Making the Switch from CRT to LCD Displays

Also, setup and key adjustments are more complicated with LCDs—and much more necessary—than they are with CRTs. To be sure, all displays can benefit from proper tuning and adjustment. But LCDs are more likely to experience clarity or viewability issues if they're not tuned and tweaked to optimum conditions.

In this Recipe, we'll tackle the system-building differences between LCDs and CRTs. We'll also describe the kinds of usage situations best suited to one kind of display over the other. Finally, we'll describe some important tools you can use to make sure your customers get the most from their LCD choices.

CRT vs. LCD: The Pros and Cons

We'll start with the pros and cons of CRT displays, and then do likewise for LCDs. After that, we'll make some comparisons and explain which type of display is best-suited for specific, identifiable usage scenarios.

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Our comparison of the pros, cons, and differences between CRT and LCD displays hinges on the differences between analog and digital technologies. CRTs are analog; therefore, they support continuous values, smooth scaling, and arbitrarily high resolutions (within reason or the limits of technology). LCDs are digital and therefore work like an array of individual, discrete pixels with individual, discrete color and gray-scale values, and a fixed, native resolution. In mathematical terms, it's the difference between a continuous integral versus a stair-step function. Here's how they line up:

CRT Pros and Cons

Pros include:

The Cons include:

LCD Pros and Cons

The Pros include:

The Cons include:

Advice for Your Customers

When it comes to picking one kind of display over the other, here's what you should advise your customers on a number of criteria, including needs, pocketbooks, and working environments:

Tools for Working with LCD Displays

With more customers switching to LCDs, system builders should understand how to set up these monitors and configure them properly once they're in place. A system builder should also know how to get the best-looking text on the screen. To help, we'll now describe some great tools for system builders working with LCD displays.

ClearType Tuning

ClearType is a Microsoft technology specifically designed to improve text readability on LCD screens, including laptop screens, mobile device displays, and flat-panel monitors. ClearType technology can access individual color elements in each pixel on an LCD display. Prior to its introduction, the level of detail operated at the pixel level. But with ClearType running on an LCD monitor, features of text as small as a fraction of a pixel in width can be displayed, according to Microsoft. This leads to a visible improvement in the sharpness of tiny text details. It not only improves readability, but also is easier on the eyes, especially over extended periods of time.

ClearType is included with Windows XP. But to tweak text settings on individual LCD displays, you must download a Windows PowerToy called ClearType Tuner.

Once downloaded and installed, ClearType Tuner appears as a control panel widget named ClearType Tuning. Its users work with a wizard that asks them to select among multiple on-screen displays that look the best, in much the same way an optometrist works with patients to help determine a new prescription for corrective lenses.

As shown below, the ClearType Tuning widget asks you to run a wizard to tune ClearType Settings:

As depicted here, the ClearType Tuning wizard has you pick through a series of text displays to tweak readability:

Using the ClearType Tuning widget is fast and easy, and a bit of practice makes working with it a snap. You'll also see noticeable improvements to text on LCD screens as a consequence of its use, as toggling the check box for "Turn on ClearType" in the widget itself will show.

DisplayMate Tools

DisplayMate Technologies is a small and highly-regarded company that offers a family of powerful tools of great interest to system builders and consultants. The company offers a $89 (download only) or $99 (CD and manual shipped to buyer) product called DisplayMate for Windows Video Edition, which we highly recommend. It not only supports both CRT and LCD displays, but also other display types, including liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS), digital light processing (DLP), TV, HDTV, Plasma, and multi-media displays. Though this product aims primarily at end-users and consumers, system builders and consultants on a tight budget can get plenty of value from this product.

System builders who work with lots of displays and really want to get the most out of them will probably prefer the higher end DisplayMate Multimedia Edition, which sells for $495. It not only handles the same kinds of displays as the aforementioned Windows Video Edition, but also includes many more test patterns and command scripts to perform customized display testing and tuning.

This scaffolding around the consumer-level DisplayMate for Windows program provides users with a set of detailed descriptive text screens that precede each of the monitor test sequences under two general headings: Set-Up Program and Tune-Up Program.

The Set-Up program helps familiarize users with graphics and display capabilities on the systems under test, and to establish initial configuration. The Tune-Up Program provides quick checks on specific display capabilities, with opportunities to tweak and tune them for optimal display output.

Five Points of the DisplayMate Set-Up Program

The options for the DisplayMate's Set-Up Program heading are:

Five Steps for the Tune-Up Program

The DisplayMate Tune-Up Program includes the following elements, whose organization indicates that this tool takes a functional view of the various activities involved in display tuning and tweaking:

In our test lab, we have a number of LCD screens ranging in size from 17 inches (diagonal) to 30 inches. We found the DisplayMate program's ability to help us properly set brightness, contrast, and pixel timing to be of greatest use. Those are the aspects of our LCDs that suffer the most when left at factory-default settings. System builders and consultants will find these tools useful in making sure that their customers and users have the best possible experiences when they upgrade or switch to LCD displays.

ED TITTEL is a freelance writer and trainer in Austin, TX, who specializes in Windows topics and tools, especially networking and security related matters. JUSTIN KORELC is a long-time Linux hacker and Windows maven who concentrates on hardware and software security topics. Ed and Justin are also co-authors of Build the Ultimate Home Theater PC (John Wiley, 2005).