Display Away

Introduction

What do you spend more time looking at than anything else? Your partner? Your TV? Your eyelids (well, maybe). No. For most Macworld readers, their computer monitor will be the most gazed-at object. It follows from this eye-boggling fact that you should spend as much time and effort getting your choice of monitor right. In reality, though, many people put more thought into buying a pair of new shoes than a new monitor. But no matter, because here, we’ve done the legwork for you – testing the latest crop of large-screen monitors on offer. All the models on test are CRT (Cathode Ray Tube), as opposed to LCD (Liquid Crystal Display). Although there’s an abundance of affordable flat-panel LCD monitors now available – with many more due on the market – CRT screens still win-out on colour fidelity and affordability, at least for the moment. LCD-screen prices continue to drop, and their colour quality is improving, albeit slowly. Maybe next year, the two technologies will warrant direct comparison. Apple no longer even offers a single CRT monitor. If you can’t decide which technology best meets your needs, there are a number of factors to consider. Previously, LCD screens were the sole domain of stock-market trading floors – but manufacturers now are attempting aggressively to widen their appeal to everyone, including designers. If colour fidelity is important, then I’m afraid that, for the moment, LCD displays remain out of the question. It isn’t that they they’re incapable of displaying decent colour; rather that colours change slightly, depending on the angle that the screen is viewed from. This is no big deal for many people, but designers demand complete colour confidence. The other problem with LCDs is that, unlike CRTs, they can’t be calibrated very accurately – although the fact that LCD screens’ appeal is becoming ever-more widespread may force the pace on improvements in this regard. Eye-One Monitor (see “Monitor colour calibration”) is one colour-calibration device that is able to handle both CRT and LCD screens. However, such solutions remain expensive (£489 ex. VAT) – as well as thin on the ground. If buying a CRT model, there are plenty of measurements and specifications to watch out for. Most of these should be taken with a large pinch of salt, because they’re red herrings trumpeted by manufacturers striving to get one over on the competition. Things like dot pitch, stripe pitch, screen coating are minor factors. The really pertinent things to watch out for in a monitor are refresh rate, resolution, and viewable image-size. Resolution Maximum and recommended resolution Although these two specifications sound similar, they are, in fact, markedly different. Maximum resolution and recommended resolution both will involve figures that are quoted as, for example, 1,600-x-1,200 dots per inch (dpi). The important difference is that the higher, maximum resolution is likely to work only at a lower refresh rate. Refresh rate This is the number of times per second that the screen is redrawn. If the refresh rate is any lower that 75Hz, then the image will be flickery and unusable. The numbers we quote for resolution are the manufacturers’ recommended resolutions. We give a minimum refresh rate of 75Hz where the manufacturer has failed to quote a recommended resolution. Normally, a refresh rate of around 85Hz or better is required if you’re looking at the screen for long periods, because this produces less flicker, and is far easier on your eyes. It’s worth remembering that the screen’s refresh-rate and resolution is set by your video card, not monitor. If the monitor can handle 2,048-x-1,546dpi at 85Hz, it doesn’t necessarily follow that your video card can. What it does tell you is that the specifications for the screen are high, and that it won’t struggle with the lower resolution you’ll use. In reality, you’re unlikely to use a resolution beyond 1,600-x-1,200dpi, because this means that on-screen menus are rendered too small. On larger monitors, 1,280-x-1,024dpi is the setting that is likely to be used by most people. Pitch Dot pitch and stripe pitch These statistics began life as useful numbers. The measurements relate to the distance between dots on a screen. In theory, the smaller the distance between dots, the better the image, because less light is being blocked. This was fine for comparing shadow-mask monitors, because these all used the same technology. But then Trinitron – or aperture-grille – monitors arrived. Aperture-grille monitors use vertical stripes of dots rather than the honeycomb of dots found in shadow-mask screens. Measuring the distance between stripes results in lower numbers, making the aperture-grille monitors seem better – on paper at least. The shadow-mask monitor manufacturers reacted to this bias by quoting a horizontal dot-pitch. This is a measurement of the distance between the honeycomb dots horizontally, rather than the previous diagonal measurement – and means the numbers produced are similar to those for stripe-pitch. By this time, all such statistics had ceased to mean anything significant, because there were so many different ways of measuring them. The upshot of this is we pay little heed to dot-, stripe- and horizontal-pitch measurements, as they serve only to confuse. Screens
