Metric vs Imperial. Which?

We comment on a letter and the reply recently published in Which?, the magazine of the Consumers Association.

Subscribers to Which? may have noticed a letter on the Feedback page of the April edition that refers to a measurement muddle. The writer was commenting on a Which? review of a mobile phone, and says that, while trying to decide whether the phone might be a little too large for him, he became confused by the dimensions shown in the key facts box in the review. He asks why the length and width are shown in millimetres but the diagonal measurement in inches.

Which? has always been a supporter of simple and straightforward use of measurements. Muddle and obfuscation are the enemy of rational choice and can make it difficult for consumers to work out what is best for them.

In reply, the Which? phone expert writes that for smartphones it is standard practice to use metric measurements for body dimensions and imperial for screen size. He goes on the say this is possibly because screen size is more often used than body measurements in smartphone marketing and also that it is easier to think in smaller ‘inch numbers’.

We suggest that this problem goes back much further than the smartphone, perhaps to the world’s first high-definition public television service, broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace in North London in 1936. To see the broadcasts, viewers needed a receiver with a cathode ray tube (CRT), the size of which was defined by the diagonal screen measurement in inches. This convention survived until CRT television sets were replaced by flat screens about twenty years ago. But, although the international standard for flat screen TVs specifies sizes in centimetres, the customary practice of using inches has continued.

Meanwhile. from the early 1980s, personal computers (pcs) were appearing in the home. Remember the Commodore, the BBC B and the Sinclair Spectrum?  Initially these were connected to a TV to provide the display. Later, purpose-built monitors became available, and the convention of designating screen sizes in inches carried over from TVs. The fact that the US was in the forefront of the development, if not manufacture, of pcs, laptops, notebooks and tablets ensured the continuing use of inches. And when the smartphone threatened to supersede them all, including the digital camera, it too used an inch screen size.

As with shoes, dresses and hats, the TV screen size has become a size number rather than a measurement, and we have become accustomed, for example, to the 100 inch flat screen, rather than the 8′-4″. And for smartphones, decimal inches have always been used in preference to quarters, eighths and sixteenths.

The paradox is that almost all of these electronic devices – TVs, monitors, laptops, tablets, digital cameras and smartphones – are made in metric countries to metric standards, and the inch is used only for labelling the box, which is then promptly discarded by the owner.

One thought on “Metric vs Imperial. Which?”

  1. My wife grew up in Oregon and has done tons of DIY work for decades and is really good and precise at it. She has always used USC (our “Imperial”) for everything.

    I have tried preaching the Gospel of Metric to her without much success.

    Suddenly, just yesterday, she announces that she now prefers centimeters to measure off where to cut wood, etc because it is “so much easier” than inches and fractions of an inch.

    Wow! If Merry can have such an epiphany, I think maybe even many Brexiters can! 😉


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