Displaymate is a remarkable new utility program for IBM PCs and compatibles that can help a computer user select the best monitor for the money, adjust it for optimum performance and identify any problems that can lead to eye strain, loss of productivity or costly repairs.
People who use a personal computer at work typically spend between 200 and 2,000 hours a year staring at the screen.
It is curious that many of these intensive computer users rarely give a conscious thought to the computer display that is staring them in the face all day, even though they may agonize over choosing just the right microprocessor, the optimum memory configuration, the fastest disk drives and other facets of the system they will never see.
Displaymate ($79 from Sonera Technologies Inc. of Rumson, N.J., (800) 932-6323, is an inexpensive and simple tool that consists of 100 diagnostic tests and 200 test patterns.
The tests are useful in deciding which monitor to buy, and, for those who already have a monitor, in keeping the display sharp and focused.
Displaymate's test patterns prompt the user to make simple adjustments of the brightness and contrast settings, two simple knobs that can make a big difference in how things look on screen. But monitors can drift out of alignment over time, and the changes are usually so subtle that the user often tries to adjust his or her eyes instead of adjusting the monitor.
Blurred vision, eye strain and other minor eye irritations are the result, and productivity declines. Regular checkups with Displaymate can prevent such needless strain.
(Displaymate has nothing to do with electromagnetic radiation, another cause of health concerns related to computer monitors.)
The diagnostic tests, on the other hand, probe the deepest recesses of the computer's video system, including the monitor and the video controller card, and reveal any technical or aesthetic weaknesses. The user can then make delicate adjustments to the system or take the monitor to a specialist for repairs.
It sounds extremely technical (and it is), but Displaymate is easy to install and use.
In fact, Displaymate has two "tracks," one for people who like watching Saturday morning cartoons, and one for people who like watching oscilloscopes.
The non-technical track works automatically and is actually quite fun to watch. Each screen explains what is being tested, why it is important and what to do if the tests find a flaw.
The technical track is for people who want to tweak the system to perfection and who care about such things as bios data areas, bit blits, stargons, the width of electron beams and quartile ray aliasing.
The software was created by Raymond M. Soniera, a theoretical physicist who is a former principal researcher at AT&T's Bell Laboratories and a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.
"I'm a perfectionist," Soniera said, explaining why no monitor, regardless of its cost or resolution, has yet passed all the tests of Displaymate.
Even though Displaymate will find fault in any monitor, the key is that it can also reveal which monitors offer the best performance and least distortions for a given price.
"Basically, you go out and shop for the monitors that bother you the least and that fit in your budget," Soniera said.
PC Week, a weekly newspaper that reviews personal computer products, recently used Displaymate in its evaluations of mid-sized monitors, those with a diagonal screen measurement of 16 or 17 inches.
Such monitors are better suited than conventional 13-inch monitors for the graphical applications of Windows 3.0.
The NEC Technologies Inc. Multisync 4D (list price $1,499) earned top honors of all the monitors tested by PC Week labs, but Displaymate revealed subtle distortions that might be unnoticed by the average eye. Some of the flaws are subliminal, and the Displaymate tests bring them out into the open.
The manual of Displaymate also deserves special mention; quite simply, it is one of the best manuals of any software product we have seen.
Because the software is so easy to use, one might be tempted to skip the manual.
That would be a mistake, because the 300-plus pages contain the refreshingly clear explanations of video standards, different types of monitors, health and safety issues, proper maintenance and other issues.
If it were not a computer manual, we would recommend it as a book. We might, however, suggest changing the name to "Everything You Wanted to Know About Video Displays, and Then Some."
There are an estimated 50 million computer displays in use in the United States, and millions more are added each year. Displaymate can help people use them in the most productive and least harmful ways.
Zenith Data Systems, which at one time dominated the portable computer market, has begun its quest to regain a leadership role with the announcement of several new models that leapfrog the competition.
Included in the announcements were the first battery-powered laptop computers to use the Intel Corp.'s i486, i486SX and i386SL microprocessors and several innovative features.
Among the new features are a superior battery-management facility that includes two levels of power conservation, a large VGA-level display that can show 64 shades of gray, the Windows 3.0 operating system pre-installed on the hard drive with DOS 4.1, a touch-screen control panel and a built-in "mouse" that is really more like a snake.
Zenith Data also introduced two new notebook computers, which essentially match the best features of the competition at very competitive prices.
The term "notebook" has come to mean any computer that is 11 inches wide and 8 1/2 inches deep and that weighs less than a bowling ball.
The Zenith Data Masterport 386SX and Masterport 286 notebooks weigh 6.6 pounds each. One is based on the Intel i386SX chip, and the other on Intel's older 80286 microprocessor.