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Demystifying Monitors



Whether you're looking for a sleek new LCD or a color-capable CRT, it's critical to know the pros and cons of your future displays.

It's been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so it stands that for today's commercial lab, the images that are purveyed, processed and printed could be worth a thousand (or more) customers. Having the right displays in place on which to view these images as they're scanned, edited, enhanced and output is a critical component of any lab's workflow.

But flip through a catalog or wander through your local computer warehouse and you're sure to be bombarded with a plethora of peripherals, all boasting varying features and benefits that may or may not be important for your lab's particular needs. Do you know your refresh rates from your resolutions? Got your dot pitch down-pat? Read on for some tips on how to make sure you're getting the most monitor for your money.

Apple's 30-inch CINEMA HD with G5 LaCie's electron22blueIV monitor

Breaking It Down

Whether your lab is looking to upgrade the displays connected to its scanning stations, digital editing areas or raster image processors (RIPs), there are two important acronyms that should become second nature in your vocabulary before you go on your display shopping spree: CRT and LCD. CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors have been the displays of choice for digital imagers for years, mainly due to their affordability, contrast and resolution superiority and excellent color-management capabilities. LCDs, however, with their often slim designs and streamlined appearance, appeal to those who desire smaller footprints, a sleek look, light weight and trademark image "brightness," making them easier on the eyes in a lab with lots of surrounding illumination. LCDs also boast less screen flickering, power consumption and magnetic interference, though CRTs are making inroads in these areas.

Which one you ultimately choose for your lab depends largely on your client base and workflow. Bokland Custom Visuals, located in Albany, NY, has been involved in digital imaging since about 1980 and has expanded from its usual customer roster of photographers, ad agencies and marketing departments to more point-of-purchase work, banners, posters and outdoor displays, according to president Richard Bokland. "All our monitors are CRTs of varying brands," says the lab's tech rep, Mike Behan. "We have some older Mitsubishi Diamond Pros, some generic monitors on our RIPs (they're not color-critical workstations), and also a few LaCie BlueEyes."

Bokland Custom Visuals' motivation for purchasing its CRTs largely revolved around the price factor and color-management capabilities. "In the first place, flat-panel monitors, especially the really good ones, are a little bit price-prohibitive," Behan explains. "Plus, they also don't have a real proven track record in a color-managed workflow. The biggest issue with flat panels that I see is there is no real control, specifically adjusting the RGB channels individually. That's what I look for in a CRT-the ability to manually adjust the light point is critical." BCV also uses ColorVision's Spyder and OptiCAL software to calibrate the monitors for extra color profiling assurance.

West Photo Imaging in Oak Ridge, NJ, was a full-service wetlab servicing professional illustrative and corporate photographers and agencies until 2002, when they transitioned to all digital. "Our roll counts were down and we suddenly found ourselves with a greatly reduced workflow," says president Richard West. "We put all the wetlab equipment into storage and turned to digital output and other digital services. We had already been involved with digital for about five years, but it wasn't a significant segment of our business."

WPI's client base today consists of pro photographers, artists, corporations and the occasional consumer, with its primary work involving art reproductions via giclee printing, page layout for brochures, wide-format output for displays and some signage. As part of its workflow, the lab uses LaCie CRT monitors (both 22- and 19-inch for all color-critical work) and NEC MultiSync monitors for secondary jobs. "As our CRTs hold calibration very well, we haven't found the need to switch to the newer flat-panel LCDs," West explains.

OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER WHEN SELECTING A MONITOR
  • Contrast ratio: Higher contrast translates into a sharper image.
  • Controls: Make sure they're accessible, easy to use and ergonomic.
  • Dot pitch: The actual space between the pixels on your screen. The smaller the dot pitch, the sharper the text and graphics on-screen.
  • Refresh rate: This is the speed at which pixels are "refreshed" on the screen per second. The slower the refresh rate, the more eye fatigue you may suffer. Go for at least a 75 Hz rate.
Check out these manufacturers for some hot sellers in the monitor marketplace.

In fact, much like Bokland Custom Visuals' purchasing decision, the issue of color management ranked at the top of WPI's list for choosing the monitors they did. "We initially purchased a LaCie monitor based on our dealer's high recommendation for its color stability, evenness, adjustment capabilities, size and price," West says. "We chose to go with the CRT to ensure consistently accurate color management. Without an accurately profiled monitor, you would just spin your wheels with color management. Unfortunately, color management of monitors is our Achilles' heel when we deal with new clients-too often they don't have the faintest clue what color management is and how it affects them. They don't realize at first that monitor calibration is so important to their workflow. We've had to become educators to our clients on this issue."

Viewsonic manufactures a number of monitors for the lab market.

West indicates that while LCD prices are coming down, CRT costs are keeping pace. "What I paid for one monitor only a few years ago would buy two of the same at today's prices," he says. "And while the CRT monitor takes up more real estate on the desktop, we prefer the look of the image on the CRT."

Tips for Potential Purchasers

"If I were going to make a suggestion for labs looking to buy some monitors, I'd say they should look at their critical workstations, and usually those are the input workstations," Behan says. "Maybe not the layout workstations, but the monitors that are on their scanning stations and on their preflight stations. Those are the monitors they should look at investing the money in and getting a good match set."

"We initially purchased a LaCie monitor based on our dealer's high recommendation for its color stability, evenness, adjustment capabilities, size and price,"West says.

Both Behan and West agree that 19 inches is the bare minimum screen size necessary for a lab's display array. "From our experience, we find working on less than a 19-inch monitor to be difficult for graphic applications," explains West. "We prefer the 22-inch model for the graphic size, and a second 15-inch monitor for the menus." Behan concurs: "Nineteen inches is as small as I'd go, especially if you're doing page layout or working on a Photoshop file."

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