How to Buy a Monitor

From standard-issue 19-inchers to 30-inch monsters, here's how to sort out what you need

The Specs Explained

Like most PC peripherals, monitors introduce you to a ton of unfamiliar specs. While price or specifications alone shouldn't determine what you buy--what you'll use it for is important as well, and image quality is the most important thing to most users--here are some things to look for to narrow your search.

Important: Native resolution. Images look best when displayed at an LCD's native resolution. You can go lower (and in some cases higher), but the image may appear blurry. The vector graphics of Windows Vista may lessen this, but native resolution will always look sharpest. Some models are better than others at handling non-native resolutions. (Remember that with LCDs the native resolution is the maximum resolution you can display.)

Important: Panel size. LCD panel size indicates viewable size as well. As with CRTs, the measurement is made diagonally from one corner of the screen to the opposite corner. Too small a panel, and you'll have trouble cramming everything you need to see on your screen; too large, and you may have to crane your neck.

Important: Physical adjustments. Height adjustment lets you adjust your monitor to a comfortable physical level. Swivel is useful for sharing your work, and pivot is handy for viewing applications that are taller than they are wide.

Somewhat important: Contrast ratio. Contrast ratio can help you determine how rich the color will be in on-screen images. A higher ratio is better, but vendor specifications are not always accurate.

Somewhat important: Viewing angle. Indicates how far you can move to the side of (or above and below) the center of the screen and still see what's displayed. This is important when you use the LCD to make presentations, or when you work with another person. Vendors use different methods to measure viewing angles.

Somewhat important: Brightness. All LCDs generally provide more than enough brightness. In fact, most users find they have to turn the monitor's brightness down after purchasing.

Minor: Response time. Rise-and-fall response time indicates the time required for a pixel to change from black to white (rise) and back to black (fall). A low figure in milliseconds should indicate a screen that will display only minimal motion artifacts in moving images during games or video. Gray-to-gray response time does not have a standard definition, and is a less reliable indicator.

Monitor Shopping Tips

Try before you buy. When it comes to choosing the monitor you will be staring at for the next few years, only your eyes can tell you if a monitor's image quality, resolution, and size are right for you. Don't buy displays over the Web or by mail order unless the seller has an unconditional return policy and, ideally, no restocking fee. Checking out models in a store can be helpful, but keep in mind that they are often hooked up to low-quality video signals and placed under different lighting from what you have in your office or home. If possible, try to find a vendor with a liberal return policy, so you can try the monitor in your own setting before committing to the purchase.

Check screen real estate. Make sure you have enough screen for what you need to do. Remember that the viewable area of a wide-screen monitor is generally comparable to the viewable area of a regular-format monitor that's 2 inches smaller. Similarly, the viewable size of a CRT is an inch or two smaller than the advertised tube size--so if you're switching from a CRT to an LCD, you may not need as big a monitor as you think. Also bear in mind that if you're switching from an LCD with a regular aspect ratio to a wide-screen one, the wide screen will have less real estate at the same diagonal measurement. A 19-inch wide-screen model is comparable to a 17-inch regular-format LCD. The current sweet spots for display size are the 19-inch regular-format LCD and the 20-to-22-inch wide-screen LCD, both of which provide plenty of desktop space for most users.

Gain more screen space by using two monitors. Consider using multiple smaller monitors instead of one big display. With the right video card, you can run two simultaneously off the same PC. A pair of 17-inch LCDs will let you do video or image editing in one window and word processing or Web browsing in the other. This arrangement can be a great way to get more use out of old monitors--even if you're upgrading to a larger monitor but you still have a reasonably good smaller monitor.

Consider USB ports. USB 2.0 connections are designed for quick and easy attachment of numerous peripherals. The number of ports provided varies with different models, as does their location; the most convenient ports are on the side of a monitor, not the back.

Decide whether you want speakers. The inclusion of speakers in a monitor can be a nice way to save space on your desktop. Their sound will rarely satisfy the discerning ear, but they can be suitable for day-to-day use. Some monitors have customized options for soundbars or side-mounted speakers. If you're picky about sound quality, save the money for a nice set of speakers with a subwoofer.

Donate or Recycle Your Old Monitor

Never, ever send your old monitor to the dump. Recycling is not only good for the environment, but it's also a legal requirement in some states that will not accept monitors in regular municipal landfills. Most LCDs contain lead, and nearly all contain mercury. CRTs contain 4 to 6 pounds of lead plus other toxic materials that could leach into the soil and water in minute quantities if not properly disposed of.

As long as your old monitor is still working, it could be useful to someone else. Check local listings for charities that accept computer equipment. If you'd like to help a lucky individual, join your local Freecycle group or post a notice in the Free section of the For Sale category of Craigslist in your region. If you're sure your old monitor won't be any good to anybody any longer, check with the vendor or your local government to find recyclers in your area that can handle monitors. Many vendors actively promote recycling, and can assist with the disposal of an old monitor.

Check out these stories for advice on recycling monitors and other electronic devices: "Tips & Tweaks: Recycle PCs, Notebooks, and Components" and "Easy Ways to Recycle Old PCs and Cell Phones--Really!."

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Melissa J. Perenson

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