LCD Monitor Buyer's Guide

LCD monitors have finally reached the point where they can make sense for a large number of users. However not all LCD monitors are created equal. The reality is there are several grades in quality and features that can impact a user's experience and should therefore impact the buying decision.

First, realize a flat LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor is not the same as a "flat screen" CRT (cathode ray tube). Many tube monitors are flat nowadays, in order to reduce glare and optical distortion. But they are still picture-tube based and measure around 15-18 inches deep. An LCD monitor is typically about one inch thick, uses less power, and often sports a brighter picture. The size and picture quality often allow a monitor to be placed further away from a user, resulting in improved ergonomics. LCD monitors also have no flicker so eye strain and fatigue is reduced. A CRT monitor's picture is typically about one inch less in size than the picture tube, because the edge of the tube is held in by the frame. This is why all monitors today list "viewable area" in addition to the tube size. An LCD monitor's picture is exactly the same size as the screen, so a 17-inch LCD would be about the same size as an 18- or 19-inch CRT monitor. LCD monitors also have no geometry problems (the wavy or uneven borders often seen on older monitors).

We have written before about the benefits of a higher screen resolution (see our online Tips article, "Increase Productivity By Increasing Screen Size"). One advantage of CRT monitors is that one can easily adjust the screen resolution to several different sizes and end up with a sharp picture. An LCD, by contrast, has a fixed number of crystals on its screen, and if the user wants a lower resolution than the default, he or she often ends up with blocky text and graphics as the monitor attempts to show 800 dots of resolution using 1024 pixels. Windows XP has some display effects such as "ClearType" which can smooth out the blockiness by adjusting the color of surrounding pixels. However, users with challenged eyesight may want to visually inspect a new LCD monitor running at its native resolution before buying a spanking new 19-inch unit and discovering the ultra-sharp, "native" resolution is too small for them. The native resolution will always provide the sharpest picture, and fit the most information onto the screen.

Many LCD monitors can accept analog or digital signals. Analog signals are the same signals sent to a CRT monitor. A video card with a special digital output, however, can send its signals to a digital monitor directly without first converting them to analog, which the LCD monitor must convert back into a digital signal. Digital signals usually provide higher image quality, though newer LCD monitors are better at handling analog signals. If you have an analog video card look for an LCD monitor with an "auto-adjust" button.

Higher quality LCD monitors tend to provide a wider viewing angle...that is, the angle range from where the picture can be seen. The better units will provide 160 degrees or better, both horizontally and vertically. That way someone standing next to your desk can still see the spreadsheet to which you are pointing onscreen. Better units provide higher contrast ratios and brightness. A few add the capability to pivot 90 degrees to make the monitor taller than it is wide, for example to show a full page (height and width) on a smaller screen. Others add wall-mount capability, though many include that through an add-on mounting kit.

Some LCD monitors include a microphone jack and speakers. Others advertise their speakerless, "narrow" bezel as a way to place two monitors side by side for a larger effective desktop, using Windows' support for multiple monitors. Fancier units include a USB hub for quick connection of pluggable devices.


Caveat emptor, as they say. We find the largest "gotcha" is the issue with high screen resolutions, discussed previously.

Most LCD manufacturers have a policy on the number of acceptable dead pixels on an LCD screen. Higher quality manufacturers will allow less nonworking pixels on their units. Otherwise, don't be surprised to find a pixel or two that stays dark. After all, one or two pixels out of one million or so is a really small number, and they are little teeny dots, after all. Without this "dead pixel" policy, prices would be much higher overall. If a dead pixel or two will annoy you to no end, see if you can look at the actual monitor you will take with you before buying it.

Some manufacturers offer a shorter warranty on the backlight than the rest of the unit. However, if you cannot see the screen, the rest of the warranty period does not matter much.

January 2005

Send this article to a friend!
Subscribe to The ITS Connection

Related articles