By John R. Delaney
Today’s LCDs are bigger and better than any we’ve seen before, and they can handle virtually any office or multimedia task you throw at them. Not long ago, desktop LCD monitors were designed almost exclusively with an eye toward business, targeting users with space constraints and those who generally worked with office applications and didn’t require a high-performance display. Not to mention that they were quite expensive. Think about it: Five years ago an 18-inch NEC MultiSync LCD monitor had a street price of $1,800.
Things have changed. Widescreen models in particular are becoming the popular choice for businesses and consumers alike, enabling users to view multiple document pages at the same time or watch a DVD movie in its native aspect ratio on a big, bright panel. If you’re running Windows Vista, widescreen displays let you run the sidebar pane and gadget applications without sacrificing valuable screen space. Perhaps most important is the affordability factor: You can find a basic 22-inch widescreen display for around $300, if you shop around. As is the case with most electronics, however, the more features you add, the more you’ll wind up paying. — next: Space Savers
Because they have a slim profile, LCD monitors are known for their space-saving characteristics, but they can help keep your desk organized in other ways. The inclusion of a couple of USB ports on a monitor can go a long way toward keeping keyboard and mouse cable clutter to a minimum and eliminates the need for a USB hub on the desktop. It’s also much easier to plug a memory key into your monitor than to reach under your desk to find an available port. Nearly all LCD monitors are VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) compliant and can be mounted directly on a wall or on an articulating FPMI (flat-panel mounting interface), which gives you the flexibility to position the panel in several different ways. Another small but effective feature to look for is a cable-management clip. This can be nothing more than a round piece of plastic mounted on the stand that holds your video and other assorted cables together and keeps them from spilling out onto your desktop space.
Monitors with built-in speakers are ideal for users with space constraints, but more often than not, the speakers are underpowered and produce tinny sound with little or no bass. If good, loud audio quality is important, look for speakers that are rated at 3 watts or better, or invest in a pair of slim desktop speakers with a small subwoofer. — next: Check the Specs
Check the Specs
Most (but not all) 22-inch widescreen displays have a native resolution of 1,680 by 1,050 pixels. Though the higher resolution is appropriate for watching HD movies and gaming, some users may find the desktop icons and fonts too small to view without eyestrain, so it’s a good idea to check one out firsthand before taking the plunge. You could always scale back to a lower resolution, but these displays are at their best when run at their intended (native) resolution. If the smaller icons and text are hard to read, a monitor with a native resolution of 1,280 by 1,024 may be a better fit.
A monitor’s pixel response time is the measure of how long it takes for a pixel to go from black to white—or rise and fall—and is measured in milliseconds. This rating used to be a big selling point among the 3D gaming crowd because displays with faster pixel times are generally better at handling fast-motion graphics. Slower monitors, running at 12 to 16 milliseconds, tend to produce ghosting, or blurring around the edge of moving images, which can take some of the joy out of your gaming experience. The same holds true for displaying DVD movies: If the monitor is too slow, you’ll experience blurring and motion artifacts. Nowadays most “multimedia” displays with pixel response times of 6 milliseconds or less do a wonderful job of handling video and 3D gaming. LG’s Flatron L226WTQ-BF has a pixel response of 2 milliseconds and provided one of the best all-around gaming experiences I’ve seen.
The rated viewing-angle specification is also important, especially for users who want to watch movies, or coworkers who need to share what’s on their screens. Measured from the center of the screen, the viewing angle is supposed to be the maximum angle at which you can view the image without losing picture clarity or color tone. If you’ve ever looked at a monitor from the side and noticed a change in color or a washed-out image, you’ve experienced color shifting, which happens when you’ve gone beyond the expected viewing range.
Some displays, among them the Acer X221W (160 degrees) and the ViewSonic VX2255wmb (170 degrees) live up to their claimed viewing-angle ratings, but others, such as the LG L226WTQ and Envision G22LWK, fall short.— next: Ergonomics
A basic no-frills display typically comes with a tilt-only stand and little else in the way of ergonomic niceties. These rigid stands generally provide at least 20 degrees of adjustability (5 degrees forward and 15 degrees back) and are adequate for safe and comfortable viewing in situations where you can position the display at eye level. If you can’t, look for a model with a height-adjustable stand to avoid eyestrain and neck fatigue, and if possible, make sure the telescoping adjustment arm allows for easy one-handed movement. Also, if you want to share your screen with a coworker or are into gaming, a stand with a built-in swivel mechanism makes it easy to position the screen for the best possible viewing angle.
