Hardware

Do More with Less: PIP monitors juggle video duties with ease

Rather than cluttering up your desk with multiple monitors or a spaghetti pile of cables from a KVM switch, you can use a Picture In Picture monitor. Here's a look at how PIP monitors work.


Picture-in-picture, or PIP, that little pop-up box that lets you watch two programs at the same time on many televisions, has begun cropping up on some higher end LCD computer monitors. This feature is not just an expensive toy; it has enterprise applications in security, training, video conferencing, and public relations. In addition, PIP-equipped monitors avoid the necessity for a separate monitor, video processor box, or PC video card to pipe in the extra video. Thus you can save office space as well as CPU cycles for your applications. One noteworthy monitor that includes PIP is the L2025 by Palo Alto, CA-based Hewlett-Packard Company. Here's why buying a PIP thin film transistor (TFT) monitor might be a better choice than buying multiple monitors.

TFT advantages
TFT flat screen monitors, PIP notwithstanding, have several advantages over CRT screens. For instance, TFTs are both lighter and have smaller footprints. The L2025 weighs 26.4 pounds with the base attached, compared to 66 pounds for a comparable CRT made by HP.

In addition, they tend to be more ergonomic and friendlier to the environment. Compared to CRTs, thin film transistor LCD screens emit almost no radiation and consume much less power. The L2025 is Energy Star compliant, with a maximum output of 70 watts, dropping to about 5 watts when in power-saving mode. When attached to its sturdy base, the monitor swivels left to right -35 or +35 degrees, tilts forward and backward from -5 to 35 degrees, and adjusts vertically on the stand 5.1 inches. These adjustments are well engineered and easy to make. Even changing height requires little force.

Like most flat-screen LCD monitors, the L2025 is significantly shallower than CRT screens—only 8.2 inches deep with the stand. Since it also has an actual viewing area of 20.1 inches (diagonally) with a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels and 16.7 million colors, it can add acres of space to a virtual desktop as well as to a physical desktop. The refresh rate can be switched in several steps from 56 to 85 Hz. The available vertical scan rates depend on the resolution chosen. This ability to change scan rates is helpful for fine-tuning the monitor in case there is interference from other devices.

Detached from the stand, the L2025 is only three inches deep. In this configuration you can mount it to a standard monitor swing arm or wall bracket (not included) to conserve even more desk area. Both models can be tiled for multiple monitor setups.

In the recent past, before TFT technology had matured, these screens were generally less capable than CRTs in the areas of contrast, brightness, color depth, and refresh rates. But this has changed. Like many newer screens, the L2025 gets good marks in these areas, rivaling CRTs in quality. Therefore, without or without PIP activated, the L2025 and L2035 models will serve your employees well, whether their workstations are primarily used for CAD, graphics, video, or Web design—or simply required to keep many windows open on the virtual desktop.

A video aid to the enterprise
Monitors with PIP are useful in an enterprise setting for employees who work with external video. Possible applications include:
  • Monitoring security.
  • Viewing training materials.
  • Participating in video conferencing.
  • Viewing DVD, CDV, and VHS media such as external news clips and internal marketing releases.
  • Direct viewing when designing marketing and other public relations and corporate materials.

The video connections on the L2025 are direct, meaning they run right through the display without first needing to be output or rendered by a PC. This means CPU cycles are saved for applications.

Note that it is possible to add video output to a monitor by using a separate video processor. Cost for units with PIP capabilities are in the range of $200 and up. But the money spent on a PIP monitor is worth it to avoid adding another piece of hardware to office clutter, as well as to avoid adding more connector and power cord spaghetti to work areas.

The L2025 includes four sockets, making it compatible with just about all video equipment. Running along the underside of the case is the standard VGA socket for a computer's monitor cable, as well as three others: the circular composite video plug that attaches to most cameras, DVDs and VCRs; a four-pin S-Video (Super-Video) connector compatible with newer video equipment; and the flat 24-pin DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connector used with the latest computers, video cards, and other video gear. The monitor even ships with three cables—all but S-Video, which is readily available.

On the HP monitor, PIP is activated by a push button located on the bottom of the monitor, to the left of a row of nine user buttons (the L2035 uses only seven buttons, and the design is sleeker). Push the PIP button to open a 4 x 5 1/4-inch screen at the top right corner of the display. Change the PIP screen's size by pressing the menu button (also at the bottom of the screen), selecting Picture-In-Picture, and then selecting Large, Medium, or Small (4 x 5 1/4 is Large). Other controls in the menu let you adjust the PIP box horizontally or vertically anywhere within the viewing area. The PIP screen will overlay the computer display.

Incorporating a PIP monitor as an external video monitor for security (for example, if employees have to work alone at night) is as easy as connecting the cable from your surveillance camera or switchbox.

Although you can have only one PIP box displayed, you can cycle between signals if you need to hook up more than one secondary video source. In addition, any signal displayed in PIP can be switched to full-screen viewing. To do so, first turn off PIP, then press the Input user button until the desired signal is selected. To switch back to the computer display, cycle through Input signals again. There's a slight delay while the monitor switches inputs.

HP isn't alone
In addition to the Hewlett-Packard L2025 reviewed here and the L2035 being released shortly, other PIP-equipped monitors include the "N" series by ViewSonic Corp. of Walnut, CA. This product line compares favorably to HP's. ViewSonic models range in viewing area from 18 to 21 inches (diagonal), and even come equipped with a built-in, 181-channel TV tuner (so you may want to think twice before purchasing them for employees). Their highest resolution, however, is a less impressive 1024 x 768 pixels.

On the other hand, the PX212M, made by Planar Systems, Inc., of Beaverton, CA, is comparable both in features and price to the L2025 and contains an additional useful feature: End users can rotate the display left or right 90 degrees. The included Pivot software will then automatically reset the display to portrait mode, so that it's possible to read documents down the monitor's longer side. This ability is handy for editorial and publishing environments. CNET Reviews can give you a side-by-side comparison of other PIP monitors and their pricing, and tell you where to buy them.

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