Windows XP / Beginners

Picking the right screen size

The most obvious characteristic of a monitor is its screen size. Standard CRT monitors are made with screens that are nominally 15, 17, 18, 19, and 21 inches across the diagonal. Flat-panel LCD screens are generally available in (nominal) 15 and 17 inches, with 19, 20, 21, and sky's-the-limit sizes for a pretty penny more.

Warning Manufacturers of standard CRT monitors (and television sets, for that matter) have a funny way of measuring the diagonal size of the screen - they frequently measure the size of the CRT itself, without regard to the fact that some of the screen is hidden by the plastic case, and therefore can't be seen. On a standard CRT monitor, if you measure the diagonal of the visible screen, it's as much as an inch less than the rated size of the screen. Some manufacturers come clean and tell you the actual visible area. Far too many do not.

A monitor's maximum resolution is at least as important as its screen size.

Resolution is the number of image-forming dots, or pixels, that the monitor can display horizontally and vertically. Standard CRT screens can vary the number of pixels shown on-screen. Flat-panel displays cannot.

If you're working with flat-panel LCD screens, the resolution is fixed, typically at 1024 x 768 (for 15-inch screens) or 1280 x 1024 (for 17-inch screens). While it may be theoretically possible to change the resolution (from, say, 1024 x 768 down to 800 x 600), the results often leave much to be desired because the grid of dots in a flat-panel display is fixed - the modified screen resolution is a sleight of hand, performed by interpolating between dots on the grid.

Standard CRT monitors have specified maximum resolutions, advertised by the manufacturer. The following are typical:

  • 1280 x 1024 for a 15, 17, or 18-inch monitor
  • 1600 x 1200 for a 19-inch monitor
  • 1600 x 1200 or 1800 x 1440 for a 21-inch monitor

Some, uh, Dummies think that screen resolution has something to do with how sharp a picture appears on the monitor. It doesn't. As the resolution increases, the amount of information shown on the screen increases. The picture itself may be sharp or fuzzy, depending on how well the monitor works - a good monitor shows a sharp picture at 1600 x 1200, for example, while a lousy monitor may be so fuzzy at 1024 x 768 that you're forced to run at 800 x 600.

The easiest way to understand the phenomenon is to consider the effect of screen resolution on a plain-vanilla Excel 2003 spreadsheet:

  • At 800 x 600 resolution, you can see cells A1 through L25 - or 300 cells - on a completely virgin spreadsheet.
  • At 1024 x 768, you can see cells A1 through O34, or a total of 510 cells. That's 70 percent more usable cells than at 800 x 600.
  • At 1280 x 1024 - the practical limit for detailed text work on any standard CRT screen, and most flat-panel screens, unless your eyesight is a darn sight better than mine - Excel 2003 shows cells A1 through S50, for a grand total of 950 cells. That's 86 percent more cells than at 1024 x 768, and more than three times as many as at 800 x 600.

Although you probably won't spend most of your time sweating over thousand-cell spreadsheets, this little comparison combined with a lot of experience leads me to a few simple generalizations:

  • Any monitor you buy nowadays (17-inch CRT monitor or 15-inch flatpanel) will handle 1024 x 768 resolution just fine. At 1024 x 768, you can see two-thirds of a page in Word or Excel. For most Windows users, that's good enough.
  • Most 19-inch standard CRT monitors do well at 1280 x 1024. Flat-panel LCD monitors at 17 inches or larger run at 1280 x 1024, too. If you move up to 1280 x 1024, you can see almost an entire page in Word. In Excel, you almost double the number of cells that you can see in a spreadsheet, compared to 1024 x 768 resolution. Because of that, 1280 x 1024 makes sense for most people who use a monitor all day long.
  • Resolutions above 1280 x 1024 come in handy if you commonly need to work on more than one Word document at a time or if you're struggling with really hairy spreadsheets. Unfortunately, the screens that can handle really high resolution (for ordinary eyes, anyway) tend to be quite expensive. Before you shell out the bucks to reach to the resolution stratosphere, make sure you try some real-live work on the monitor of your choice at the resolution of your choice, and let your eyes be the judge.
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