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I always see "fine-grained" in technology articles. What does it mean?

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I think some context would be helpful here. Fine-grained could have several meanings, depending on where it's used. –  Jimi Oke Jan 10 '11 at 8:10
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6 Answers 6

When used in the context of "fine-grained control", for example, it carries the connotation of "very precise": a volume knob that gives you fine-grained control means that you can set your volume to the exact level that you desire, you don't have to choose only between "too quiet" and "too loud".

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It also includes the idea of smooth or continuous control. This idea comes from wood. Wood with a fine-grain is generally smoother than wood with a coarse grain. –  John Satta Jan 10 '11 at 9:11
    
@John: +1 for "coarse grain". –  CesarGon Jan 10 '11 at 13:19
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I can't find a reference on this, but I think the etymology comes from sandpaper. Sandpaper is made with grains (originally sand) and if you make coarse-grain sandpaper you can quickly remove lots of unwanted wood, but the result is rough. If you make fine-grain sandpaper you can smooth or polish the wood to a high degree, with great control, but the work is slower because the smaller grains don't remove as much wood.

This metaphor extends into other tools where the tools offer control of minute details in order to achieve specific results.

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More likely from spices, IMHO. For example, you can get pepper in fine grained, coarse grained, and whole peppercorns. Each requires its own kind of dispenser. –  T.E.D. Aug 5 '11 at 16:09
    
@T.E.D.: I guess there are many different things that literally are grains, or have a property called grain, which can be fine or coarse. Some of these are closely associated with tools. What is the true etymology? Dunno. But I do know that fine and coarse grain are terms used to specifically describe sandpaper. Many spice mills/dispensers can be adjusted to suit the desired grain. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 5 '11 at 17:01
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It just means what it sounds like: comprised of smaller entities. This could imply higher quality or fidelity if smaller entities make the system's overall properties better.

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The sandpaper analogy reads very well.

In pre-digital photography, "grains" of light-sensitive silver nitrate were used to capture images. It gets very technical, very fast, but I think it's safe to say "the smaller (finer) the grain, the higher the possible image resolution:

Wikipedia search results

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+1 Excellent answer. This seems to be the most likely source of the idiom that anybody has brought up yet. –  Peter Shor Jun 20 '11 at 14:29
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I believe the original meaning came from gunpowder. Fine-grained powder (composed of small grains) burns faster and more reliably, but is harder to make and requires better materials. Thus it was used in primers but not in blasting charges, and was an obvious simile for control systems.

(NB this is entirely compatible with the sandpaper theory, and not unlike the wood theory).

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According to the American Geological Institute's Glossary of Geology, Shale is defined as a fine-grained, indurated detrital sedimentary rock formed by the consolidation (by compression or cementation) of clay, silt, or mud.

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