The latest monitors are well-priced sites for sore eyes

Optiquest’s V95
19-inch monitor has 0.26-mm dot pitch and a maximum 1,600-by-1,280 resolution.


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Minor tweaking will
correct some monitor ailments.


Among 19-inch monitors,
three perform as champs.


Behind every outstanding monitor lurks the
power of a graphics card.


In the Be Prepared category, here’s some advice: If anyone asks what kind of
monitor you want, say, “a big one.” Just as a large hard drive is preferable to
a small one and more RAM is better than less, a large monitor beats a small one every
time.


You may need that advice sooner than you think—it’s been a banner year for
monitor buyers. Prices are lower and quality is better, particularly for large-screen
color CRTs. What better time to buy a new monitor or replace the fleet of aging 15-inch
VGA displays in your workgroup or department?


This Buyers Guide lists CRT displays in four sizes: 17-inch, 19-inch, 20-inch and
21-inch. Best performers from each vendor are in each category. No 24- to 50-inch jumbos
are included because they’re not designed for typical office use. Nor are 14- and
15-inch monitors in this guide. The 14-inch monitors have disappeared except when
bundled with cheap computers, and 15-inch displays are following them.


Outselling every other category of monitor are 17-inch CRTs because they strike a
balance between size and cost. And the price for them is right: between $400 and $600.


A good 17-inch monitor should deliver a sharp 1,024- by 768-pixel resolution with a
0.27-mm or 0.28-mm dot pitch. And because of engineering advances, 17-inch units have
acceptable footprints.


Such a roster of features makes these monitors especially well-suited for mainstream
word processing, spreadsheet, database and Web browsing tasks.


Assuming you’ve picked up at least one computer publication in the past year,
you’ve heard about the hot new 19-inch monitors. Their $600 to $900 price tags could
be recycled from last year’s 17-inch models. They can display crisp images at optimal
resolutions of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels, and most offer sharp 0.25-mm or 0.26-mm dot pitch.


How hot is the 19-inch market? Last spring, only 10 or 12 of them could be found. Four
months later, a survey turned up 34 manufacturers making 19-inch units. Look for more to
appear in coming months.


The 19-inch units split the size and price difference between 17-inch displays and
giant 20- and 21-inch monitors, and they need only a little more desktop space than the
17-inch models. Check out a 19-inch monitor if you spend long hours at the keyboard doing
graphics-intensive engineering, computer-aided design or desktop publishing.


A 20- or 21-inch monitor that can perform optimally at a 1,600- by 1,200-pixel
resolution with a dot pitch of between 0.22 mm and 0.27 mm is your best choice if
you’re doing high-end computer imaging, design work or desktop publishing that
demands super-fine graphics rendering.


The big screens provide plenty of space to display two full-sized text pages side by
side. The extra-large screens are surprisingly easy on your budget, too. Down from an
average of $2,100 a year ago, a typical 20- or 21-inch display can be had for between $900
and $1,500 today. The market for the category isn’t growing as rapidly as that of
19-inch monitors, but there was no need to look far to find 25 of them for this Buyers
Guide. By year’s end, you’ll find more.


Your budget, planned use and desktop space will inform your decision.


A monitor screen is measured diagonally, but deduct an inch or so for the unusable
edges—even if vendors don’t. A putative 17-inch screen actually measures between
15.7 and 15 inches. Similar reductions hold proportionately true for 19-, 20- and 21-inch
units.


Allowing for the deduction, viewable display areas for 17-inch, 19-inch, 20-inch and
21-inch monitors are approximately as follows:


A 19-inch monitor provides about a 35 percent increase in viewable area over a 17-inch
monitor. After that, the relative overall gains are less dramatic. A 20-inch monitor
provides only about 10 percent more viewing area than a 19-inch monitor, and a 21-inch
monitor provides an increase of less than 20 percent.


When you compute the cost-benefit ratio of the different-sized
monitors—resolution, image quality, dot pitch and refresh rate being equal—the
35 percent increase in viewing area offered by a $700 19-inch monitor over a $400 17-inch
unit could well be worth the extra money. But for the extra 10 or 20 percent of viewing
area a 21-inch unit offers, the $900 to $1,500 price tag is debatable. For professional
graphics workers, a high-resolution 20- or 21-inch screen for less than $2,000 is a good
deal.


All monitors in this guide meet some basic requirements:


Also to be considered when buying a monitor are dot pitch, resolution, refresh rate,
mask type, cable schemes and onscreen control. All play an important role in the quality
of the images a monitor can produce.


