SAN FRANCISCO (02/01/2000) - Our review of the latest 19-inch monitors shows that flat screens don't necessarily give you better image quality. But lower prices and smaller cases make them tempting options.
While almost every computerized gizmo from cell phones to personal digital assistants gets smaller and smaller, a monitor screen is the one piece of hardware that we always wish was bigger. If you churn out complex word processing documents, manipulate long and involved spreadsheets, or prepare images for publication, you already know that the bigger the display, the more expansive the view. Good news: Today's 19-inch monitors can provide that grand vista--and their prices are becoming more affordable by the minute.
The greatest advantage to a 19-inch monitor is, obviously, that it gives you more screen area to work with. For example, compared with 17-inch monitors, a 19-incher can give you about 27 to 30 percent more viewable real estate. Having a larger screen area means you can crank up the resolution from the 1024 by 768 commonly used on 17-inch monitors to 1280 by 1024, with little change in the number of pixels per inch. Your menus, toolbars, and icons stay about the same size, but more program and document buttons fit on the longer Windows taskbar, more columns fit on a spreadsheet, and more lines of text are viewable upon the screen.
Keep in mind that not all graphics cards can generate 1280 by 1024 resolutions, and that image quality and the number of colors displayed also depend on your graphics card. So before you run out and buy a 19-inch monitor, expecting to get a cutting-edge view, make sure your graphics card is up to the job. Older cards, if they can do higher resolutions at all, may slow the screen refresh rate to eye-straining speeds and may not have the memory to support millions of colors.
We looked at 23 of today's 19-inch displays: 13 new models and 10 from our December Top 10 that we retested for this review. We extensively evaluated each for the quality of its text and graphics. We also rated features, price, service policies, and usability, as well as compliance with tough emissions standards.
When the dust settled, two monitors grabbed Best Buy honors. Samsung's SyncMaster 950p took first place thanks to its low price and comprehensive feature set, including BNC connectors for high-end graphics adapters. Dell's UltraScan P991 snapped up the number two spot on the strength of its text scores--it's the only monitor to have earned a rating of excellent--and its relatively low price.
The Incredible Shrinking Case
Even though screens are getting bigger, they don't have to take up more room on your desktop: "Short-neck" or "reduced depth" monitors save space because their cases are less deep. Monitor manufacturers have learned how to further bend the electron beam (which travels from the back of the cathode ray tube to the screen glass to form the image). This increased "deflection angle" means the electron gun can be closer to the screen. Early versions of short-neck monitors suffered from fuzzy text and uneven focus, but newer models often correct this distortion.
Five of the 19-inch monitors in this review qualify as short-neck monitors. Of those that grabbed places on the chart, the Philips 109B is the shallowest at 15.6 inches, with the Sampo AlphaScan 812SR and the AcerView 99sl following close behind at 16.6 and 16.7 inches, respectively. In contrast, the MGIC Technologies MGC 9107, which missed the Top 10 due to its subpar image quality, measures a full 19.1 inches deep--a once-typical size that today seems needlessly bulky.
It's a Flat, Flat World
Wider, shallower--what's next? Screen fronts are getting flatter, too. During the past year we've seen a steady influx of flat CRTs, and for this review, we tested eight of them. Conventionally curved, "flat square" CRTs--the kind you're most likely to have inside your desktop monitor--still thrive, but variations on the flat CRT concept are becoming nearly as commonplace as a winter cold. Whether they're called "natural flat," "pure flat," or "flat display," these new CRTs offer sharper focus, brighter pictures, and more accurately rendered images than their convex, flat-square predecessors. Despite these benefits, flat CRTs don't necessarily deliver better image quality, as our tests bear out.
Of the new flat CRTs we tested this month, the pricey Sony CPD-G400 had the best graphics quality, while the more affordable and handsomely styled Dell UltraScan P991 grabbed a Best Buy. The ViewSonic PF790 landed at number seven while the Compaq P900 squeaked in at tenth place. For reviews of other flat CRTs that didn't make the cut, visit www.pcworld.com/mar00/monitors.
The steady influx of flat CRTs doesn't mean that the traditional flat-square CRT is on its way out:It can still hold its own in our image-quality tests.
Five of the displays on this month's chart feature old-school, flat-square CRTs, including the Samsung SyncMaster 950p, a Best Buy.
