Saturday, July 30, 2011

The sorry state of the computer display industry

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 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
So what's wrong with the computer monitor industry other than they can't be making very high margins with these prices?  The problem is all of these monitors run at a resolution of 1920x1080.  That is the same resolution your HDTV uses but labeled 1080p for the number of vertical pixels.  While 1080p has only become the standard TV resolution in the last 3 years, computer monitors have been commonly running this resolution and higher for the last 15 years.  As computer displays have become larger, the resolution hasn't changed very much or at all.  It's been long enough and it's way past time that computer displays get the same hi-def upgrade that TVs received.

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  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 rangesOnly monitors from NewEgg were included.  You can find models for slightly less than $1000 elsewhere that have higher than 100ppi.
Number of monitors on by price
Notice how few monitors there are above $300.  That is where the low end 130ppi to 200ppi monitors should be.  The 130ppi models offered are all above $1200 and are high end displays focused on very good color reproduction as well as high ppi.  The $400-$1200 monitors are 100ppi monitors with the same high quality color reproduction.  A high ppi monitor with normal color quality simply isn't available.

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.


  1. I agree with you that the state of computer monitors is a sad and sorry one, indeed. 300 ppi or so would be a decent resolution to settle on, beyond that the gains become increasingly low simply due to the limitations of the human eye - but this 100 or less crap has got to go.

    However, you're wrong about one thing - monitor size. 30 inches is a fine size to work with, and in fact there is no problem at all with a triple-screen setup of one 30 and a couple of 20's. The other screens are exellent for moving windows to that are of lower importance than the main work. Moving your head is not exactly a major hardship compared to making the "alt-tab" button combo completely obsolete.

    So, we need higher resolutions but we also need much much larger screens still. I'd like to see something that wrapped 180 degrees around the user - curved and without seams, ideally. That would be outstanding.

  2. You don't know what you're talking about. Humans don't have infinite eye resolution. A mobile devices at over 300 PPI works because it's held close to the face.

    A desktop monitor at 27" is used from 3 to 4 feet away. You won't notice anywhere close to 300 PPI on a display at that distance.

    A 24" at 1980x1200 is just about right for sitting 3 feet away.

  3. 1920x1080 "for the last 15 years? Where the heck could you get a monitor (or a graphics card for that matter) with that resolution in 1996? Certainly I myself, even as a computer nerd surrounded by uber-computer-nerds, never saw that resolution until three or four years ago...

  4. I have a ~6 year old 21" LCD running 1600x1200 as my primary monitor and a 21" CRT that is 15 years old running 2560x1550 next to it. That makes the 15 year old CRT 143ppi. Looks great running Linux with the default font size set to 18pt.

  5. i think its ridiculous to be asking for any higher or better quality resolution. computer monitors are perfectly fine and functional the way they are today. doing anymore is an utter waste of scarce resources, especially given electronic waste. it is very irresponsible of this blogger to continue asking for more. what utlity is there to it? just entertainment? if so, then look at the starving millions and the difficulties the world faces with the energy crisis. think again before writing such irresponsible articles.

  6. So your position is that higher ppi monitors cause more electronic waste? Based on what? The only angle I can think of is that if they are released it would cause some number of low ppi monitors to be retired before that typically would if ppi stayed the same. I don't see why a higher ppi display would use more resources to build or operate.

    However, what about all the waste higher ppi monitors would save such as being able to not print as much because it looks as crisp and clear on your screen as it does on 600dpi paper printout? How about being able to shop from home because you could actually see the texture of the fabric?

  7. I want 1080p+ on everything using thunderbolt with 95% gamut and thunderbolt connections.


  8. This doesn't even cover the bullshit excuse for a lack of manufacturer-provided color profiles that an OS can use. Or the fact that the overall color temperature is a horrible blue.

  9. I was rocking a 19" CRT at 1600x1200 at the turn of the century, and I'm still looking for a suitable replacement. I've got 23" LCDs at work and home, but their default resolution is only 1680x1050. It's amazing how useful those extra 150 lines are.

  10. Greg, don't listen to the stupid comments. We need higher res monitors yesterday. Anybody that says any different is clearly a Luddite.