Big Glass

It’s striking — while our processors have grown from running at 20 MHz (or below) to over 1 GHz today, our monitors have only increased from a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels (300K total) to 1600 by 1200 (1.9M). Our actual processing ability (as calculated from www.distributed.net statistics) has increased over 489 times while our display technology could only deliver a 6.25 time increase.

Why? Because traditional display technologies use the last type of vacuum tube in common deployment, and big vacuum tubes are hard to make, are heavy, and are delicate. It has taken years for the production lines be able to produce the larger tube sizes in large enough quantity for them to be affordable for the average consumer. While 19″ monitors used to be something to drool over, they’re now available for less than $450 retail, and are included with many new computer purchases.

For anyone who’s currently using an older display (personally or in an organization), upgrading the monitor should be high on the list of considerations for improvements. It is quite easy to demonstrate an improvement in productivity with a better display over a slightly faster processor, and a good monitor can last for five years or more.

When shopping for a big monitor (”Big Glass”), make sure you only consider models which can support 1600 by 1200 at 75 Hz or better (higher), and have a dot pitch of .26 mm or better (lower). Keep in mind that an upgrade of the existing computer’s video card might be needed to be able to drive the new monitor at its highest resolutions, resulting in approximately 100 dots per inch, or “DPI”.

Generally, a monitor should be driven at the highest resolution that it can support, enabling the largest number of pixels to be controlled by the computer. Most systems have preference settings which can increase the font and icon sizes to make them more readable. This should be done instead of running at a lower resolution; anything less than a 1280 by 1024 pixel display on a 19″ monitor is a waste.

What about LCD panels displays? Except for special circumstances — mobility, space/heat constraints, need to project “high-tech leading-edge” image — they should be avoided. LCDs are still very expensive, largely because of production limitations and a huge demand in the mobile (laptop, hand-held and cell phone) markets. They also have a problem displaying any resolution other than what they’re designed to.

The smart buyer will wait for the new LCD production lines to come online and begin to saturate the market a bit with ever better gear. Also, by that time (two to three years) new high resolution display technologies will begin appearing at the mid-range, and start applying price pressure to LCD products.

An example of this is a new display from IBM, which offers 200 pixels per inch in a 22 inch screen. The first models aren’t even available to purchase — they’re being used for military research in nuclear weapons simulations. Other technologies on the horizon include “electronic paper”, which promises a 300 DPI black and white (not gray) in a thin, flexible, paper-like form. It won’t be “live”, but can be “printed” upon as many times as desired.

Examining the non-traditional display options, head mounted displays promise the ability to project high resolution images. Although consumer level products are currently limited to 640 by 480 pixels or less, unclassified military grade equipment is now in the 1600 by 1200 range. Combined with head tracking, even higher effective display resolutions can be achieved (different display is show depending on where you’re looking).

Back in today’s world, one option for increased display space which is often overlooked is the ability to add a second monitor. All modern operating systems have the ability to map their desktops across two (or more) display devices, so long as the hardware can support it. Most contemporary motherboards and video cards will allow this, and the results are most impressive.

Whether adding a second monitor to a workstation, or simply upgrading from an older, smaller model to a 19″, the improvement in the environment will be tangible immediately. Its that “new phosphor” glow, the modern analog for “new car” smell.

The wall mounted TV and head mounted display? They’re a ways off. Until then, the vacuum cube will live a while longer. It has served us well, perhaps it deserves to.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

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