Still, these new flat CRTs benefit primarily those who do extensive, professional-level graphics, such as image editing or prepress work. With traditional flat-square monitors, you'll see the picture bending slightly with the curvature of the glass, and for work such as highly detailed, complex graphics, that distortion becomes a problem. If you're a graphics professional, a flat CRT is the way to go.
Prices Are Flattening Out, Too
In price and footprint, 19-inch monitors are beginning to look remarkably like 17-inch units did six months ago. In our last roundup, a high-quality 19-inch display could cost as much as $1000. Now, 19-inch CRTs run from a high of $700 (Sony's CPD-G400) to as little as $386 (Samsung's SyncMaster 950p).
With such a wide price spread (the least expensive monitor is less than half the price of the most expensive), we wondered: What does an extra $300 buy? The differences in performance are not striking. Top-shelf displays from Cornerstone and Sony posted top-three numbers for graphics, but bargain-basement screens from Sampo and Samsung were in the top five. The differences in monitors' service and support are getting narrower, too.
What it boils down to is that your $300 premium buys additional features. For example, the three monitors we tested that did not meet stringent TCO environmental requirements were all priced under $400. (TCO compliance ensures a monitor meets tough standards for radiation emissions and that the monitor can be recycled safely.) None of the bargain monitors comes bundled with image-adjustment software, either, but three of the higher-priced displays do.
Finally, you're likely to see a few more advanced controls in the on-screen menu of a higher-priced display, such as those on the Compaq P900, Cornerstone p1401, and Sony CPD-G400 that help you adjust resolution and troubleshoot typical problems like screen flicker. Some advanced controls correct moire (swirling pattern) on different parts of the screen, and horizontal and vertical convergence controls adjust pixel alignment, helping, over time, to keep images in focus.
The good news is that pricing and technology trends have continued to work in consumers' favor. Monitors are bigger of face and smaller of foot--as well as lighter of wallet--than ever before. And with affordable prices for the latest tube technologies, now could be a good time to take that 19-inch monitor off your wish list and place it squarely on your desktop.
1. SAMSUNG SYNCMASTER 950P
WHAT'S HOT The 950p is the best dot-pitch monitor (as opposed to stripe pitch) we reviewed. Judges gave above-average marks for its sharp text in spreadsheets and word processing documents, and its graphics quality in test photos also looked good (though a few other monitors sported brighter colors). At $386, the 950p ranks as the least expensive unit on the chart, and the only one equipped with BNC ports for high-end graphics. Excellent documentation and software for color adjustment round out the offerings.
WHAT'S NOT The 950p isn't the best bet for people with shallow workstations. At 18.6 inches, the SyncMaster 950p is among the deepest monitors we tested.
WHAT ELSE On-screen controls were a breeze to master. Sensitive dials under the front bezel let you adjust contrast and brightness without having to go to the on-screen menu. The 950p's case has a blue-and-gray inlaid design--a nice change from boring putty-colored cases.
BEST USE The affordable SyncMaster 950p excels in every category we tested and would make a top-notch general-use monitor, regardless of application. Its BNC-5 ports provide additional graphic throughputs for imaging professionals.
2. DELL ULTRASCAN P991
WHAT'S HOT The UltraScan P991 is long on virtues, garnering the only rating of excellent for text, with crisp icons and letters in word processing documents and spreadsheets. It also handles graphics well, with colors nearly as deep and saturated as those on Sony's CPD-G400 and Cornerstone's p1401. Its $559 price is the least expensive among those on the chart that use Sony's flat FD Trinitron tube, a feature you usually pay a premium for.
WHAT'S NOT At $559, this display's cost is in the middle of the pack. You could easily pay $200 more for an inferior display--but you could also pay almost $200 less for a model like the Best Buy SyncMaster that's equal if not better.
WHAT ELSE Despite its bulk (it weighs in at 56.9 pounds), the P991 tilts and swivels with little effort. Dell also provides an industry-standard three-year warranty and 24-hour toll-free support.
BEST USE The P991 is a terrific choice for businesses and home offices that churn out text documents and work with general business graphics such as those for marketing materials and brochures.