If you want to view multipage documents in a vertical orientation, a pivoting display that lets you view the screen in portrait mode is the way to go. This feature is usually found on more business-centric displays but is starting to catch on with the consumer crowd, since you can view entire Web pages without having to scroll down. If you expect to use the pivot feature often, look for a display with an auto-pivot utility that changes the screen image on the fly—you’ll have to flip the image manually using your graphics card control panel. Take a look at your monitor’s screen controls to see what sort of options you have. For more info on the on-screen display (OSD), go here. — next: Bells and Whistles
Bells and Whistles
It’s not hard to find an LCD monitor that satisfies most of your multimedia needs. For example, if you frequently engage in video conferencing or video IM, look for a model that features a built-in webcam, such as the ViewSonic VX2255wmb. The 1.3-megapixel camera embedded in the upper bezel works fine for casual video chatting and can even be used to capture still photos; just don’t expect highly detailed images. They’re not great, but they’re good enough for e-mailing.
When it comes to connecting to external peripherals such as DVD players and gaming consoles, the Westinghouse LCM-22w2 is one of the best-equipped 22-inch displays around. In addition to the usual VGA (analog) and DVI (digital) inputs, the LCM-22w2 features a full complement of A/V ports, including composite and S-Video, as well as component video and audio ports. Just make sure you buy all the necessary cables, since the monitor comes with only analog and audio (speaker) cables.
Though they lack this extensive array of A/V ports, the Acer, Envision, LG, Samsung, ViewSonic, and Westinghouse monitors in this guide all have HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) compliant DVI ports, a feature that’s becoming more common on big, widescreen panels. HDCP lets you view DRM-protected content from sources such as TV set-top boxes or DVD players. We’re beginning to see desktop monitors equipped with HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) ports as well, which let you connect to a broader range of external devices such as HD DVD and Blu-ray players, A/V receivers, and HDTV cameras. — next: Testing Performance
More important than multimedia features, glossy bezels, and adjustable stands is how well the monitor performs specific tasks. That’s where DisplayMate tests (www.displaymate.com) come in. With DisplayMate, we can measure factors like grayscale performance, color tracking, and text readability.
How well a monitor reproduces the various shades of gray determines how much detail you see in photographs, for example. Monitors with weak light-gray attributes will tend to show washed-out highlights, making it difficult to distinguish between bright white and light-colored shades. Similarly, dark-gray performance determines how much detail is evident in dark pictures and movies. In some cases, extremely poor grayscale performance can affect color quality, causing colors at the low end of the scale to appear black, whereas colors at the high end of the scale are compressed and lose intensity. It’s important to note that virtually all but the most high-end (and extremely expensive) panels have some degree of grayscale deficiency, and in most cases the flaw has little or no effect on image quality. But if you work with detailed images and require a high degree of color accuracy, you should look for a monitor with good grayscale performance.
Color-tracking errors usually create a tinting effect at some point in the grayscale, most often at the extreme ends of the spectrum. This happens when the RGB channels are not in sync with the incoming signal. A classic color-tracking symptom occurs when light grays and whites appear to have a red, blue, or greenish tint. For users who work with lots of documents and office applications—especially those who prefer to work with smaller fonts to fit more information on each page—a monitor’s text readability may be the most important performance factor of all. The ability of a panel to display fonts set to 6 points is considered good, and if it can produce legible text set to 5.3 points, that’s very good. Text should be clear and evenly spaced, with well-defined edges.
If you have a chance to try out a monitor before you buy it, you can evaluate motion performance by playing a few rounds of a fast-moving 3D game (we use F.E.A.R.) to see how the monitor handles moving images. Look for motion errors such as artifacts, ghost trails, and screen flicker during game play. We also like to fire up a DVD movie to see how it handles motion and to evaluate the overall widescreen movie experience.