|Image by Derek K. Miller|
This is going to be another sad commentary in a long long succession of commentaries about why computer displays haven't gotten much better over the years. The last flurry of articles I read were written about four years ago in 2007. I'm sorry to report that things haven't gotten any better.
First, the good news. Monitors have gotten very large and very cheap since 2007. I recently purchased a 23" monitor for $130 and I was surprised how generally good it was given the price point. Using NewEgg.com as a reference I found good monitors in their top seller list for the following price points:
- 21" - $117
- 22" - $130
- 23" - $140
- 24" - $179
- 25" - $259
- 27" - $260
- 30" - $299
The first part of the upgrade has arrived. No one enjoyed having a 15" or 17" monitor. Today it is almost not worth considering anything under 23" unless you have a specific space constraint. I'm not sure I could get used to a 30" monitor or if I could I don't believe I would want an even larger display. At some point making the monitor bigger causes you to have to start looking left and right and becomes a problem. So monitor sizes have reached their apex or near enough.
The problem with making the display bigger while not increasing the resolution has the negative side effect of lowering the pixels per inch(ppi). This causes a lot of problems such as blocky pixelated text. Operating systems use complex technologies like clear text and anti-aliasing to hide these effects but there is only so much they can do. These too cause problems such as fuzzy or blurry text. Instead of using complex font rendering technologies, the real solution is to increase the resolution above 1920x1080. However, monitor manufactures don't seem interested in doing this.
The monitors in the example above all run between 102ppi(21") and 73ppi(30"). If you want a 30" monitor that does 100ppi you have to pay $1200 or more. 95% of the monitors offered on NewEgg are models that have less than 102ppi. Only about 10 monitors offered greater than 102ppi and the prices are staggering.
Below is a graph of all the monitors offered on NewEgg.com. For each price range I counted how many monitors were listed for sale. The number of monitors offered is inflated for the right side of the chart starting at $700 to keep the chart size reasonable and because there were no monitors offered in some ranges. Only monitors from NewEgg were included. You can find models for slightly less than $1000 elsewhere that have higher than 100ppi.
|Number of monitors on NewEgg.com by price|
Why is the industry stuck at 1080p? It's because consumers don't want their text and images to get smaller and harder to read. Every time I walk into someones office and see them running a 27" or 30" monitor at 1280x900 I just want to claw my eyes out. I can see the pixels from across the room. The stair stepped pixels on A's look like I could climb them with size 12 boots. Do people like reading fonts that look like they were drawn on graph paper? No, but they don't have a better solution to make text larger. If you are running a Windows OS, which most of us are, and you try to increase the font size a lot of applications break and behave badly. If, however, you run Linux or OSX you can simply increase the size of your default font and get beautiful crisp type the size of your fist if that's what you need. Most Apple consumers purchase Apple monitors and the Linux install base is too small to create any demand from manufactures to improve.
The other major road block is the video connector, DVI, which is the standard connector on all PC computers. DVI was horribly handicapped from conception and is probably the single biggest reason nothing has changed. It's limited to a maximum resolution of just over 1080p. You can run monitors with higher resolutions but you need to use what is known as a dual-link DVI. This doubles the supported resolution to 3840x2400 or 150ppi on a 30" monitor. The problem is almost no computers come with dual-link DVI ports. You must typically add a discrete add-on graphics card to your computer to be able to run these high resolution displays. I contacted Dell about which laptop models supported dual-link DVI and only their ultra high-end Alienware line did and only if you upgraded to at least the 1.5GB Nvidia 460m graphic card. Total system cost $1600 with no other upgrades.
So it seems we're doomed to another 4 years of staring at pixels, unless that is...
Unless you own or plan to own certain Apple products. In 2007 Apple launched the iPhone with a 480x320 165ppi screen. Last year Apple released the iPhone4 with a 960x640 screen at 330ppi. There are strong rumors that they will launch the iPad 3 in the 4th quarter of 2011 with a 2560x1920 screen at 284ppi. So this year you might be able to purchase a 9.7" Apple iPad 3 that will run a higher resolution than every consumer computer display of any size. This includes Apple's own 27" Cinema display which runs at 2560x1440 and 109ppi.
It's hard to believe that apple won't start offering at least a 3840x2400 27" or 30" Cinema display shortly after releasing the iPad 3. They just announced a new port called Thunderbolt that will replace DVI, Display Port, and FireWire. This could allow Apple to support even higher resolution displays. All Apple computers including the lowly $600 mac mini have these Thunderbolt ports capable of driving displays at resolutions well above 1080p. Apple is very well positioned to finally bring computer displays into the 21st century.
Update: I'm not particularly a fan of Apple other than they tend to be very progressive about pushing technologies and have pretty much been right in the past. My desktop of choice is Linux which is why I'm so concerned that Apple might have an enormous lead in high ppi monitors.