3. LG STUDIOWORKS 995E
WHAT'S HOT The Studioworks 995E earned ratings of very good for both text and graphics display, the latter ranking second highest among all the units. Colors in graphics were rich, yet not overly dark, and a sample Web page stood out with crisp whites, legible text, and briskly rendered images. On-screen controls, while not advanced, are simple to use, intuitive, and well organized.
WHAT'S NOT At 18.7 inches, the 995E is the second-deepest monitor in the Top 10. This model also lacks controls for adjusting focus and convergence (how closely red, green, and blue pixels align).
WHAT ELSE You have to use the 995E's on-screen menu to adjust contrast and brightness, the most commonly used controls. Separate adjustments on the monitor's bezel would be easier.
BEST USE Top-notch image quality and a fair $440 price make the Studioworks 995E a good pick for nondemanding business and home-office tasks. The lack of advanced controls rules it out for professional graphics use.
4. PHILIPS 109B
WHAT'S HOT The 109B rendered graphics deftly on test photos and Web pages, displaying deep, rich colors with subtle shading. Like the SyncMaster 950p, the Philips unit ships with a software bundle for enhancing and managing colors.
With a depth of 15.6 inches, the 109B is the shallowest monitor we tested, and at 44 pounds, it's also the lightest. Finally, the 109B is the only model on the chart that comes standard with a USB port.
WHAT'S NOT The 109B stumbled on both text documents and spreadsheets. Our judges doled out low marks for blurry-looking text and icons that weren't as crisp as text and icons displayed by other chart-makers. Its 16 hours of daily toll-free tech support is probably adequate for the majority of users, but most vendors offer round-the-clock help.
WHAT ELSE A short-neck picture tube decreases the case's depth, which allows the monitor to fit into tight corners better than most boxy units. It's also easy to navigate the on-screen menu using the set of four buttons that are located on the monitor's front bezel.
BEST USE Its very good graphics score, short case design, USB port, and optional USB hub make the 109B a good bet for offices tight on desktop space and those with undemanding business graphics needs. But the lack of BNC connectors prevents it from being considered for professional-level design work.
5. SAMPO ALPHASCAN 812SR
WHAT'S HOT What really sets the AlphaScan 812SR apart is its $399 price tag, making it one of the least expensive monitors in this review. Similar to Philips' 109B, the AlphaScan also features a shortened case, measuring 16.6. inches. It posted impressive scores for text and graphics, with above-average marks for overall legibility of multisized fonts--good if you do your fair share of word processing. Colors in graphics looked bright and rich, and were not overly saturated.
WHAT'S NOT The 812SR was cruising toward a higher ranking until we subtracted points for meager service and support offerings. Although Sampo includes a three-year warranty, tech support personnel are available for just 10 hours a day on weekdays (compared with 24 hours for most others), and not at all on weekends. In addition, Sampo doesn't provide a toll-free phone number for support.
WHAT ELSE Crudely designed icons mar the 812SR's on-screen control menu.
Adjusting the picture isn't much easier than with more run-of-the-mill button controls. In addition, you cannot increase the 8-second on-screen menu time-out, which might not be long enough to let you make your adjustment.
BEST USE The 812SR handles general text and graphics well, and its price makes it a winner for the budget minded. But subpar support offerings mean that the 812SR is best suited to offices with a knowledgeable support staff.
6. SONY CPD-G400
WHAT'S HOT The CPD-G400 posted a best-of-breed score for graphics, earning high marks for rich and vivid colors, thanks in part to its flat CRT. On a photo of Olympic runners, for instance, flesh tones looked warm and lifelike, and fine details stood out. The primary adjustment tool for on-screen controls--an easy-to-use finger-size joystick--is a welcome relief from the control buttons that we usually see on the bezel.
WHAT'S NOT Priced at $700, the CPD-G400 is more than twice as expensive as the cheapest of the 23 monitors we looked at and the costliest on the chart.
WHAT ELSE The on-screen controls include a built-in troubleshooting menu, which provides solutions to common image problems such as screen flicker.
BEST USE It's not the best overall value here, but its luscious screen colors and easy-to-use joystick control make the CPD-G400 an excellent choice for heavy graphics work--whether you're sprucing up a sales brochure or playing games.
