Shopping for a New Monitor

Background

Is your old monitor getting hard on your eyes? Aging CRT monitors can be a real headache as they get older, lose contrast, and their ability to resolve crisp detail fades. You've decided that the time has come to get a new monitor but your friend is telling you to get an LCD monitor while some coworkers swear by CRT monitors. Who's right? What are the pros and cons and what do you look for when shopping for a new monitor? Let's see if we can give you the basics to allow you to decide for yourself.

CRT Monitors

Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors have been around for a long time, have been refined over the years, and have a large following. All this refinement means that there are some incredible CRT monitors on the market from your low end 15 inch "el cheapo" CRT all the way up to larger gamut 22 inch high end graphics station CRT monitors costing almost $5,000. Still, the average digital photography enthusiast will likely notice that the selection of CRT monitors available at your local computer or electronics store is dwindling and stepping aside to make way for the LCD market. At one popular computer warehouse store I found 18 CRT monitors compared to 89 LCD monitors. At another, 7 CRTs to 51 LCD monitors.

Seeing this swing from CRT to LCD, if you do decide on a CRT, are you going to be looking at an 80 pound paperweight in just a year or two? Probably not, but it's worth looking into the reasons behind the apparent near demise of the CRT monitor to see what is driving these trends. We'll get to that after we take a quick look at LCD monitors.

LCD Monitors

When LCD monitors finally started taking hold just a couple of years ago, selections were minimal and quality was questionable. Anyone who had used a laptop two years ago would probably grimace at the thought of putting a "laptop screen" on their desk. They had limited resolution, poor contrast, and color changed drastically when you moved your head from side to side and looked at the display at an angle. LCD monitors have actually come a long way in just the past year or two. They now offer much wider viewing angles (although there is always some fluctuation in color when viewing from an angle), their contrast or "dynamic range" now bests almost any CRT, and they are faster than they used to be and don't have any significant "smearing effect" seen on some old laptop LCD displays. In addition, the latest LCD displays offer crispness and clarity that even the high end CRTs can't match, especially when dealing with static non-moving images and text. Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of both CRT and LCD monitors in the next section.

CRT versus LCD

You guessed it: life is full of tradeoffs. While LCD monitors seem to be the up and coming trend, CRTs still offer some advantages that may be important to some.

LCD Pros:

  • "Pixel perfect" clarity: CRTs may look blurry in comparison once you've seen an LCD.

  • Lightweight and easy to move around.

  • Thin panel can often be scooted farther back on the desk without bumping into the wall.

  • LCD monitors consume much less power than a CRT, reducing demands on other devices such as uninterruptible power supplies.

  • High contrast: bright whites and dark blacks.

  • Flicker free: LCD monitors don't "scan" the same way that CRT monitors do so you will never see any flicker on an LCD monitor.

  • LCD monitors can't be magnetized like a CRT and are therefore less susceptible to distortions caused by speakers and other nearby devices.

  • LCD monitors don't create static like a CRT and therefore collect less dust.

LCD Cons:

  • Unlike CRT monitors which can be run at any resolution up to the max listed resolution, LCD monitors really only operate "properly" at their native resolution, limiting you to just one option for resolution.

  • Color (especially of photos) can change slightly at an angle. On larger (19 inch plus) LCD monitors, slight differences in color can even be visible on the same color displayed in the middle of the screen versus the edges due to the differing angle of view.

  • A slight smearing effect can sometimes occur when watching video especially when the video shows fast moving objects. Such objects can sometimes leave a trail.

  • LCD monitors are prone to having dead pixels that appear as tiny bright/dark dots.

  • LCD monitors can be more difficult to profile than a CRT and require a special LCD profiling device that may cost more than a CRT profiling device.

CRT Pros:

  • CRT monitors are generally much cheaper than the same size LCD monitor.

  • CRT monitors can run at any desired resolution up to the max listed resolution.

  • CRT monitors can display high speed video without smearing.

  • CRT monitors usually show no or minimal color change when viewed from an angle.

CRT Cons:

  • CRT monitors can be bulky and difficult to move around.

  • CRTs consume much more power than an LCD.

  • CRTs are generally not as crisp and sometimes appear blurry or soft compared to a good LCD monitor (for still pictures or text).

  • CRTs create static that attracts dust.

