X Apple removed the second indicator (the colour bars):

The Mac OS X Displays System Preference pane

…and later removed the colour depth selector altogether:

A comparison of the Leopard (10.5) and Snow Leopard (10.6) Displays System Preference pane

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Do remember your product do not live by itself but within a system with other products. Users are rarely going to focus only on your product but they are going to buy it, use it and compare it relatively to other products.

For transparency reasons you want your product to be comparable with its competitors, therefore you want to use the same referential.

Or you do not, but that is marketing and business strategy.

Generally speaking I would suggest to think twice before adding information about technical concepts.

When communicating about your product try to stay on the top of the pyramid of needs. Technical concepts are way at the bottom of it. And also because this "million of colors", "24 bit" is usually just fluff.

Do not tell how it is made but say what it does.

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I think the Apple terminology "millions of colors" is a marketing term used to communicate sales information and it doesn't have to be precise, and being understood by a broad audience is more important than being truly informative. If you are going to use a term in a more technical context "24 bit color" is more accurate, hence better in this context. "24 bit color" is fairly well understood these days (as is "4 gig RAM") and anyone that doesn't understand it can finds its meaning with a quick search.

So I'd say in marketing to non-techs "millions of colors" is OK but for most other purposes, including any technical specs or documentation, the more precise "24 bit color" is more useful.

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Even 4 gig RAM is considered to be an overly technical term these days. It's best to describe it in relation to the use of a device. For example if you are designing a satalite box that records programmes then if there's 1.5 TB to record things then the first thing you should say is how many hours it records - 350 hours in this case. Same is true with colour bid depth - the user needs to know how many colours, the bit depth is of use to only the most technical. –  Stewart Dean Apr 29 '13 at 8:03

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