Screen therapy

Introduction

Not everyone has the room or the budget to fit a hulking 22-inch monitor on his or her desk. So for those looking for a new monitor, we’ve tested 24 models from 15 manufacturers to find the best deals and the highest quality in the 17- and 19-inch monitor brackets. There are many reasons to upgrade your current monitor of choice. If you’re using anything less than a 17-inch monitor, the extra screen-space afforded by a mid-size monitor will knock your socks off. If you’re already using a 17-inch model there’s a noticeable difference between that and a 19-inch model. The extra elbow room allows for more palettes and windows to be open, or a bigger battlefield for gamers. A further reason for buying a new monitor is because your old one is dead – or dying. After a couple of years, monitors start to show signs of ageing. Often, focus and convergence are the first to suffer, as internal magnets loose their accuracy. To begin with, this can be corrected using on-screen controls, but after continued use, the screen will end up out of focus. Another symptom of impending meltdown is a jumpy image, or noise at the edges of the screen. This can be a symptom of a failing power supply. If you have the resources, choosing a bigger monitor can give you a whole new outlook on computing. Even just moving from a 17-inch screen to a 19-inch screen gives a wonderful feeling of freedom. Things like drag-&-drop are so much more useable when you have room to manoeuvre. Photoshop users will appreciate the ability to zoom into a portion of an image without loosing the bigger picture. So how do you wade through the quagmire of specifications, inflated claims and advertising spin to chose your monitor? Well, you should be armed with at least the knowledge of which specifications are relevant and which aren’t. Here’s what to look out for when making your choice. 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 and 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’s 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. Almost all the models tested use aperture-grille technology, with only the most basic models taking the shadow-mask route. Shadow mask and aperture grille
These are the two classes of screen technology. Shadow-mask screens are made up of circular dots, while 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 automatically better than shadow masks – but at this size and price range, aperture grille is usually best. Only high-end monitors with hardware calibration, such as the £3,999 Barco monitor we tested last month, really get the best out of shadow-mask technology. Refresh rate and resolution
These are better – but not definitive – measures of quality. They’re 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. The 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 1,280-x-1,024 pixels for the resolution, and around 85Hz for the refresh rate on the larger 19-inch models. The 17-inch models tend to use 1,024-x-768 pixels as a base resolution. 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. These should be close to the optimum performance. If adjustments are needed, they should be for minor things like contrast and brightness, not radical tweaking of pincushion settings or trapezium adjustments – which adjust the shape of screen. 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. 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. For more advanced calibration, you need a hardware calibrator. This is only necessary for high-end on-screen proofing for print work. If you’re doing this standard of work, you would be better off with one of the super-sized monitors featured last month. By now you should have the knowledge needed to sort the wheat from the chaff. We’ve tested just about every 17- and 19-inch monitor currently available. There are, however, some models that we didn’t look at. To keep the number of monitors to a reasonable level, we looked at only one screen-size per manufacturer. In fact, manufacturers often have many sub-models at the same screen size, with a variety of extras. These extras can be things such as built-in USB hubs or speakers. If you choose a monitor with these extras, you should weigh the price difference against buying them separately. Remember, built-in speakers are rarely as good as external ones. Only the space-saving features make them a good idea. The built-in USB hubs are much the same as external versions, so they’re quite a useful feature. The other models that won’t appear in this round-up are the ones that were launched after our press date. There are around 20 monitors released every month. With such a large number of screens included in our tests, some models are sure to be replaced soon.
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