Space Stations

Introduction

If you’re among those who become irritated when your document disappears under a platoon of palettes and a company of control bars then it’s time for a larger monitor. For those already owning mid-size monitors, but who still feel they have insufficient room for manoeuvre, don’t panic. This month we look at the big boys – the 21-inchers. Actually, a number of those tested go beyond the 21-inch mark, but the end-result is an image between 19-20 inches. There are many big monitors on the market, but we’ve concentrated on the models aimed at the graphics professional. All the monitors tested are CRT-based (cathode ray tube), although LCD flat-panel displays are set to creep into the higher end of the display market over the next year. The past year has seen some impressive developments that have made the new CRT monitors better than ever. As ever, there’s great pressure to keep prices at a minimum, so a monitor costing well under £1,000 today could easily have set you back £2,000 or even £3,000 three or four years ago. Sony makes a 24-inch wide-screen monitor, which is also available from La Cie and Formac. We examined this monitor last year and found it to be of good quality (see Macworld, April 1988). The added width, though, just doesn’t justify the extra cost, which is about £500. You would get more for your money by adding a second monitor for your tool palettes. This route is the best way to gain even more desktop acreage. If you acquire a new large-screen monitor, why not keep your old monitor too. It may require an additional monitor card, though smaller monitors may be able to use the internal video available on most Macs. Monitors come in different sizes, and also are based on different technologies. The oldest – and most tried-and-tested technology – is shadow-masking. Shadow-masks have traditionally been characterized by lower-quality contrast but higher-accuracy colour. Traditions change, however, and the modern shadow-mask monitor can hold its own on contrast with other technologies. It’s no longer true that an aperture-grille monitor will always have better contrast. That said, colour-matching technology has made aperture-grille monitors much better on colour performance. The end-result of these advances is that most monitors we looked at performed very well in our qualitative tests – thereby making any choice a narrow one. Colour control
The one way that manufacturers can get ahead in the large-monitor market is to improve colour accuracy (or calibration). Calibration is theoretically possible on any monitor; the controls are all there, but nobody has a good enough eye to calibrate without a little help. Of all the monitors tested, only a handful have considered calibration requirements. To be a leader in the Mac monitor-market, manufacturers must do better in this area, or be satisfied lumped together with the generic 21-inch no-frills monitor makers. Calibration of even the most basic kind adds value and extends the working life of a monitor, so should be high on any buyer’s wish list. There are three methods used for calibration in the monitors we tested. The first and most basic method uses a software package called Colorific from Sonnetech. It does involves user-interaction, but nothing too complex – all you need to do is simply match shades of grey from a chart. The results are pretty good: it’s comforting to know you’re at least in the ballpark with your monitor settings. The second method of calibration uses a hardware device to measure the output of your monitor. The information is then used to set up your monitor in the right way for the work you’re doing. This requires little interaction, other than sticking the calibrator on the screen. There’s also one other method, which is found only in the Apple Studio Display. This is simplest of all: click open the control panel on the front. That activates the software. One more click means the software takes over. Using sensors inside the monitor, it measures and adjusts the image accordingly. In the future, monitor manufacturers will need to supply some kind of mechanism to make image-quality consistent. Whether it’s a high-end solution or just a rough-and-ready fix, calibration means that the monitor will be useful for longer. Old monitors end up on the scrapheap not because they fail to work, but because they get blurry, faded and dim. Quality of image is paramount, along with the monitor’s ability to maintain colour-correctness. When we test any monitor it’s impossible to comment on how its picture quality will measure up in one or two years’ time. However, we can say that those with calibration features will always shape-up best. Controlling the functions of a monitor is something that you should need to do infrequently. It should, therefore, be a simple task, because if you adjust it only every six months you’re likely to forget how it’s done. Intuitive controls are the answer here. The controls on most monitors are similar; the only difference being the means of accessing them. There are two schools on controls: the minimalists, who prefer few buttons, and the rationalists: who offer many buttons but few menu options. There is a lot to be said for a collection of well-labelled buttons. Menus are usually a good thing, but when complex can become confusing on-screen. A single button, while attractive, is not by definition simple. Aesthetics are a less important factor, at least to professionals. Or so you would think. But actually looks are undeniably a factor – one has only to look at the Apple Studio Display to realize this. There are other practicalities to consider, especially if space is a factor. None of us has endless desk space. In particularly tight corners a strong argument can be made for a flat-panel display. You have to remember that any 21-inch monitor will eat up desk space, yet some are bigger than others. It’s time to get your measuring tape out and see what you have the space for. Models such as the Samsung yncMaster 1000 are over half a metre deep. It’s a fine monitor, but what does it house to make it such as colossus? The Apple Studio Display is also big – when viewed from behind it does a passable blue whale impression. But