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Adjusting your computer monitor, part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Adjusting your computer monitor, part 1

Technofile for March 2, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

What's your car worth? Most of you would have a good idea. How about following your nose for as second and answering something else: How much are your eyes worth?

I ask that question of everyone who turns to me for advice on buying a computer monitor. The display screen is the only part of the computer that can hurt you if it's bad on your eyes. You can replace your car or your shoes or your light bulbs, but you can't get a new pair of eyes.

Keep that in mind when you are shopping for a new monitor. You are going to spend a lot of time staring at it—maybe even more time looking at it than you look at your husband or your wife or your kids. So save this column and take it with you when you go shopping.

Here are the things to look for, in order of importance:

  • Sharpness.

Nothing else matters if the monitor doesn't have a sharp picture. By "sharp," I mean objects on the screen are distinct even when they are tiny. Sharpness is not the same as resolution, although they are related in a slight way. (Sharpness is how distinct any object is. Resolution is how many objects can be seen in a clearly defined area of the screen.)

  • Resolution.

This is a measure of how much detail you get in the picture. It could be thought of as the fineness in the pattern, like the way a movie at the theater has more detail than the TV picture you get at home. You might think that resolution is related to screen size, but it's not. (TVs usually have much bigger pictures than computer monitors do, but far less resolution. All things being equal, which they never are, a big monitor with X resolution is better than a small monitor with X resolution, but a big monitor with poorer resolution is not worth having.)

  • Screen size.

Big screens are better than small ones, right? Usually. But keep in mind that any screen that is not sharp and that lacks resolution is going to be hard on your eyes, regardless of its size. (You may not spot that problem right away, but it will become apparent over time. And that's why you need to be careful shopping for a monitor, to make sure you're not lulled by misadjustments or bad lighting at the store. Spend an entire afternoon looking at all the monitors before you decide which one you like.)

The minimum acceptable size for a monitor is 15 inches, selling for $300 to $350. (All computer screens are measured diagonally, like TV screens are.) This is in the small-screen class. Medium-size monitors have 17-inche screens and cost $500 to $800. Big monitors have 19- to 21-inch screens and sell for $1,100 to $2,200.

You should look for a good 17-inch monitor. Don't get a smaller one unless you simply can't afford anything larger. If you're tempted to buy a 19-inch or 21-inch monitor at what seems like an unbelievable bargain—$750 or so—keep your hand on your wallet and skip the sale. Some manufacturers are selling repackaged TVs as computer monitors. These TV monitors, which would cost $350 if they were sold in a normal fashion, cannot match even the cheapest computer monitors for sharpness and resolution. (They're fine for games, but not at that price.)

As long as you can find a store that has many monitors showing the same pictures side by side—something that might take an entire Saturday to locate—you can judge picture quality yourself. Here's how to do it:

Find the monitor that seems sharpest. It probably won't be the biggest one. Then look for tiny details in the picture. Look at the same spot in all the others. You'll find a few that look much better than the others do. Stick with them and go to the next step.

Look at all areas of the screen on each of the sharp monitors. See how they compare. Are the corners just as sharp as the center? Be wary of color fringes near the edges—all monitors have some fringing, in which white objects have red, green or blue edges, but the best monitors keep it to a minimum.

Then pick the one you like best. When you get it home, you can make a few other vital adjustments. I'll show you how to do them next week.

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