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Buying a monitor

I don’t have any strong opinions about monitors. None at all. I don’t have strong opinions about anything, but I especially don’t have strong opinions about monitors.
The reason for my overwhelmingly weak opinions about monitors is twofold. For one, I very rarely have hardware fail. When I do, it’s almost always a monitor, and it’s rarely cost-effective to repair one. The parts are costly, the hourly rates are costly, and in my experience, a monitor that’s failed once is likely to fail again anyway. So it pays to get it right the first time.

Second, your choice of memory type or CPU type or case design won’t affect your health. Low-quality keyboards and monitors will. Get a good monitor you don’t mind looking at. Your eyes will thank you for it.

I’ve seen some cheap monitors live long lives, but in my experience, the longest-lasting monitors come from NEC, Mitsubishi, and Hitachi. NEC and Mitsubishi use the same tubes these days, but I usually like the color on Mitsubishis a little better. Take the opportunity to go see the monitor in action. And then, when you get it home and unbox it, the first thing you need to do is check all the controls. Set your brightness and contrast to 50%. Ideally, the picture should look best when everything’s set to 50%. That never happens. But if you have to drift very far from 50% to get a good picture, especially on brightness and contrast, exchange it. That’s an indication of a weak tube. A concave picture is indicative of a failing power supply; you won’t see that very frequently in new monitors. If you do see it, get rid of it. When the power supply goes, you don’t want to have to deal with the smell.

Avoid supercheap monitors. The superstores sometimes offer no-name monitors at unbelievable prices. The picture may be acceptable, but the failure rate on them is usually fairly high, and in some cases, by the time the monitor dies, the manufacturer is out of business, so you’re out of luck on the warranty. That’s happened to several of my coworkers. A $149 19-inch monitor is no bargain if it fails in a few months and you can’t get it repaired under warranty. And even if you can, it’s an inconvenience you probably don’t need. You can buy an extended warranty, but by the time you pay for that, you might as well have bought an NEC.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience to share about flat panels. I find the flat panels on my laptop at work and my laptop at home easier on my eyes than a tube. The last time I bought a monitor, I could get a cheap 15-inch flat panel or a high-end 19-inch CRT for about the same price. I went with the CRT. That was about 15 months ago. Flat panel prices are comparable today to what they were then. CRT prices have dropped even more. Next time I’ll probably get the flat panel. I don’t know if it’s a wise choice or not, but I’ll probably buy a flat panel from NEC or Hitachi, since they make good conventional monitors. I don’t know if either company makes its own screens anymore, but at least I know the likelihood of the rest of the electronics being high-quality is good.

The appeal of a panel is undeniable. They don’t take up much space, they look fantastic, they don’t use much power, and they don’t give off much heat. One day I will give in.

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10 thoughts on “Buying a monitor”

  1. One thing: LCDs are not yet an option if you are into 3D gaming. The CRT (17″ or 19″) are still the best for that.

    Also, when you live outside the US, the variety of brand manes you have available to you drop exponentially. You really have to research your brands, and usually end up picking up an Optiplex or some AOC variant.

    Or bbuy US refurbs to cut your cost. Dev Teelucksingh does that and he’s had no problem.

    It’s a question of what’s available.

    One of the best monitors I ever got was a 15″ Viewsonic i picked up for $15 at a corporate selloff. Good for Linux, and it has not gone bad on me as yet.

    On the other hand, a 15″ Viewsonic I bought new: problems. The only reason I haven’t thrown it out yet is because I might be able to get something in trade for it, like an AGP card.

    Monitors can really be a crapshoot.

  2. The biggest problem with Viewsonic is you don’t know for certain what you’re going to get. They utilize a large number of contract manufacturers, so quality varies. Tom Gatermann has a 19″ Viewsonic he bought a couple of years back and it’s been a great monitor. Back then, a 19-incher was still a premium product. Now that 19-inchers are more commoditized, it’s harder to guess what you’ll get from Viewsonic.

    You don’t get any guarantees, aside from a longer warranty, by buying a top-tier monitor like an NEC, Hitachi or Mitsubishi, but those companies pride themselves on longevity as much as they do on display quality. And while they do cost more, since you can get five or six years from a top-tier monitor, it makes sense to do so.

  3. I once through three KDS monitors before I finally received one that worked. Based on my experience, I will not purchase these monitors again, However, I know there is someone out who never had any problems with KDS and will continue to use them.
    Interesting, I might add that quality control in all manufacturing parts is a roll of the dice, from cars to computers to dishwashers.
    Resulting in my future purchasing of these brands depend upon my experience, as well as a reliable report. Sometimes these reports are hard to find as well.
    I read that all hard drives have a given life expectancy of 3-5 years with some lucky ones lasting mush longer. However, ever try to find which brand is really the best? All over the web, each brand has a horror story. I have read of only one brand that was brave enough to post return rates on their products (1% Maxtor).
    Is there an answer? I do not know, but as I said, I purchase according to realibile reports and my experience.
    Have a wonderful day!