Dot pitch. Dot pitch is a measure, in millimeters, of the shortest distance between two
phosphor dots of the same color on the screen. A grouping of red, green and blue dots is a
triad and amounts to a pixel, or picture element. The closer the dots are to one another,
the crisper and clearer the screen’s images are.


With dot pitch, less is more. Dot pitch of 0.22 mm is preferable to 0.25 mm, 0.26 mm is
better than 0.27 mm and so on.


When measuring dot pitch, a few wrinkles arise. In older CRTs, the vertical distance
between two dots of the same color was the same as the diagonal distance, so it
didn’t matter whether the manufacturer listed the horizontal or diagonal reading as
the dot pitch.


A new technology developed by NSA-Hitachi Inc. and adopted by many manufacturers
arranges the phosphor dots in an asymmetrical pattern. Although it improves image quality
in some cases, it can lead to different dot pitch readings for identical monitors,
depending on whether the manufacturer lists the horizontal or diagonal pitch. Thus, it is
entirely possible for one monitor’s 0.22-mm horizontal dot pitch to be roughly
equivalent to another’s 0.25-mm diagonal dot pitch. Human nature being what it is,
some manufacturers list the lowest possible dot pitch figure without specifying whether
it’s horizontal or diagonal, asymmetric or symmetric.


If this isn’t confusing enough, some leading monitor makers, including Sony
Electronics Inc., Mitsubishi Electronics America Inc. and NEC Technologies Inc. deploy
their phosphor dots in vertical stripes rather than conventional horizontal lines. These
makers use 0.25-mm stripe pitch synonymously with horizontal dot pitch. Although there may
be other good reasons to buy one, 0.25-mm dot pitch on a Sony Trinitron monitor is roughly
equivalent to the 0.27-mm horizontal dot pitch of a conventional shadow mask monitor.


Resolution. Multiply the number of horizontal dots by the number of vertical dots on
the screen to determine a monitor’s resolution. It’s a way to measure the
density of the screen image and tells you how much visual information, or pixel density,
the screen can display. Thus, a display with 1,600 by 1,280 pixels of resolution provides
more information than a display with 1,280 by 1,024 pixels of resolution.


If high resolution isn’t complemented by high refresh rates, a distracting flicker
on the monitor’s screen will result. This is why there’s usually a difference
between the claimed maximum resolution and the optimal operating resolution, which is the
best performance a monitor can muster.


The differences between maximum and optimal resolutions are governed, in part, by
screen size. Although a 17-inch monitor theoretically can generate 1,600- by 1,280-pixel
or 1,280- by 1,024-pixel resolutions, it’s technically difficult to lay that many
pixels on its 115-square-inch viewing surface. Don’t be disappointed by an optimal
resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels in a 17-inch monitor. Although it seems low when
contrasted with the maximum resolution, it’s perfectly acceptable in monitors of this
size.


Similarly, the optimal resolution of most 19-inch monitors is 1,280 by 1,024 pixels,
not the advertised 1,600- by 1,280-pixel maximum resolution. Only 20- and 21-inch monitors
have enough screen area to provide optimal 1,600- by 1,280-pixel resolutions.


Think of optimal resolution as the display of as much information, in pixels, as is
possible without presenting an image too small to view comfortably.


In a test of three 19-inch monitors, 1,600- by 1,200-pixel resolutions were no problem
using a graphics card with 4M of Windows RAM and an S3 ViRGE PCI coprocessor in a 233-MHz
500TX PC from Polywell Computers Inc. of San Francisco. But for all three, 10-pitch text
characters were too tiny to be viewed without eyestrain. An optimal 1,280- by 1,024-pixel
resolution provided much more comfortable viewing with little reduction in image quality.


Refresh rate. Measured in hertz, refresh rate is the speed at which images on a screen
can be recreated. In noninterlaced mode, all monitors serve up entire frames, or pictures,
many times per second. The higher the refresh rate, the better. Low refresh rates result
in screen flicker, often unnoticed by users, but which can cause eyestrain and fatigue.


It is critical for a monitor’s refresh rate to equal or exceed 75 hertz at all
resolutions. Monitor makers balk at providing refresh rates at various resolutions. Unless
you have your own test facilities, you’ll have to eyeball each monitor at various
resolutions and judge for yourself. Check the accompanying table for monitors’
vertical scanning frequency to get a rough idea of the refresh rate a monitor is capable
of.


Horizontal scanning frequency. Also called line frequency, horizontal scanning
frequency is expressed in kilohertz and measures the number of video lines written to the
screen every second from left to right. Again, the higher the scanning frequency, the
better.


