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A Sharper Image
Make sure your monitor matches up well with your system's other components and your applications.

-- by Eileen McCooey, James Alan Miller and Deborah K. Wong

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the monitor is the window to your system. You might be able to tolerate a hard disk that drags its feet occasionally, or a modem that dishes up data with the enthusiasm of a New York waiter. But hook up a small, sluggish or poor-quality monitor to your high-performance system, and you effectively stop the state of the art dead in its tracks. Conversely, if you think a top-of-the-line monitor will beef up a fatiguing system, think again-you're more likely to emphasize its shortcomings than overcome them.

If you want to meet the monitor challenge, you've got to make the best match-you need a monitor that fits your applications, works well with your existing equipment and doesn't bash your budget. To shop wisely, you'll have to learn the lingo, trust your eyes and keep your calculator handy. That last weapon in your shopping arsenal is vital, since differentiating among monitors has largely become a numbers game. Spend a few hours perusing the ads or cruising your local computer store, and your head will be spinning with resolutions, dot pitches, refresh rates and diagonal dimensions. But you don't have to be an electrical engineer to make sense of this sea of ciphers. Armed with a few key calculations and a couple of rules of thumb, you'll find the monitor of your dreams.

Lookin' Good

On your CRT shopping expedition, you'll find that monitors have never looked better. Screen images are sharper, designs sleeker and more functional, features more numerous and prices lower than ever.

Steady display-technology improvements have produced crisper, brighter, better-focused images. Today's monitors yield finer details, and higher refresh rates have minimized flicker. Manufacturers are also paying more attention to monitor case design. Sleeker, more colorful models, with intelligently placed controls, are replacing the bland, boxy units of the past.

Plug-and-Play compatibility is perhaps "the most compelling feature" of the new crop of monitors, according to Rob Enderle, who tracks monitors for the Giga Information Group, a Cambridge, Mass., research firm. It simplifies installation under Windows 95 and heightens operation. The monitor effectively switches modes as needed-say, when you're shifting from a game to word processing-since the operating system and monitor "talk to each other," Enderle says.

Multimedia monitors boasting built-in speakers, microphones and jacks are making some noise in the corporate market, reports Mark Gersh, senior product manager for ViewSonic Corp. "From a business standpoint, these are great for training, telephony, videoconferencing and cruising the Internet," he says.

Multimedia monitors also offer the benefit of integrated components, saving desk space and minimizing wire clutter, which should appeal to home users as well as their corporate colleagues. These models are still in the minority-only 10 percent of the units shipped in early '96 had built-in multimedia-but Brian Fedrow, editorial director of Stanford Resources Inc. (SRI), in San Jose, Calif., expects this capability to become more commonplace as vendors seek to differentiate their products from the competition.

Still, not everyone is enamored of multimedia monitors. Enderle, for one, advises against this approach. "The speakers usually aren't very good, so you're paying for something you probably won't use," he maintains. "If you're using your PC for telephony, it's better to have a headset or lapel microphone to minimize feedback."

Size Wise

Screen size-15 or 17 inches, for example-refers to a monitor's diagonal measurement, corner to corner. This is not the actual viewing area, because the monitor case conceals part of the tube. So, a 15-inch monitor might really have a viewable area that's less then 14 inches. Many manufacturers now present the viewable-area measurement, along with or instead of the overall dimension. Be sure you know what dimensions you're comparing.

While bigger is always better, how much monitor you really need depends on how you're using your computer. Plenty of users are still perched in front of modest-sized monitors-three out of four PCs ship with 14- and 15-inch monitors, especially to first-time buyers. A 15-inch monitor is the smallest size you should consider, and it should do the trick for word processing and other everyday uses. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for a 15-inch model.

If you have the dough and the desk space, a 17-incher is the way to go. You'll get more screen real estate, a boon if you spend long hours at the PC, run multiple apps or surf the Web regularly. You'll also get a longer useful life span from the monitor. A good display should last at least four or five years. A 17-incher could see you through one or more system upgrades, because you're less likely to outgrow it, as you might with a smaller model. Though a 17-inch monitor will cost more-about $650 to $900-you'll get a better return on your investment with a model that will give you some elbow room.

You can expect to see better deals in the months ahead, since vendors are struggling to drop prices to entice more users to larger monitors. But check the specs carefully on models that cost dramatically less than the competition-they may have lower quality and fewer features. Some vendors may cut corners by using lower-quality tubes, offering a lower scanning frequency or larger dot pitch, or skimping on standards compliance.

