Everyone needs a good monitor to get the most out of a PC. But which monitor you need depends on several factors - what applications you use, how much room you have on your desk, how much screen space you need to comfortably view your programs, and of course how much you want to spend. From standard issue 19in to 27in monsters, here's how to sort out what you need.
The big picture
If you've replaced an old PC in the last few years, you may have kept your old monitor to use with the new machine. That's okay if it's in good shape - most old monitors are likely to be CRTs, which typically have a life span of about five years - but if it's a worn-out 17in CRT that produces barely legible text at 1024x768 pixels, you're slowing your productivity.
Most monitor manufacturers nowadays offer entry-level LCD models that combine very low prices with pared-down features. These monitors work well enough for Web surfing, e-mail, and other office tasks - as long as they provide adequate screen adjustment controls for brightness, colour, and other settings. Mid-range and professional lines often provide better image quality and extensive features, such as superior image-adjusting controls and a larger set of ergonomic options (such as height adjustment). Some professional-level monitors also include asset control features to help Information Systems managers remotely manage their company's property, and hardware calibration, which adjusts the monitor and/or graphics card to ensure precise hues.
CRT vs LCD
Historically, graphics professionals have preferred CRT monitors because they support a greater range of resolutions (including resolutions higher than 1600x1200 pixels) and show truer colours and greater nuance in colour. However, manufacturers ceased making the top-performing CRT models (known as aperture-grille models) in 2005. Many pros now use high-end LCDs, which approach the colour quality of CRTs yet use about 50-65 per cent less power of that required for a similar screen-sized CRT. The development of colour-calibrating hardware and software specifically designed for LCDs has helped persuade many professionals to make the switch to flat panels. This transition will be even easier in the near future, with improvements in the range of colours that can be displayed on an LCD, and in black level, which has traditionally been somewhat soft or greyed in LCDs. Another bonus: the greater brightness of LCDs also frees graphics pros from the confines of their darkened studios.
People who work mostly with text have always gravitated toward LCDs because pixels on an LCD have well-defined edges, resulting in sharply focused letters. Some gamers still prefer CRTs because LCDs need time to change their pixels' colour, which can produce some blurring in moving images. However, as technology improves, this delay in response time continues to drop, minimising the ill effects. Modern LCDs can change the colours of their pixels quickly enough to make them game-worthy for most users.
Unlike CRTs, LCD displays do not flicker. While a CRT needs to be refreshed, the LCD has a constant source of light across the entire screen which means that once a pixel is on, it stays on until it's turned off. The lifespan of LCDs will vary from manufacturers, but expect an average of 50,000 hours. Also unlike CRTs, LCD monitors can often suffer from 'stuck pixels', which manifest as constantly-on bright dots on the screen, or 'burnt pixels', which manifest as constantly-black dots on the screen. The pixel policy varies according to the manufacturer of the monitor, but generally, a specific number of stuck or burnt pixels within a certain area on the screen is required before a screen can be replaced. It's best to check what the manufacturer's pixel policy is before purchasing.
Nowadays, new 17in and 19in CRT monitors are in scarce supply, and they're not exactly bargains. The cheapest we could find at the time of writing was $230 for a 19in Acer branded model. The cheapest LCD monitors start from around $215 for a 17in model, which offers a similar screen area to a 19in CRT. (Check out the latest LCD monitor reviews and pricing at Good Gear Guide). As LCD prices fall, especially for larger sizes (19in and bigger), more users and companies are going for the slim form and low power usage of the LCD. So from this point on, this guide will discuss LCDs only.