A few weeks ago, just before my keyboard died, my monitor momentarily flickered ever so subtly between displaying white as full white and white as soft pink. It happened so quickly, and the change was so faint, that at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Fortunately, a day or two later the same thing happened, allowing me to determine that the monitor itself was hinky.
While I have no qualms about opening up a keyboard to see if I can rectify a problem, or just about any other gadget you could name, I draw the line at messing around inside devices that contain potentially lethal capacitors. Combine that reticence with the flickering I had seen, and the low, staticky hum that had been building up in my monitor for the past year or two, and it suddenly seemed prudent to once again peruse the state-of-the-art display offerings available in the market before the very device I would need to rely on to do so failed completely.
(There are all kinds of things that can go wrong with a computer, and the most maddening aspect of all of them is that those issues immediately make it impossible to access the internet, which is where all the solutions are. If your operating system locks up you need to access another computer to research the problem. If your monitor dies you need to have another display on hand in order to order a replacement, which you would not need if you already had one on hand. Speaking of which, even if you use an add-on graphics card, the motherboard in your computer should always have its own graphics chip for exactly that reason. If your card dies — and graphics cards are always dying, or freaking out — you can still drive your monitor and access the web.)
As was the case with my venerable old keyboard, I was not at all surprised that my monitor might be at the end of its useful life. In fact — and you will no doubt find this amusing or absurd — I am still using a second-hand CRT that I bought in the mid-aughts for the lofty price of twenty-five dollars. While that in itself is comical, the real scream is that the monitor was manufactured in 2001, meaning it’s close to fifteen years old. Yet until a couple of weeks ago it had been working flawlessly all that time.
The monitor is a 19″ Viewsonic A90, and I can’t say I’ve ever had a single complaint about it. It replaced my beloved old Sony Trinitron G400, which borked one day without the slightest hint that something might be amiss. Scrambling to get myself back in freelance mode I scanned Craigslist and found a used monitor that would allow me to limp along until I found a better permanent solution. Eight or so years later here I am, still using the same A90. (In internet time, of course, those eight years are more like eight hundred. Not only were LCD’s, and later, LED’s, pricey back then, yet quite raw in terms of performance, but you could also reasonably expect to use Craigslist without being murdered.)
Between then and now I have kept track of changes in the price, size, functionality and technology of flat-panel monitors, and more than once researched display ratings with the thought that I might join the twenty-first century. Each time, however, three issues kept me from pulling the trigger.
First, while all that snazzy new technology was indeed snazzy and new, relative to CRT technology it was still immature, requiring compromises I was not willing to make in terms of display quality and potential effects on my eyes. Having always been sensitive to flickering monitors, I was not eager to throw money at a problem I did not have — or worse, buy myself a problem I did not want. (As a general rule, putting off any tech purchase as long as possible pays off twice, because what you end up with later is almost always better and cheaper than what you can purchase today.)
Second, at the time I was primarily freelancing in the interactive industry, which meant I was working with a lot of beta-version software that had not been fully tested with every conceivable display technology. Using lagging tech at both the graphics and display level meant I could be reasonably confident that whatever I was working on would draw to my screen, at least sufficiently to allow me to do my part.
Third — and this relates somewhat to the second point — one advantage CRT’s had and still have over LCD/LED displays is that they do not have a native resolution:
The native resolution of a LCD, LCoS or other flat panel display refers to its single fixed resolution. As an LCD display consists of a fixed raster, it cannot change resolution to match the signal being displayed as a CRT monitor can, meaning that optimal display quality can be reached only when the signal input matches the native resolution.
Whether you run a CRT at 1024×768 or 1600×1200 you’re going to get pretty much the same image quality, albeit at different scales. The fact that I could switch my A90 to any resolution was a boon while working in the games biz, because I could adjust my monitor to fit whatever was best for any game while still preserving the detail and clarity of whatever documents I was working on.
While imagery is and always has been the lusty focus of monitor reviews, there is almost nothing more difficult to clearly render using pixels of light than the sharply delineated, high-contrast symbols we call text. Because LCD/LED monitors have a native resolution, attempting to scale text (or anything else) introduces another problem:
While CRT monitors can usually display images at various resolutions, an LCD monitor has to rely on interpolation (scaling of the image), which causes a loss of image quality. An LCD has to scale up a smaller image to fit into the area of the native resolution. This is the same principle as taking a smaller image in an image editing program and enlarging it; the smaller image loses its sharpness when it is expanded.
