caring for your fancy-pants flat panel monitor

About a year ago, I bought a new computer. It’s fantastic and amazing, and came with an equally fantastic and amazing monitor. It’s one of those slick looking flat panel, glossy screened affairs, a smaller version of the type you see on procedural crime dramas. I recently learned (or confirmed) a few things that anyone who owns one of these things should know.

The first thing has to do with basic hygiene. Keeping your monitor clean is essential to maintaining good image quality. If this fact wasn’t obvious to you, turn off your computer and go think about what you’ve done. After several hours of solitary contemplation, continue reading. The best way to cleanse your screen, particularly these diva-like flat panel ones, is with a simple ethanol-based cleanser and a lint-free cloth. You can get them both from Staples. Don’t use a paper towel (too rough) and don’t use a washcloth (full of lint and God knows what else). Avoid fancier all-in-one solutions or anything that goes out of its way to market itself as somehow “better” than the time proven combination of water and alcohol. Spray the cloth with some cleanser (not directly on the screen) and gently wipe down your screen. Marvel at how much crisper everything looks.

The second thing is more technical. The image on your screen is made of tiny dots you might have heard of called pixels. If you look at your monitor really, really closely you might be able to make out the individual dots. Furthermore, each pixel is made up of three sub-pixels that determine its color. There is absolutely no way you are going to see these. That is, unless you’ve got Windows XP and use the Cleartype feature to smooth out your fonts. I recommend that you turn this feature on, as it makes text easier to read. It does, however, sometimes expose some of the quirks of modern computer displays.

Pitch PatternThere are two settings in your monitor’s built-in menu that you’ve probably never touched - pitch and phase. Pitch is the distance on your screen between two sub-pixels of the same type. The pattern to the left (click it for a huge version) should look like a field of crisp, narrow black-and-white lines. If it looks more like the picture on the right, it means your pitch is a little out of whack.

I noticed that my pitch was whacky without a pattern because I have super-developed powers of perception that put me well beyond the confines of mortal thought. Actually, I just read a lot of Penny Arcade, and their white text on a blue background always looked a little odd on my screen. The letters seemed wavy, shifting a bit in thickness as they moved over the screen. This happens because Cleartype smooths out your fonts on the sub-pixel level, so if your pitch is off, Cleartype will be, too. Click on the big pattern, then open up your monitor’s menu and adjust the Pitch setting until any banding patterns disappear and you’re left with crisp, straight lines. You may also have to adjust the alignment of the image on the screen afterward. Voila, no more wavy text!

Phase is even simpler to fix. If the test pattern appears to flicker or has a static-like noise to it, you should adjust the Phase (should be right where Pitch was in your settings). I found that several values eliminated the noise from the pattern, but a value of 50% did it without making my text look all blurry. Your mileage may vary.

I’ve found that with these two settings properly configured, text is much easier to read on my screen. I know that similar pitch/phase guides are out there, but none of them explained these issues the way that I wanted them explained to me. So there you have it, a dual exercise in dorkery and selfishness.


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