Next to your keyboard, your monitor is the part of the computer you encounter most often. In fact, many people sometimes mistake the monitor for the computer itself. In theory, a monitor is only a peripheral device, meant to help you visualize the abstract calculations the actual computer is making. In practice though, your monitor is the most central part of your computer experience.
A couple of factors are important for a monitor:
- It’s resolution, or PPI (pixels per inch). A measure of sharpness.
- It’s refresh rate, measured in Hz.
- It’s trueness of colors.
In summary, it seems that at this moment in time for mobile you do well to get anything north of 300. For computers you are doing well with anything north of 200. Resolution of a screen has to do with the distance you are from it. From a distance, your eyes can only make out so much, but from up close you can see much more details. You hold your mobile phone closer to your eyes than you would hold your monitor, so you need a higher resolution on your mobile phone. It seems PPI much higher than 300 could be well worth it, and there are already models out with far higher numbers, but at this moment, 300+ will do. Incidentally, 300 is what most magazines print on (measures in Dots Per Inch), so this is why we are now seeing a move towards 300. More reading here and here.
Computer monitors are much larger than mobile phones and to have the same PPI on a much larger screen would be incredibly expensive (at this moment). Also, since all these pixels need to be rendered by the CPU (central processing unit, but you knew that, right?), it was perhaps not possible to have large screens with a high PPI in the past. The latest screens, such as the one on the new iMac, show a PPI just above 200 and analysis shows it is asking a lot from the computer. For example, at this point it seems impossible to have two screens running at the same time on the highest resolution and the highest refresh rate. Having myself gone from the older Macbook Pro (113 PPI) to the newer Macbook Pro (227 PPI) I can attest that the difference is a water shed.
Most importantly, PPI matters for academics because a crisper, cleaner text is an incredible aid to reading on the computer. For reading (and writing) a higher PPI is very important. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; try once going from a 100+ PPI to a 200+ PPI screen and you will understand.
60Hz seems to be the golden standard at this moment. The battle for refresh rate is especially fought in the video games arena and perhaps less important for us scholars.
A monitor can be calibrated, but it also depends simply on how it’s build. Sometimes a review will say “blacks are black.” Again, if you don’t believe this, place a bad monitor next to a good monitor and load the same image with a lot of black in it; on the bad monitor it will show up grayish whereas on the good one it will be a deep, dark black. This aspect is especially important for watching videos and if you work in graphic design.
The PPI is clearly the most important factor for scholars. To effectively read on a computer, we should not be afraid to invest in higher PPI screens. Two challenges need to be overcome for ultra-high PPI screens to come onto the market. Firstly, CPUs need to be able to handle all the millions of pixels. This is all the more important because for effective scholarship, it is useful to have two (or three) screens (thus doubling the processing load). Secondly, on the software side a lot needs to be taken care off (especially for the Windows ecosystem). See more on that here, here, and here. These challenges will have to be overcome if we truly wish to transition from print to digital.