The key word there is interpolation. If you run your LCD/LED at anything other than its native resolution what you see on your screen will almost inevitably be less sharp. While that may not matter when you’re watching a DVD or playing a game, interpolating text is one of the more difficult things to do well. Particularly in early flat panels the degradation from interpolation was considerable, making anything other than the native resolution ill-suited for word processing.
Answering the Native Resolution Question
As a first precept in buying an LCD/LED, then, I knew I would get the sharpest text by displaying images at any given monitor’s native resolution. Unfortunately, that insight told me nothing about what the ideal native resolution should be when working with text. In a just world that information would of course litter the internet, but as you’ve probably noticed by now there is no justice, and that’s particularly true on the web.
Ironically, while CRT’s have less problem displaying text at any resolution, back in the day most reviews of CRT’s included some commentary about the quality of displayed text. In the context of the CRT era, however, that made sense for two reasons. First, because the earliest CRT’s displayed text in visible pixels, and second because the heyday of the CRT overlapped the heyday of email as the killer app.
For a few years everyone was using text to communicate, and not just via pithy hot takes or taunts sent via text-messaging. People wrote whole sentences, using whole words, and even included punctuation, unfettered by restrictions about message length or functional limitations implicit in micro-sized thumb-powered keyboards. By the time the LCD/LED wave crashed ashore, wiping out CRT production in only a few short years, all that had changed. Today, email is essentially dead. (If you don’t believe me, send someone an email. You’ll hear back in weeks if you get a reply at all, because writing an entire email is now considered as arduous as penning a letter used to be.)
In concert with the wholesale move to mobile computing that is remaking the internet, the purpose and utility of large desktop displays has changed radically in the past decade. Where the desktop computer was primarily used for email, word processing and other productivity tasks, monitors today are primarily used for displaying imagery ranging from internet videos to games to television shows and movies. In effect, most of what people used to use a desktop for has migrated to the smartphone, leaving the desktop display to function like a television. (Which is of course why those two large-scale display technologies are rapidly merging into one.)
Unfortunately, the shift from productivity to clicking and staring has also had a marked effect on the way monitors are tested and reviewed. Where it used to be normal for tech sites to talk about text clarity because everyone was making use of that aspect of their display, today it’s almost impossible to gather information about which monitors are best for word processing. And that’s true even as the amount of information about which monitors display the prettiest pictures has exploded.
The Relationship Between Resolution and Scale
Learning that I would get the sharpest text by using any monitor at its native resolution was genuinely useful, but I knew other factors also came into play. For instance, there was my eyesight, my viewing distance from the display, and the way in which the software I was using (both OS and app) wrote information to the screen. In my research I also learned there was a nerdy tech debate about whether the correct term for screen resolution was pixels per inch (ppi) or dots per inch (dpi). While I’ll be using ppi going forward, whether you’re in the pixel camp or the dot camp the most important part of either term is the per inch part, because inches don’t vary.
An inch is an inch, or it’s not an inch. Take any type of monitor and you can use a ruler to measure how many inches it is across and vertically, and, if you’re a marketing weasel, diagonally, so you get an even more impressive number. Within any square inch of that display you can then count how many pixels there are, giving you the pixel density — which, coupled with the display’s height and width — will give you the monitor’s maximum (and also usually its native) resolution.
If you view that square inch up close, however, then view it while standing across the room, your impression of the clarity of whatever is being displayed in that square inch will change, even though nothing in that square inch has changed. It should be equally obvious that more pixels per inch provides more potential detail. If you imagine that a screen displays only 16 pixels per square inch, arranged in four rows of four pixels, any inch-high letters would be quite blocky, like numbers on an old LED alarm clock. By contrast, inch-high letters displayed on a screen with 100,000 pixels per inch, arranged in one hundred rows of one hundred pixels, could be quite detailed.
Unfortunately, there’s a less obvious problem that arises alongside the benefit of having more available pixels. If the software you’re using was written to show fancy inch-high letters using 100,000 pixels, and your display only has sixteen pixels per square inch, those fancy letters are going to look awful if they’re legible at all. The same problem occurs if your software guns sixteen-pixel letters to a screen that can show 100,000 pixels per square inch. Those letters will render so incredibly small — using only 16 of the 100,000 pixels available — that you will need a magnifying glass to find them.
