I dream of Screenies

Nick Broughall
24 March, 2012
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Back in the early days of personal computing, when the Mac was the pinnacle of innovation, it was still difficult for a computer to manage more than a single task at any given time.

But in today’s hyper-connected online world, not only is your hardware designed to be capable of multi- tasking, as an individual you’re expected to juggle multiple applications and tasks simultaneously.

Given the burden of needing to manage multiple jobs at the same time, why would anyone restrict themselves to working from a single screen – even if it happens to be the gorgeous panel of a 27in iMac? These days, Apple has given most modern Macs support for an additional screen, enabling an extended desktop for twice as much screen real-estate.

That means you can easily monitor your Twitter feed while you finish off that Keynote presentation, or watch YouTube videos at the same time as sending an email.

While adding an additional monitor to your Mac is a relatively painless exercise, there are still a lot of different aspects to consider when deciding on which model is right for you. Everything from screen size to energy efficiency to connectivity options should all be taken into account when choosing your monitor. To make life easy for you, we’ve listed all of the factors you should consider when buying a second screen.

SIZE DOES MATTER

The old mantra of bigger is better isn’t always the case when it comes to monitors. While the idea of pimping out your desk with a 30in behemoth may sound good in theory, when it comes time to put it into practice, you may be unhappy with the end result.

First of all, you need to consider how much space you have for a second monitor on your desk. If you’re working from a tiny bedroom desk, a massive screen is going to overwhelm your workspace.

Secondly, you should consider whether the external monitor will be your primary or secondary screen – if you use an 11in MacBook Air, having a larger external screen as your primary display makes sense, whereas if you’re running a 27in iMac, the second screen may be better in a supporting role. You should also think aesthetics – if you have a 21in iMac, you may want a 21in screen to keep your desk looking neat and tidy.

Also worth remembering is that screen size is measured diagonally across the screen from corner to corner, which means that aspect ratio plays a big part in exactly how big a screen appears, no matter what the size may actually be.

NEW SCREEN RESOLUTIONS

Once upon a time, monitors came in big, heavy units and used cathode ray tubes (CRTs) to provide an almost universally average picture. These days, buying a computer monitor essentially means buying an LCD screen, which raises the question of resolution.

While there’s no hard and fast rule about what screen resolution you should get in a monitor, the higher the resolution, the greater the detail in the images produced on screen. Knowing what you’re planning on using the screen for will influence your decision – high-end gaming and detailed photo editing benefit from the extra detail.

Unlike televisions, there aren’t quite the same standards when it comes to monitor resolution. Some LCD monitors these days boast 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels), which is generally the maximum you can buy in a television, although it’s common for monitors to go as high as 2560 x 1600.

It’s also important to remember when you connect your second monitor that you set it to display at its native resolution in the Displays option of System Preferences. That way you’ll ensure you have the best possible images on both your screens.

WIDESCREEN WONDERS

Back in the heady days of the 2000s, LCD monitors generally followed the design ethos of the CRT screens they were replacing by coming exclusively in a 4:3 aspect ratio. These days, they more closely resemble miniature television sets with a 16:9 ratio. Some models take it a step further and offer a slightly wider 16:10 ratio.

Which aspect ratio is right for you largely depends on how you plan to use the monitor. If you ever want to watch a movie or TV show on the screen, a 16:9 widescreen model is probably the best given it’s the current standard for most high-definition TV. If you just need a cheap secondary screen for monitoring Twitter, a 4:3 aspect ratio will do the job adequately, although it may look out of place next to your Mac’s widescreen.

Generally, though, a widescreen display will offer you a boost in productivity by letting you view more on the one screen – you can look at two pages on a Word document simultaneously or edit an image in Photoshop with your toolbars running down the sides of the screen.

COMING IN FROM THE SIDE

If you have multiple monitors on your desk, chances are you’ll be looking at one of them from a bit of an angle. You’ll want to make sure that you don’t have any dramas seeing the picture on screen if that’s the case.

While most LCDs offer a nice, wide viewing angle, there are generally some sacrifices made with colour reproduction and brightness when you view the screen off-centre. If this is going to be a problem for your work, you can counter it by looking for an In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel, which uses the same technology as the iPad to offer brilliant colours and brightness from almost any angle.

Also be aware that LCD screens have both horizontal and vertical viewing angles, with the vertical angles generally being significantly less than the horizontal ones. Once again, an IPS panel will help if you want to mount your external monitor above your computer’s main screen.

BACK IN BLACK

Contrast ratio is one of those specifications that you can essentially ignore while shopping around for a monitor.

The contrast ratio is meant to tell the difference in light intensity between the whitest white and the blackest black. So theoretically, a higher contrast ratio should result in better blacks and brighter whites. The problem is a lack of an industry standard in how this is measured, leaving each manufacturer to determine its own way of recording the measurement.

Throw in the fact that some companies market the dynamic contrast ratio – or the difference between white and black over time – while others promote the static contrast ratio – the difference between black and white at a particular instant – and you end up with a specification impossible to manage, let alone understand.

If contrast is truly important to you, pay attention to the monitor’s backlighting, as it can play a big part in the quality of its black and white reproduction. And if you really do care about every spec in your screen, a static contrast ratio of 1000:1 is generally accepted as a solid spec to start from.

THE BRIGHTEST SPARK

Brightness, measured in nits or candelas per square metre, is another specification you probably don’t need to worry too much about when selecting a monitor for your Mac. These days, most monitors have a brightness of at least 250cd/m2, which is more than enough for most applications.

