Hardware Tips: Get the Best View Possible From Your PC's Monitor

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You spend a large part of your workday staring at it, so why not make it look its best? Not only is a properly calibrated display more attractive, but also it reduces eyestrain and can help produce better-looking prints. Unfortunately, most PC users take their monitor out of the box and make little or no effort to give it the best image it's capable of showing.

While a graphics pro may spend thousands of dollars and many hours tuning a PC monitor's images, anyone can tune up the visuals without spending a dime.

Put a Fine Point on It

Don't attempt to adjust your display until it has been running for at least 30 minutes. Position the screen to avoid reflections and glare, and reduce the quantity of ambient light in the room.

Begin by optimizing your monitor's resolution, color-depth, and refresh-rate settings in Windows. For advice on how to adjust these settings, visit my June 2003 Hardware Tips column, "Simple Tweaks for Peak PC Graphics Performance."

Get to know the controls on your monitor itself. The settings vary from display to display, but all have options for color temperature, brightness, and contrast.

Color temperature: White light on your monitor isn't pure white; it ranges from bluish white to reddish white. The particular color temperature you choose should be the point on this spectrum that most pleases your eye. Chances are your display came from the factory set at 9300K, which carries a blue bias. But many people prefer the "warmer" tones of 6500K. (The "temperature" number refers to the color of light given off by an ideal object heated to the given temperature in degrees Kelvin--red hot, white hot, blue hot, and so on, similar to the different colors in a gas stove's flame.)

Brightness and contrast: To set or adjust these options, you need calibration test patterns. Many graphics pros rely on Displaymate, which provides excellent diagnostic and calibration patterns and instructions. Displaymate costs $69 as a download and $79 on a CD. Download the free Displaymate demo, which has the patterns you'll need for performing a basic calibration (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Fine-tune your monitor with test patterns from the Displaymate monitor-calibration program.

The brightness setting actually controls the darkness, or black point, of your monitor. Set it too low, and dark shades of gray will appear black; set it too high, and your darkest blacks will look gray. Download a gray-scale chart from our site. Once you have it, lower the brightness until the last two dark shades on the chart are black, and then increase the setting until the first shade of gray emerges next to the pure black area.

After you've set your black point, adjust the display's contrast, which actually sets the brightness. Pick a setting that's pleasing to your eye. Brighter isn't always better; contrast settings that are too high can cause blurring on some CRT monitors, as well as increase eyestrain.

Gamma: This setting is an electrical correction to the video signal that adjusts the brightness of midtone colors to create more-realistic images. You reset the gamma through your graphics card driver or via a third-party graphics program.

Color profiles: The red your printer prints may be very different from the red your graphics card shows or your scanner captures. To coordinate colors across different graphics hardware, Windows uses International Color Consortium (ICC) color profiles, which serve as a sort of lingua franca of color. Each device--printer, monitor, digital camera, whatever--needs its own specific profile. To see whether you already have all the profiles you need on your system, right-click the desktop, choose Properties, click Settings, Advanced, and look under Color Management.

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