Primal screens

Introduction

A while ago, I was at a friend’s house while he was showing off his “huge” monitor – all 17 inches of it. Everyone marvelled at its size and it reminded me that most non-Mac people don’t have the excuse or wallet to own a big-screen monitor. Macintosh users are more likely to have a bigger screen because they tend to use graphics applications that are greatly enhanced by the extra desktop real estate. Here, we look at the available choices for super-sized monitors. Bigger is not always better, of course, but if you’ve the space, a large screen – even a cheap one – will improve how you view your work. Even though software developers are trying hard to keep floating palettes and windows to a minimum, a little extra elbow-room can save your desktop from clutter. Just having a big screen is not always enough to keep the high-end graphics and video people happy, though. If you’re producing work for print, you need to be sure the colours will look the way you intended. To this end, some of the screens we tested have colour-calibration software or hardware. If colour is less critical to the kind of work you do, there are plenty of bargain screens around, some offering surprisingly good quality. Choosing a monitor can be tough, especially if you can’t see a screen in action before you buy, which is the case when buying by mail-order. When you consider how much time most of us spend looking at a computer screen, it’s easy to see why researching your purchase is worthwhile. There are many ways to measure screen quality, but many of the screen statistics quoted by manufacturers are worthless. Dot pitch The measurement of dot pitch relates to the distance between the dots that make up the screen image. The trouble is, there are two types of screen with at least three ways of measuring dot pitch. Whatever the type of screen, manufacturers always measure dot pitch in the most flattering way to that technology. Measuring dot pitch – or stripe pitch, as it is called if it’s an aperture-grille screen – is done in different ways, so comparing results is like comparing apples and bananas. The numbers quoted become irrelevant. In this round-up we’ve elected not to quote dot or stripe pitch, as it serves only to confuse. Shadow mask and aperture grille
These are the two classes of screen technology. The shadow-mask screen is made up of circular dots, while the aperture grille – also known as Trinitron – uses tiny vertical oblongs. Monitors work by shooting cathode rays that light up the phosphors painted on the inside of the glass tube. To define individual pixels, the ray needs to be directed through either a shadow mask or an aperture grille. A shadow mask is a sheet with a honeycomb of holes punched through it. An aperture grille uses tightly held vertical wires to separate the beam. Because the wires are thinner than the shadow mask, more light can get through. The difference between more or less light getting though is important for picture quality. Part of the construction process involves tinting the glass, to make the screen appear black when no light is directed at it. This is how black areas in images are rendered on screen. The more light that makes it to the screen, then the darker the tint can be made. Because aperture-grille monitors are brighter, such screens also have darker blacks and a greater spread of contrast. However, this doesn’t make aperture-grille screens better than shadow masks, because it depends what you want from your monitor. Refresh rate and resolution
These are better – but not definitive – measures of quality shown in the specs as optimum timing. Refresh rate refers to the number of times the screen is redrawn every second. Faster refresh rates give less visible flicker. This makes the screen easier to view for long periods. It has been suggested that screens with lower refresh rates can cause headaches and eye strain. A refresh rate of 85Hz is fine, and anything greater is a bonus. Lower refresh rates are still useable, but 75Hz and less can appear flickery. Refresh rate is set by the graphics card. A monitor may be capable of 120Hz, but will reach this only if the video card can output at that rate. Maximum refresh-rate is also linked to resolution settings. If a monitor can handle a 120Hz refresh rate, it may only be able to do it at a 1,024-x-768-pixel resolution. Higher resolutions mean the monitor has to work harder to refresh, because there are more lines to draw on the screen. To make things simple, we’ve quoted the highest suggested resolution and refresh rate. This tends to be around 1,600-x-1,200 pixels for the resolution and around 85Hz for the refresh rate. If you run the screen at a lower resolution, the refresh rate can often be set higher. Being able to set high resolutions is something of a mixed blessing when using a Mac. While high-resolution screens give you a larger desktop, your desktop icons are rendered minute to the point of being illegible. The same happens to text in Mac menus. A resolution of 1,280-x-1,024 pixels is about the highest that will maintain legible text. If your eyesight is not so hot, though, 1,024-x-768 pixels might be more suitable. Screen control
When you take delivery of a monitor it should be primed with factory settings, and these should be close to optimum. If adjustments are needed, these should be for minor things like contrast and brightness, not radical tweaking of pincushion settings or trapezium adjustments. The controls should also be easy to understand and reach – something some models failed at. The ideal monitor should be both sleek yet fully featured. There’s little point in a monitor having a single control button to simplify its look if this compromises ease of control. The Eizo FlexScan makes this mistake, sporting a single rocker-button that is difficult to use. Sony takes this approach one step further, by hiding the single button on its G500 on the underside of the front panel. This made it the most difficult model to adjust. Colour issues
If you’re serious about colour, you need some sort of calibration. Luckily, these days Apple provides a calibration tool as part of its Monitors Control Panel. This is great for making sure your screen image is at least in the ball park when it comes to accuracy. Two models include software called Colorific, which does much the same job. For grown-up monitor calibration, you need a hardware calibrator. Two of the models tested have calibration hardware either included or as an option. The LaCie Electron 22 can be controlled by the LaCie Blue Eye calibrator. This greatly simplifies the process, because – instead of relying on judging colours by eye – it’s taken care of by a CCD sensor. You simply stick the Blue Eye to the centre of the screen and let the software do its work. Using the Blue Eye calibrator will ensure that your LaCie monitor is well adjusted and consistent. This will be good enough for 99 per cent of users, but if you need more accuracy you need to spend more. Barco is a name synonymous with the pinnacle of quality – and expense. In previous years, we’ve left out Barco monitors on price grounds, but this year we’ve included one. The Reference Calibrator V is Barco’s top monitor. At a whisker under £4,000 you’d expect it to be good – and it is. The main reason the Calibrator 5 is so expensive is that it comes with a custom calibrator. The calibrator hardware is measured against a master calibrator in the Barco factory in Belgium. This master calibrator, Barco claims, is one of the most accurate colour-measurement device in existence. Whatever variation the master calibrator detects in the calibrators it tests, it will compensate for. Each monitor and calibrator has a serial number, to make sure the calibrator is used only with the screen it was calibrated for. This produces an image as close to perfect as technology will allow – certainly far closer that the human eye is capable of achieving. The ability to use a monitor as an on-screen “soft“ proofing device can cut the amount of money you spend on expensive Cromalin colour proofs. Where Barco-levels of on-screen accuracy are not so crucial is with Web design. After all, there’s little point in spending so much money on colour where the end result will appear on any number of cheap, uncalibrated 14-inch PC monitors. Some people maintain that on-screen RGB proofing can’t accurately display something that’s going to be printed in CMYK, but it’s worth remembering that neither do Cromalin proofs accurately show what the final result will be like – unless your final output is to photographic paper. Much of the look of a printed image is defined by paper stock. Glossy Cromalin prints will never accurately show what a newsprint image will look like. On-screen proofing isn’t that different. One surprising thing about the Barco is it lacks a flat screen. This is because is uses shadow-mask technology, rather than aperture grille. The technologies both have their strengths and weaknesses. Barco uses shadow-mask technology because it gives greater accuracy of colour, which is what its customers value above all else. Manufacturers that use aperture-grille technology do so because it allows them to produce vertically and horizontally flat screens. The great advantage of a flat CRTscreen is there is virtually no reflection. In recent years, the difference in screen-curve between the two classes of monitor has closed radically. However, with the exception of the Barco, I'd say the flatter screens and better contrast offered by aperture-grille monitors outweighs the colour advantage of shadow masks.
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