Smart Shopping: Computer Monitors

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Like TV screens, computer monitors are continuing to go wider and bigger. The squarish 17-inch monitors are now almost obsolete, replaced by widescreen models. Their larger size allows for easier side-by-side page viewing or more spreadsheet columns with less scrolling.
GETTING STARTED
Prices keep falling on LCDs, even for bigger screens. You can now get a 17-inch LCD for $150 and a 24-inch for $450. If you're buying a monitor bundled with a new computer, as many consumers do, you can often upgrade from the standard display to a larger one for a modest amount -- $50 to $150 or so. Before you start shopping, read this monitor guide.

Do you need a new monitor?
If you're still using a CRT, it's probably time for an upgrade. Low prices on flat panels leave little justification for sticking with that space-hogging relic of the 20th century. If you already own a flat panel, good reasons to upgrade include switching to a bigger display for more screen real estate, or to a widescreen if you want to watch movies on your computer. Or you may want a monitor with a built-in TV tuner, speakers or USB ports.

CRT or LCD?
About the only reason left for buying a CRT is if you're a graphic artist and need the myriad colors it provides, as well as deep blacks and virtually unlimited viewing angles. The reasons for choosing an LCD are many, among them no image flicker, sharper image, no glare, low electromagnetic emissions, reduced energy consumption and, the most obvious, space efficiency. Even if you wanted a CRT, you'd have a difficult time finding one, as many manufacturers have stopped producing them.

Standard or widescreen
Even some LCDs are on the endangered list. Only a few squarer (4:3 aspect ratio) screens remain available, mostly 17- and 19-inch models. Some offer good value and you may even prefer that shape -- if horizontal space is limited or the extra vertical space better suits your needs.

Decide on a screen size
Unlike a CRT, whose viewing area is smaller than its diagonal size, an LCD has a nominal image size and a viewable image size that are the same. More screen real estate is always a good thing, and we recommend buying the largest screen you can. So the decision comes down to what fits your space and how much you want to spend. Expect to pay $150 and up for a 17-inch LCD, $200 and up for a 19- or 20-inch, $250 and up for a 22-inch, and $450 and up for a 24-inch.

The trade-offs
Flat-panel displays deliver a very clear image but have some quirks. Their range of color is a bit narrower than a CRT's and their limited viewing angle can be a problem. For optimal image quality, you have to view the screen straight-on. Otherwise, the picture can lose contrast and look washed-out as you move off-center, and fine lines might appear grainy.

TYPES

The vast majority of monitors on the market are lightweight, flat-panel LCD displays. They come in a variety of sizes including the types of monitors listed here. The smaller monitors suffice for office work but if you consume a lot of media or play games, you might prefer a larger screen.

17 inch
If you're really pressed for space or can find a particularly good deal, a 17-inch monitor could provide enough screen real estate for you. But 19-inch and even some 20-inch models don't cost much more.

19- to 20-inch
For spreadsheet work or home photo editing, a 19- to 20-inch monitor offers a good amount of screen space for a reasonable price.

22 inch
This is the sweet spot for gamers and media fans. You should be able to find a monitor with very good display quality for under $300.

24 inch
Prices rise pretty quickly once you hit the 24-inch mark, but hard-core gamers and multimedia mavens looking for a big screen to watch movies and TV shows will appreciate this size.

FEATURES

Display quality, the most important monitor feature, isn't a major worry thanks to a generally high standard of performance. But today's monitors have other features that you should consider.

Resolution
A monitor's resolution refers to the number of picture elements, or pixels, that make up an image. More pixels mean finer detail. Most monitors can display at several resolutions, generally from 640x480 to 1920x1200, depending on the monitor and the computer's graphics card. An LCD usually displays its sharpest image when set to its "native" resolution-typically 1024x768 pixels for a 15-inch screen; 1280x1024 (17 inches); 1440x900 (19 inches); 1680x1050 (22 inches); or 1920x1200 (24 inches). Typical resolutions for widescreen monitors are 1280x800 (15 inches) and 1440x900 (17 inches).

The higher the resolution, the smaller the text and images, so more content can fit on the screen. Higher resolution is preferred for working with photos and graphics.

Response time
A flat-panel display's response time indicates how fast the pixels can turn on and off.

Contrast
This is a measure of the difference between the brightest white and the deepest black found on the screen, and is expressed as a ratio. Higher contrast results in images that are more vivid and punchy. But because a monitor's contrast can vary across the screen, the number isn't always a reliable measure. Monitors have brightness controls, so you can adjust to your liking.

Brightness
A bright screen is important if you're working in a brightly lit room. The spec is expressed as candelas per square meter, or cd/m2. But all you need to know is the higher this number, the better. You can also control an LCD's brightness with knobs or onscreen controls. Most monitors also have controls for color balance (usually called color temperature), adjusting the screen geometry, and similar functions.

Connectors
Virtually all new monitors have the DVI ports needed to take advantage of higher-end video cards for a sharper image, but not all include the necessary cable (about $10). And many include HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) ports, also found on some newer computers and electronics equipment such as DVD players. One of the advantages of the HDMI interface is it allows for video and audio to be sent over the same cable (useful only if the monitor has built in speakers). If you choose a monitor without one, you can buy an adapter for $25 or less that turns a DVI port into an HDMI connector, but you won't get audio.

Another port you may find is for high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP). This prevents the copying of video and audio content, and without it you may not be able to view copy-protected material.

Extras
Some monitors include a microphone, one or more USB ports, integrated or separate speakers, and HDMI inputs for viewing the output of a DVD player or camcorder. You may also see LCD displays with memory-card readers, so you can display photos onscreen, and iPod docks for viewing images or playing music through the monitor. Plug-and-play capability makes it simple to add a new monitor to an existing computer. A built-in TV tuner is another feature to look for if you want your monitor to double as a TV.

BRANDS

Apple, Dell, eMachines, Gateway, HP, Lenovo and Sony all market their own monitors for their computers and all but Sony also sell monitors separately. Other brands of monitors include Acer, BenQ, Envision, KDS, LG, NEC, Philips, Planar, Proview, Princeton, Samsung, ViewSonic, and Westinghouse. Some of those companies don't make their own monitors but buy them and put their own brand label on them. You can compare monitors by brand with this guide.

Acer
Acer offers a line of value monitors for home and small-office use, as well as business-oriented monitors and monitors for gamers. Some include built-in speakers. Widescreen models are available. For the widest selection at the best prices, try www.Newegg.com. PCConnection also has a wide range of choices, while Amazon and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.

Dell
Monitors available on Dell's website range in size from 15 to 30 inches and are widescreen and square. Some include built-in webcams. Dell also still has a couple of CRT models available. Amazon and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices, while Dell's website has a wide selection of models.

HP
Widescreen and square models are available from HP, some with speakers added. Amazon and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices, while PCConnection has a wide range of choices.

Samsung
Samsung's wide variety of monitor offerings includes the SyncMaster line. Models are available in square and widescreen formats, and some include integrated speakers and webcams. The new Touch of Color high-definition line offers a variety of inputs. For the widest selection at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection also has a wide range of choices, while Amazon and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.

Viewsonic
Viewsonic's budget line is OptiQuest, but there's also a Value line with lower-priced monitors. The Graphics line is aimed at advanced graphics users and gamers, the X series toward home and business users. Some models include a webcam or integrated speakers. For the widest selection at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection also has a wide range of choices, while Amazon and Tiger Direct have better-than-average prices.
Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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Back to: Consumer Reports: Smart Shopping.
2009-03-26 15:05:57
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