Choosing a Flat-Panel Monitor

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2632, 2008-08-08, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 10-11) and their website.

Throughout most of the PC's history, the most common type of display hardware has been the cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor. For those of us who have used computers for decades, CRT monitors have been a common sight — perhaps too common, particularly for the growing number of "knowledge workers" who use computers not only in their professional lives, but for off-hours recreation as well.

However, for those readers who are so young as to have never seen those old-style CRT monitors (except during a field trip to the local computer museum), it may be difficult to imagine that display devices were ever anything but slim, and instead could consume a sizable portion of one's physical desk space — and even some of the airspace behind one's desk, for the gargantuan monitors of old. Such readers should imagine a traditional television sitting on the desk, rendering a multi-color image on the screen using three fast-moving electron guns to activate the screen's pixels, each of which comprises phosphor for showing red, green, and blue. Even this analogy, not too far in the future, will be meaningless to children who grew up with flat-panel TVs.

Before digging into some of the details of flat-panel monitors, we should clarify a point of terminology: The phrase "flat-panel monitor" is not synonymous with "flat screen", which is a term used to describe CRT monitors that have a completely flat glass screen — or even slightly concave — thereby eliminating most of the glare commonly found with the older convex screens.

Flat, Not Fat

Flat-panel monitors possess many advantages in comparison with their tube-based predecessors: As alluded to earlier, CRT monitors tend to hog a lot of space on one's desktop — oftentimes forcing one to pull the desk away from the wall, just to make room for the monitor's excessive depth. This is especially true for the largest monitors preferred ages ago by graphics designers, architects, and others who required maximum display space. In the last stage of the CRT monitor's era, manufacturers were touting compact monitors with reduced depth. But with the introduction of superior flat-panel alternatives, the death knell for CRTs had already sounded.

Another valuable commodity hogged by CRT monitors is electricity, which is necessitated by the aforementioned electron guns. Flat-panel monitors, in contrast (no pun intended), utilize liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which use electricity more efficiently for identical screen sizes.

Speaking of screen sizes, if and when you decide to purchase a flat-panel monitor for your own use, first decide what size of display you would like (or can afford!). Keep in mind that the 15-inch display of a flat-panel monitor is truly 15 inches (measured diagonally), while the CRT display of a supposedly "15-inch" unit is noticeably smaller than 15 inches, since part of that monitor's glass screen is covered by a faceplate or bezel. This overstatement of display size by CRT manufacturers, is proportional to the size of the unit. In the 15-inch category, the actual display can be anywhere from 13 to 14 inches. For larger models, such as the more popular 17- and 19-inch units, the amount of display covered by a bezel can vary from one to three inches.

Another advantage offered by the newer monitors, is increased durability. Unlike CRT monitors, their flat-panel competitors have no moving parts, and thus not only use less electricity, but tend to have fewer mechanical problems. In fact, the most common problem among flat-panel monitors is the dreaded "dead pixel", which fails to change color as instructed by the PC's video card. Some dead pixels can be resurrected by gently rubbing the surface area above the pixel; but more often than not, this has no effect (aside from smearing the monitor surface with skin oil, should you forget to use a soft cloth instead of a naked fingertip). There are utility programs that claim to fix dead pixels, but I have never seen one work.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Flat-panel monitors come in a variety of screen sizes, and prices to match. The better choices for you naturally depend upon what type of usage you envision for your monitor. If word processing and other text-oriented tasks comprise the bulk of what you will be doing, then an inexpensive 15-inch unit should be sufficient. On the other hand, if you are an artist, graphics designer, Web developer, or computer gamer, then it would be worth the extra expense to get a larger and better quality monitor.

Visit your local computer store to see what flat-panel monitors they currently offer, as well as additional features, such as USB ports. However, do not assume that every feature is worth paying extra for. For instance, most of the built-in speakers sound awful, and hence prove a waste of money and weight.

Everything else being equal, choose a flat-panel monitor that has the AC adapter built into the monitor itself, such as the Samsung SyncMaster 151v. This can save space, and make cleaning and packing the monitor even easier. Some hardware purists may argue that it is best to have the AC adapter separate from the monitor, because if the adapter fails, then you cannot fix the problem simply by replacing the faulty adapter. But what are the odds that an AC adapter is going to fail during the years that you own the monitor, prior to upgrading to something even larger? In fact, have you ever heard of an AC adapter failing?

Also, consider getting a flat-panel monitor that allows you to rotate the screen 90 degrees, effectively converting the display from landscape to portrait mode. This can be particularly useful if you are performing tasks which would greatly benefit from viewing the virtual equivalent of a printed page as a whole, such as when performing page layout in a word processor.

Cathode Ray Trash

If you have one or more CRT monitors that you are not using, or plan on replacing with a flat-panel alternative, then do not dispose of the ol' CRT workhorse by discarding it in the trash. Not only is it illegal in most if not all jurisdictions, but it contributes to electronic waste and environmental damage, and simply adds to our overstuffed landfills.

Much better would be to sell the monitor to someone who can make use of it. Because of the relatively heavy weight of these types of monitors, and thus higher shipping costs, eBay would probably not be a good choice, unless you wanted to sell to someone in your region. You will most likely get better results in a classified ad, such as on craigslist.

Alternatively, you could donate the monitor to a charity, a school, or another organization that can find a home for it — within the United States, or even overseas, where computer parts are in short supply in some impoverished countries. Other excellent choices include Freecycle and Gigoit.

But if you have a dozen nonworking monitors, then before disposing of them, consider following the lead of one bored system administrator, who built an arch of CRT monitors. I guess that's one thing you can't do with a flat-panel monitor!

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.