The only possible exception would be if the monitor is going to be located in direct sunlight, in which case a higher brightness rating would help.

More important than a raw brightness spec is the technology used to create the brightness. Traditionally, LCD monitors have used cold cathode fluorescent lamps as a backlight, which is both affordable and bright enough to illuminate an LCD comfortably.

More recent monitors use LED backlighting, which generally creates a brighter and, in some cases, more colourful picture, while requiring less space, resulting in a thinner, slimmer screen.

There are two types of LED backlights available in computer monitors. There are white LED backlights, which offer a generic white colour behind the LCD panel to create an even brightness; or there are RGB LED backlights, which use a red, green and blue LED in place of a single white one. RGB LEDs help create a much wider colour spectrum on the monitor’s screen and offer significantly more control over colour reproduction.

The vast majority of LED backlighting in today’s monitors is the traditional white style, but high-end reference screens tend to use the RGB backlights. Because there are three LEDs for every one with an RGB LED backlight system, these screens tend to be more expensive and are generally used by photographers and filmmakers to ensure accurate colour reproduction.

In other words, if you need your screen to produce absolutely accurate colours, make sure you buy a set that features RGB LED backlighting.

GREEN SCREEN

With so much emphasis on the environment these days, it’s no wonder that monitors are now marketing their green credentials. While it’s not the most crucial factor in buying a secondary screen, it’s still important to be aware of the energy consumption figures of a potential purchase.

Fortunately, watching how much energy your monitor makes has been made easy by the mandatory Energy Star rating that all screens in Australia have to display. The more stars the screen gets, the less electricity it guzzles. The type of backlight will play a part in the energy rating, with LED backlights being extremely energy efficient. Also playing a factor is how much energy the monitor will draw while in standby mode – ideally you’ll want something using less than a watt per hour when it’s sleeping.

Another energy-conscious feature becoming increasingly common is having a motion detector built into the screen, which see when you leave the room and automatically switch to standby mode to save power. Also important is specially designed packaging that is both made from recycled material and is recyclable itself. Smaller boxes less bulky than traditional packaging are also good to look for, allowing extra units to fit onto containers and reducing transport costs and emissions.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

How long ago you bought your Mac will largely influence which connections you’ll need to use to get your new monitor working. Apple has had a pretty strong run of changing up its external display connectors in recent years.

For example, new Macs come with Thunderbolt ports for connecting to external screens, while slightly older Macs used mini DisplayPort. Before that, there was full-sized DisplayPort, mini-DVI, micro-DVI, mini-VGA, full-size DVI and even a proprietary port called Apple Display Connector.

What this means is that you’ll almost definitely need to factor in the cost of an adaptor when buying your monitor. Apple sells adaptors for pretty much all monitor connections, so make sure you know what type of connection you need to connect your monitor to your computer.

Even without the question of what adaptor you’ll need, knowing what connections are sitting at the back of your monitor is important when making your buying decision. Some recent sets include HDMI connectivity, which allows them to double as a screen for games consoles or DVRs, but the majority of monitors use a form of DVI or DisplayPort as the main connector.

DVI ports come in a couple of different flavours – DVI-D, which is a digital-only connection and DVI-I, which is an analogue variant. For the best picture quality, you’ll want to stick with DVI-D. Similarly, even if your monitor comes with a VGA port, it’s better to try and connect through a digital DVI port or an HDMI connection.

In addition to the main video connection between Mac and monitor, you may also want to consider the additional connectivity options on the screen. Things like extra USB ports, SD card slots and multiple HDMI inputs will offer versatility to your screen.

SPEED DEMONS

Another specification that has become all but obsolete is the response time. Historically, LCD technology took a long time to refresh the image on the screen. While that was never a real issue for editing documents or spreadsheets, as customers began to demand higher performance graphics, LCD technology had to lift its game to keep up. Thus, manufacturers began to announce response times as part of their specifications, to let users know that their monitors were fast enough to handle the rapid refresh rates required for things like gaming.

But in today’s world, manufacturers have hit the refresh rate wall and it’s unlikely you’ll see refresh rates faster than 2ms any time soon. Not that it matters though, because for the vast majority of consumers, anything 6ms and faster is enough. If you want to enjoy high-quality gaming on a Mac and have a decent graphics card installed in your machine, then getting a screen with a 2ms response time wouldn’t hurt, but for everybody else, 6ms is the standard these days.

THE PERFECT SETUPSteve Jobs was renowned for focusing on the minute details of the design of his products. Even if you’re not quite as fastidious about it, you probably don’t want your new secondary monitor to look out of place on your desk surrounded by Apple gear.The easiest way to avoid this is to go for a simple design, rather than something with an off-centre stand or insane colour. If you’re using an iMac, choosing a second monitor with the same-sized screen is also a good idea. If you’re planning on installing a larger screen to accompany a MacBook, think about how you will connect your laptop and where it will go so that it creates a space you can work in.Pretty much all monitors have tilt and swivel functions on them – make sure you use them to move the screen into the best position. Not only will this help your productivity, it will also help you maintain your workspace.

MO’ MONEY

Monitor prices vary greatly, with smaller screen sizes available for as little as $80 brand new, while larger, top-of-the line monitors can cost more than a flat screen television at $2400.

Obviously the amount you spend depends on your personal budget, but it is always worth remembering to shop around to try and find a cheaper price than the recommended retail.

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