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Time to ditch awful HD 1080p widescreens

Rant We need better monitor displays
Fri Jun 11 2010, 12:49
monitor

WHEN IT COMES TO MONITORS, the major LCD screen vendors seem to be playing us for suckers.

We should have better displays than most of the desktop LCD monitor screens available, not to mention what they're offering on netbooks and lots of notebooks. Let's look at why this is happening and some alternatives, and think about what we should demand that the display screen vendors produce for better computer monitors.

The reason for this situation is the infatuation of LCD panel manufacturers with so-called 'high definition' (HD) televisions with a screen height of 1080 pixels and a 16:9 aspect ratio, yielding screen resolution of 1920x1080, along with their simultaneous adoption of that same format for many computer screens.

The big display panel vendors also make TVs, so it's all too convenient for them to size and cut all of their large 'mother' sheets of LCD display panels to the 16:9 aspect ratio that's defined by the HD 1080p standard designed for television viewing.

The problem is that the HD 1080p TV standard that has mesmerised the big LCD screen vendors is intended for consumer use, and is only meant for displaying media content that is passively consumed by the great unwashed in their living rooms. But it's not what productive knowledge workers really need.

The trouble isn't that the high HD aspect ratio doesn't provide as much display area as lower ratios with the same diagonal screen dimension, although that is true. A 20-inch screen with a 4:3 aspect ratio has a display area of 192 square inches. In contrast, a 20-inch screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio has a display area of only about 171 square inches, or almost 11 per cent less space available for information. But this isn't why the TV format displays are deficient.

The 'widescreen' high aspect ratio HD 1080p TV screen format isn't suitable for most computer displays because it can't show a full document page in most word processing programs, or the full page height of most web pages designed to conform to that familiar document format. This unfortunate 'feature' makes the HD 1080p 16:9 aspect ratio inefficient and frustrating to work with for any length of time, because it means working with partial pages and therefore continual scrolling. It's terrible for working with text for programming or professional writing, even worse for graphics and web design, and don't even think about using it for engineering work.

Using an aspect ratio of 16:10 resolves the shortfalls in display area and screen height for the same diagonal screen size, yielding a screen resolution of 1920x1200. However the LCD panel vendors don't make as many screens in this format because they aren't interchangeable with mass market HD television display panels, so the LCD displays that are better suited for use as computer monitors are relatively scarce and are priced significantly higher by the vendors.

To make matters worse, most LCD displays have a dot-pitch of .27mm, though a few use .25mm while some larger screens use .30mm. Compared to a good CRT display with a dot-pitch of .22mm, most LCD screens have individual pixels that are more than 22 per cent larger. Consequently, one has to use a larger overall screen size with an LCD screen to display the same information.

These LCD screens look good when viewed from a distance of several feet or more - typical television viewing distance, not coincidentally - but individual pixels are all too visible when the screen is viewed at the normal computer working distance of one or two feet away from the screen. Again, the big display manufacturers are shortchanging computer users by ignoring our real needs in favour of those of a much larger consumer market of passive television viewers.

These observations mostly apply to desktop LCD monitors, but netbooks, ultra-light laptops and notebooks need better screens, too. Apple's latest Iphone 4 reportedly has a screen that delivers 326 pixels-per-inch (ppi) resolution, which is said to be slightly finer resolution than the human retina can discern at a viewing distance of 18 inches. In any case, that's more than three times better than the 101ppi, give or take, provided by current LCD screens used in many netbooks, ultra-light laptops and notebooks, which typically have a dot-pitch of about .25mm. Display screens on small portable PCs can certainly improve, and they certainly should.

But we're talking about standalone desktop PC LCD monitors, because those are where this widescreen problem is most objectionable. Most affordable desktop LCD screens are HD 1080p models, which have display resolutions of 1920x1080 with an aspect ratio of 16:9. This state of affairs seems to be an unfortunate result of an accidental conspiracy between the Big Media companies and the display screen vendors, as the 1080p video format is a television standard. And, as outlined earlier, it's annoying and inappropriate for computer monitors that are intended for use in professional work.

Vendors still make some 16:10, 5:4 and 4:3 aspect ratio display panels, but the problem is that they charge a stiff premium for those. At the high end, they do produce some 2560x1600 displays, but expect to pay over $1,000 for one of those. Displays with a 5:4 aspect ratio of 2536x2048 or a 4:3 aspect ratio of 1600x1200 or 2048x1536 are also increasingly hard to find, and are much more expensive.

Sure, one can stick with CRT monitors, since the good ones have better colour brightness and control than most LCD monitors. However they are also large, heavy and draw more power than LCD screens. Thus, we need better lightweight displays.

I have an Hitachi CM751 CRT monitor that I bought 12 years ago for about $450, and that translates to about $600 today. That is the best computing investment I have ever made. It is a 19-inch monitor with .22mm dot-pitch and it does 1600x1200 at 85Hz. I can display two documents or web pages side-by-side on it, and that is what I need to be able to do in my work, despite having as many virtual desktops as I might want, running Linux as I do. I even paid $50 to get a few worn out capacitors replaced in it last year.

Indeed, having thought about replacing this large, heavy CRT with an LCD monitor, and having looked at what's on offer now from the vendors, I'm going to keep this for the time being, at least until some of the display vendors start offering a few better alternatives than what they've been flogging lately. I don't want just 1080p consumer TV resolution that means I can't display an entire page of text at once. I want something in a display that's suitable for real work and reasonably priced.

Discerning individual computer users and especially businesses should refuse to buy displays that use the HD 1080p 16:9 aspect ratio, forcing the LCD screen vendors to offer better ones in order to sell them.

In addition, the industry regulators such as the US Federal Trade Commission and the EU Competition Commission might want to look into whether or not the big LCD vendors have been colluding to charge higher prices for computer monitors that don't match the dominant HD 1080p TV display screen format. If they find antitrust violations by the big vendors, it won't be the first time. Several vendors pleaded guilty to price fixing of LCD display panels years ago.

Actually, I want even more in a decent computer monitor than any of the big display vendors are offering presently. I think they're just resting on their laurels, screwing their customers, and failing to innovate to develop the advanced display technology that is within their reach. They're still using old technology.

I want to see .127mm dot pitch or less for 200ppi resolution or better, and by all means the higher the better, which can extend the possibilities of font design to near print quality crispness or better, without requiring all the complexities of sub-pixel font resolution. This will also enable use of near photographic quality images, not to mention making possible the delivery of higher definition media content online.

In addition to seeing more production of 16:10 monitor displays rather than the Hollywood inspired 16:9 TV standard, I want to be able to buy affordable LCD (or LED) monitors that are capable of 4:3 aspect ratio 1600x1200 and 2048x1536 resolutions or 5:4 aspect ratio 2560x2048 resolution. These displays should also have screen refresh rates of 85Hz to 120Hz or higher, pixel response times of less than 3ms, high contrast ratios and fine colour and brightness controls equal to or better than CRTs but without the CRT adjustment issues.

The leading display vendors should be able to do all of this with current LCD technology, and make it affordable. But even if they have to figure out how to cheaply mass produce LED displays in large formats, I'll wait. Only when they get this right will I buy another monitor. µ

 

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