Picture perfect

High-end displays now offer size and performance without sacrificing desk space or tight budgets

In an age of rising energy costs, Americans may be rethinking the wisdom of driving their beloved extra-large vehicles. But that same thinking doesn’t extend to their desktop PC monitors.

Bigger is better in the world of displays because larger screens and robust resolution ease eye strain and, as several studies have shown, can improve productivity. NEC recently completed a study that shows the average worker realizes a 10 percent gain in productivity with a larger monitor, “but as you get into the higher-end applications, the gains are going to exceed that,” said Andres Maldonado, director of product marketing at NEC Display Solutions.

For power users working with scientific, engineering or medical applications, or intensive graphics and full-motion video, the high-end, extra-large LCD monitor is a godsend.

“Let’s face it: Most people today spend more time looking at their monitors than they do the most significant people in their lives,” said Alan Bechara, president of PC Mall Gov, a product reseller. “They want something that gives them the size and the quality they need to really do their jobs well.”

There has never been a better time to shop for a high-end monitor — one with a 19-inch screen size or larger. Since the introduction of the more energy- and space-efficient flat-panel LCD display several years ago, prices have been dropping while image quality and ergonomic features have been increasing.

A few years ago, an 18-inch LCD monitor cost more than $4,000. Consumers can now buy a 19-inch display for less than $300. Even the latest and greatest monitors are affordable for government buyers. Samsung recently introduced its SyncMaster 204B, a 20.1-inch display with an ultrafast 5 millisecond response time — the time it takes to display a fresh image. The estimated price is $630.

“Price is a driving factor nowadays, because people are able to get a very good monitor that is very cutting-edge at a very affordable price,” said Jon Karl, a sales manager of the health care sales team at CDW Government.

1. Size: But where to put it?
The traditional CRT monitor was so big that deciding between a 15- and 17-inch screen could cause a conundrum for government employees working in small cubicles. Today’s flat-panel LCD displays are trim enough that you can place your stapler, telephone and coffee cup on the same surface as your monitor.

High-end desktop displays are typically 19 inches to 26 inches, and the price increases with each increment in size. Determining the exact dimensions of the monitor you’ll need depends mostly on your budget, but the largest desktop monitors will crowd your work space. Remember that for your general eye health and viewing quality, you should sit at a distance that is twice the diagonal measurement of the screen.

2. Response time: From here to there to here again
The speed at which a monitor can go from black to white and back to black is called the response time. This measures how quickly a picture is displayed on the screen in milliseconds. The lower the number, the better. For example, an 8-millisecond response time is better than a 16-millisecond response time.

However, speed will cost you, so find out what your applications require before going shopping. Web browsers and spreadsheets can probably use a 12-millisecond or 25-millisecond response time. Users who create high-end graphics or full-motion video will want the fastest response time available, currently 4 to 5 milliseconds.

3. Image quality: Pretty is as pretty does
The text and graphics may be bigger and easier to see on a larger display, but colors and images still need to be crisp, clear and bright. Those considerations may be more important for larger monitors, said Scott Gray, product manager of Hewlett-Packard’s Commercial Monitor Product Line. Users of large displays often view full-motion video and more intensive graphics, so if the colors are dull or pixels go dead, the quality — or lack of it — will be more noticeable.

Look at several important measurements to gauge image quality, and remember that response time is critical:

  • Native resolution.
  • This indicates the row-and-column matrix of pixels that have been deemed necessary to ensure that users can view text and graphics comfortably on that particular monitor.

  • Contrast ratio.
  • It measures the difference in brightness levels between the brightest white and the darkest black. A minimum 300-1 ratio is required to support superior gray scaling, and this measure can be as high as an 800-1 ratio. Most experts recommend at least a 400-1 ratio but preferably a 500-1 ratio for professional users to ensure that colors don’t look dull when working with intensive graphics.

  • Brightness.
  • This is measured in candelas per meter squared. Brightness has a huge impact on the ultimate visual experience, especially for those viewing a full-motion video. The more candelas per meter squared, the more vivid and lifelike the image.

    4. Aspect ratio: Going wide
    Aspect ratio is the relationship between the horizontal width and vertical height of a display. TVs and traditional desktop monitors have a 4-3 aspect ratio, for a nearly square look. Many users, however, are now looking for a 16-9 or 16-10 aspect ratio for a more rectangular shape, which is significantly wider than it is tall. The reason for this preference has nothing to do with aesthetics. “If you go just by peripheral vision, people really do tend to see things better with a wide aspect ratio than a square aspect ratio, and they can do more with it,” said Rey Roque, vice president of marketing at Westinghouse Digital. The company offers its 19-inch LCM-19w4 widescreen monitor for $329, but will soon offer monitors as large as 24 inches with the extra-wide aspect ratio, Roque said.

    A wide-angle screen offers a number of benefits. Workers who use spreadsheets on a 22-inch monitor, for example, can see an entire line of columns from A to Z without scrolling left and right. With a 16-10 aspect ratio, users can place two applications side by side, such as a Word document and a Web page.

    Remember that bigger aspect ratios don’t always offer more overall screen image. A 22-inch-wide monitor with a 16-10 aspect ratio has less screen area than a 17-inch monitor, and you’ll pay more for it. So decide what to buy based on your application and productivity needs. Will it make your job easier?

    Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@fcw.com.

    Smart shopper tipsThe sweet spot
    If you’re looking for the best price-to-performance value, buy a 19-inch flat-panel LCD display. The price difference between a 17- and 19-inch monitor is minimal.

    Protect your investment
    A high-end monitor can last for years, but LCD monitors are not foolproof. Frozen or dead pixels are sometimes problematic, so look for a minimum one-year replacement warranty and a three-year replacement warranty for parts and labor.

    Reviewer's smart pickFor your guilt-free viewing pleasure

    If you really want to pamper yourself, there is no better technology investment than a spacious, crystal-clear flat-screen monitor. And thanks to improving technologies and falling prices, pampering oneself is getting easier to do.

    Samsung’s new 214T provides guilt-free viewing pleasure. With an estimated street price of only $669, the 214T has the same price that a so-so 17-inch monitor carried only a few years ago. But the 214T offers a 21-inch display in a sleek, thin-bezel case.

    The image quality for standard applications is excellent with bright, crisp definition of text and images. The unit handled our suite of static display tests with aplomb. And, thanks to a 0.27 dot pitch and an 8-millisecond response time, this flat-panel LCD can rival a good CRT when it comes to displaying videos and animations.

    We were also surprised to find such a generous selection of inputs in a unit that costs less than $700. However, as expected, the 214T includes digital and analog video inputs, and ports for Super-Video and composite video. We would have liked to see a couple of USB ports, too.

    Samsung has included a generous selection of well-designed software, including MagicTune, which works better than the buttons on the front panel for fine-tuning the display. The monitor also has picture-in-picture for viewing external input from the S-Video and composite video ports. Natural Color 2.0 is provided for color calibration.

    Did we mention that the 214T can pivot for portrait-style display? Samsung’s MagicRotation allows the user to rotate the screen display, though we think it would be better if the 214T had a button on the bezel for one-step rotation.

    — Patrick Marshall

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