That is the problem of scale. If you’re old enough to remember using a CRT you probably resolved that same problem — text or icons being too large or too small — simply by changing the resolution that your monitor displayed. With LCD’s and LED’s, however, we don’t have that luxury because of the need to stick with the native resolution as much as possible. That means, unlike with CRT’s, we need to consider both the pixels per inch of a monitor and the software we’ll be using in order to get the sharpest, most user-friendly text under real-world conditions.
The PPI Sweet Spot
After a lot of online reading, one little nugget of what I originally took to be hearsay kept popping up with regard to text. It was the idea of a pixels-per-inch sweet spot that would allow the operating system and applications to draw sharp letters to the native resolution of an LCD/LED, at viewing distances that most people considered normal or optimal. It was, in short, the exact number or range of numbers I was looking for, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
While variously reported, the ppi sweet spot for text on a Windows-based machine seems to be somewhere between 90 and 100 ppi, give or take a few ppi in either direction. Anything smaller and letters and icons get a little too big, while anything larger renders text that is too small to comfortably read. Unfortunately, while monitors today come with a dizzying array of performance statistics, most manufacturers don’t seem particularly concerned about ppi, probably because it’s only useful to the relatively small number of consumers who still use their desktop displays for word processing.
Fortunately, here the internet as a resource saved the day. It turns out that more than one enterprising individual has addressed that communal industry oversight with a calculator, by which commonly available display specs can be converted into a monitor’s true ppi. What surprised me most when I plugged in the numbers for different displays was that the wide range of monitor sizes in today’s market often produced ppi numbers well outside (and usually much higher) than the recommended sweet spot. Meaning if you bought such a display you would either be forced to put up with tiny text at the monitor’s native resolution, or forced to invoke interpolation, thus degradation the display quality.
After a lot of calculating and a lot of research I settled on a preferred ppi no higher than 96, which took into account my aging eyes and preferred monitor distance, which, at about thirty-two inches, tends to be a bit farther than most people use. Thankfully, that single ppi value in turn drastically cut down the number of monitors I needed to consider.
The next step was to consider any other relevant criteria and make a decision. Unfortunately, there’s something about computer technology that brings out the worst in marketing weasels. Whether it’s CPU’s or GPU’s or monitors, some number eventually comes to stand for performance supremacy above all other factors — including factors which are equally or even more important — and as a result the reporting of that number leaves reason behind. In the LCD/LED space that single spec is called response time.
If you’re care about text quality the last thing you need to be concerned about is the response time of your display. Even if you expect to play an occasional game or watch an occasional movie, you don’t need to worry about the response time of your panel, which will be rated in milliseconds. As it stands now, the gamer-centric tech universe is so fixated on response times that they are in some cases as low as 1ms, which is as low as you can go without stopping time. (I’m waiting for some manufacturer to get around that by reporting response times in nanoseconds.)
Much more important than pixel response time is the type of panel used in the display. For gamers who need fast response times the choice has been and still is to go with what’s called a TN panel. For word processing, however, a TN panel is less than optimal for a variety of reasons, making it easy to exclude them, including all TN variants. Much better is an IPS panel or one of the newer IPS variants, which used to be considerably more expensive but are now price competitive.
While refresh rates for CRT’s and newer flat-panel monitors aren’t equivalent in terms of their effect on the user, it’s still generally true that a faster refresh rate equals a more stable image. Because screen flicker has been a problem for me in the past, and because I don’t want it to be a problem in the future, I decided to look for an IPS panel that would allow me to increase the refresh rate above the industry norm of 60Hz. (Many newer TN panels have considerably higher refresh rates, often necessitated by their lightning fast response times, but the inherent drawbacks of a TN panel far outweigh that benefit.)
Speaking of flicker, you should also know about pulse width modulation (PWM), which is a hack solution to an obscure backlight problem. If you spend a lot of time staring at black text on a white background you do not want PWM. Instead, you want a backlight powered by direct current (DC), but you may have to dig into the monitor specs quite deeply — or even contact the manufacturer — to find out whether PWM is being used. (One of the few excellent monitor review sites includes an in-depth discussion about PWM, conducts testing to determine whether a monitor uses PWM, and keeps a database of the test results.)
The Eye Test
Whatever you think about the fact that I’m still using a CRT, by sticking with that tech I missed out on every configuration headache, color-balance headache, usability headache, backlight headache, and headache headache that early flat-panel adopters endured over that time frame. In choosing a new monitor I would have liked to base my final decision on a monitor I could see in person, but for a variety of reasons that wasn’t possible. Instead I had to go by specs, reviews, and consumer feedback. Because the cultural and market context of monitor usage has shifted so radically away from text, however, finding useful information about real-world monitor usage proved particularly difficult. One pleasant exception was a thread I found on another monitor review site, which addressed such issues directly.
