/ Technology

Do you miss the printed instruction booklet?

Big book leafed through by woman

These days more and more gadgets don’t come with printed instruction manuals, but I think that for certain gadgets nothing beats a handy paper guide you can refer to when needed.

The disappearance of printed manuals has happened fairly quickly, and I blame the CD.

Back in the early 90s a copy of (the then revolutionary) Microsoft Windows 3.1 came with a bible-sized tome – the 650-page “User guide” and the relatively lightweight “Getting started…” guide, itself stretching to a mere 96 sheets of densely-printed black and white text.

Had a problem with your Windows? The answer lurked somewhere within one of those guides. And although there were no internet help forums in those days, we survived – book open on the desk, flickering monitor in front. The acronym “RTFM” became commonplace, strongly encouraging people to turn to the user guide when stuck.

Then we took a giant leap forward. The box you brought home was somehow lighter, emptier, devoid of gravitas. The answers to your questions, the troubleshooters, the setup instructions – were all uprooted from their paper and crammed onto CD-Rom bundled in with the software.

This, of course, meant a whole new method of head-scratching. Now you had your troublesome software in one half of the screen, while you simultaneously read about how to fix it in the other.

Manuals missing from gadgets

But it’s not just about software – printed manuals are now disappearing from cameras, mobiles, printers etc. And if you are lucky enough to get one, only five of the pages are English with the other unwieldy 50 pages assuming you’re happy to make life a bit more interesting by reading the instructions in Polish, Czech or Swedish.

Other devices come with a quick start guide – perhaps a single sheet that optimistically attempts to summarise the workings of a gadget more technologically advanced than early spacecraft into perhaps 100 words and a couple of pictograms. Less is not always more.

There’s even a digital equivalent of the chicken and the egg conundrum. Need to know how to turn on your new ebook reader? The instructions are supplied as an ebook, stored on the reader itself. Admittedly e-reader’s aren’t the most complex of tech gadgets, but they’re perhaps not intuitive to all buyers.

Of course, the environmental argument is clearly against hefty printed manuals. But many of us, myself included, actually enjoy having a paper manual in front of us. Cameras, especially, encourage experimentation and having a booklet to browse is part of that experience.

Giving us a CD and expecting us to print off our own user manual is often both tiresome and even more wasteful of paper. But maybe you’re glad to see the back of good old fashioned printed instruction booklets?


I suspect there are really two different entities involved: the ‘Getting started’ pamphlet (and really good stuff should be easy to comprehend and operate) and a reference manual. That’s the thick one, should be online (which allows for easy updating) and should be in full colour and only for your chosen model and in your chosen language. Toyota, who make wonderful cars, provide interminably complex manuals which feature every model in the range. Just finding out which in-car entertainment system you have requires several hours and a PhD…

Malcolm Wright says:
17 August 2017

I’ve just bought a Panasonic PVR which comes without a printed manual which I would have preffered.
The online manual runs to over 80 pages in english alone. I thought I’d be able to download this to my ipad so I could study it in front of the TV. Turns out the manual is only in PDF format which isn’t compatible with apple softwear. Result is if I come across a complex procedure with my PVR ,I have to go to the other end of the house ,start my desktop start my printer…….. well you get the idea.
I’ve paid Panasonic a lot of money for their machine I don’t think its asking to much to be able to use it without more expense and hassle. When “WHICH” do a review of goods could they state weather the product comes with a printed manual.