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Big-screen PCs have even bigger drawbacks
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule


TV-based big-screen PCs have even bigger drawbacks 


Technofile for August 3, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

A big-screen PC sounds like a great idea. Imagine being able to surf the Web and play your favorite computer games on a screen as big as the one on the family TV!

But a big-screen PC is not what it may seem. Unless you buy a genuine 20-inch or 21-inch computer monitor, a big-screen PC is basically a computer with a fancy television screen in place of a monitor. And if you've ever strained to read the credits that scroll up after you've watched a movie on TV, you already know one big drawback of big-screen PCs: The picture quality is no match for a good computer monitor.

That's the main problem with most of these so-called PC entertainment centers. Instead of getting a PC that can function as an all-around personal computer and family entertainment device, you get an expensive family entertainment device, period. Such a PC doesn't do a very good job at the two main tasks most of us want a computer to do—clearly displaying the contents of Web pages and handling word processing. Both those functions require a sharp screen and a lot of resolution.

Sharpness is easy to understand. Anything displayed on the screen should be clear. All outlines should be cleanly etched and not fuzzy.

Resolution is harder to understand. It's the way we describe how much detail we can see in something.

The telescope I built 40 years ago let me view Mars on a clear night; it was a reddish ball, with some lighter-colored shapes on the surface. That's all I could see. The resolution of my telescope wouldn't show me any more. Now, of course, the Mars rover can show us rocks and pebbles on the surface. The difference isn't sharpness. It's resolution.

Even the cheapest computer monitor is sharper than most TVs. TVs aren't designed to be as sharp as computer monitors because they normally don't have to be. As for resolution, it's no contest. A modern 15-inch or 17-inch computer monitor will clearly show 1,024 separate dots (or picture elements) across the screen and 768 dots from top to bottom, while even an advanced TV has a hard time showing 800 dots across and 600 down. (Some computer monitors will display an even larger number of dots, and most TVs are limited to about 500 dots across and less than 400 down.)

What this means is simple. PCs sold with large TV-based monitors are likely to be disappointing when they are used for anything that displays small text on the screen. Three examples of this kind of activity are word processing, financial housekeeping and Web browsing. Each requires a sharp screen that has good resolution.

(What about Web TV, which uses an ordinary television screen to display Web pages? Many prospective Web TV customers may not realize that many of the pages shown on a Web TV screen are manipulated to make text larger and easier to read. This is a customization unique to Web TV. Buyers of large-screen PCs would not have that advantage.)

Even some computer games might be unsatisfactory when you play them on a big-screen PC. Older games will be more exiting on the larger display, but some modern games are highly detailed in both text and images. Some even limit your play options unless you switch your computer monitor's resolution to one of the higher settings—which you might not be able to do on a large-screen PC.

The alternative to a TV-based big-screen PC, of course, is a PC with a big computer monitor. A 21-inch monitor generally costs between $1,000 and $2,000, although 20-inch models sometimes sell for about $900.

Some manufacturers sell bargain-priced monitors in that size range, but they are usually TVs in which the tuners have been left out and computer connections have been added. Don't buy a computer monitor in that size category if its specifications denote a TV origin. (You can tell the TV-based models by the fact that they cannot display resolutions higher than 800 by 600.)


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