Personal Computing

Monitoring the latest in computer screens.

You probably don't think twice about your computer monitor. Most people simply take the monitor that comes with their computer (the vast majority of computers are sold with monitors, despite the misleading practice by some manufacturers of pricing computers without them). You probably won't think again about your monitor until it's time to buy a new computer. Yet your monitor is what, in more ways than one, you interface with. You may get touchy-feely with your keyboard and mouse, but you stare at your monitor every second you compute, and it stares right back at you. Interesting developments involving computer monitors may make you think more about yours. The most visible development is flat-panel displays for desktop computers. Flat panels, also called LCDs (liquid-crystal displays), until recently were used primarily with portable computers. Now some desktop computers feature them. In contrast to the bulky CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors that typically come with desktop PCs, LCDs are slimmer and lighter and emit less heat and radiation. Optionally, you can replace your existing CRT with an LCD. I tested two of the best and brightest desktop LCD monitors, the NEC MultiSync LCD1510+ and the ViewSonic VP150 ViewPanel, and I was impressed with both. Unlike CRTs, which tuck part of the screen under the plastic bezel, LCDs expose the entire screen. Consequently, despite the 15-in. size of these two models, they provide nearly as much viewing area as 17-in. CRTs. NEC is the worldwide leader in LCD sales, and its 1510+ distinguishes itself by its ability to swivel, letting you switch from horizontal (landscape) mode to vertical (portrait) mode. Portrait mode is useful with desktop publishing and image editing. Unlike other LCDs, the 1510+ also displays a bright, sharp image when viewed from the side. ViewSonic sells more LCDs in the U.S. than any other vendor. Its well-regarded VP150 doesn't swivel from landscape to portrait mode like the 1510+ (other ViewSonic models do), but it displays equally sharp text and graphics. The downside to flat panels continues to be price. The NEC and ViewSonic units are both mid-range models, costing $1,300 and $1,230 respectively, almost four times the cost of a CRT. Clearly, unless you're cramped for space, desktop LCDs are still extravagances. Both LCDs I looked at require analog conversion and can be used with any graphics card. Other LCDs, sold by ViewSonic, NEC, and others, are all digital, taking digital data from PCs without conversion. They require special graphics cards and cost slightly more, but they produce more accurate colors and sharper screen images. Digital CRTs, on the other hand, are expected to reach the market shortly. They convert the digital information computers produce to the analog information CRTs require within the monitor itself, rather than within the graphics card. This also is supposed to improve image quality, but the reports I've heard from beta testers have been mixed. Another way monitor manufacturers are improving quality is with flat-screen CRTs. All the major manufacturers now sell flat-screen models, which produce less glare and distortion than conventional curved screens at only a price premium. Trading up to a larger CRT also can bring benefits, such as displaying larger text, sharper pictures, and more windows on screen. Moving from a 15-in. to a 17-in. monitor can be cost effective. Larger 19-in. models have come down in price recently, and new ones occupy only slightly more space than older 17-in. models. Behemoth 21-in. monitors are still expensive and primarily of benefit to graphics professionals. Better CRT manufacturers include MAG, Mitsubishi, ViewSonic, and NEC. To prevent eyestrain when staring at any monitor, don't get too close to the screen -- keep your face at least 18 in. away. But the most effective eyeball-friendly trick I've come across is changing your software's color scheme. With Microsoft Word, for instance, you can change from the default scheme of black type on a white background to white type on a dark blue background, causing less light to shine into your eyes. Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or http://members.home.net/reidgold.

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