  • CRTs often deliver less contrast (duller picture).

  • The picture on a CRT generally degrades faster over time than an LCD.

Some things to look for

I could ramble on about dot pitch, dynamic range, viewing angles, and other tech jargon, but the best advice I can give is to go to your favorite computer/electronics store (preferably one with a large selection of monitors), and see for yourself. Look at still photos, motion video, and text on each monitor and see which you like best and which model is easiest on your eyes for the work you do. Keep in mind that a lot of electronics superstores may not have the staff or the knowledge to adjust each monitor so that it is working properly. For example, they may be running a 1280 x 1024 LCD display at 1024 x 768 resolution which will make the display look horrible. Ask the help at the store to be sure that the LCD displays are all running at their "native" resolution because if they are not, you really can't effectively compare LCD monitors.

Here's a quick checklist for shopping for a monitor:

  • If you have an idea about the type of monitor you want beforehand, do a search using your favorite search engine and look up some of the models listed for sale where you plan to shop. Read user reviews and/or print them for the models you might be interested in and bring them to the store. Some online retail outlets have user reviews that can be very helpful.

  • It is actually easier to shop for a CRT because you can just evaluate video, still photographs, and text on screen and make a judgment.

  • When dealing with LCD monitors, know what resolution you prefer beforehand. Most LCD monitors up to about 19 inches are going to be 1280 x 1024 and you'll have to run them at that resolution to get the most out of them. The next step up are 1600 x 1200 resolution LCD monitors and that jump usually means a pretty significant jump in price too. If you think you'd like to run your monitor at 1600 x 1200 resolution, you'll likely have to spend more than a thousand dollars on an LCD. If that's out of your budget but you still need the higher resolution, you may be stuck with a limited selection of CRTs.

  • When looking at LCD monitors, assuming they are being run by Windows and that you have access to the desktop, right click on the desktop background and select "Properties". Then click the "Settings" tab at the top and look at what is listed in "Screen resolution". For an LCD monitor, the number listed there should match the resolution listed on the little tag on the shelf in front of the display (hopefully there is one). If there is a mismatch, the LCD display is being driven at the wrong resolution and any visual comparison is fruitless.

  • Know your workflow. Do you work with video more than stills? If so, be aware of the LCD smearing effect. Display video on both LCD and CRT monitors to see if you can see any smearing or "trails" when video is being displayed on the LCD. Some LCDs are better than others in this area. Smearing or trails on some of the better LCD models is negligible.

  • When looking at the LCD monitors, move your head from side to side with a colorful photo displayed on the screen. Do the colors change or dull when you move your head from side to side? Is the effect enough to bother you? Will you sometimes be viewing from an angle or need to have more than one person view the monitor at a time, say for presentation or evaluation purposes? Generally the more expensive LCD models will have this under control as they have a wider "viewing angle". Some of the cheaper ones may cause more noticeable changes when viewed from an angle.

  • If you spend a lot of time in a word processor, spreadsheet program, or other application that requires text, open up WordPad or something that shows text and see how easy the different models are on your eyes. You don't want to go to a store and buy a monitor that displays an awesome red rose only to come home and start your normal work on a legal paper to find out that text rendering is terrible on that monitor!

  • Finally, take into account the size and shape of the display itself. Is it going to fit on your desk at an appropriate height and distance from your eyes? Whatever you do, don't buy a big CRT monitor only to bring it home and find out that it is so deep that it hits the wall and forces you to view it too close. There's a lot of discretion here as far as size, distance, and exactly what you are using the monitor for. Common sense and a measuring tape is probably all you need here.

Summary

With LCD monitors becoming more popular, my incentive for writing this short article was to give potential buyers enough information to make the right decision when purchasing a new monitor. I often get asked what to look for when shopping for an LCD monitor or whether LCD is really better than CRT, so this article may at least give you the basics of what to look for so you can decide for yourself. Hopefully I've covered the major points and have identified some potential stumbling blocks in the process of buying a new monitor so that these stumbling blocks and potholes can be avoided. If you are thinking about replacing your aging monitor with the latest technology, it always helps to know what to look for since the way you shop for an LCD monitor can be different from how you shopped for your last CRT. In the end, buy whatever fits both your needs and your eyes best. After all, it is you who will be looking at it most of the time.

-- Mike Chaney