When it comes to driving your car, the instrument cluster, or gauge cluster, plays an important role when it comes to giving you information. For modern cars, these can come in the form of analog dials or a digital display or a combination of the two. These will often show you your speed, your engine RPMs, as well as various other warning lights. Despite their own unique strengths and weaknesses both do an excellent job of telling you the information you need to know as a driver.
Analog gauges or analog dials use a more traditional means of measuring a certain parameter in your vehicle. These also come in a more simple format with little to no complexities added to them - what you see is what you get.
These dials tell you what you need to know about your car and what’s happening to it. When it comes to the analog-style it is easier to track the change since there is a physical motion when the dial is going up, and there is a three-dimensional object jumping out at you to show what needs to be displayed. However, parallax errors may hamper the precision of an analog set of gauges, as is the physical limitation of the motors in the gauges themselves. For example, if an engine revs up very quickly, the analog motor in the cluster may not spin fast enough in order to display the information precisely at the time that it is needed. So is the story with the Lexus LF-A and its V10 engine.
An example of this would be an analog temperature gauge as it will only give you information based on the increments presented on the dial unless there are demarcations for specific temperature readings. Either way, it does do a good enough job of telling you if your car is running hot or if it is still cold. It cannot tell you the exact temperature down to the unit that your vehicle is actually running at.
The same can be said for analog speedometers as these are divided by increments of 10s or 20s – it varies per car. If you want to determine if you are traveling at 98km/h it will be harder to find out your exact speed. You will need to base it on estimates between the 90km/h and 100km/h presented on the dial.
While analog gauges do have their drawbacks, they don’t suffer from possibly lower refresh rates that some more affordable digital gauges feature. What you see is what you get in an analog gauge, and there is absolutely no ghosting like in a digital cluster. You also get the benefit of a physical object telling you what’s happening with your vehicle’s vitals. Like a tachometer will be much easier to read in your periphery or at a glance compared to a digital one.
When it comes to digital gauges or digital displays these perform in the same way as an analog dial. These kinds of gauges are more definite when it comes to showing information as you don't have to rely on measurement increments and avoid parallax error to determine what is actually being shown. Manufacturers can also bundle in multiple display modes and even color changes if they’re feeling fancy. A full-digital display can also be customized, and its layout can even change depending on the drive mode or the driver’s preference. The information density can potentially be much greater than that of an analog cluster, mainly because what is displayed can change depending on what the driver wants to see or whatever the car needs to display.
Though advanced, there is a problem with digital displays. The problem lies with the latency and refresh rate of the screen. Compared to an analog dial that has a physical and mechanical connection to what is being measured, digital displays have to deal with what is called a refresh rate which is measured in Hertz (Hz). Most modern smartphones use a 60Hz refresh rate which is smooth enough, but even that tends to have a bit of a delay especially when displaying objects in motion.
Also, digital speedometers do display the speed based on the sensor data in actual digits, but there is a lag between what is displayed depending on how fast the data is read on the sensor and how fast the screen refreshes.
Despite this, digital displays can be more precise especially when it comes to measuring speed. Instead of you having to estimate your speed with an analog dial, a digital display can display your speed down to the first unit of measurement. As such determining if you are traveling at 97km/h is much easier on a digital gauge cluster than it is on an analog one. You can also display almost anything on a digital display, which makes it more information-dense compared to an analog cluster.
An example of this would be entering sport mode in a vehicle. The digital cluster will change to highlight the rev counter as well as the speedometer. The same can be said for vehicles changing into eco mode, or with hybrid vehicles, entering electric-only mode. The digital display will show only the needed information for that specific mode in order for you to focus more on driving. Conversely, for certain vehicle modes, you can change the layout of the display to best suit what kind of information you want to be prominently displayed.
When it comes to choosing which type of gauge cluster you should choose it all boils down to model and variant availability. Ask yourself, is it worth it going for a more expensive model or variant just to get a digital display? If not, then a variant with an analog gauge cluster will suit you just fine. At the end of the day, both types fulfill the same purpose of displaying the information you need to know about your vehicle. While a lot of us appreciate the details and the actual movement of a traditional analog gauge, we cannot deny progress, and at the same time, we cannot deny the classic appeal of a traditional analog gauge.
While a digital display may look futuristic, an analog dial will still give you the ability to judge the rate-of-change of the information displayed in the same way if not better. It is easier, after all, to track physical movement, than it is to do so digitally. However, we can’t deny that digital gauges are the way of the future as they offer a litany of benefits.
Perhaps the best compromise is to have both at the same time? You can have a digital display flanked by two gauges like for some cars and get the best of both worlds, but it ultimately boils down to preference and voting with your wallet.