Flat-panel monitors offer numerous benefits, and quality (and prices) continue to improve. But you'll need to consider several factors when you begin to weigh the choices -- everything from resolution, latency, and power consumption to display controls and warranties. Here's a rundown of the key things to keep in mind.
No longer a luxury, flat-panel monitors have largely replaced cathode ray tube (CRT) displays, and for good reason. Not only do flat-panel displays deliver sharper, crisper images, but they require less desk space and consume less energy.
In just a few short years, manufacturers have made improvements, too, in the quality and performance of flat-panel displays. Organizations that deployed early flat-panel models will find newer versions faster, brighter, generally more advanced, and even less expensive. Here's what you need to look for when making a purchase decision.
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#1: Video input
The video inputs that a monitor supports are critical. Never assume a monitor matches your computer's default output.
Increasingly, desktop computers feature video cards with digital outputs, which produce better quality video than do older style VGA connections. In most cases, these digital video cards connect to flat-panel displays using DVI cables. Without a matching DVI port, a monitor can't easily be connected to such systems.
The same is true for computers using VGA (analog) outputs, such as those often found on common laptops and on countless desktops and servers. Be sure the systems' outputs and monitors' inputs match.
In some cases, users may need to connect multiple systems to the same monitor. Many flat-panel displays support only a single input, however, so if you'll be deploying a monitor in an environment where it will need to switch between two inputs, be sure that the model you select supports that feature.
In still other cases, users may need to connect higher-end video or gaming systems to the computer monitor, as well. HDMI inputs are becoming more popular for connecting such systems. Look for displays with HDMI inputs when such situations arise.
Monitor resolution is among the most important flat-panel display elements. Resolution is measured in pixels, first by width and then by height, using a number such as 1024x768.
If two monitors feature the same viewable size but one offers a greater resolution, the model with the larger resolution can display more information. For example, if one 17-inch monitor has higher resolution than a competing product, the model with the higher resolution will support displaying more pixel information. One common consequence of large resolutions, however, is individual items (such as icons and fonts) appear smaller. This is because more information is being squeezed into the same viewable space.
17-inch standard displays typically support a resolution of 1280x1024, while 20- and 22-inch widescreens can support 1680x1050 resolution.
Size is an easily overlooked benefit of flat-panel monitors. Flat-panel displays require far less desk space horizontally and vertically, and much less depth, than their CRT counterparts. As a result, you can typically squeeze a larger flat-panel screen into the same space that held a CRT monitor.
But there's also considerable difference in size between different flat-panel models offering the same viewing space. This is especially true when considering models that include speakers, which often add several inches to an LCD's trim.
If a flat-panel monitor is being squeezed into a tight space -- and many are when placed within cubicles beneath shelves, in custom point-of-sale locations, and within other sites -- pay special attention to a screen's total size. Just because a monitor is 17 inches wide doesn't mean it only needs 17 inches of clearance where it's being deployed. Models with the same viewable space can vary in total size by several inches.
A monitor's latency, or response time, is another quantifiable measure of quality. Latency is the amount of time required for an LCD monitor's pixel to change from black to white and back to black. These response times are measured in milliseconds.
Displays with slow response times generate what some users describe as noticeably blurry images or video. That said, most modern flat-panel displays offer acceptable latency rates. While only hard-core gamers or video editors may require high-end response times, latency has become a standard measurement that helps indicate a product's true quality. High-quality displays typically have sub 5ms speeds. Lower quality monitors might rate 10ms or slower.
Note that a monitor's response time is different from its vertical synchronization rate, or the rate at which the entire screen is refreshed. Flat-panel monitors that use VGA inputs provide better performance when supporting higher (75hz or greater) refresh rates.
#5: Dot pitch
Dot pitch is another quantifiable measure of a flat-panel's quality. Manufacturers typically measure dot pitch in millimeters.
Often referred to as phosphor pitch, line pitch, or even pixel pitch, dot pitch is the diagonal distance between dots of the same color (red, blue, green) within the display. Lower dot pitch measurements are better and tend to indicate a display's ability to produce higher-quality, sharper images.
Low-quality displays usually have dot pitch measurements of approximately 0.29mm. High-quality monitors, however, may offer dot pitch measurements as high as 0.258mm.
#6: Contrast ratio
Flat-panel display quality can be measured by several elements, including contrast ratio. Contrast ratio measures a product's luminescent dynamic range, or the difference between the display's brightest (white) and darkest (black) pixels.
Higher contrast ratios typically indicate richer color reproduction and better image quality. Better quality flat-panel monitors sometimes offer contrast ratios as high as 1000:1, but more common corporate flat-panel models usually are in the 500:1 or 700:1 range.
#7: Viewing angle
Viewing angle is important, especially to teams that regularly collaborate. Whenever multiple employees gather around a single display to review spreadsheet data, build a presentation, or otherwise work together, the monitor must support the ability to view images and text for those seated on either side of the display.
Manufacturers measure horizontal viewing angle in degrees. When users must work together around a single monitor, look for models with at least 170-degree viewing angles. Such models enable clear views of the display 85 degrees from center (or basically when seated to the left and right of the display).
#8: Power consumption
Flat-panel displays consume far less energy than their old CRT counterparts. While average energy consumption is commonly estimated at 150 to 160 watts for traditional 17-inch CRT monitors, an equivalent 17-inch flat-panel display may consume as little as 35 watts -- just a fourth or so of that needed to power the CRT.
Power consumption varies widely, too, even among flat-panel models otherwise similar in size and price. A recent spot-check of two different 24-inch flat-panel displays from leading manufacturers revealed one model consumed 33 watts, while a competing product required 110 watts to power its operation.
You should always review a model's technical specifications before making a purchase. When you do, pay close attention to a unit's rated power consumption. Even a savings of 10 percent quickly becomes significant when deploying dozens of units.
#9: Display controls
Whichever flat-panel monitor you purchase, odds are that you (or your users) will occasionally need to adjust its settings. Whether you need to increase brightness, change contrast, or adjust color saturation and hue, the process proves much easier on displays featuring readily navigable controls. Many models feature only icons, which can prove confusing to some users, whereas others offer more intuitive onscreen menus pairing both icons and text.
Whenever possible, test drive a display before making a purchase. Or, if replacing numerous monitors, purchase and test a single unit before committing to a larger buy. Ensure that onscreen controls make sense to users and that they enable simple and quick changes to common settings, including brightness, contrast, color, input selection, setup menus, and even volume on speaker-equipped models.
Flat-panel prices continue to fall. Larger displays, boasting larger resolutions and faster performance, regularly appear at lower price points. And while manufacturers claim LCD backlight life spans of up to 60,000 hours, desktop technicians can tell you that monitors often fail within a couple years of deployment.
Protect your investment. When purchasing monitors, choose models with competitive warranties.
Since monitors aren't easily repaired, most organizations simply replace them when they fail (whether the failure is due to a problem with the LCD, a failure in the unit's power supply, or some other issue). Rather than incur replacement costs within a year or two of deployment, look for models that come with longer warranties. Three years is a good guideline for higher-end common desktop displays, while one-year is typical for entry-level units.
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.