Although monitors are largely a plug and play device, there’s more to setting up a new monitor than simply plugging it in and turning it on. Read on as we show a fellow reader how to quality check his new monitor and help it put the best face forward.
Dear How-To Geek,
I just bought a brand new monitor after ages of using a dingy mid-2000-era LCD panel. After so many years of using a dim and fuzzy monitor I’d really like to hear your best tips and tricks for getting the most out of brand new one. A buddy of mine at work said I needed to run a pixel check on it, but I wasn’t really clear on what he meant. I’ve also heard about monitor calibration, but again graphic design isn’t my specialty and I’m not sure what that entails either. Really I just want to enjoy my new and way, way better monitor with minimal headaches or regrets. What should I do after I unbox it?
New Monitor Guy
Oh do we understand the excitement of unpacking and setting up a new monitor. You never understand how cruddy your old monitor is until you’ve got it sitting next to a brand new next-generation monitor. You’re wise in intuiting that there is more to setting up a monitor than just plugging it in, and we’re glad you wrote in because we’re sure there are lots of other readers that can benefit (whether they’re buying a new monitor or just want to tweak their old one) from your question.
Hunting for Dead Pixels
First, let’s talk about your friend’s suggestion that you run a pixel check. What your friend was concerned about (and what you should be concerned about too) is dead, stuck, dim and bright pixels. Modern displays are composed of tens of thousands of tiny little pixels, each one a unique electronic unit part of the greater structure of the display panel. If you were to use a magnifying glass or a macro camera lens and get up close and personal with your new screen, this is what it would look like:
Thousands upon thousands of little red-blue-green sub-pixels within each tiny pixel that work together to display color. Using this arrangement as a point of reference, let’s talk about the maladies that can befall a display panel. The two worst things are dead pixels and bright pixels. A dead pixel is a pixel in the array that is no longer functioning or was defective from the start due to a minute error in the manufacturing process.
That pixel will be permanently black and will never change. On the opposite side of the spectrum is a bright pixel or, as many manufacturer’s call it a “bright dot”. This is a pixel that is permanently on fixed displaying white, so even if you display a dark image on the screen there will always be a bright point in that image because the pixel cannot change to reflect the display signal.
Related, but less serious, are dim and stuck pixels. A dim pixel is a pixel which has what could be described as a ghost-like appearance. When the colors change it changes, but it’s always just a bit dimmer than the surrounding pixels and has a grayish cast. A stuck pixel is a pixel that registers a certain color and fails to change when the display sends a new signal (e.g. the image changes from red to blue but stuck pixel lingers on as a red one.)
In the photo above we can see two types of pixel defects. In the right hand circle we see a dead pixel, permanently black with no chance of turning back on. In the left hand circle, very faintly, we see a dim pixel; the difference is almost ghost-like and there’s a good chance that it’s not permanent.
Now, how does all this relate to you, the new monitor purchaser? It matters because you’re responsible for quality checking your monitor when you receive it and then checking the results against the warranty provided by your manufacturer. If you don’t check your monitor for these pixel defects and don’t file a warranty claim/return it for a replacement, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
First, take a moment to check the manufacturer’s policy. We’re going to refer to the ASUS monitor policy as an example. ASUS has two tiers of monitors we can consider for this exercise: their Zero-Bright-Dot (ZBD models and their regular non-ZBD models. They guarantee their ZBD models against any bright dots for the first year and against more than 5 dead pixels for the first three years. Their non-ZBD models are guaranteed to have less than three bright dots and less than five dead pixels for the first three years. Other manufacturers have similar policies, so look yours up and take note.
Once you known the threshold for acceptable manufacturing, it’s time to run some simple diagnostics to see if your monitor is in mint condition, sporting a few questionable pixels, or defective enough to merit a return. The best way to test your monitor it to run it through a series of full screen images in pure black, white, red, green, and blue and then carefully scrutinize the panel looking for pixels that stand out.
There are lots of resources to help you test your monitor. You can flip your browser to full screen mode and use Jason Farrell’s DeadPixel Test. Another browser-based solution is CheckPixels.com; a cursory search engine query will show there is no shortage of browser-based solutions. If you’re having trouble with the browser based solutions, you can also download simple apps to assist you like UDPix (handy because it not only helps you search for dead and bright pixels but will rapidly cycle colors to help fix dim and stuck pixels). Worst case scenario, you could open up your favorite image editor and create blank canvases the size of your monitor, filled with with appropriate color values (use a color picker, like this one, to grab the RGB values you need) and then view the resulting images full screen.
After poring over your screen and taking note of any defective pixels you find, check it against your manufacturer’s guidelines. When we last upgraded our monitors, for example, we found one dead pixel across three 1080×1920 monitors. One out of the way dead pixel in a spread of 6,220,800 isn’t bad (and definitely well below the return policy threshold).
Don’t forget to also note the extent of the warranty; put a reminder on your calendar to repeat the pixel check every 12 months so you can get a replacement if more pixels fail on you.
Calibrating Your Monitor
A lot of people are confused about what monitor calibration entails, so if you’re reading this and puzzled, don’t feel bad. Part of the confusion is that there is monitor adjustment and then there is monitor calibration, but the word calibration has become somewhat of an umbrella term that people use to encompass both practices.
Calibration is the process of aligning the image on your screen with a known printing/display process. As such, calibration is critical in any industry where the product is edited on the computer but then later reproduced in physical form (such as print advertising).
In the aforementioned situation, the monitors of the advertising designers are calibrated to the color schemes/models of the printing standards they use to ensure that what they see on the screen is what gets printed in the magazine. In order to truly calibrate your monitor you need special hardware that ranged in price from around $100 for prosumer quality gear to many times that for top-tier professional gear. Unless you’re a serious hobby photographer that prints a lot photos or your work has similar color-accuracy requirements, there’s really no need for that kind of expense.
Instead, what you want to do is make adjustments to your monitor so that images are clear, have good contrast, and the color is accurate enough (in so far as the images you see on the screen look natural, whites aren’t oddly tinted, etc.) To that end we suggest checking out our guide to monitor calibration (with an emphasis on the sections covering manual monitor adjustment).
Typically monitors ship from the manufacturer in what amounts to “display mode”; they’re shipped with high contrast and high brightness to look good on a brightly lit showroom floor in a store. Taking a few minutes to adjust your monitor to look best in your office (and not in a Best Buy) is definitely worth it.
Once you’ve checked for dead pixel (and their brethren) and taken the time to adjust your monitor, you’re ahead of the majority of people in the monitor setup game.
Have a pressing tech question about monitors, computer setup, or other matters? Shoot us an email at email@example.com and we’ll do our best to answer it.