Don't scrimp on computer monitor Saving a few bucks isn't worth the strain you'll put on the eyes

Your computer

November 10, 1996|By Michael J. Himowitz

BRANDISHING a full-page ad from the Sunday paper, Joe was excited. After weeks of searching, he had finally found the perfect bargain computer.

"It's got everything I want," he said, "and the best part is that the monitor's part of the deal."

I got out my 10-power microscope, looked at the fine print and told Joe something that I knew would make him unhappy.

"The monitor's a piece of junk," I said. "You'll hate it after two weeks. But if you really want that computer, you can probably spend a couple of hundred dollars more and upgrade to a decent screen."

"But wouldn't that make the whole thing just as expensive as the other computers I looked at?" he asked.

That's right, I said. There's no free lunch. Unfortunately, lot of buyers looking for bargain basement systems get taken in by packages with cheap monitors that are headaches waiting to happen. And if there's one component of a computer system that you can't afford to scrimp on, it's the part you'll be staring at for hours at a stretch.

So how do you make sure you're getting a good monitor? Well, you can trust your eyes.

We all view the world differently, and a monitor that's good for me may not be good for you. But there are standards that can help.

The first issue is size. Like TV sets, monitors are measured diagonally. Most monitors sold for home and small business use have 15-inch screens, although you'll find a few low-end systems with 14-inch tubes.

To take advantage of today's windowing environments, which run more than one program simultaneously, you'll need at least a 15-inch screen. However, many users have discovered that 17-inch screens are far more comfortable.

While good 15-inch monitors are available for $350 to $450, you'll spend up to $700 to $1,000 for a 17-inch model -- and it's money well spent, particularly if your eyes, like mine, are approaching middle age.

Monitors with 19- to 21-inch screens are available, but at $1,800 and up, they're used mainly by graphics professionals.

No matter what size monitor you choose, pay attention to the viewable area. Monitors rarely cover the entire screen with an image, and the actual display area on a 15-inch monitor may be as little as 13 inches. Most manufacturers now disclose viewable image size, so look for a monitor that fills as much of the screen as possible.

Next, make sure the monitor can produce a sharp image. Technically, this is determined by the monitor's dot pitch, the distance between the clusters of red, blue and green phosphors that produce each dot on the screen. A small dot pitch means a tighter, sharper display. Look for a dot pitch of .28 mm or less. If you find a low-end system with a grainy, .39 mm monitor, pass it up or ask how much the store will charge to upgrade to a better monitor. Most retailers will make a deal.

Now consider resolution. This is the number of dots, or pixels that your monitor uses to draw the screen horizontally and vertically. While resolution is driven by your computer's video adapter and operating system, your monitor has to be capable of doing the job. A higher resolution image puts more information on the screen -- which is important if you like to work in several windows simultaneously or see an entire page of a document displayed at once. The downside is that the individual windows are smaller -- which makes sharpness critical.

The VGA standard for monitors and video boards calls for a minimum resolution of 640 pixels across by 480 pixels vertically, although most systems can also deliver 800 x 600 or 1,024 x 768-pixel images.

Unless you have incredibly sharp eyes, 800 x 600 pixels is the maximum resolution you'll be able to use with a 15-inch monitor. If you get a 17-inch monitor, you can use 1,024 x 768 pixel resolution.

Also, make sure the monitor can deliver the resolution you choose without interlacing. Using this little trick, manufacturers can deliver higher resolution with cheaper circuitry by drawing only half the lines on a screen with each pass of the electron beam. Unfortunately, the result is an image that flickers. At best, this flicker is annoying -- at worst it can produce serious eyestrain and headaches.

Finally, there's the eyeball exam. Make sure the monitor delivers a bright, sharp, contrasty image from edge to edge, with straight lines that are straight and colors that don't bleed.

Even if a monitor passes all those tests, it may not be comfortable for you -- particularly under fluorescent lights, which tend to magnify even minor flickering. Some people are more sensitive to this problem than others -- I'm very conscious of it.

Price is no guarantee of perfection here. I've seen expensive monitors that were virtually unusable under our office lights, while cheaper monitors delivered perfectably acceptable images. So never buy a monitor you haven't seen in action -- and try to work out a deal that will allow you to exchange it for another model if it isn't comfortable for you.

Finally, check out the monitor's controls. At the very least, you should be able to adjust brightness and contrast, the height and width of the image and its horizontal and vertical position on the screen. Better units also allow you to control image sharpness as well as barrel distortion and pincushioning -- defects that make the image bulge or curve inward.

You can minimize many distortion problems with a "flat screen" monitor, which isn't really flat but has a curvature so minimal that it's almost unnoticeable. You'll pay more for a flat screen monitor, but the sharpness and depth of the image may be worth the money to you.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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