For comfort, image is everything

August 30, 1999|By Mike Himowitz

When it comes to comfort, the monitor is the most important part of your computer system. If it's producing an image that's too bright, too dim, or poorly focused, the result can be an ergonomic nightmare.

Although new monitors have powerful controls that can tweak the image to your liking, it still surprises me how few users take advantage of them. In fact, I once got a call from a friend who thought his brand new computer was broken because the monitor was completely dark.

I asked whether he'd tried turning up the brightness. No, he hadn't. It turned out that the monitor was shipped with the brightness turned down to zero. Now that's unusual, but monitors often arrive with settings that are less obviously out of whack. It pays to adjust them when you set up a computer and check on them from time to time.

There are two ways to adjust the screen image. The first is by pushing buttons or turning knobs on the monitor. Some monitors provide separate controls for each function behind a hinged door on the front panel. Others might have only three or four buttons -- but these activate onscreen menus that provide a dozen controls.

You can also adjust your monitor by right-clicking the mouse on your Windows desktop and choosing Properties from the menu that appears. This will produce a panel that controls your display. Click on Settings, then the "Advanced" button, to access a variety of monitor options. The level of control here depends on your video card and monitor, so always try the front panel first.

Better monitors offer more controls than cheaper units, but almost all will help you produce a pleasing image that minimizes eyestrain. Here's what to look for:

Image size: When you change monitors or video cards, or buy a new computer and monitor from different manufacturers, you'll probably have to make adjustments here. If the image is too small, you're wasting valuable screen space; if it's too large, objects near the edges will disappear. You'll find separate controls for horizontal and vertical sizing. Adjust one, then the other, in small increments to keep your image in proportion. If one dimension is too large, circles will appear as ellipses, text will be squashed or elongated, and photos will seem distorted.

Centering: If the image isn't centered on your screen, objects might disappear off the edge. All monitors have controls that will center the image properly. Alternate using the centering and image size controls to make sure your picture is the right size and in the right position.

Brightness and contrast: These controls work like their counterparts on a TV set, and they're largely a matter of taste. The brightness control determines the overall illumination of your screen, while contrast controls the gap between the whitest whites and the blackest blacks.

Many users automatically crank brightness and contrast up to their highest levels, but that's not always a good idea. Remember that graphical environments such as Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh operating system ask your eyes to do something they weren't designed to do -- pick out black dots on the surface of a light bulb. This is harder than viewing real-life objects.

Reflections and glare from overhead lights, lamps and windows make the job even more difficult. So experiment with brightness and contrast settings to find one that's comfortable -- and don't be afraid to make changes; the settings you choose when there's daylight streaming through an office window might be far too bright after sunset.

Also consider the job at hand. For word processing and Web browsing, you might not need a screen that's as bright as you would use for editing photos or playing games. If you have a computer with a DVD-ROM, you'll want to jack brightness up to the maximum for prerecorded movies -- they're designed for the higher brightness levels of TV sets.

Once you've adjusted the basic settings, it's time to get serious about image quality -- making sure your monitor produces straight lines and accurate colors. This is where better monitors shine -- they provide more control.

While you can adjust these settings by looking at your Windows or Mac desktop, it's best to use a test pattern -- an image designed to expose flaws and make adjustments easier. You'll find a set of excellent test images on the PC Magazine Web site ( g/test/_open.htm). Here are adjustments you should be able to make:

Barrel distortion and pincushioning: Most cathode ray tubes -- even those in so-called "flat screen" monitors -- have some curvature, which makes it a challenge for the electron gun to produce straight lines. If the edges of your windows seem bowed outward, you're suffering from barrel distortion. If they're bowed inward, the condition is called pincushioning. You'll usually find a control to straighten these curves.

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