Displays: Look of love

Introduction

If your work is computer-based, you’d scare yourself if you counted the hours you spend every year in front of a monitor – even discounting your Mac leisure-time. With this in mind, your monitor needs to be your mate. Here, we take a look at your options when choosing a 17- or 19-inch monitor. There are a number of different technologies used in monitor construction, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Size is also an issue: although 17- and 19-inch monitor cases are smaller, our expectations of screen sizes are higher than ever. Colour fidelity is another consideration. You may not be using these monitors to create colour-critical print documents, but even working with Web graphics requires some indication of colour fidelity. Aesthetics is another factor. The latest Power Macs always look better alongside a colour-co-ordinated monitor. Whatever your reason for buying a new display, if what you are currently using is more than a couple of years old, most models will be vastly improved. Screens have become flatter – both horizontally and vertically. Some 19-inch models – from Mitsubishi and La Cie, for example – have perfectly flat glass, which cuts distortion and reflection. There are, though, still just two screen technologies – aperture-grille and shadow-mask. Aperture-grille (or Trinitron monitors) use a fine vertical grille of wires to define screen pixels. The cathode ray is shot at the phosphor on the back of the glass, through the grille. A similar method is used with a shadow-mask screen, but, instead of a grille, it uses a mesh. The grille allows more light to pass through it, so the tint in the glass is usually darker than with the aperture method. This means that contrast is better and blacks appear blacker. When the cathode ray is fired through a shadow-mask, more of the light is blocked out. The shadow-mask method gives better colour fidelity because less tint is used – but blacks are not so dark. It’s swings and roundabouts, but both are comparable. If you are looking at monitors in a showroom there are a couple of ways you can tell which method is being used. One of the most noticeable characteristics of aperture-grille is a horizontal band about two thirds of the way down the screen. On larger monitors, there may be an additional one at the top. This is a tension wire that stops the vertical wires from moving around. You will be able to see this wire only when a plain light image is being displayed. It is not a flaw, it is just a feature of aperture-grille monitors. You can’t see it most of the time. Most sales people should know this, but if they don’t, then why not try for a discount. All’s fair in love and shopping. One of the less attractive features of some aperture-grille monitors is a problem with convergence. It doesn’t seem to affect the higher-spec models so much, but cheaper ones do suffer. Convergence problems manifest themselves as fuzziness, particularly in the screen’s corners. To test this, create the thinnest black line you can – ideally one-pixel wide, if you have Photoshop – on a light background. If you see a single-colour "drop" shadow above or below the line, this is misconvergence. Some monitors give you control over this, but it is difficult to get it perfect. The standard Trinitron was invented by Sony, but other manufacturers have advanced the technology, as seen with Mitsubishi’s Diamondtron. It is still has an aperture-grille tube, but it’s an improved design on the original. Trinitron screens have traditionally been vertically flat and slightly curved on the horizontal. This means reflections are confined to a vertical strip. When the horizontal plane is flat, the reflections are reduced even further. Pitching for business In the battle to be the monitor of choice, manufacturers like to quote a host of numbers – with many meaning little or nothing. One of the most quoted – and least helpful – is dot-pitch. This is the distance in millimetres between the holes in the shadow-mask. The closer the dots, the brighter the image, and the picture should also be sharper. This is all well and good, until an aperture-grille monitor manufacturer wants to quote some numbers. The dots on an aperture-grille screen are closer together because vertical wires separate them. Shadow-mask dots are in a honeycomb pattern, so dots appear close – but are, in fact, further apart. One way of making this larger number appear smaller is by giving the measurement for the horizontal separation, not taking into account the vertical measurement. This produces a number more in line with the aperture-grille monitors. Dot or stripe-pitch values are, consequently, of little use when being compared. There are other more reliable ways to tell how good a monitor is. The best and most obvious is to look at the screen. Unfortunately, this is increasingly difficult to do, as high-street retailers of monitors rarely have a good range of models on display. Mail-order companies usually have the widest selection, but this further reduces the opportunity to test them first-hand. One solution is to seek personal recommendations from other users – starting with friends or colleagues. For helpful – as opposed to misleading – monitor-performance stats, refresh rate is about the best. This is the rate at which a monitor "redraws". The rate is not set by the monitor but by its video card. However, a good monitor will be capable of using a higher refresh-rate. Higher refresh rates mean less flicker, making displays easier on your eyes. Maximum resolution can be a good indicator, but monitors are rarely used at their highest possible resolution. What high-resolution capability shows you is that your settings will be well within the capabilities of the screen. The reason the highest resolution is rarely used is because this makes on-screen text tiny and difficult to read. If you are using a font that is 14-pixels high, at 640-x-480 (14-inch screen resolution) it will appear huge. If you were to change the resolution