Tiny touchscreens

( 24/01/10: UPDATED with comments from mycockpit.org.)

This week I made a spec purchase which I hope will turn out to be very successful. If so, it’s something I’ll be recommending to fellow simmers who are in need of small-size, high-resolution LCD panels.

The display screens in airliner cockpits and in Garmin glass-cockpit systems are usually between 8 and 12″ diagonal, often 16:9 portrait, with variable resolutions but usually quite a high DPI compared to regular PC TFT monitors. These are pretty hard to get hold of, as manufacturers of these panels don’t sell to end-users, and even if they did you’d be hard pressed to put together all the associated hardware to drive them – and connect them to your PC – without some serious electronics skills.

This is why I was rather excited to hear about Nanovision’s Mimo series of small LCD screens. Not least because they weren’t hideously expensive.

Typically, the solution to the ‘can’t-get-small-LCD-screens’ blues is to put two or three large LCD panels behind your MIP, and cut out holes to show only part of them, as if they each comprised multiple individual screens. A bit of jiggery-pokery with display coordinates and you can put the right bits behind the right holes. Simples. This is still the best bet for many builders but it does have the disadvantage of taking up space behind your MIP that could be used for other electronics. Putting switches between the individual screen-holes is a problem because you don’ t have the depth to mount them, for example. 

My own project is supposed to be a mildly-futuristic light business jet first and foremost, so I’m going for lots of glass which means lots of screens. My MIP being smaller and less tall than your average heavy jet, I have less real-estate available, so I went for a pair of 15.6″ widescreen monitors with higher-than-usual DPI (they’ll do up to 1650×1080) for the PFD and MFD and backup instruments. Between those I have a tablet PC which has a 13″ 16:10 screen that is also touch-sensitive. Touch control is part of my futuristic metaphor and is a great solution for controlling those functions that I don’t have room to have a physical panel for. 

I intend to have a small screen in my pedestal in the place where the CDU is on many airliners. This will be an old UMPC (Microsoft’s failed ultra-portable Origami concept) that I’m not using for anything else; the screen is a perfect 8″ 16:9 and is also touch-sensitive. I also planned to have a screen mounted towards the rear of the pedestal to form part of the radio stack. Rather than have several individual modular radio units (which is nice, but expensive and not 100% in keeping with the slightly-futuristic feel), Boeing or Airbus-style, I decided to have a screen-based system that shows all the various radios together with physical controls (rotary encoder + transfer switch) to use them. For this I would need a small LCD screen with a high resolution. 

I was going to buy a screen intended primarily for in-car use from my favourite Mini-ITX suppliers LinITX (if you’re ever doing Mini-ITX or in-car stuff and are in the UK or EU, give them a look – they’re really good) but the problem here is that it would have to be slaved off the UMPC, and its video-out options are very limited. An alternative was to slave it from the tablet PC but again I wasn’t sure how well the video hardware there would cope with dual screen operation – most tablets are not that well set up for it. 

Then I read about Nanovision’s new Mimo screens, and something went ‘bing’. The Mimos have been around for about a year now but have been quite hard to get hold of, especially in Europe. They are a range of small (mostly 7″ widescreen) LCD screens which use DisplayLink technology to connect to their host PC via USB rather than VGA. This means they are not being driven by your video card but by their own electronics. The DisplayLink drivers take care of sending a video stream out. I was attracted to this solution immediately because a) it doesn’t require additional video cards and b) uses no external power, just USB power, so a single cable does it all. Dead simple. 

The latest range of screens includes the ‘Slim’ model which dispenses with the complicated stand included in the rest of the range for a simple desk stand. As the name suggests it’s very light and thin. And best of all, this version is available with a touchscreen option. It’ll do 800×480, which is a good resolution for the size. When I saw that Amazon was selling them in the UK I ordered a pair, and they turned up earlier this week. 

I hooked one up to my work PC and found a few things out – first, the drivers are fiddly and you must take care not to install them wrongly or registry-editing fun will ensue. Second, even a USB 2 link is not quite quick enough for fast-moving images – if you put video on it full-screen you need to turn on ‘video mode’ which does something with the compression algorithm to improve the picture but at the expense of the fine detail. I do, however, think it’ll be more than adequate for the purposes I have in mind for it. 

The touch feature is painful to configure but once it works, it’s OK. I’ve seen some poor reviews where the reviewer complains about not being able to calibrate it properly and has clearly not bothered to check out the menu for the touch controller which simply requires a box checking to make it go. I’ve also seen people slating it because it’s a mouse controller rather than a wacom-style touch device but that’s how you do touch on Windows, at least prior to Windows 7, and there are no multi-touch drivers for this screen because it isn’t a multi-touch device. Touching the screen basically puts the mouse cursor there and clicks, but you can change the behaviour to be similar to a touchable tablet PC (touch to select, touch-hold to right-click). No, it’s not in iPod or even good tablet territory, and I wouldn’t want to use a complicated touch UI on it, but for simple touch-to-select applications like mine it’s entirely good enough. 

Exactly how I’ll build this into the sim, I haven’t decided. When I embark on the proper panel design stage I’ll need to figure out where they will go. But it does save me the hassle of worrying about video connectivity and this is a major plus. 

I imagine fellow simmers can find all kinds of useful applications for these kinds of screens, and at less than £150 a pop they don’t break the bank compared to the alternatives. Ignore the bad reviews – they all focus on using the screen for what, admittedly, is its stated purpose, at which it does kinda suck. But for cockpit use all those problems are essentially irrelevant. 

You can see more about the model I bought here on Amazon and I’m sure I’ll be writing a fair bit more about them in future.


One of the good folks at mycockpit.org (a place any aspiring cockpit builder should be registered at, BTW) has pointed out that when he tried a similar DisplayLink screen (I suspect it’s the same product re-badged) with FSX it slashed his frame rates, suggesting that it somehow buggers up the display subsystem in DirectX mode. If that’s universally the case then it’s useless for extended display use. Some other builders (warning: page is in Finnish but the pictures speak for themselves) are using the Mimo range in add-ons, but, crucially, these are designed to run custom software or Project Magenta style panels via FSUIPC, so the PC is not running FSX. These builders have not reported any kind of critical slowdown. Since that’s the way I’m going to use the screens I’ll probably be OK, but it’s worth knowing that as a traditional instrument panel extender, these screens may be a bust.