7. CORNERSTONE PERIPHERALS TECHNOLOGY P1401WHAT'S HOT With an outstanding five-year warranty, Cornerstone offers two more years of coverage than most of its competitors. The p1401 was a high finisher for both text and graphics quality, displaying crisp letters and icons in word processing documents and spreadsheets, and vivid colors on images. A test photo of marathoners showed vibrant colors.
WHAT'S NOT At $645, the p1401 is the third most expensive monitor on the chart, after the Sony CPD-G400 and the Compaq P900. Like Sampo, Cornerstone doesn't provide weekend tech support.
WHAT ELSE Cornerstone puts the p1401 on a good base that you can tilt and swivel easily using just one hand. You also get a helpful, diagram-intensive manual.
BEST USE Despite its relatively high price, the p1401 has great image quality, good color-temperature controls, and a generous warranty, making it a fine choice for businesses that work with robust graphics and computer-aided design.
8. VIEWSONIC PF790
WHAT'S HOT In all categories, the ViewSonic PF790--using a "perfect flat" SonicTron picture tube--landed in the middle of the pack, receiving midrange marks for sharp word processing documents and spreadsheets and for overall graphics quality. This middle-of-the-road workhorse, however, distinguishes itself with a reasonable $499 price and strong service and support ratings.
WHAT'S NOT Among the PF790's less-than-stellar scores were those for image quality of text and graphics, meaning that it isn't the best choice for high-end graphics or word processing. At 18.8 inches, the PF790 is also the deepest display on the chart. And with no brightness and contrast controls on the face and a dauntingly jargon-laced on-screen menu, adjusting the monitor can be tricky.
WHAT ELSE Last September, ViewSonic's more fully featured version of this monitor, the PT795, landed a Best Buy spot, while this version achieves only seventh place. Did ViewSonic get worse, or did everyone else in the pack get better? In any case, the PF790's reasonable price could help raise it back into the top five in months to come.
BEST USE Industry-standard warranty and support combined with a reasonable $499 price make the PF790 a fine pick for general home use, including light small- or home-office tasks. Graphics professionals are advised to look elsewhere, however.
9. ACERVIEW 99SL
WHAT'S HOT At $399, the 99sl is priced as low as Sampo's AlphaScan 812SR. It garnered good scores for sharp icons and crisp text in spreadsheets. Graphics fared slightly better, with rich colors on test photos. The 99sl also has one of the shallowest cases we saw--16.7 inches.
WHAT'S NOT You won't find many fancy features on the 99sl. It's equipped with all the basic controls you'll need for color management and image-quality adjustment, but it lacks helpful power and emissions controls; for example, it lacks the capability of changing power-down times. It also fails to comply with strict, environment-friendly TCO standards, unlike every other monitor on the chart.
WHAT ELSE Despite its moniker, Acer's blue-toned iKey, on the monitor's front bezel, has nothing to do with the Internet. Instead, the misleadingly named iKey reverts the monitor back to its default image settings. The 99sl also lacks an auto-degauss command.
BEST USE A low price, industry-standard warranty and support, and acceptable image quality indicate the 99sl would suit small businesses and home users, provided that graphics tasks aren't any more demanding than the occasional scanned photograph or marketing proposal.
10. COMPAQ P900
WHAT'S HOT The P900 earned a score of very good for text, with crisp letters and icons in word processing documents and spreadsheets. Color saturation in photos was rich but a bit dark. Besides a three-year warranty, Compaq provides three years of free on-site service, the most generous support policy offered here.
WHAT'S NOT The $649 price is the P900's biggest drag, holding company with high-priced models from Sony and Cornerstone. Despite its flat FD Trinitron tube, the P900's graphics, though acceptable, didn't look as bright as those on competing brands with the same tube.
WHAT ELSE Like Sony's CPD-G400, the P900 features a simple help menu in its on-screen controls, providing quick answers to questions such as how to fix simple screen flicker.
BEST USE With strong text quality and decent-looking colors, the P900 is a safe bet for corporate users seeking the added security of an extensive warranty.
For reviews of monitors that did not make the chart, visit www.pcworld.com/mar00/monitors. Rick Overton is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho. PC World Associate Editors Katharine Dvorak and Mick Lockey contributed to this review.
KUDOS ALL AROUND: With good text and graphics, loads of features (including BNC ports), and a low price, the Samsung SyncMaster 950p ($386) is a top-notch monitor at a top-notch value. Dell's UltraScan P991 ($559) delivers superior text and sports a spiffy flat FD Trinitron tube at a reasonable price.
