It's all too familiar. A computer shopper spends countless hours studying which computer and printer to buy and then takes whatever monitor the dealer offers. Big mistake. Your eyes are more important than your data. The wrong monitor can make you less productive or, worse, affect your health.
There are many different types and sizes of monitors available for IBM compatibles. Mac users have some decisions to make, but there are fewer options.
The monitor is only half the display solution. You also need a display adapter that generates the video signal. Some computers (including IBM PS/2 and PS/1 systems and some Macintosh models) come with built-in display adapters, but most require an add-in card. It's essential that your video card and monitor be designed to work together.
One major decision is whether to go with color or monochrome. Many of today's programs display color, but a lot of users spend the bulk of their time working with words and numbers which, ultimately, will be printed in black and white. Color monitors are more flashy, but monochrome models are less expensive and generally offer better resolution.
Size is another issue. Most IBM compatibles are equipped with 14-inch or smaller monitors. The Mac Classic comes with a built-in 9-inch screen, while other Macs work with a variety of optional monitors. An increasing number of Mac and IBM-compatible users are opting for larger monitors. Large monitors can be useful if you're doing desktop publishing, graphic design or working with large spreadsheets. A 20-inch monitor, for example, makes it possible to display two facing 8 1/2-inch pages. A less expensive alternative is a "portrait" display, which shows an entire 8 1/2-by-11-inch page.
The Macintosh and IBM compatibles running Microsoft Windows allow you to have several programs running at a time each in its own "window." Larger monitors offer more "screen real estate" for those programs and their documents. When I write, I usually have one word processing document for my notes, another for the article and a third which contains reference material. I might also be running a communications program to link up with my editor or an electronic-mail system and, if I'm working with numbers, I'll have a spreadsheet open in yet another section of my screen.
Resolution is extremely important. The higher the resolution, the easier on the eyes and the more detail you'll be able to see. Today, the minimum standard for IBM compatible systems is VGA (for Video Graphics Array), which displays 640 pixels (dots) horizontally across the screen and 480 pixels down the screen. An increasing number of users are opting for SuperVGA, which displays 800 by 600 pixels or 1024 by 768, depending on the software.
I recommend at least VGA. SuperVGA is nice and is often only a little more expensive than standard VGA. SuperVGA monitors will usually operate in standard VGA mode unless you load special software, called "drivers" to provide the extra resolution. Most SuperVGA adapters come with a disk containing the necessary drivers.
Multisync monitors can automatically adjust to various types of video signals. They are more expensive than VGA or SuperVGA monitors but are less likely to become obsolete should you later upgrade your display adapter.
There are other important factors to consider. Dot pitch, which applies only to color monitors, describes the distance between the three dots (red, green and blue) that make up a single pixel. The lower the dot pitch, the better the image. For 14-inch monitors, look for a dot pitch of 0.31 or lower. The GoldStar 1460, which is available for as little as $360, has a dot pitch of 0.28. The Sony 1304HG and Seiko 1450 (starting at about $600) come in at 0.25. Larger monitors will have a slightly higher dot pitch.
"Vertical refresh rate" describes the number of times per second that the screen is repainted from top to bottom. The higher the better. A refresh rate of about 60 hertz is OK for text, but can cause annoying flicker in Windows or other graphics applications. For SuperVGA, 72 hertz is considered good. Some European countries are calling for 76 hertz or higher.
The alleged link between electromagnetic emissions and human health problems is widely disputed, but some European governments and a growing number of American consumers are demanding "low-emission monitors" that shield the user from such fields. Many monitor makers, including Sigma Designs and Arche Technologies, are now marketing such monitors.
There is also the issue of interlaced vs. non-interlaced. An interlaced monitor is refreshed in two passes of the electron beam; a non-interlaced monitor is completely updated in a single pass. Non-interlace is less likely to cause a flicker but can add considerably to the price.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is personal taste. I'd gladly order a computer from a catalog but I wouldn't buy a monitor that I've never seen. Dealers love to show monitors displaying animated graphics or color photographs. Don't let that dazzle you. Ask the dealer to show the monitor displaying both text and graphics in real-life applications such as a word processor, spreadsheet and some graphics programs.
Viewing small black type against a white background (in Microsoft Windows or a Mac for example) is an excellent way to judge overall resolution and quality.
Computer File welcomes readers' comments. Write to Lawrence Magid, P.O. Box 620477, Woodside, Calif. 94062.