Caveats with LCD flat-panel monitors

I just took a phone call from someone who bought an LCD flat-panel and couldn’t figure out why it looked so great in the store but was purely horrible on his PC at home.

He ran into a bunch of problems that some might instinctively avoid but to others would be much less than obvious.Native resolution. LCD monitors have a native resolution, unlike CRTs. What that means is while a CRT can produce a range of pixels (dots) horizontally and vertically, an LCD has a fixed number of them. So if you buy a monitor whose native resolution is 1152×864 and you set it to 800×600, the display is going to be chunky and pixelated.

Refresh rate. We’ve been conditioned to look for high numbers for refresh rate, and to set it as high as possible. LCDs don’t refresh, so you’re supposed to set the refresh rate to 60 Hz. Feed a flat panel something other than a 60 Hz signal, and who knows what will happen? Some cope, some don’t. Keep it at 60 to be safe.

Video memory. This was the real problem-causer. What happens when you buy a new 19-inch LCD and plug it into a aged Pentium II-400? Well, the video card didn’t have enough memory to do any better than a 256-color display. When you’re used to 16-bit color, the loss of color depth is enough to offset the sharpness.

So when buying an LCD for an aged system, it makes sense to go ahead and pick up a new video card while you’re at it. An ATi Radeon 7000-based card has plenty of memory to do high-color displays at resolutions like 1280×1024 and higher, and at Newegg.com’s $27 price, they’re a cheap upgrade. Newegg has several other cards in that price range as well. Radeons have 32 megs; they also have a SiS-based card with 64. The Radeon is probably a bit better for games, while the SiS will give you higher-color displays at high resolutions. Frankly, for a low-end system I’d probably buy whichever card happens to be cheapest to ship.

DVI or traditional VGA? DVI gives a straight digital signal, as opposed to translating to and from analog. A DVI port on the monitor and on the video card usually costs extra, but if you want the best possible display, it may be worth the extra money to you.

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