its innovative, albeit bandy, legs mean you still have access to the space under the monitor, which is ideal for stowing away your keyboard. All of the monitors tested have high-quality screens, but most have standard features. There is not a bad one in the bunch. Though a number of them are less attractive – and therefore less appealing – than others. So as not to antagonize the substance-over-style brigade, I should qualify this by saying the good-looking monitors also impressed with their technology. The top performers were Apple, Hitachi, La Cie, Mitsubishi and Philips. The other monitors tested needed to be cheaper or boast some other compelling quality to make them stand out from the crowd. Both the Hitachi and the Philips models ship with Colorific, the simple-to-use DIY calibration tool. This is ideal because any fool (including me) can use it. It doesn’t let you set the environment to, say, a pre-press or CAD setting – it simply gets the monitor to within an acceptable margin of accuracy. I don’t understand why this method of software calibration is not an industry standard. After all, it’s not as if Colorific adds greatly to cost. Though the specifications of both the Hitachi and the Philips displays are almost identical, the cases they use are quite different. Hitachi is one of the relatively few companies that actually manufactures CRTs, so it’s a safe bet to say that the Philips uses a Hitachi tube. The Hitachi case is very square and plain when compared with the Philips, which has a sleek one-button control – sleek for a 21-inch monitor, that is. The power button is on the top of the box, and the controls use a single button and a hidden wheel. This makes the face of the monitor look very clean, but mastering the controls does take a little time. By way of contrast, the Hitachi case is pebble-dashed with buttons, which makes access to the functions easier but using them a little confusing. One thing that makes the Hitachi a more compelling purchase is its hardware-calibration tool. The ViewOpen calibration tool is available for the Hitachi monitor at £197.50. Another monitor that has something extra to offer is the Mitsubishi Diamond Pro 2020U. This monitor lacks any calibration options, but the screen itself is outstanding. It uses the Naturally Flat CRT that is, as the name suggests, perfectly flat. Don’t confuse this with the very flat aperture-grille CRTs that are vertically flat. The Diamond Pro is flat both vertically and horizontally. This means that reflections are kept to a minimum and there’s no image distortion. It looks so good that you can almost forget its lack of calibration. If you don’t care about calibration, this is the best of the rest. That leaves two models to fight it out for the top recommendation – the La Cie and the Apple. Each boasts excellent calibration, (see feature on page 64) but with the new Power Mac G3s there are fresh compatibility issues. The La Cie monitor uses a hardware-calibration tool called Blue Eye. This requires both an ADB port to plug in the device and a serial port to control the monitor. The problem is that the new G3s don’t have a serial port. This means that at present the electron 21/108 cannot use the Blue Eye with the new G3 series. La Cie says there will be an adaptor available soon that will allow you to use the Blue Eye with USB equipped Macs. The new Apple Studio Display 21 uses a USB connection to control screen settings. Of course, this means anybody who doesn’t have a new G3 series Power Mac won’t be able to use this monitor. This may seriously limit the popularity of the Studio Display. So, both the electron 21/108 and the Apple Studio Display share equal footing on calibration. Picture quality is also too close to call, so we can decide on a winner only by aesthetics. Because this is a judgement only you can make we placed them equal first. For what it’s worth, I think the electron looks very businesslike in its dark-blue casing and reflection-shielding hood. The Apple is best described as striking, with its fun, rounded shape and bandy legs. I can understand why somebody buying a complete new system might want to get matching accessories, and the new G3 Power Mac and Studio Display are certainly a matching pair. If however you don’t want to have your office redecorated by Apple, then the La Cie allows you to stand out from the crowd more quietly. If you want to use your monitor for professional work, you should be calibrating it to get the best out of it. If colour is not important then a monitor lacking calibration will be cheaper. The Maxdata and the ViewSonic models come in at less than £700, so there’s little reason to pay more, unless you want something special like the Mitsubishi with its flat screen. At the top-end, the Apple and La Cie monitors both do a great job. Even though the La Cie and Blue Eye bundle is more expensive than the Apple monitor it’s worth remembering that you need only one Blue Eye calibrator, even if you have more than one electron monitor in your office. If you can’t afford a 21-inch monitor just yet, there are plenty of good quality 17-inch and 19-inch monitors around. You can find all you need to know about mid-size monitors in our January issue ("Pay and display", page 75). If you need the larger screen size there is one thing that divides them neatly. If there is calibration available you can consider it a professional monitor, no calibration and it may work fine but you’ll never be sure. If at all possible, you should always see the monitor working before you buy it. Unfortunately, there are precious few shops where this is possible. But if it is an option then you should use it. Uncalibrated monitors are all have a similar quality of picture, so you can make a judgement on price and aesthetics. Calibrated monitors will always be more useful to a graphics professional, so it is worth paying the extra. These monitors can be deceptively large. If you have limited space, measure up and leave room for you keyboard. The hood on the La Cie monitor adds to its size, but is a great way to cut out glare. If you like the idea of the hood, simply use the box your monitor comes in to make your own.
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