A friend asked me if CRT monitors will make a comeback. I can tell from the way he asked that he expected my answer to be no. “Do they hold up?” he asked.
CRT monitors already have made a comeback. At least that’s what the numbers say. I had a basement full of them and it took me years to get rid of them. I couldn’t give them away. They’d be worth a fortune now, but I needed the space for other things. That said, I’m glad I kept the three that I did.
So let’s look at the reasons why CRT monitors aren’t likely to take over again for LCDs, and why some enthusiasts use them anyway.
The main reason CRTs aren’t going to take over for more modern display types is cost. CRTs are more expensive to make, and they’re bigger and more expensive to ship, so there’s no way you can make a 20-in CRT and sell it for $99. And yet, you can usually get a 22 or sometimes even a 24-in LED display for around $99. So you get a bigger screen for less money.
The GE Widescreen 1000 TV had a 45 inch display and cost $2800 in 1978. That was 3/4 the cost of a Chevy Nova passenger car at the time, and over $12,500 in today’s money. The matching VCR was extra, but wouldn’t an Atari Heavy Sixer look good there? Today you can live large with a 50 inch LED TV that occupies little or no floor space and costs under $300. The avocado green accent wall is optional.
Size and weight impede a CRT comeback
In spite of the screen size being bigger, an LED display is much more lightweight and much less deep than a CRT display. One person can easily pick up and move a 22 or 24-in LED. It’s a bit of a strain for one person to move a 20-in CRT alone. It’s not impossible, but it’s not a great idea.
And when it comes to a big screen TV, two people can move a 70 inch LED TV without straining much. The image above is what a 45 inch CRT looked like. It was 50x70x24 inches, so it would occupy nearly 12 square feet of floor space in an over the top late 70s style home theater. It would hide a lot of burnt orange shag carpet.
If you’ve ever wondered why the typical Best Buy store seems at least twice as big as it needs to be, it’s because the stores built in the 1990s had to accommodate large volumes of CRTs.
The other problem with CRT displays was always reliability. Some brands were more reliable than others, but the tubes themselves always had a finite useful life, just like a light bulb. Unlike a light bulb, they don’t usually just suddenly burn out, but they noticeably degrade with age. They get more dim with time, and sometimes lose color purity in one or more corners. And in some cases, one of the color guns gives out, giving the whole display a skewed color balance. Or if they display the same image for too long, it can etch into the phosphors, a phenomenon called screen burn.
But there are other parts that can fail as well. The flyback transformer is one of the more common failures, but the heat generated by all of that high voltage can cause any random component to fail much sooner than it would in a different electronic device.
Because of all the points of failure, it was unusual for a CRT to go 10 years without breaking down at least once. And it wasn’t unheard of for some of them to start developing problems two or three years in. Here’s a ranty blog post I wrote in 2001 relating my experience with them at the time.
Flat panels are much better in that regard. I’m surprised when an LCD or LED display fails before it’s 10 years old.
Why have CRTs made the comeback they have, then?
If CRTs were so bad, why have they made any kind of comeback at all, then?
There are certain advantages to CRT displays, especially when it comes to gaming, whether retro gaming or somewhat more recent gaming.
And part of it is driven by nostalgia. A vintage computer or game console displays better with something period correct. I probably use most of my vintage machines with some sort of LCD half the time. But there are times I like to use them with an older display, and I think they look better parked next to a matching display when I’m not using them.
And admittedly, putting up with the quirks of old, failing CRTs is part of the hobby. It’s much like having a hobby car. Plenty of people in my neighborhood have them, but they don’t drive them every day, and in some cases, they spend as much time wrenching on them to keep them running as they do driving them. It either becomes part of the fun, or they find another hobby.
Fixing CRTs for fun (probably not profit)
CRTs are like that. There are a number of middle-aged hobbyists who have the equipment and the knowledge to work on CRT displays safely. And they keep enough spares that they can fix one when one fails.
But the difficulty in finding parts means that sometimes there isn’t a lot of choice but to replace the tube and the electronics with an LCD and electronics that emulate the older display as best they can. It’s never quite the same, and most hobbyists save the parts and make the modification in a way that can be reversed in the event that they are ever able to source original parts.
But it wouldn’t surprise me if, say, in the early 2040s if the majority of surviving CRTs end up converted to a more modern display for lack of suitable parts. The screen itself never quite looks the same, but having the original cabinet preserves the overall feel and makes that modern panel look less anachronistic.
Nobody is currently making CRTs. Anybody using them are using tubes that were manufactured years ago. The economics of launching a business to make CRTs don’t look promising; there just isn’t enough demand to justify the expense, especially since it would have to compete with all the used ones that are already out in the world. But without new manufacturing, it’s impossible for CRTs to ever be more than a niche market.
I used my Hitachi Superscan 753 19-inch CRT from early 2000s to just after Covid-19 hit, and working from home. Replaced it with a couple 28-inch flat screen monitors. They are wonderful, but that CRT was solid. Gave it away still working.