to 1,280-x-1,024 pixels, the same font would be minuscule. On PCs you can change the resolution of the screen, but also the size of the system fonts. This makes using higher resolutions much more practical, and increases the definition of screen images. Hopefully, Mac OS X Client will offer a way to use a higher resolution on-screen to improve definition – without shrinking the text and icons. For now, though, super-high resolutions are not that helpful for Macintosh users. Size matters Bulk is a big issue for monitors. Even those who need a large screen for DTP work, nobody wants a screen to dominate their desk. The screens we’ve looked at are all 17- and 19-inch models. Many people find a 15-inch screen too cramped nowadays, and I would certainly recommend a 17-inch screen as a minimum. If you can get by with a 15-inch monitor, why not buy an iMac? Older screens were often deeper than they were wide, making even smaller models cumbersome. The newest monitors use a short-neck tube, so can be squeezed onto smaller desks. We have provided the dimensions of each monitor, so it’s worth measuring up if space is tight. You might imagine that the 19-inch models would be substantially bigger that the 17-inch screens, but this isn’t always so. Modern 19-inch monitors are smaller than some of the older 17-inch models. A 19-inch monitor gives you a bigger computer desktop, and a compact short-neck design maximizes space on your real desktop. The best screen for the average user would have the following features: a flat screen – both vertically and horizontally – to reduce distortion and reflection; and a high resolution and refresh rate – even if you don’t use the top resolution, it’s a good indication of quality. Refresh rate should ideally be a minimum of 85Hz, ideally 100Hz at a resolution of 1,024-x-768 pixels – see our table for specs. With regard to looks, some of the models tested are designed with Apple hardware in mind. This does add value to the monitor – but how much depends on whether you care about colour co-ordination. The model that will match your Power Mac G3 the closest is, of course, the Apple Studio Display. But it’s big and its styling will not be to all tastes. Now that the Power Mac G3 has been replaced by the G4, Apple’s Studio Display is cased in Graphite plastics. This means that, if you have a Power Mac G3, you’ll need to move fast if you want the old Blueberry flavour. If you don’t want a Studio Display – but still require something a little less grey than the average monitor – Formac has a translucent solution. The Formac 17/250 comes in ice blue, and represents a cheaper way to colour co-ordination. If you want a flat screen, you are spoiled for choice. Since Mitsubishi released the first totally flat screen last year, similar technology has appeared in many other screens. The flat-screen Mitsubishi Diamond Pro 900U is still a popular choice for designers, but the same tube can be found in Iiyama, Nokia, and La Cie monitors, to name but a few. The La Cie electron19blue is probably the best adaptation of the tube. This is because La Cie has implemented a hardware calibration option for its version. The Blue Eye colour calibrator works with the elecron21blue, as well as the +19-inch version. You need only buy one calibrator tool for any number of the electron monitors, which makes it an extremely cost-effective professional solution. Calibration is not as important on consumer screens as it is on professional models. However, if you do have some form of calibration it will increase the life-expectancy of the screen. This is because, with time, monitor settings will require re-calibration, or screen-images will be surrounded by a colour-cast, or become darker. The electron19blue also features a dark blue case and matching hood. It may look like a fashion statement, but there are sound reasons for these apparently frivolous extras. Its dark blue colouring is supposed to be neutral, so it won’t clash with any colour work you do. The hood acts to block reflections, even though there are minimal, because of the flat screen. It may seem over the top, but it does give you a better viewing quality – plus you can hide behind it when you are feeling lazy. Sony, the inventor of Trinitron, has also come up with a very impressive flat-screen CRT called the FD Trinitron. It can be found in the Multiscan F400. Because there is only a handful of companies that produce the tubes used in monitors, it’s likely that the FD Trinitron will show up in other cases before long. There are differences when manufacturers use the same tube, but different casings and controls. However, images from a good tube will vary only slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer. One notable newcomer to the Mac market is ADI. The ADI MicroScan models are highly specified and include Colorific software. Colorific is a simple calibration tool that lets you tweak your monitor’s colour setting. It isn’t the most accurate way of doing things – the La Cie Blue Eye is much better – but it does get your settings into the ballpark, and is all you need for everyday work. It also means you don’t have to worry about presentations having a green or red tinge. Apple’s simple yet powerful solution to the calibration issue is self-calibration technology. This doesn’t give you the control that you get with the Blue Eye, but nor it doesn’t require you to make any colour judgements, as with Colorific. Some of the Monitors tested have built-in USB hubs – and most companies now offer a USB hub option. This is a good place for a hub: convenient for plugging in both your keyboard and mouse, especially if your computer is under your desk. If you own a pre-USB Mac you may still want to include this option, to allow for machine upgrades in the future. Similarly, some manufacturers offer a built-in microphone. If you’re considering a shiny new G4, a microphone may be a good idea. Apple has now stopped shipping microphones with the latest Macs.
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