One of the great jokes of computing is that monitors are really an optional extra. Computers can work perfectly well without them. You might not be able to see what you are actually doing, but the computer will still be working perfectly!

Hidden inside this joke is, of course, a serious point: As monitors are the only way a user can actually see what you are doing, they are - obviously - very important indeed! It says a lot about the Cathode Ray Tube (see outbox) that after a 65 years of progress it is still the base technology for television and the majority of computer monitors. Recently technologies such as plasma and LCD (see outbox) have become available, as well as slimmer, flatter designs, but monitors have changed little in outline terms since the rise of popular computing.

The changes that have come about reflect the need for higher specification screens, changing first from black and white (or from other colours such as green) to colour. From there to screens that can display even more colours and are therefore more photo-realistic. Although I dare say the B&W monitor still exists - in attics and in poverty row set-ups - we will otherwise ignore them today.

Another monitor consideration is a simple television. With early home computers this was one of the few options available, but this system of computing is all but dead outside of gaming circles. Nevertheless many computers have a TV-out functions allowing games and videoCD's to be played through a larger screen television rather than through the main monitor.

Apart from resolution, the next great divider of monitors is size. Given that computing is basically a one-to-one medium fairly small sized monitors have ruled. The user merely sits close enough to the screen for working comfort. Now with software graphic packages and the computers with the ability to play DVD movies (and similar) there is a greater demand for larger screens.

Sadly the price of larger monitors is still quite high reflecting their small market and extra manufacturing costs. Users that want a large monitor computer system, but don't want to break the bank, can always add a second hand model to a new base unit.

Another option is to use a screen enlarger. These are a little like a giant magnifying glass that sits infront of the screen and magnifies the image to a larger size. They don't look very aesthetically pleasing, but I can I assure you that they do work and are relatively cheap - one UK supplier is Innovations (www.innovations.co.uk)

Another good tip is to buy - or retain - monitors from your old computers when upgrading. This way you if you have a monitor breakdown in your new system you can carry on straight away. If you own a range of PC's, perhaps for business reasons, it might even be worthwhile to buy a second hand (or new if you can afford it) monitor as a back-up.

Some monitors come with their own sound facilities, some don't. In the dominant PC market it is perhaps best to chose the "don't" option and go for a pair of third party speakers (if you want them at all) allowing you to choose the size and quality that suits you.

Some monitors claim to be better by having smaller pixels - measured in nano-inches (NI) - but you'd have to be an expert to differentiate these upon viewing. A clearer technology is Flatter Squarer Tube (FST) that helps avoid screen glare and is a technology borrowed from television.

Like all electrical goods, monitors are designed to be used in dry, modestly clean environments without excessive heat or cold. Air should always be allowed to flow around all sides of the monitor and a filter should be fitted if you are worried about glare or radiation. On a cosmetic level, frames are available from some retailers to jazz up their outward appearance.

For screens such as SVGA their is a need for the computer to have a special driving card installed. This dates back to the time when computers were expensive and every facility was made to save money. Nowadays such cards and drivers are part of nearly all modern packages. Using these - or the inbuilt facilities of other computers such as the IMAC - high quality images are available to all.

Like all things made by man, monitors do have a limited life. The thing that is most likely to go is the "main tube." These are rarely worth replacing, although some dealers might try to talk you into it. Eventually all CRT tubes become "tired" at the edges and to check that this isn't happening to your monitor get a small magnet and hold it near the corner of the screen. If this alters the picture markedly then the monitor might well be on its last legs....


CRT: The Cathode Ray Tube. Basically a fast rotating beam that wites data on to the screen from top to bottom. Also the basis for most household television sets.
KHZ: Stands for KiloHertZ The method by which monitor screen refresh rates are measured, the rule of thumb being the higher the refresh rate the less likely the screen is to flicker. However the usefulness depends heavily on the software packages being employed.
LCD: Liquid Crystal Diode. A screen format popular on laptop computers, but rarely used with desktop models. Uses a form of alternating conducting/non conducting crystal to create the screen image.
MONITOR: A reference to any technology that a computer image can be displayed upon whether a dedicated device or some form of television set.
PIXEL: The small dots that make up the screen. Most monitors use a mix of Red, Green and Blue (RGB) pixels to display images. As explained in the main text these pixels are measured in nano-inches (NI).
PLASMA: A new technology that use a form of gas to display an image. Works just as well with television images as with computer screens. The technology is in its infancy, but plasma monitors are much thinner than conventional models.
SOFTWARE DRIVER: In general terms a piece of software that allows a piece of optional hardware to function. In the case of monitors the driver package will nearly always be part of the operating system.
SVGA: Stands for Super Video Graphic Array and builds on from the IBM graphic standard that has become a benchmark throughout the industry. Allows users photo-realistic images at a modest price, however needs a special driving board to operate.
TV-OUT: An option on some PC's allowing the sound and images to be relayed to a television. Useful for things like laptops where the screen is to small for more than one person or with videoCD's.