Bargain 17-inch Monitors

Bargain 17-inch Monitors

The price is right, so choose a display that performs well, has a reasonable viewing area and merits your stamp of approval

By J.B. Miles
Special to GCN

Chances are you've seen plenty of advertisements for $999 computer systems complete with monitor, a 433-MHz Intel Celeron processor, 64M of RAM, a 10G hard drive and a few other goodies such as a V.90 fax modem and possibly a cheap color ink-jet printer.

But check out the fine print, especially where the monitor is concerned. There's usually a line somewhere in the ad that reads something like, 'Upgrade to a 17-inch monitor for $100 more.'

Most new sub-$1,000 PC systems come with 15-inch monitors made by manufacturers you have never heard of. Even if you opt to upgrade to a 17-inch monitor for another $100 or so, you're taking a chance.

Some deal

The bargain 17-inch monitors in many resellers' portfolios are usually low-end, often discontinued SVGA models with 0.28-mm or 0.31-mm dot pitch, low resolutions and slow refresh rates. Most dealers are only too happy to get them off their shelves.

Nevertheless, there are some legitimate bargains in the 17-inch category of monitors. For this Buyers Guide, I scoured manufacturer Web sites, computer publications, retail stores and Sunday newspaper supplements for a sampling of 17-inch monitors that offer good performance without inflicting too much damage on your budget.

I came up with 50 17-inch monitors from 35 vendors, all priced under $400. Compared with last year's prices for the same features, they are bargains indeed.

And it's likely that more will become available soon as the new crop of popular, short-necked 19-inch monitors muscles its way into the marketplace.

If you cannot afford a 19-inch display but want a reasonable viewing area for small text and graphics, a 17-inch CRT monitor is the smallest size you should consider.

Remember, there's a difference between a display's CRT size and its viewable image. The actual viewing size of most 17-inch monitors is between 15.6 and 16.1 inches.

The actual viewing area of 15-inch monitors, the next category down, is 14 inches or less. This is too small an area to let you work comfortably for any length of time.

Although the $100 to $150 price tags on 15-inch monitors make them seem to be bargains, the small viewing area is going to disappoint most users in the long run. A 17-inch model should be your bottom line.

I started the research for this Buyers Guide expecting to list medium-quality 17-inch monitors for about $500 or slightly less, so the findings came as a pleasant surprise.

With a few exceptions, most of the products listed here offer high resolutions of 1,600 by 1,280 pixels or 1,280 by 1,024, and all offer reasonably high refresh rates and a 0.27-mm or 0.26-mm dot pitch.

Twenty-nine of the monitors listed are priced between $200 and $300, and five are priced under $200.

Those in the $300 to $399 range tend to offer the highest resolutions'1,600 by 1,200'the fastest refresh rates and dot pitches below 0.26 mm.

Because there are plenty of more expensive monitors with characteristics similar to the ones listed here, it was easy to establish a price range of $399 or under.

Although larger, more expensive 19- or 21-inch monitors are preferable for particularly demanding graphics or computer-aided design applications, the 17-inch models listed here pack the performance characteristics and features that make them bargains for use under typical conditions and workloads.

Before you buy

Before you choose any monitor, be sure to consider three factors that are as important as the size of your display:

Dot pitch. Dot pitch is a measurement of the distance in millimeters between two same-color phosphor dots on the monitor's screen. The closer the dots, the sharper the image.

Thus, monitors with a small dot pitch of 0.25 mm to 0.27 mm are likely to provide a clearer image than those with a dot pitch of 0.28 mm or higher.

There are plenty of cheap 17-inch monitors out there with a 0.28-mm dot pitch; they didn't rate as true bargains regardless of their price and are not included in the roundup.

Screen type. The two main technologies available in today's CRT monitors are Invar shadow mask and aperture grille.

Shadow mask screens are built around sheets made of heat resistant Invar alloy with hundreds of tiny holes punched in them to allow light to pass through.

Aperture grille technology, invented by Sony Electronics Inc. under the brand name Trinitron, employs a series of thin, closely spaced vertical wires.

One or two horizontal damper wires are used to keep the vertical wires aligned correctly.

A direct comparison of how the shadow mask and aperture grille technologies arrive at dot pitch measurements is difficult because they work quite differently.

Shadow mask technology was first on the scene, and, because it measures the distance between dots arranged in a series of triangles, it brought the term dot pitch into common usage.

Aperture grille technology separates colored phosphors on the screen vertically between the vertical wires used in the monitors.

So, although manufacturers of aperture grille monitors refer to dot pitch, this technically is a misnomer that would be more accurately termed stripe pitch.

In any case, the 0.25 dot pitch advertised for many aperture grille monitors is roughly equivalent to the 0.26 or 0.27 dot pitch of those with shadow mask technology.

Screen flicker. Image clarity isn't the only thing to look for when measuring monitor performance. You also want an image that is flicker-free.

In every monitor, images consisting of millions of pixels are drawn by an electron gun that starts at the first pixel on the upper left corner of the screen and moves horizontally to the right and down the screen.

A monitor's horizontal scan rate, measured in kilohertz, is the rate per second at which the monitor's electron gun draws an image across the horizontal lines.

A monitor with a 30-KHz horizontal scan rate can draw 30,000 lines a second. The faster the lines are drawn, the less the chance that annoying traces of flicker will show up on your monitor's screen.

An even more important guarantor of flicker-free performance is a fast vertical scan rate, measured in hertz.

Also called vertical frequency or, simply, the refresh rate, this refers to the number of times per second the monitor can redraw a complete screen. Most manufacturers list refresh rates in a range'50 hertz to 150 hertz, for example'because images at higher resolutions contain more pixels than those at lower resolutions and take longer to refresh.

The niceties aside, all most of us need to know is that a monitor offering at least a 70-hertz refresh rate at the resolution setting being employed will generally provide flicker-free performance.

J.B. Miles writes about communications and computers from Pahoa, Hawaii.

Tips for buyers

  • In most cases, even a high-resolution 15-inch monitor isn't a bargain.
  • A 17-inch monitor should come with no higher than a 0.27-mm dot pitch, offer a 70-hertz or faster refresh rate and provide a maximum resolution of at least 1,024 by 768 dpi.
  • Shadow mask vs. aperture grille does not mean much in this price range; they will perform about equally.
  • Examine every inch of your new monitor's screen for defects. Return the monitor immediately if you notice any flaws.
  • If you're a Macintosh user, make sure your new monitor offers a Mac-compatible (multiscanning) mode.
  • Short-neck 17-inch and 19-inch monitors take up less desktop space than standard ones but cost a little more.
  • Don't pay more than $399.

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