Mask type. Most monitor makers use one of two types of CRT masks. Sony, in its
Trinitron, and Mitsubishi, in its DiamondTron, use aperture grille technology. A light gun
stimulates the phosphor dots, and arrays of stretched wires affect vertical lines of
light. Proponents of the technology claim it provides accurate images with no less than
0.25-mm dot pitch and startlingly bright colors. Look for the same technology in monitors
from others using Sony and Mitsubishi tubes.


Shadow mask CRTs, such as those made by NSA-Hitachi and used by other monitor makers,
have thin sheets of highly heat-resistant metal with hundreds of precisely spaced holes
that help focus the light source directly on single phosphor dots. Its proponents claim
the technology provides crisper images than aperture grilles because the stainless steel
used to make the mask is more resistant to warping than the thin horizontal damper wires
that hold the aperture grilles together.


NEC Technologies makes a variation of the two. Its slot mask CRTs combine shadow mask
and aperture grille components and result in accurate horizontal and vertical images,
according to a company spokesman.


Screen shape. CRT tubes come in spherical and flat shapes. Aperture grilles’
spherical geometry leads to some horizontal line curvature, but the tendency disappears as
monitor sizes go up. The nearly universal screen shape of shadow mask monitors is flat
square, which leads to less image curvature than any other shape.


Digital controls. The days of twisting analog knobs under your monitor’s bezel are
over. Today, virtually every monitor comes with digital controls that let you easily and
accurately adjust from on-screen menus your monitor’s brightness, contrast and
horizontal and vertical image size. Digital controls also let you check for convergence,
degauss or demagnetize the screen, and eliminate barreling, pincushioning, trapezoidal and
parallelogram distortions. Look for some color-level control. Any monitor worth its salt
lets you view images at a color-neutral setting of 6,500 degrees Kelvin.


Any additional user control your monitor provides depends on its maker. Some add
color-matching software so the color output of your printer will exactly match the colors
shown on the monitor’s screen. Some monitor makers add extra software and serial
ports to their products for exacting control over the monitor’s images from a
computer’s keyboard or mouse.


Overall dimensions. Large-screen CRTs grab more desktop real estate than smaller ones.
If you’re used to a 17-inch unit, you’ll find that a 19-inch display isn’t
much bulkier or heavier. The same claim can’t be made for 20- and 21-inch monitors,
but many newer extra-large monitors have tubes that are shortened front to back, which
helps reduce their size.


Ergonomics. It’s a matter of personal taste, but some monitors are more pleasant
to work with than others. Besides factors such as color and streamlined bezel shapes,
placement of the digital controls matters, as well as the ease with which the
tilt-and-swivel stand supports side-to-side and up-and-down movements of the monitor
itself. It’s a good idea to check a monitor’s flexibility of motion, especially
if it’s larger than 17 inches.


Cables. Don’t overlook what goes on at the back of your monitor. Virtually every
product out there comes standard with a DB-15 connector, but higher-end units also provide
for coaxial bayonet connectors. Bayonet connectors are more resistant to electromagnetic
interference than DB-15 connectors and should be used by users doing high-end graphics
work. If your host computer is already outfitted with Universal Serial Bus ports,
it’s nice to have a monitor that can take advantage of this versatile connection
technology with a USB port of its own.  


Metaphorically speaking, monitors aren’t very bright. The real intelligence of a
monitor is housed in the graphics card that resides in your computer. Without a good one,
your monitor won’t reach its potential no matter how much you pay for it.


If you buy a new monitor without first checking the capabilities of your graphics card,
you are headed for disappointment. An inadequate graphics card usually translates into
inadequate monitor performance.


If you have an older PC, it’s a good idea to upgrade your graphics card along with
the monitor.


A graphics card sits in an expansion slot and links to a computer’s bus. It passes
video signals from the host computer to the monitor, selecting optimum resolutions and
refresh rates, and giving the monitor precise information about the millions of pixels
that it is simultaneously processing.


The best graphics cards come with coprocessors and plenty of video RAM for handling
video images as well as Windows RAM.


WRAM is similar to VRAM but has extra video instructions for managing the huge
buffering requirement of graphics-intensive Microsoft Windows applications.


Newer versions also include synchronous graphics RAM for heavy graphical work. Earlier
graphics cards boasted 1M or 2M of VRAM or WRAM; today’s more advanced units have 4M
or more RAM. The more RAM a card has, the better it can direct your monitor’s
processing of advanced, color-intensive applications.


The Microsoft Plug and Play capability of most new monitors makes it easy to
automatically synchronize them with existing or new graphics cards, especially under
Windows 98.  


J.B. Miles writes about communications and computers from Carlsbad, Calif. 

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