Horse Sense #93

Monitor Ergonomics

Your interaction with your computer depends most on your keyboard, other input devices, monitor, and printers. They are how you physically interact with your computer. You can have immense productivity improvements by choosing the correct keyboards, mice, monitors, chairs, telephone headsets, paper holders, keyboard drawers, laptop backpacks, docking stations, extra chargers and batteries, and other items a person uses to interact with their computer. The easier and more natural it is to use a tool like a computer, the better.  (see also )

This article will cover the ergonomic issues of high resolution flat screen desktop liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors as that is what most people have or will buy now.

Most people put their monitors at the back of the desk to allow for the most desk space. This means it will be farther from you than a newspaper, so a large screen with large lettering on it helps. Large high resolution flat screen monitors are proven productivity enhancers. Additional monitors connected to your computer can also improve productivity. You want a monitor that can change a pixel quickly, especially if you are looking at moving images like videos. Newer monitors tend to have less than 5ms change times. Older monitors that cannot change fast enough will have terrible video quality. Position the monitor so that the top of the monitor is at or below the top of your head and your shoulders are parallel to the screen. If in doubt, a lower monitor position is better as looking up is not a natural reading position. Height adjustable tilt swivel stands are common on newer higher end monitors and will allow you to position your monitor well. If you need more adjustability or features or the monitor you want does not offer a good stand, you can detach the screen from its stock mount. You can then attach a VESA compatible screen to a pole, a cart, a flexible arm, a wall, or a multiple monitor display stand.

Consider a newer monitor if you have had yours for a while. New monitors tend to have faster response times, more stable images, higher brightness and contrast making them easier to see, lower power requirements, thinner bezels so they take up less space and you can mount monitors next to one another to get a more continuous effect, better speakers (for those that have them), more even back lighting, etcetera. Newer flat screens can also lower electric and cooling bills and save desk space. Compare an LCD from today with one from 5-7 years ago and you would be surprised at how good the new one is.

When buying anything, think first about what you want to do with it to make your best choice. For example, many HDTV televisions are designed with high contrasts and very black backgrounds, but their PC connectivity is poor, sitting close to them would make them look way too grainy, and they are designed for lower light conditions than an office and tend to be glary. If you do a lot of HDTV type work on your monitor, consider one that has a 1080p resolution (1920x1080 pixels). You may even want it to have a TV tuner so you can watch TV.

If you do not need a high resolution monitor, you might not want to get one. The more pixels you put on a monitor, the smaller they are relative to the screen. That means that this e mail, for example, might be in teeny tiny type on a high resolution monitor and might be tough to read unless you increased the font size. But on a lower resolution monitor, it would read just fine. Most web content is optimized for 1024x768. Resolution and size work against one another. A 1024x768 image on a 17 inch screen at 30 inches viewing distance will look fine. The same image on a 30 inch screen will look really grainy.

There are other scenarios to consider as well. Video requires a fast pixel response time. A notebook to be used outdoors would need a very bright screen. A good contrast ratio makes images stand out and gives you smoother gradations of colors and grey scaling. If you are doing work that requires accurate color, a low end monitor might not work well because it will not have the color controls you need to produce a good picture. You will probably also need a calibrating device and software to match screen colors to printer colors. If you are doing digital signage, you will want large screens that accept digital video (and maybe analog and audio) that can run 24x7 as most monitors/TVs are not designed for that type of duty. Desks with little space are well served by monitors with built in speakers.

Here is typical example: Due to size and weight issues, 14-15 inch screens are most popular on standard notebooks. Based on the size of the type and the cost, I find that 1024x768 is fine for 14 inch 4:3 aspect ratio laptops and 1280x800 is fine for 16:10 aspect ratio 15" laptops (wide screen). Higher resolutions on those laptop monitors would have type that is small and less visible relative to the background. Lower resolutions will look grainy. For the clearest image, you want to display at the maximum resolution of the LCD so it does not have to interpolate to figure out whether a pixel should be red or green, on or off. Still, in some cases, you might want to back off from that highest resolution and accept a non-native lower resolution to make the display or program more readable.