Coatings The CRT screens you see advertised often mention that they use some kind of NASA-developed high-tech patented screen-coating. In the past five years of testing screens, I’ve yet to notice any significant difference between screen coatings. The general idea of a coating is that it reduces reflection. But in fact, glass technology has overtaken coating technology. The best way of reducing glare is to flatten the screen: the goldfish-bowl screens of old invariably directed reflections into your eyes from any angle. Vertically flat screens limit reflections to a vertical stripe, which is better, but imperfect. All the screens on test are flat both horizontally and vertically. This limits reflections to a minimum, and is better than any coating. Masks
Another difference with new monitors is in the masking technology used. A few years ago, only half of the monitors on test would use aperture-grille technology, the other half being shadow mask. Shadow-mask monitors rely on a card with a fine honeycomb of holes, through which it projects light. This means there’s almost as much card blocking the light as there are holes letting it through. Because of this, manufacturers used only a light tint on the glass, so that they would not be overly dark. However, this meant that the black areas of an image were not rendered black enough. Aperture-grille technology on the other hand, uses fine wires that are pulled tightly and vertically across the screen. There are two horizontal wires to keep the vertical ones in check (that appear as fine black strips on the screen). This method lets much more light through to the phosphors, meaning that a darker tint can be used on the glass. Darker-tinted glass means aperture-grille screens render blacks as blacks, not greys. For a time, the general consensus was that aperture-grille was nice, but tended to suffer from convergence problems. Shadow-mask screens were said to be more colour-accurate. However, one key factor favoured aperture-grille technology: it allowed for perfectly flat screens, whereas shadow-mask screens were bowed. Our round-up involves aperture-grille models only. Viewable image
The saga of measuring CRT screens has been running for some time. Originally, Apple sold its own screens, such as the 16-inch Apple Display. It was some time before the guys at Apple noticed that PC manufacturers were coming out with “17-inch” monitors that were – strangely – the same size. To bridge this reality gap, all monitors are now measured on diagonal measurement of the glass used, rather than the viewable image. That isn’t even the viewable glass – it includes the glass behind the plastic, too. Thankfully, monitors come with a viewable measurement in their specifications, despite keeping to the original measurements for defining screen-size. Hence the profusion of 22-inch monitors with 20-inch viewable images. Colour
Most CRTs are adept at reproducing accurate colours. The majority of the monitors on test were able to provide spot-on colour out of the box. Apple offers Monitor Calibration Assistant as part of its operating system (see “Colour calibration explained”). As long as your screen is adjustable, you can be assured that on-screen, the colours will be close to what you desire. However, there are those whose colour-accuracy requirements are more onerous. Designers who require their screens for colour proofing (“soft proofing”) require extremely accurate colours – and there exist a number of models that lend themselves to this kind of work. The LaCie electron22blue III is designed to work with the LaCie Blue Eye hardware calibrator. This takes the guesswork out of calibration and will increase the useful life of the monitor (See “Monitor colour calibration”). This is a better way of calibrating a monitor – not only because it’s easy to do, but because it’s more scientific. All CRT monitors lose colour accuracy as they age. The CRT guns that emit light fade, and the magnets that direct these beams lose accuracy. When this happens, the image becomes blurry, and you’ll experience problems with both convergence and pin-cushioning. Convergence
This refers to the accuracy of the three colours – red green and blue – as they hit the phosphor in order to create a screen colour. Misconverging CRT guns result in coloured shadows on lines that should be black. This can be remedied by making manual adjustments, but is very fiddly. Pin cushioning
This involves the shape of screen image. Again, if the pin-cushion settings are out of kilter, these can be adjusted manually, but again, it can be a laborious process, and one that requires regular attention once screen degredation has set in. On a new CRT monitor, if either pin cushioning or convergence aren’t spot-on from the outset, this will bode ill for the longevity of the screen, as these problems will worsen with age. However, none of the screens tested exhibited significant problems in these areas. Choice
Colour accuracy LaCie still offers the best options in this regard. However, you can always use a third-party hardware or software calibrator with any of the other monitors with satisfactory results (See “Monitor colour calibration). Aesthetics If looks are important to you, then there’s little that on the monitor market to excite you. Most screens are bland, beige boxes, maybe because they’re aimed at the conservative corporate market. However, there are some that are easier on the eye – LaCie’s electron22blue III being one. Size and weight It’s worth measuring up and, to this end, we’ve included both dimensions and weight, to allow you to make sure your desk is up to the job. And remember: these monsters are heavy, so get somebody to help you lift them.
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