What to Look for in a Monitor Display

If you’re shopping for a computer monitor, know what all the specs and features mean so you can make your selection.

May 1, 2004

What’s your best choice in a computer monitor? For all the terms vendors use to describe the display capabilities and resolution of this window to computing, the best monitor is the one that looks best to you.

Still, it’s important to understand the specs and features to help narrow your selection:

  • Size: a diagonal measurement of the screen, from corner to corner, expressed in inches. With CRT monitors, unlike LCDs, a more accurate measurement is the “viewing area,” which is the actual size of the viewing screen within the monitor casing and any frame. This tells you how much of the screen actually displays the image.
  • Resolution: expressed either as a measurement of pixels (800 X 600) or as a standard term used to define that measurement, such as VGA (640 X 480 pixels). After size, the resolution matters most because it determines the quality of the image you see on the display. When describing resolution, the first number describes the number of pixels across the screen, and the second, the number of pixels down. The higher these numbers, the more pixels on screen and the higher the resolution. In addition to VGA, other acronyms used to indicate resolution include SVGA (800 X 600 pixels), XGA (1,024 X 768), WXGA (1,280 X 768), and UXGA (1,600 X 1,200).
  • Aspect ratio: the relationship between the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the screen. The standard aspect ratio is 4:3, which means the display area is one-and-a-third times wider than it is tall. The latest wide-screen monitors boast aspect ratios of 16:9, delivering the wider viewing area often required for gaming, DVD playback, and presentations.
  • Dot pitch: the space separating the individual phosphor dots that create color on the screen (another indicator of image quality on a CRT). The smaller the dot pitch, measured in millimeters, the more dots and the better the color reproduction and sharpness of the image.

The Pros and Cons of CRTs

You can choose from two types of displays: cathode ray tube (CRT) and liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, also called flat-screen monitors. With the CRT, the image and colors are created when a beam of electrons fired at the glass screen activate phosphor dots. In LCD screens, an electric current applied to a thick layer of liquid crystals produces the image.

A CRT costs less than a comparably sized LCD. The price difference isn’t what it once was, though, as advances in LCD technology have increased demand, fueling additional production and lowering costs. Still, a CRT remains the better buy for the budget conscious: You can expect to pay at least $200 more for an LCD of the same size. Other advantages to the CRT include the ability to set display content at different resolutions without affecting image quality and a wider viewing angle than LCDs. That means you can walk up to a CRT from the side or straight on and still see what’s on the screen.

For all its appeal, the CRT has one significant drawback: It’s heavy and a space hog. That’s why LCD screens are finding their way onto more desks and why they’re essential features of mobile hardware.

The Pros and Cons of LCDs

LCDs are significantly lighter and thinner than CRTs, making them easy to set up, move, or rotate for shared viewing. However, when shopping for you next notebook or PDA, keep in mind that the larger the display, the bulkier the unit, and more battery power it’ll consume in the field.

In addition, manufacturers have overcome the LCD’s traditional shortcomings, such as restricted viewing angles, inconsistent performance under a range of lighting conditions, and a tendency to leave trails or shadows of moving images, that once limited their appeal.

Whether you’re shopping for mobile hardware or for a monitor for your desktop, sample the performance of several monitors under the same range of lighting conditions under which you expect to use it. Investigate choices by visiting the sites of computer vendors such as Dell, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, or peripheral suppliers, such as ViewSonic or BenQ.

After picture quality, take a look at the controls for setting the image quality and resolution to make sure you’re comfortable working them. If you will be connecting the monitor to other peripherals or video components, make sure it has the necessary inputs/outputs connections you’ll need. Remember to inquire about the product warranty, store and manufacturer’s exchange/repair policy, and the location of the nearest service center. Finally, ask if there’s an instant exchange or loaner program should the monitor require repairs.

Your monitor is your window to computing. Do all you can to ensure that it’s a view you’ll enjoy for years.

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