If you’re interesting in buying a monitor that will abuse your eyes and mind as little as possible, I urge you to read or at least skim this discussion thread. If you have questions or have narrowed down your choices I think you will find that the forum moderator is also responsive to inquiries. (I can’t tell you how rare is it to find both a well-moderated forum and a responsive moderator.)
A related usability issue has to do with the amount and quality of light hitting the eyes. For people who spend hours working with text (writers and programmers, to name two groups), most of the screen displays as white with the text displaying as black. Depending on the display, that may mean your eyes are subjected to a great deal more light when compared with darker images at the same brightness settings, leading to fatigue and even brain-level effects related to the blue-dominant lighting that is a signature of LCD/LED technology.
Because black text on a white background is by definition high-contrast, it is often possible to greatly decrease the total amount of light coming from a panel without decreasing readability. Too, because most panels allow for changes in color balance, the white background can be shifted away from blue and toward a more pleasing yellow. In fact, some monitors actually come with presets that make such changes automatically — often called reading modes.
The 4K Question
You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz about 4K monitors lately. The short version is that 4K monitors pack four times as many pixels into a each square inch of screen real estate when compared with 1080p. (If you don’t know what 1080p is, don’t worry.)
For imagery that’s obviously a big plus because it means increased detail. As we’ve learned, however, for text and icons that massive increase in pixel density poses a serious problem. To see what I mean, here’s the response I got, early on, when I emailed NEC and asked which of their monitors would give me the sharpest text:
I would recommend the EA244UHD-BK. It’s a 4K monitor, 24″. It’s not terribly big but has a great resolution of 3840X2160.
Factually, that’s all true. The problem, as previously discussed, is that the ppi of a 3840×2160 monitor calculates out to a whopping 184, almost twice my ppi ceiling of 96, meaning any text or desktop icons would be incredibly small. Sure enough, when I read a few reviews of that NEC monitor, which were otherwise quite complimentary, I ran across this:
The EA244UHD is a stellar performer. My 4K test images were sharp and incredibly detailed but my Windows desktop icons and text looked ridiculously small on the 24-inch panel, a pitfall of packing so many pixels into such a small viewing space.
My mistake with NEC was asking for the sharpest text rather than the display most useful for word processing and general productivity. Still, in order to put the matter to rest I did some additional research, until this clip finally killed the idea of getting a 4K monitor:
The relevant commentary ends at 6:13, and once again emphasizes the critical relationship between hardware and software in terms of scaling and real-world utility.
Taken in sum my criteria quickly whittled the dizzying array of available offerings down to a few viable candidates. Capping ppi at 96 max, excluding TN panels and their variants, excluding any panel using pulse-width modulation, excluding 4K monitors, and placing real-world readability issues at the fore, I ended up with only a handful of 24″ monitors to consider, three of which were sold by Dell.
In order to determine which of their models would be best I contacted Dell and was at first surprised by their response. Where I thought I would want to get a ‘U’ model, which designates their ‘Ultrasharp’ line, when I specifically asked about the best monitor for word processing I was steered toward the ‘P’ model in their professional line. The more I continued to learn, however, the more I came to realize that the ‘U’ (and ‘M’) model did not meet my criteria for various reasons, which confirmed Dell’s recommendation. (Believe me, I have my issues with Dell, but nobody disputes the fact that they make, or at least sell, good displays.)
After considering monitors from several other manufacturers I finally settled on the Dell P2414H for all the reasons listed above. You can read comprehensive reviews of that monitor here and here. The site hosting the former review is one of the few that specifically discusses text, including showing native and interpolated screen caps. The latter review comes from the same site with the forum thread I linked to above. (In that thread — but not in the review — there was some uncertainty about whether PWM was used in the P2414H, but I confirmed with Dell that that was not the case. The P2414H uses DC power for the panel backlight.)
I ordered the monitor when I ordered my new keyboard, but the monitor arrived a full two days quicker. I unboxed it the old fashioned way, with neither ritual nor fetish, made sure it functioned with my machine and checked it for dead or bright pixels, then promptly packed it back up and set it aside until my ancient CRT finally gives up the ghost. Which, given that I haven’t seen any recurrence of pink flicker, it may not do anytime soon.
— Mark Barrett