Musing Around Typing Latency

Published by James Frost.

Contemplation on why typing can seem slow on modern computers.

Modern computers are fast. In the time it takes you to blink, a computer can read a thousand novels worth of data, and perform numerous calculations upon it. However there are some bits of computers that are relatively slow, or at least haven't improved significantly since the 1980s.

One example of this is input latency. An Apple II from over 40 years ago has better latency between pressing a key on its keyboard, and a letter appearing on screen. This has an impact on how snappy the computer feels overall, and of latency gets too high the computer gets hard to use. But why are computers nowadays slower than computers 40 years ago at this? It comes down to two main things:

The first one is insidious. It may not seem that typing into a text editor is any more work today than it was in the past, but there are a bunch of things going on in the background. Early text editors did little more than put glyphs on screen in response to key presses. Now days your text editor might be constantly running a spelling check, parsing any syntax in the text to highlight appropriately, listen to signals from the host OS, such as closing or minimising the window, and looking out for characters that may render differently, such as Hebrew.

The very fact that a modern text editor runs in a window also represents more work. In the past the glyphs (bitmaps of the characters) would be directly written into the frame buffer, which the display would directly render. With a window, the glyphs (which first have to be rendered from code to support modern TrueType fonts) now get written into a temporary buffer, before all of the windows are put together by something known as the compositor. This means that windows work a lot more reliably, and allows the OS to do lots of fancy window management, but does slow things down. This is why many games recommend being run in "exclusive full screen", which bypasses to compositor.

The other change is in the hardware the computer is running on. Most modern computers have some kind of GPU (though it may be built into the CPU package). Where they do, the glyph must be copied over to the GPU before it can be displayed. Older computers typically shared the memory between the frame buffer and main CPU, which is why many 8 bit computers start displaying lots of funky patterns on screen when they are processing lots of data. The GPU does allow for much more complicated graphical effects to be done more quickly, but can be slower for simple blitting of glyphs.

In the past computers were typically interrupt driven. When an external event happened, such as a key being pressed, the CPU drops whatever it was doing and immediately jumps to processing some code to handle that interrupt. This is very good for latency, but throughput suffers, as the CPU might then need to reload a bunch of data it had nearly finished with. So modern computers use polling instead. This is simply checking whether a key has been pressed fairly frequently. So the CPU now doesn't know that a key has been pressed until it checks.

Analysis of Typing Latency in Visual Studio Code

Up to 17 ms of frame latency from the 60 Hz refresh rate, plus any additional monitor latency (5ms is a reasonable switching time). Then we have the graphics driver latency, which to be fair, is probably fairly small, but I don't really know. Then we have the VSCode latency, from when it receives a keypress from the OS to when it makes the glyph appear on screen. This has apparently been improved in the most recent update, so it is probably not too bad. Then we have the OS's processing of the keyboard event, which is hopefully small, but probably existent, before we get onto the limited polling rate of the USB keyboard. It is 125 Hz for common ones, which gives us 8 ms of extra latency. Finally we get to the keyboard itself, which probably adds some small amount of extra latency, though perhaps the simpler ones are better here.

Assuming 1ms for each of the small latencies (which I honestly have no idea about), this gives us a total latency of about 34 ms. Science tells us that 50 ms is where it has an impact on FPS game performance, but it is probably noticeable much before that.

Without significant change to architectures, hardware can improve this.

This brings us to 15 ms, which while much better, is still quite a lot for making a letter appear on a screen, given the speed of modern computers. The biggest driver of latency is the monitor, which the leading ones currently can probably reduce to about 5 ms in total. That leaves us with the software latency to deal with, which is much harder to do so. There is also the fact that I have no idea what the graphics driver/OS latencies actually are, and I really just guessed them.

All in all modern computers can be made fast, especially when optimised to do so. The iPad Pro has a specifically optimised hardware and software stack to get this kind of latency down to about 10 ms, but that only just starts to match the original Apple II.