Sunday, August 19, 2007

Considering Buying a 19" Flat-Screen Monitor?

Hi again.

Today I will discuss and discourse on the difference between a 19" LCD monitor and a 19" 'widescreen' LCD monitor. You may already know this, but it was new to me.

I recently had a bit of trouble getting the icons and screen presentation looking just right on a client's new 19" wide-screen flat-panel monitor. The only resolution we could set it to that left square desktop icons actually looking square was so small that we couldn't read the text under the icons! There just wasn't a resolution setting roughly analogous to 800x600 that allowed for the wider screen aspect ratio.

We finally gave up, left it set as nearly right as his video driver allowed, and I came home to do some math.

Here's the problem: we're all used to having our computer screens displayed like our conventional television sets: an aspect ratio of 4:3, meaning the width is 1/3 greater than the height. Movies (at the theatre, at least) are created with an aspect ratio of 2:1 or 16:9, making them wider than they would be on a TV set. Flat-screen monitors sold primarily as multimedia screens have an aspect ratio of 16:10 --- their width is 1.6 times their height. Older video cards, meaning any card made before the 19" widescreen monitors came out, aren't likely to have a resolution setting intended to work with that aspect ratio. The result: everything on your screen is either too tall or too wide, depending on which compromise setting you choose.

This problem could be alleviated if...
1. the video card manufacturers would release new drivers to accommodate the widescreen format, or
2. the widescreen monitors came with driver disks of their own.

While either or both of these possibilities MAY have occurred in some instances, I haven't been the lucky recipient of either; every widescreen monitor I've been asked to install and set up has been without any hint of a driver CD, and Windows Update hasn't provided any help in the way of updated video drivers. (Manufacturers' sites might have helped in this area, but I just recently figured this all out --- at the time, I didn't think to check the manufacturer sites.)

Here's the results of the crude math I worked out (assuming the bezel doesn't cover any viewing area):

a 17" monitor with a 4:3 aspect ratio:
width = 13.6" height = 10.2" total viewing area = 138.72 sq. in.

a 19" monitor with a 4:3 aspect ratio:
width = 15.2" height = 11.4" total viewing area = 173.28 sq. in.

a 19" widescreen (16:10 aspect ratio):
width = 16.112" height = 10.07" total viewing area = 162.248 sq. in.

So, you can see that in moving from a 17" conventional monitor to a 19" widescreen, you lose height (1.27%), you gain width (18.5%), and you gain 17% total viewing area. If your video card can utilize the new screen dimensions properly, you're ahead of the game. Only you can decide if the gain was worth the cost of the new monitor.

But, if you move to a 19" monitor with a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, you gain 11.765% in both width AND height, and you gain 24.9% total viewing area. And your old drivers continue to work just fine --- they were written for an aspect ratio of 4:3 in the first place! Your icons and 'cells' look like you're used to from your old monitor, only bigger (if you keep your old display settings) or in greater quantity (if you increase your resolution setting).

The 4:3 monitors aren't put on sale at prices quite as low as the widescreen versions, but in my opinion, they're the better buy, and worth the difference they cost. Case in point: today, CompUSA had a 19" Envision multimedia widescreen for $139 after $80 in rebates; a comparable 4:3 monitor from Hyundai was $185, no rebates necessary (don't rush to the site --- this monitor was sold out by the time I finished typing this blog entry).

Having thought it out, I've decided I won't buy a 19" widescreen, no matter how cheap the sale price --- when I can spare the cost of a 4:3 19" flat-panel, I'll finally upgrade.

Hope I've helped. Please email questions to