The Right Monitor for the Right Job
In image quality, our Top 10 list didn't reveal striking differences--good big screens abound. Most of the monitors here can handle everyday business applications quite well. But if you typically work with one application, consider a monitor best suited to what you do. If you churn out lots of text documents, avoid an expensive display aimed at graphics pros. The bottom line?
Don't buy more monitor than you need. (Note: Test images are examples not meant to show actual screen quality. We rank displays by score, and names in color are Best Buys.)TEXTDell's UltraScan P991 delivered top scores for crisp text on spreadsheets and word processing documents. If you work with text, this moderately priced display is for you.
Sony's CPD-G400 displayed the colors of this fruit tart photo with gusto.
Strawberries looked luscious. Though pricey, it's a great choice for graphics enthusiasts.
Samung's SyncMaster 950p is our top pick for viewing Web pages. If you spend a lot of time cruising the Net, this low-cost model offers solid colors and legible text.
If you're ready to step up to the 19-inch plate, here are some buying tips that can help you avoid costly mistakes.
GRAPHICS Remember that your monitor is only part of the graphics picture. The images that sparkle on your screen are driven by your graphics card, and an inadequate card can bring down a top-shelf monitor. If the monitor you buy is included as part of a PC bundle, the graphics card that comes with it is probably fine for most uses. If you're buying a monitor and graphics card separately, make sure you get a card that can handle resolutions higher than 1024 by 768--nearly all 19-inch monitors offer 1280 by 1024 resolutions. We tested the monitors in this review with the top-rated Matrox Millennium G400 AGP graphics adapter ($199). For the PCI bus, we recommend the $150 16MB 3dfx Voodoo3 3000.
CONNECTIONS Don't assume a new monitor has USB connections. All of the displays we tested have traditional serial cable connectors, and a few sport BNC ports for high-end color management, but standard USB ports are surprisingly rare.
Only the Philips 109B includes a USB port with the option to add more. Most of the others on the chart at least offer USB as an option, but three (the Dell UltraScan P991, LG Studioworks 995E, and ViewSonic PF790) lack standard ports and the option to add them. Adding a USB hub to your monitor will cost $60 to $100, depending on how many ports the hub has.
REFRESH The Compaq P900 claims to support an eye-popping 1920 by 1440 pixels.
That's great, but the monitor can refresh that many pixels only at a rate of 60 Hz. When refresh rates fall below 75 Hz, the eye starts to detect flicker, which can lead to eyestrain and headaches. Generally speaking, the higher the resolution the lower the refresh rate needed to display the image. Our advice? Keep an eye on those refresh rates.
MEMORY The number of colors you can see at a given resolution depends on how much memory your video card has. If you want to run true 32-bit color, or 16.7 million colors, you'll need at least 16MB of memory.
FOOTPRINT Just because monitor makers are building shorter electron guns--and thus shorter monitor necks--it doesn't mean you don't need to think about how much space you have on your desktop. For one thing, many monitors have cords sticking straight out the back that effectively add another inch or two to your footprint. Before buying, measure how much desktop space you have to work with.
COSTS It's always a pleasure to see a low price, but sometimes it's a distraction from additional costs; conversely, a high price tag should bring additional valuable features or services. The Cornerstone p1401, for example, is priced at a high $645, but the company offers a rare five-year warranty, which would cost extra from other manufacturers or, frequently, is not available at all. And the Compaq P900, also fairly high-priced at $649, includes three years of on-site service, which typically runs an additional $100 or so. Before you commit, do your research on the Web to find the best deals. Sites such as www.pricewatch.com can help you find prices cheaper than those on manufacturers' sites.
SPEAKERS Are built-in speakers a good thing? Probably not. None of the 23 monitors we tested this month has them. In fact, speakers on the side of CRTs aren't the clever design boon we thought they were a few years ago. When a speaker is embedded in the bezel, you can't move it to improve sound coverage, and audio from a built-in speaker is typically tinny because the speaker is so small. In addition, monitors with embedded speakers tend to be heavy, because the picture tube has to be shielded from the speakers' magnets by a layer of metal. Separate speakers are cheap. Buy some.