Computers have progressed to the point that you can take one out of the box, hook it up, and be up and running in about 15 minutes, even if you know next to nothing about PCs. This is a very good thing. But there is one vital area of computing where what you don't know can really hurt you--the somewhat tricky business of getting the most out of your monitor. Before you even shop for computers, you'll want to learn a bit about the mysteries of displays.
The arcane lingo of monitor specifications is not a big help. Dot pitch, the distance between the tiny phosphor spots that make up the image on a TV-style monitor, is one indication of quality, and the smaller the better. But other factors, particularly how well the electron guns that create the image are aligned, make a big difference, and you have to trust your eyes or independent tests. For more technical information on choosing monitors, check out my buying guide at www.maven.businessweek. com./Maven/Help/Choose Monitor.htm.
PICK YOUR PIXELS. Once you have a monitor, you may still have to do some work to make it suit your needs. The key is understanding the relationship among monitor size, resolution, and pixels. A pixel, or picture element, is the basic building block of the screen. And unlike in photography, where resolution is synonymous with sharpness, resolution in computer displays just measures how many pixels are on the screen. Display choices under both Windows and Mac OS are 640x480 pixels, 800x600, or 1,024x768.
It's not hard to see that for any given screen size, the more pixels--or the higher resolution--you have, the smaller each element must be. Since most objects on the screen, particularly fonts and icons, are made up of a fixed number of pixels, pixel size dictates object size. On a typical 17-in. monitor, a standard Windows icon is about 1.2 in. high at 640x480. At 1,024x768, it shrinks to 0.75 in. On a 15-in. monitor, the icons shrink to 1 in. and 0.62 in., respectively. The higher the resolution, the more windows or the bigger the portion of your spreadsheet that you can show on the screen.
Getting the screen right is a matter of matching the resolution to the display size, your eyesight, and your preferences. Most people find 800x600 comfortable on a 15-in. monitor, but it may be a bit small on a 14-in. display. Seventeen-inchers do well at 800x600 or 1,024x768, and the higher resolution is comfortable on the new 19-in. monitors. To experiment with settings, open the Display control panel in Windows or the Monitors control panel on a Mac.
There are a few tricks for fine-tuning the settings. For example, the Windows 95 display control panel offers several possibilities for the fonts used to label icons and windows--the choices available depend on your video adapter. Most programs allow you to adjust how they display text. In Microsoft Word, for example, I use 10-point type, but because it's a bit small on the screen, I use the zoom feature to display text at 125%.
The other component with a big effect on how your display looks is the video adapter. The video adapters built into new computers are generally adequate for most uses. One trap to watch out for is that makers of the least expensive PCs sometimes save a few bucks by including just 1 MB of video memory. Because of the relationship between color, number of pixels, and memory needs, 1 MB limits you to an inadequate 256 colors on a 1,024x768 display. You want 2 MB, and still more if you plan to play arcade-style games. Some low-end display adapters also produce grainy, unpleasant text at high resolutions.
If you want to upgrade an existing computer with a better display, changing the adapter is not difficult. You can get a good 4 MB display adapter board--the extra memory is used to improve 3D performance--from Diamond Multimedia, Matrox, Number Nine, and others for less than $200.
All of this advice assumes you have a desktop computer. With laptop computers, adjusting the display configuration is not really an option. Unlike with television-style monitors, the pixels on LCD screens stay at a fixed size. If you switch to a 640x480 display on a screen that's built for 800x600, you will just end up with a black border around your image. With such limited options, make sure you like the display before you buy. If you're buying by mail, make sure the company has a liberal return policy so you can send back the machine if you don't like it.
Most computer advertisements talk about processor speed and memory and disk size, but say little about the display. You're going to spend a lot of time looking at that display. Your eyes will be grateful if you take the time to get it right.