You can go even larger than 17 inches, but prices spike sharply when you get into the 20- or 21-inch neighborhood. The $1,500 to $1,900 price tags on these big-screen beauties is enough to scare away most would-be buyers, but if you're doing desktop publishing, working with graphics or CAD/CAM, or authoring Web pages, a 20-inch or even 21-inch monitor is your best bet.

The bottom line: If penny-pinching is paramount, get a good 15-inch monitor. But if you can spring for a 17-inch unit, your eyes will thank you and your monitor will have a longer useful life.

Tube Topics

The type of CRT technology a monitor uses is another basic choice confronting you. Most monitors today are either shadow mask, also known as flat-square, or aperture-grille units, best known under Sony's Trinitron trademark. Other vendors have licensed this technology and market it under their own names. For instance, ViewSonic has the SonicTron line, while Mitsubishi's version is called Diamond Pro.

Simply stated, CRT technology boils down to dots vs. stripes. In a shadow mask monitor, the CRT is coated with phosphor dots, and an electron beam is shot at the dots through a mask with little round holes. The dot pitch refers to the distance between phosphor dots that are the same color (either red, green or blue). The lower the number, the closer together the dots and the sharper the image. In an aperture-grille model, the phosphor coating is applied to the CRT in vertical stripes separated by thin metallic wires, and the electron beam is shot between the wires or grille. The stripe pitch refers to the distance between stripes of the same color, and again, smaller is better.

You can't compare the dot pitch of a shadow-mask monitor to that of an aperture-grille monitor, though. The dots are arranged differently for the two technologies: Shadow-mask dot pitch (often called "dot-trio pitch") is measured along a diagonal, while aperture-grille dot pitch is measured horizontally, and is sometimes called "horizontal dot pitch." So, if an aperture-grille monitor and a shadow-mask monitor have the same dot pitch, the shadow-mask unit would actually be packing in more dots per square inch.

Each approach has its pluses and proponents. Shadow-mask models offer a finer, more detailed image, since the light passes through precise holes in the mask. This makes them good choices for text-heavy applications and those involving fine lines, such as CAD/CAM applications.

Aperture-grille models, on the other hand, allow more light through to the screen, resulting in sharper contrast, brighter images and richer colors. Such monitors have the edge for prepress, desktop publishing and graphics-oriented applications involving color and images. You may notice filaments that go across the grille to stabilize it, especially on a white background. Due to the more intricate design, these displays typically cost slightly more than comparable shadow-mask models.

Choosing between a flat-square and aperture-grille model is largely a matter of personal preference. Flat-square monitors currently lead the overall market by a long shot. During the second quarter of 1996, they accounted for just over half of unit sales, while aperture grilles represented only one in 10 models sold, according to Stanford Resources Inc. (Fourteen-inch models using spherical-tube technology accounted for the rest.) However, 17- and 20-inch Trinitron monitors dominate the workstation market, since Sony has OEM agreements with Sun Microsystems for its system monitors, according to SRI. Sony, and other vendors, are now targeting the corporate desktop market with 15- and 17-inch models, so aperture-grille monitors are showing up in more offices as well.

Refreshing News

You should also scrutinize resolution and refresh rate. These two factors work together, and by understanding them, you can determine the largest possible viewing area a monitor is capable of before its image quality begins to deteriorate.

Resolution describes the number of pixels-horizontally and vertically-that will fit on the screen. A high resolution means objects (like icons, for example) will appear smaller, so you'll be able to see more on screen. For most business applications, an 800x600-pixel resolution should suffice. Of course, screen size also affects resolution: 1024x768 on a 15-inch monitor will probably produce an eyestrain-inducing image, while on a 17-incher, that resolution will work well.

Vertical frequency-or refresh rate-is measured in Hertz (Hz) and indicates how quickly a screen of pixels can be drawn. A higher refresh rate is likely to produce a steadier image. Lower refresh rates can result in flicker, which though barely noticeable, can contribute to eyestrain. Refresh rates vary with resolution, so while a monitor may produce a high-resolution image, its refresh rate at that resolution will determine the quality of the image.

Bargain monitors may have refresh rates as low as 60Hz, but you should look for a monitor with at least a 75Hz refresh rate, depending on resolution. The Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) has set an 85Hz refresh rate as a standard for flicker-free monitors, although few monitors approach this lofty plateau at higher resolutions.

Resolution and refresh rate are key considerations for matching a monitor to your system's video card. If your card doesn't support the monitor's resolution and refresh rate, you won't get the best performance. The video card also determines the number of displayable colors at a given resolution.

Outta-Sight Spec

Although it may be the most important spec for determining a monitor's best resolution setting, bandwidth is rarely quoted in advertisements or spec sheets. Bandwidth describes a monitor's capacity relative to the signals it receives from a graphics card. In a nutshell, higher resolutions and refresh rates require higher bandwidth.

