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The ABCs of RGB
Different technologies serve
different creative content needs

by Christopher Simmons, executive editor
Copyright © 2000 Christopher Simmons

The most important peripheral for your workstation is not the CPU, the type of mouse you have, or even the speed of your Internet connection. Unequivocally, it is your workstation's monitor. Various quality factors of monitors — from refresh rates to color and sharpness — can either enhance your work, or adversely affect your body physically. Choosing the right monitor for your needs can be a bit daunting, especially because of new choices in technology and wide disparity in pricing.

Pick a Pack of Pixels
The hottest topic of conversation by the water coolers of many companies is whether to buy a flat-panel LCD (liquid-crystal display) instead of a traditional glass CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor. While the new LCD displays have improved dramatically over the past couple of years, there are still some major caveats. It is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each type of technology, beyond pure aesthetics, based on your desired usage.

© 2000 Christopher Simmons
Apple's 22" Cinema Display is one of the most stylish LCD monitors on the market.
Almost all monitors of any type now have on-screen digital controls to control size and distortion, degauss buttons to remove static build-up, meet MPRII and TCO electro magnetic radiation guidelines, and are "plug and play" for the most part. Some have special features like USB hubs built-in, and annoyances like non-removable power or video cables are now history. Most name-brand display manufacturers include a one-year "rapid replace" warranty, where they will cross-ship you a replacement monitor if anything goes wrong with yours during the initial warranty period.

The Price is Right
Recently, the price of CRT displays have fallen dramatically. Computer industry experts claim that prices on CRTs have pretty much gone as low as they will go for the forseeable future. So, if you've been waiting for those 19 inch digital monitors to sell for $199 — forget it. You can, however, find mid quality flat-screen 17 inch CRT displays with high refresh rates, good color, and digital controls for less than $300, and 19 inch models for under $500. If you're on a budget, you can spend a little less, and get near-flat displays with a tad less sharpness (likely imperceptible). For high quality content creation you might want to spend more for a premium 21 inch CRT which can run about $1,800.

The average price for a quality 15 inch LCD is about $1,000 and $1,600 for a 17 inch display. Pricing is not expected to change for LCD because of rapid improvements in the technology, which keeps the price fixed (basically each new model is better, at the same price). Keep in mind that LCD displays are advertised at "actual" size versus CRTs which are advertised at the size of the tube. This means that a quality 17 inch CRT display with a 15.9 inch viewable display size, is only slightly larger than a 15 inch LCD.

(Editor's Note: as of Spring 2001, pricing on LCD displays has fallen to half what they were a year ago for "consumer" quality models. Another interesting note is that Apple has chosen to phase out their non-LCD displays completely.)

Thin Is In
The popularity of thin-film-transistor (TFT) LCDs can easily be summed up in two words: size and weight (okay, cool might be the third word). For the average person, moving a full-size 19 inch CRT monitor off a desk can be hazardous to the lower-back, and practically impossible for a small person of either gender. A comparable LCD can be as little as one-sixth the weight of a CRT, and take up one quarter the desk space. Additionally, LCDs use less power and generate less heat. In large work-groups which might contain a dozen or more desks with multiple LCDs on each, this can also translate into savings on air conditioning. Generally, LCDs are brighter and have excellent contrast.

LCDs are basically a light polarizing device. An LCD device, or cell, is made from two layers of very fine glass material called substrates. These form a sandwhich over a thin film layer of liquid-crystal molecules. When a charge of electric current pass through the layer, they align, or twist, allowing or preventing light to pass through. Brightness is determined by the intensity of the backlight, and is usually measured in luminance. Pixel response rate defines how quickly a pixel responds to voltage, then returns to its normal off state. The longer the response time, the more likely you are to see persistance of the image making it blurry when objects move onscreen. Because of the fragile nature of the substrates, it is unlikely we will see LCD panels larger than 24 inches in size.

The drawbacks to LCD are that some of the better models require digital video cards, and corresponding driver software, and there is currently no standard for a digital video connector for these cards. Many LCDs do support analog video cards, including cards you now have in your computer, but in these cases you must consider refresh rates to avoid flicker, and not all LCD manufacturers specify their refresh rates. All LCD monitors are inherently digital devices and so-called analog LCDs must take a digital-to-analog signal from the video card, then convert it back to digital in the monitor, which can affect image quality and performance. To address these concerns, some LCDs include a compatible digital video card with purchase.

LCDs are also inherently more "directional" than CRTs, meaning the viewing angle varies more and is not as wide. The viewing angle can be as little as 60 degrees, or as high as 160 degrees (from Apple and Eizo Nanao). So, for some group presentations, a CRT or plasma display may be preferable. Some manufacturers quote 160-degree angles, while others quote 80-degrees in each top-bottom-left-right direction (which totals 160-degreees). Essentially, you will be disappointed with any display that has less than an 80-degree viewing angle.

For design professionals, who consider color accuracy an important feature, LCDs can vary in their ability to reproduce 24-bit (16 million shades) color. Some are only able to display 18-bit color natively, and use electronics to simulate the missing shades. For web design, LCD displays can be tricky. My PowerBook G3 notebook has problems displaying certain "web safe" colors in web browsers using the built-in display, including #6666cc, which it shows as a medium blue instead of an accurate lavender. If your business is web design, it can be useful to build a sample HTML page when going shopping for LCD monitors and save it to a floppy to take with you, observing the differences in color relative to a CRT you may be using now. Digital video cards coupled with all-digital LCDs are more likely to support true 24-bit color.


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