Under the Desktop: R.I.P. CRT
The waning of the year is a traditional time for folks to reflect on the year almost gone and the one nearly here. It's also a convenient opportunity for a rant.
Selecting one of the year's many screw-ups and failures is a difficult choice. However, my rant concerns the continuing decline of display choices for professional color evaluation. It's a trend that I expect will resonate over the coming year and even beyond.
Love It, Hate It
Everyone loves those flat-panel screens. And why not?
The steady image from LCD technology is easy on the eyes. Flat panels provide sharp, bright images and the image presented to the viewer is truly flat instead of being curved as with a CRT. In addition, LCD-based monitors are easy to move around and don't use as much power as a tube-based display.
On my desk at this moment, I have similar-sized CRT and LCD displays sitting side-by-side. The flat panel is very bright and doesn't show much of the distracting reflections that I see in the CRT's glass face (see Figure 1). (Yes, I could mitigate the glare by closing the shade and turning down the lights, but what fun is that?)
Figure 1: This photo doesn't really show much about computer graphics but it's an excellent example of glare. We get a great view of the office and windows in addition to the information displayed on the screen.
I'm growing to hate this CRT just looking at it. So where's the bad?
While CRT and LCD technologies both show color images on a screen and allow viewers to interface with their computer, the two displays are very, very different.
LCDs have their strengths, but so do CRTs. While the CRT's image may be blurry when compared with a flat panel, the tube technology can better display more colors than most LCDs. This lets the informed viewer better evaluate nuances of color, especially distinctions between darker colors.
In addition, although LCD technology is progressing quickly, it always presents some color shift for the viewer and it's more difficult to calibrate (regardless of the claims of color vendors).
If we put aside our newfound affection for LCDs and really give a close look at the image produced by CRTs and LCDs side-by-side, there is no question that few LCDs can provide as accurate an evaluation of colors as found from a CRT.
But we love our LCDs and forgive all their faults while excoriating the older technology. Many people simply adjust their brains to the LCD's reduced gamut and rely on instinct when evaluating images.
A quick read-through of online postings to digital photography bulletin boards reveals this thinking. A reader will complain about this or that problem with the LCD but then forgive them.
For example, one photographer named Joe wrote this week: "The colors are excellent and the crispness is very welcome. Its angle of view is at least as good as the CRT display. I've become a fan of the LCD display."
Now, the LCD's angle of view just can't be as good. No way. But as he said, the bright colors and crisp edges are beguiling. Joe ignores the faults and focuses on the positive. He loves da LCDs.
Even some prepress analysts recently claimed that LCD performance has caught up with CRTs. That may be true when comparing a particular flat panel with a particular CRT. However, many content creators continue to report troubles fitting flat panels into their work flow -- whether during calibration or even when evaluating an image on the screen.
What I don't understand is the either/or debate. Certainly, folks involved in a professional color can incorporate both display technologies in their workflow.
Then again, as with other technologies, the market is looking for a "winner," even though that may not be the best choice, especially for a segment like creative pros who have particular needs.
Whither the CRT?
But don't think that you'll always have CRTs to kick around. In fact, they may be gone rather quickly.
Late last month, news reports out of Japan pointed to the business of cathode ray tube (CRT) technology, or rather its decline. Toshiba Corp. said it will end production of CRTs next fall and in a separate announcement, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is also considering calling it quits in the CRT business.
This news comes on the heels of an announcement from about a month ago, when Sony Corp. said it would quit manufacturing CRTs in Japan altogether. This was the latest in a series of announcements over the past year where Sony pulled the plug on specific screen sizes and markets.
Each of these companies said it will now expand production efforts towards LCD and plasma screens (see Figure 2).
So what's the big deal, some of you might wonder? These manufacturing plants primarily made tubes for television sets and general-purpose monitors. How would that disturb high-performance color monitors used for graphic production?
Figure 2: I happened to wander into a showroom for high-performance audio and video products. Wow. The colors from a plasma display are always suspect (their color model was once described as OGB, or orange-green-blue, rather than the usual RGB), but you can't help but be impressed when viewing HDTV and digital video content on a 61-inch screen. The prices are in a different orbit as well -- one model on display cost as much as a fully-tricked-out car.
High-performance monitors, like almost all professional-level technologies such as hard disks, DVD drives among others, leverage the manufacturing and design processes of mass-market consumer versions. While a factory may build millions of ordinary products, it can divert some of its resources to assembling some highly engineered, small-run lines aimed at markets such as color professionals.
Yet without that base production, a company might also pull the plug on its professional lines (here I'm not talking about the units a company might call "professional," which is a very loose term and usually irrelevant to the color needs of a graphics professional).
If You Love CRTs...
What these moves signal is a narrowing of the choices for color professionals. Fewer companies, perhaps very few, will have the means to build the high-performance CRTs that provide the extra capability needed for reliable color and calibration. The choices for LCDs will increase while CRTs will vanish.
Some of you might expect this decline in CRT production to be linear, coming down slowly over time. But that may not be so. Instead, there could be a threshold effect, where production will suddenly stop across the industry. LCD prices may also decline quickly as production increases and CRTs will become more expensive due to scarcity.
If you still value CRTs in your color workflow, then 2004 may be a good time to purchase one.
As the sages tell us: "Even the largest ball of twine unwinds." The same looks to finally be occurring for color cathode ray technology.
Read more by David Morgenstern
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