It's Not The Box, It's The Monitor

Computer shoppers often ask me for advice, and my answer usually surprises them: If you're looking for a machine to run Windows, don't spend a lot of time worrying about the computer itself. Decide if you want a 486-class machine or an even faster Pentium. Look for the best price on a box with eight megabytes of memory and at least a 340-megabyte hard drive. Then put your effort and as much of your budget as you can into picking a display monitor.

AT THE LOOKING GLASS. There just isn't very much difference between different lines of computers. (That's even truer for Macintosh, where you are limited to Apple Computer Inc.'s offerings.) But you'll spend your computing hours looking at the monitor, which makes it a critical choice.

Graphic-user interfaces such as Windows (and even more so for the upcoming Windows 95) put great demands on displays. Most DOS programs put 25 lines of text on the screen. A bigger display gives 25 lines of bigger text. But graphic interfaces adjust how much they cram into a window to the size of the display. Bigger screens show you more of a word-processing page or spreadsheet, or the output of several programs at once.

Even so, the best and biggest monitor won't do you much good unless you configure it properly. A video image is made up of thousands of tiny dots, or "pixels," and the key to comfortable viewing is matching the number of pixels to the monitor size. Macs can do this on their own; Windows leaves it up to users to choose the right screen resolution.

Monitors are growing. The 14-inch size that has been standard for several years is giving way to 15-inch units. Seventeen-inchers are becoming the choice for serious business use. But unless your larger display is set up right, you'll just see bigger, grainier images.

The right resolution depends on your eyes and how far away from the screen you sit. For most users, the standard Windows display--640 pixels wide and 480 pixels high--looks just about right on a 14-inch monitor. Many users are comfortable with the next step up, 800-by-600, on a 15-inch unit. And the sharp-eyed probably can work at 1024-by-768 pixels on a 17-inch screen.

Of course, there's no point worrying about configuring your monitor until you have bought it, and careful shopping is time-consuming. I find that specifications for "dot-pitch size" and "scan rate" are next to useless in describing monitors' actual performance. You're much better off trusting your eyes and going with your personal preferences.

A PERSONAL CHOICE. For example, some monitors, especially those from NEC Technologies, offer crisp, brilliant images, but at the price of greater susceptibility to glare. Other manufacturers fight glare with coatings that dull the image slightly. Some more expensive monitors use high-tech coatings to improve the trade-off, but in the end, the choice is a matter of taste. Shopping requires looking at as many different monitors in stores as you can. Remember that dealers show monitors under ideal conditions; anything that looks less than perfect in the store will be worse in your home or office.

If you're buying a new monitor, either as part of a new system or to upgrade your old computer, you'll probably want a 17-inch model. Unfortunately, glass-blowing hasn't enjoyed the same manufacturing revolution that has driven down semiconductor prices. Street prices range from about $750 to about $1,200. The top-of-the-line units generally offer features, such as precise color calibration, of limited value to most business users, so a midprice unit may be your best bet. Fifteen-inch monitors run about $400 less.

New software, especially Windows 95, will make it easier for users to tune their displays for best performance. For now, that's still harder than it ought to be. But there's probably no area of computer use where time invested in learning will pay greater dividends.

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