FLAT-PANEL monitors are outselling traditional computer screens these days, even though they're still far more expensive than traditional monitors built around cathode ray tubes.
In most buyers' minds, there's a good reason for switching. Flat panels take up a fraction of the front-to-back space of traditional monitors. They use less than a third of the electricity and produce very little heat. And let's be honest - they look cool.
Many users also buy into flat-panel monitors because they think they're getting a sharper image, and that's true to a point. Unfortunately, when they switch, some people get a nasty surprise: Web pages and documents don't look as good as they did on their old monitors. The type looks jagged and amateurish.
When this happens, people naturally think there's something wrong with their new hardware and spend a lot of time on tech-support hot lines - often with little success. That's because there's nothing wrong with their screens. Fixing the problem involves tweaking some obscure but important Windows settings. To understand why, it helps to know how flat screens work and how they differ from old-fashioned monitors.
Traditional displays use cathode ray tubes (CRTs), much like those in television sets. An electron gun in the back of the tube generates a moving beam of electrons that strikes a coating of red, green and blue phosphors on the inside of the front of the screen. Those glowing phosphors - in triads of red, green and blue - produce the pixels, or dots of light, that form the image. Each pixel is too small for the eye to see, but your brain puts them together in coherent shapes - as text or graphic images.
Flat-panel monitors use liquid crystal displays (LCDs), an entirely different technology. They use layers of liquid crystals sandwiched between thin sheets of polarized glass, with a grid of transistors etched onto the glass to provide the individual pixels. When an electric current is applied, it causes the crystals to twist, allowing varying amounts of light through each pixel, with separate layers for red, blue and green.
The upshot is that a CRT creates pixels by lighting up tiny bulbs on the surface of the screen. An LCD does the job by letting precise dots of light pass through from a fluorescent tube reflecting off the back of the screen.
LCDs are inherently more difficult and expensive to manufacture, so they were limited to the relatively small screens of laptops for many years. Only recently has the technology improved to the point where larger LCDs (15-inch and up) have been able to match the brightness and quality of desktop CRT monitors at a price most users are willing to pay.
Now let's talk about text, the words you read on the screen. Modern computers, whether they run Windows or the Mac OS, create text on the screen by lighting up pixels that form individual characters. More precisely, for most Web pages and documents, the computer actually turns off the pixels that form the letters and lights up the surrounding pixels, creating a black-on-white image. The problem is that a good monitor - one that uses more dots to create an image - might be too good.
When individual dots are so precisely drawn, they're visible to the eye, so that text has a jagged look to it, particularly on curved characters, such as the letters "a" and "o."
Microsoft addressed that problem by using a technique called font "smoothing." Instead of using just black pixels to draw each character, it threw in some gray ones on the curves, which blurs the shape a bit but makes it more readable and pleasing to the eye. In the trade, this is known as anti-aliasing.
Unfortunately, Microsoft's original font-smoothing scheme was designed for CRTs, which create those little blobs of light right in front of your eye. It doesn't work as well on flat-panel LCDs, which produce even sharper pixels (remember that "sharp" doesn't necessarily translate as pleasing). This was particularly problematic on the lower-resolution screens of handheld computers, which Microsoft and electronic publishers hoped would turn into a new generation of electronic book-reading machines.
In the late 1990s, the company developed a technology for Windows XP called ClearType, which was designed to solve the "jaggie" problem on LCDs. Unfortunately, it's not available for earlier versions of the operating system - but if you have Win 98, ME or 2000, there's still hope. More about that later.
ClearType takes font smoothing a step further than earlier technology, applying different levels of shading to the red, blue and green sublayers of each pixel. That essentially triples the horizontal resolution of the screen. Microsoft claims that ClearType also increases reading speed by at least 10 percent. That's debatable, but there's no question that ClearType can make a big difference in readability.