You may have to ask a monitor manufacturer for this information or pore through a unit's manual. The following table serves as a guide for minimum bandwidth.

The bandwidth of your video card must also match that of the monitor. Low-end, typically low-bandwidth, video cards don't produce signals accurate enough to drive a big monitor at appropriate refresh rates. And higher-end video cards usually have signals that are too sharp to be processed properly by a low-end, low-bandwidth monitor. You don't often find bandwidth specs for video cards, but a good rule of thumb is to match a low-, medium- or high-cost video card with a 15-, 17- or 21-inch monitor, respectively.

Under Control

Fine-tuning your monitor's image isn't just a matter of matching specifications to expectations. Use a monitor's controls to adjust the display according to your needs, preferences and environmental conditions such as lighting. Virtually all monitors have front-mounted controls that are within easy reach. The actual control devices will either be push buttons or rotating thumbwheels.

Once considered a luxury, digital controls are now becoming the standard, says SRI's Fedrow. Fully 70 percent of the monitors shipped in the second quarter of 1996 had digital controls, according to SRI. These are more precise and typically last longer than thumbwheel controls or dials. Many monitors now offer an expanded list of controls and use on-screen programming to simplify adjustments. On-screen control menus generally provide easier adjustments and immediate feedback, so you're more likely to be able to adjust the monitor more accurately.

Basic controls include horizontal and vertical size and position, degauss, brightness and contrast. Most monitors also have controls for basic geometry, such as pincushion, trapezoid, parallelogram and rotation. Other monitors take geometric adjustments a step further with control over moire, convergence, color temperature, and red, green and blue gain.


Besides the screen-image aesthetics, there are several ergonomic issues relating to monitors. Fortunately, industry committees have published strict guidelines and standards to assist consumers in making their selections.

Any monitor you're considering should at least conform to the MPRII standard for electrical and magnetic field emissions. Preferably, it should adhere to the stricter TCO '92 standard, which requires lower emissions at an even smaller distance from the monitor-12 inches as opposed to 20 inches for MPRII. TCO '92 also encompasses energy efficiency along with electrical and fire safety. A new version of these standards, TCO '95, goes beyond emissions to include guidelines for energy consumption, screen flicker, luminance and keyboard use.

The less-stringent MPRII standard has already become commonplace. Seven out of 10 units shipped in second-quarter 1996 complied to MPRII, according to SRI. Only 3.5 percent followed TCO '92 guidelines. But TCO compliance should climb in the year ahead, especially among higher-quality monitors.

Keep the environment in mind when shopping for a monitor, too. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the Energy Star Program to certify energy-conserving products. Most monitor manufacturers use the VESA Display Power Management Signaling (DPMS) industry standard to meet specifications set by Energy Star. The monitor and video adapter work together under DPMS to power-down the display in three stages during inactive periods: Standby, Suspend and Off. Standby mode saves about 30 percent of the power and allows for instant recovery at the touch of a key. Suspend further decreases power consumption by turning off the monitor's glowing tube filament(s). Off mode cuts power to nearly everything except the microprocessor.

The Eyes Have It

Before you get bleary-eyed from scanning monitor spec sheets, check out the monitor you're considering at your local computer store. Besides overall picture quality, pay particular attention to focus and convergence.

A well-focused monitor will show a distinct separation between light and dark. To test focus, display a black image against a white background, and look for blurring around the edges and corners. Inexpensive monitors tend to optimize focus either at the corners or in the center-but not both. Misconvergence occurs when the red, green and blue screen contents are positioned improperly in relation to one another, and results in shadows (or ghosting)

Seeing into the Future

Most monitors hog desktop space. But liquid crystal display (LCD), a developing monitor technology, may change that. These flat displays take a fraction of the space of CRT-based monitors, but their high prices and picture quality are prohibitive for many applications. Still, LCD is a monitor technology that bears watching. (See the sidebar "Coming Soon to a Screen Near You.")

Other trends to watch for include monitors equipped with Universal Serial Bus connectors. These connections can move data more quickly and accommodate multiple devices through a system of hubs and cables. You'll also see monitors that advertise true Internet color. Models with this capability will be able to display a Web page at its optimum color. And stay tuned for optional modules with microphone and speakers that can be attached to any monitor, as well as improved on-screen programming.

With all the numbers, standards and features to consider, buying a monitor may seem like hard work. But if you do the leg work, run through the calculations and trust your eyes, you'll appreciate your efforts for years to come.

John Woram also contributed to this article.

Windows Magazine, February 1997, page 204.

[ Go to February 1997 Table of Contents ]