Sizing Up Differences in Large LCDs

If you're considering switching from a regular-aspect monitor to a wide-screen display, one question will inevitably come to the fore: Will buying a wider screen necessarily give you more for your money? Does a 20-inch wide-screen LCD, for example, have as much screen space as one with a regular-aspect ratio?

Numbers Don't Lie: Calculate the Viewable Area

"Consumers' perceptions of display size are actually based on the height of the screen as opposed to the width, " says Chris Connery, vice president of market research and consulting at DisplaySearch. Connery points out that an advertisement for a 20-inch wide-screen may conjure an image of a monstrous monitor, but in reality, it's smaller than a 20-incher with a standard 4:3 aspect ratio. In fact, in terms of viewable image size--the viewable area of the screen--the height of the 20-inch wide-screen display is closer to that of a 17-inch 4:3-ratio LCD. Connery says that for both these sizes, the viewable area is approximately 10.6 inches tall. For a 20-inch regular-aspect ratio, it's about 12 inches.

Connery also points to a relatively simple calculation aid when shopping for these monitors. "In order for customers to figure out 'bang for their buck,' they can easily look at it by the number of pixels on the screen," he explains. A 20-inch monitor with a 4:3 ratio and a native resolution of 1600 by 1200 has around 1.92 million pixels. A 20-inch wide-screen LCD with a 1680 by 1050 native resolution displays about 1.76 million pixels. A cursory search on our pricing partner pulls up a price range for typical monitors at around $300 to $600. With prices running about the same, a 20-inch with a 4:3 ratio has a better price per pixel. "The same can be done with actual physical measurements," Connery continues. "By multiplying the height by the width of the display, users can figure out their 'price per square inch.'"

Does a Wider Screen Offer Room You Can Use?

"Of course, all of this is just math," Connery concludes, "and it takes away the intangible benefits of wide screens." The extra real estate on the left and right of wide-screen displays allows users to view multiple documents side by side on the screen, to play games in a panoramic mode, and to watch movies in 16:9 resolution without large black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

Sheer numbers reveal that, per pixel and per square inch, a 20-inch regular-aspect monitor is a better deal than a 20-inch wide-screen LCD. But with a panoramic monitor, the ability to do new things that you can't do on a regular screen may very well be priceless.

Bigger LCDs: Does Every Inch Count?

The 23- and 24-inch wide-screen category has its own special quirk: A 24-incher is an inch longer diagonally, but the two types of monitor usually have the same native resolution of 1900 by 1200.

According to Connery, a combination of existing products, implicit de facto industry standards, and buyers' needs came together to result in this similarity. Apple's first 23-inch Cinema Displays had a 1900 by 1200 native resolution (as does the current model). At that resolution and screen size, one gets a ratio of 98.4 pixels per inch, very close to 100 ppi. Connery tells us that according to Apple, at the typical distance that a user looks at a desktop monitor, "your eyes can no longer see discrete pixels" with a 100-ppi resolution.

"As time went along," Connery recounts, "other vendors realized that they could also make larger displays for the PC marketplace since the video bandwidth on graphics cards was improving over time and many of them supported higher resolutions."

Other makers soon followed in Apple's footsteps, creating 1900-by-1200 23-inch monitors. Still others, Samsung in particular, realized that the glass they were already producing could be cut into 24-inch screens and sold on the PC market with the same native resolution for roughly the same price. This allowed them to compete with the existing 23-inch wide-screens while preventing consumer confusion by introducing a new standard. "Resolutions get defined in a market for logical or illogical reasons," Connery observes, "but once established, are difficult to change."

There is a tiny difference between the two sizes of monitor: the 24-inchers have a smaller ppi of 94.3. Connery's own experience and jury tests at PC World's labs have yielded no discernible viewing differences, however, and the prices are comparable for both sizes. Hence, other factors--monitor design, bundled features, or viewing tastes--may play an equal, if not bigger, role when choosing between a 23-inch and a 24-inch wide-screen monitor. For more information on how these factors, and others, may affect a purchasing decision, check out "How to Buy a Monitor."

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