When buying a computer monitor, the best advice I can give is this: Put your money where your eyes are. Perhaps the most compelling reason to buy a desktop computer is to get your choice of flat-panel displays. Of course, laptops come with flat panels, too, but compared with their desktop brethren, they are small, dim, and limited in features and adjustability.
For now, rising demand has ended the free-fall in LCD prices. Still, they're more affordable than you might think. A 17-in. flat panel costs only about $100 more than a high-quality 19-in. television-style CRT monitor and has about the same viewing area. In short, it makes no sense to buy a CRT monitor unless your budget is very limited.
Bigger is better when choosing a display. The 15-in. panel is the mainstay of laptops, but it is disappearing from the desktop market. The price difference between similar 15-in. and 17-in. units can be as little as $50. Prices for typical 17-in. displays range from $350 to around $500, depending on features.
If there's room in your budget, I strongly recommend spending an additional $150 or so to move up to a 19-in. monitor, especially if your vision is less than perfect. Both 17- and 19-in. monitors generally offer resolution of 1280-by-1024 pixels. This means that if you were to plug both sizes of monitor into the same computer, the screens would look identical, except that everything would be a bit bigger on the 19-in. version. This can make text considerably easier to read, especially the small typefaces used on many Web sites.
YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK EVEN BIGGER, especially if you like to work with a lot of windows open on your screen or if you plan to use the display to watch movies or television. Expect to pay at least $900 for a 20-in. or larger monitor with 1600-by-1200-pixel resolution. The cost can be more than worth it, though, if you work with large spreadsheets, do photo or video editing, design Web pages, or do any other work that needs a lot of screen real estate. It may seem odd to spend substantially more for a display than for the computer, but it makes sense -- you will spend a lot of time looking at the monitor, and flat panels can outlast two or three PCs.
The price range for monitors is vast, with some 17-in. models costing well over $1,000. What are you paying for in a premium model? Sometimes the disparity is a mystery, with price differences of up to 100% among models having nearly identical specifications, but the spread can reflect both basic quality and features. A quick comparison in a store will tell you that not all displays look equally good. They vary in sharpness, brightness, contrast, and glare resistance. Trust your eyes, not the specs, because the monitor you like may be one of the least expensive. When shopping, try to look at the monitor under conditions as close as possible to those of your work environment, and make sure you can return the display if it doesn't look right at home.
Expect to pay a premium for monitors with lots of adjustment options, especially the ability to raise and lower the screen. Some displays offer a range of one-click adjustments that will optimize settings for uses such as text, games, or movies. Built-in speakers can be handy, but their sound quality is usually so-so. Some premium monitors are surprisingly versatile. The Samsung 192MP, for example, (around $800) includes a tuner and cable input, which allow it to double as a 19-in. flat-screen TV. Planar Systems' (PLNR) PX212M (around $1,400) is a good 21-in. unit that easily rotates between horizontal and vertical orientations.
The variety of monitors on the market and the personal nature of the choice make specific recommendations all but impossible. But unless you have special requirements, flat panels toward the lower end of the price range for their size will usually do fine. While you can't tell anything about a computer by its case, you'll know a good display when you see one.
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By Stephen H. Wildstrom