  4. Andy, you bring up a good point. The best gauge for reliability of things like hard drives and monitors and other components, I think, is people who do hardware support for a large organization. Since I don’t do end-user support anymore I don’t have the handle I once did. I can tell you that in the late 1990s, I saw a lot more dead Western Digital drives than I saw anyone else, and I had a hard time differentiating between IBM and Quantum drives. We didn’t buy a lot of Maxtors.

    In 2000-2001, Micron was using mostly Samsung, Western Digital, and IBM drives, so that was what I tended to see. I saw more dead Western Digitals than anything else. The systems we got had a lot of Samsung drives in them and I was very surprised at their reliability. I never saw a dead one. One or two of the IBM drives failed, but not in large numbers. I saw a very small number of Seagates and they seemed to be OK.

    When people were upgrading, I’d spec Maxtor drives as replacements because of their reputation for speed and reliability. They never let me down, but we probably had fewer than a dozen Maxtors in service.

    In monitors, I saw mostly what Micron was buying. Some were Philips OEM, others Samsung OEM, and I forget who the third one was. The Philips monitors seemed to be the least prone to fail, and the Samsungs the most prone. Power users tended to buy third-party monitors: Sony, NEC, Hitachi. The Sonys had more problems than the NECs and Hitachis. When monitors failed out of warranty, I tended to spec NECs as replacements.

    But I’ve been out of desktop support for 8 months, so I’m rapidly losing touch with what’s reliable and what’s not on the desktop today. I suspect those trends will mostly continue to hold, but things can and do change with time.

  5. I’ve had my NEC 15″ LCD flat panel (model 1530V) for over 6 months now and you’d have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands to trade me for any 19″ CRT. Now that I need to wear reading glasses to use the computers at work, this is the only display I can see w/o eyestrain while wearing my normal glasses. It’s also quite fine for 3D gaming. I play several Quake III engine games + Unreal Tournament and Serious Sam and never seen any issues (system incls Duron 1.2 GHz, 512 Mb Crucial Tech RAM and a 64 Mb MSI GeForce3 Ti200 graphics card).

    Now, there are lousy quality, cheap LCD panels out there. The advice to go for solid name brands applies here as well. I looked at Samsung (blurry & brownish-tint) and Viewsonic (more expensive, slightly red-ish tint) before choosing my NEC. Never buy a display w/o a substantial testdrive at the store, a friend’s home. etc…

  6. Read the technical papers on the PRIO eyeglass website for a useful discussion of eyeballs, soft focus on CRT versus focus on flat panel issues. Think of it as the eye/brain is uncertain where the image is on the CRT and so hunts for focus – the flat panel focus is much easier – but don’t take this as meaning you don’t need to read the articles.

    I use an aging ViewSonic P815 at home, for which I paid 1.5 times as much new as I paid for my current car used. I find the top end ViewSonics to be adequate but I try to run optimal not maximum specs – in the laptop of course there is no choice but I paid to get a 1600X1200 display in the laptop.

    Personally I could not be productive without my special optimized for computer screen glasses.

  7. Dave:

    Thanks for all the info about monitors. I’m thinking I’ll save my nickels to get a 17″ Mitsubishi/NEC flat screen.

  8. Yeah, I’m a flat panel convert and recommend them to anyone buying now. I’m using a secondhand Viewsonic ViewPanel VE150B and right next to it is a three or so year old Toshiba Tek Bright 50D.

    Both are 15″ LCD flat screens but very different to each other. The ViewSonic is great but suffers a little from shadowing of letters to the right hand side when I use it on a switch box. This was worst on my Dakota switchbox (KVM) but is a reduced on an old Aten Master View CS-104 KVM. Watch out for this effect if you are going to run flat panels through KVMs.

    The Toshiba runs from its own graphics card (an S3 equiv with 8Mb video RAM but with a proprietary socket). It’s a funny looking thing with two splayed feet to the front with speakers built into them. But… it’s picture quality is superb. I can run both screens next to each other and see the difference easily. The Toshiba pixels seem smaller, so the image looks crisper. The colour balance is lovely – the ViewSonic has a slight bluish cast.

    If you can find one of the Tosh’s secondhand and don’t mind the proprietary connector/card combo, then I recommend picking it up.


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