Digital Fever: The CRT is dead, all hail the LCD

 

by Mike Kroll

 

When you write about computer technology you sometimes get to make startling pronouncements but more often you lend credence to notions your astute readers were already entertaining. In the case of today's computer monitor market the latter is certainly more apt. Liquid crystal display (LCD) technology and the marketplace have matured to the point that only the most devote bargain hunter should even consider purchase of a traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) computer monitor today.

I must admit that I was not on the bleeding edge with the adoption of LCD technology. The reasons were simple. Initially an LCD picture could not compare to that of a medium to good quality CRT; early LCDs weren't sufficiently bright or colorful, true blacks and whites were seldom achieved, refresh was annoyingly slow and available resolutions were limited on “affordable” models. Couple these limitations to the once wide gap in pricing between good CRTs and comparably-sized mediocre LCD and you had a recipe for a poor purchasing decision. Early adopters of LCDs paid two-three times the price of a good CRT for inferior picture quality because LCDs were more space efficient and looked way-cool.

Oh, how the monitor market has changed!

Today you will have a hard time finding a computer reseller who stocks many traditional CRT monitors except at the lowest price/quality point, a poor choice unless personal economics alone dominate your evaluation criteria. LCD monitors have taken over retail shelve space and dominate Internet sales as well because of advancements in display quality coupled with significantly lower pricing. It also doesn't hurt that they are significantly less costly to ship. You can now purchase a mid-range LCD monitor for about what you would have paid 2-3 years ago for a decent quality CRT of comparable size. Expect to pay somewhat more for a better quality LCD and today's high-end LCD pricing is comparable to that of yesterday's high-performance CRT technology. That is why my desks at both work and home currently sport quality 20-inch LCD monitors and I am very pleased indeed.

Buying an LCD monitor is not unlike buying a television, the paper specifications are only as important and your eyes' ability to discern differences in picture quality, resolution or brightness. In other words, if you can's see a difference in a side-by-side comparison it is probably not worth paying for the higher-priced, better spec'd monitor. However, you can't make such judgments without viewing the potential choices in-person and that is not always a practical alternative. Let me just remind you that the monitor is the piece of your computer system that you interact with the most; purchasing a visually sub-standard screen just to save a few bucks is penny-wise and pound-foolish in the greater scheme of things.

Let's begin with the basics, screen size. Buying an LCD smaller than 17-inch today is simply foolish. Sure you can save some money with a 15-inch model but I guarantee that you will be disappointed in both the image quality and minimal screen real estate. A 17-inch LCD monitor actually delivers significantly more viewable screen area than nearly any 17-inch CRT. As you increase monitor size this difference in viewable screen size remains but diminishes somewhat. The most important issue too often overlooked in the purchase of an LCD is the screen resolution. For instance, the viewable area of two different 17-inch LCD monitors can vary significantly as a function of their maximum resolution. A higher resolution offers both finer detail in the picture and more viewable screen real estate.

Unlike CRT monitors that provide essentially similar picture quality across resolutions (I acknowledge that this is an overstatement at the lower resolutions) LCD monitors simply do not scale well across resolutions. The pure digital design versus the analog design of a CRT means that during engineering an LCD must be optimized to deliver the best picture at one resolution, nearly always the highest available resolution of that monitor. The picture quality of an LCD at lower than its optimum resolution is noticeably inferior. However, by definition the higher the screen resolution on a given size monitor the smaller consistently-sized details such as text will appear. For this reason it is quite common but lamentable to find LCD users who have set their monitor to less than its optimum resolution as a means of making the text more readable. The better approach is to always set your LCD to its maximum resolution and resize the screen fonts in your operating system and applications to a comfortable size for your eyes.

In purchasing a 17-inch LCD I recommend you consider only those monitors that offer a maximum resolution of 1280x1024. Bargain priced LCDs that max out below that point are no bargains and viewing a higher resolution on a 17-inch monitor is seldom comfortable to even very good eyes. The pixel size or pitch varies little in 17-inch LCDs (approximately .264mm) and is therefore not a useful purchasing spec.

If you are considering a larger LCD, and I do believe you should do so if funds permit, you need to be aware of real versus perceived size differences. For example, to buy a 19-inch monitor with a resolution of 1280x1024 simply makes the details larger (not necessarily a bad thing) but a 19-inch with a higher resolution of say 1600x1200 provides significantly more viewable screen space albeit at a smaller size. To my way of thinking buying a larger LCD only makes sense if you can comfortably view it at its maximum resolution and then what real benefit is there if you don't gain viewable screen space?

Therefore I see 19-inch LCDs as filling a niche market for users who cannot comfortably view a 17-inch LCD at my recommended resolution of 1280x1024. Many good 19-inch LCDs can be purchased for only a slightly higher price than a good quality 17-inch LCD and therefore are good options for older computer users whose eyes aren't what they used to be. In most cases the higher resolution of 1600x1200 is only comfortably viewed by 20-inch monitors or slightly larger and the price delta between these monitors and a good 17-inch LCD is typically hundreds of dollars.

Brightness, contrast and viewing angle are important specs that should factor into you purchasing decision. Generally, the higher these specifications the better but more importantly don't buy an LCD with a brightness below 300 cd/m2, contrast ratio less that 500:1 or viewing angle below 150 degrees (horizontally or vertically). Remember these are just numbers, whenever possible your eyes should be the final arbiter. Some additional feature you should consider are the adjustability of the monitor stand and (especially in larger LCDs) whether you can easily pivot or turn the monitor from landscape to portrait mode and back. From my personal viewpoint other “features” such as built-in speakers and USB hubs of of minimal practical importance to your decision.

Mike Kroll operates Dr. Mike Computer Therapist, a small computer shop in downtown Galesburg where he daily provides therapy to all sorts of computers. You can reach him by e-mail at: <Dr.Mike@Bizconnect.net>