Remember that monitors are low resolution devices. 72 dots per inch (dpi) resolution is common for monitors even at their highest resolution, while even low end printers will produce 600 dpi or better images. Magazine quality is about 2400 dpi. As dpi goes up and the image remains the same size, the easier it is for your eyes to interpret (up to a point). If you are doing CAD work or viewing X-Rays, you might want a very high resolution display.

Your eyes have a lot to do with what you see. They trade color for resolution. Standard definition TVs have very poor resolution, yet we think they are OK because we sit a long way away from them and our eyes trade color for a pleasing picture to our brains. Think of impressionistic paintings. They are fuzzed out, but we recognize them and like them. Reading text is a completely different story. There, color does not matter. Clarity does. So, it helps to have high resolution (more pixels per unit area). It also helps to have high contrast between the background and the text. Light blue on blue is terrible. Black on white is very good. Choose your colors wisely. Complicated backgrounds inhibit reading text, so avoid them on your desktop and in your documents if you want them to read easily. Invest in glasses for computer work. These glasses will be treated to eliminate glare and to focus on distances longer than that at which you would hold a book comfortably. Glasses are often preferable to contacts because when you concentrate on something, you do not tend to blink as much and that causes your eyes to dry out. Antiglare screen coatings help, but to keep glare off your screens and improve readability and less stress, place your monitor against a neutral, fairly uncluttered background. Direct sunlight on your monitor or bright lighting behind it will make it harder to view your screen. I almost always have the blinds drawn on the window next to my desk. I have also pulled two of four fluorescent light tubes above my own desk to make my monitors more readable. Though most monitors can be viewed from various angles, dead on is best for their humans as it eliminates glare, distortions, and color shifts.

A significant portion of the male population suffers from some sort of color blindness. This can make seeing certain colors or reading monitors more difficult. These people may have to remap the colors on their computers or use different color schemes to have the best results. This is also important to remember if you are sharing equipment, developing web pages, or even sending out e mail. If you want more people to be able to see what you have done, remember that some of them may be color blind.

Do not assume that IT or the manufacturer will have done all the calibrations and adjustments you might need. They tend to do rough calibrations and set reasonable default settings. These default settings may look good in a store, but your desk is a different story. Each monitor has settings that are optimal for you, but you need to set them. You will be much happier if you make sure you adjust the monitor and operating system to your particular preferences and your particular environment. Your monitor manual has numerous calibrations you can use to get the best image at different resolutions. The monitor should save all the settings for the different resolutions, but the one that will generally look best will be the native or highest resolution of the display. Also, use the "Calibrate Display Color" option in Windows 7 to calibrate both colors and fonts. Speaking of fonts, the best ones to use are ones that are extremely simple, like Arial. Fancy fonts are hard to read. And, if the text labels of your icons are just too small, you can adjust the size of the fonts Windows uses.

Humans are not as patient as computers, nor are they designed to do something for extended stretches of time. When you look at a screen for a long time, it can tire your eyes. Sitting without moving much also is not good for you. Get up. Walk around. Look out the window. Do neck rolls. Get an egg timer or timing/ergonomic program to remind you to do something else for a while. Your body will thank you.

Digital connections produce a more stable image than analog ones, so use digital connections when you can. Clutter is also distracting, so keep your screen as simple as possible. People only think they can multitask. They really cannot do it well. Having many open windows on your screen can be a distraction. Filling your screen with the active window is usually best if you want to be productive.

Use a typing stand near your monitor if you transfer information from printed material to your computer often. Your eyes will not need to readjust and your head will not need to move which will improve productivity and decrease neck and shoulder strain.

Use a head set for your phone and a tilt swivel height adjustable chair so you can sit most comfortably in front of your monitor.

And, for goodness sakes, clean your monitor regularly. Most monitors should not be cleaned with ammonia based cleaners which can remove anti-glare coatings. Instead, use eyeglass cleaner or just plain water (soapy water and then water if really dirty) and a (non-scratching) microfiber cloth to clean your monitor. Monitors make great dust precipitators. You should clean them often. And though dust can be a decent anti-glare coating, I do not recommend it long term. (grin)

©2011 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse