Unless you’re following the less mainstream tech conversations going on these days, you may have missed a re-discussion about the benefits of CRT or cathode ray tube screens. Yes, we’re talking about the original ‘tube’, all of which have now been replaced by various flat-panel technologies.
Believe it or not, there is a whole generation of people who have probably never had a CRT in real life! So why are people in tech circles talking about this older technology today? What Are CRT Monitors Used For? Isn’t modern display tech superior?
It turns out that the answer to these questions might be more complicated than you think. Are there good reasons to want a CRT in 2019?
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One of the biggest disadvantages of flat-panel screens is that they have a “native” resolution. In other words, you have a solid, physical grid of imagery. Such a full HD panel of 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you are sending a low resolution image to such a panel, it must be scaled so that more physical pixels are used than one virtual pixel.
In the early days, images scaled on an LCD screen looked absolutely terrible, but modern scaling solutions look great. So it’s not much of a problem anymore.
Still, images on a CRT look fine at any resolution. This is because there are no physical pixels with this display technology. The picture is drawn on the inside of the screen with the help of electron beams so no scaling is required. The pixels are simply drawn, the size you will need. So does the relatively low resolution of the images which look nice and smooth on a CRT.
In the past, this was a great way to gain performance in 3D apps and video games. Simply reduce the resolution for a smoother experience. With the advent of LCD technology, you’ve pretty much had the output in native resolution, which has meant sacrificing other areas like texture and lighting detail.
Using a CRT for high end 3D applications means you can cut the resolution, keep the eye-candy and good performance. With almost no visible hits compared to doing the same thing on an LCD.
LCD flat panels use a display method known as “sample and hold” where the current image remains on the screen in a completely static manner until the next one is ready. CRTs (and plasma screens) use a pulsed method. The frame is drawn on the screen but immediately begins to fade to black as the phosphorus energy is lost.
While the sample-and-hold method might sound superior, the perceptual effect is a blurry image in motion due to the way we perceive visible movement. Sample-and-hold isn’t the only cause of unwanted motion blur on LCDs, but it’s a big one.
Modern screens either use some form of “motion smoothing” that leads to the dreaded “soap opera effect”, or you add black images between the regular ones which causes brightness reduction. CRTs can show sharp movement without sacrificing brightness, and therefore can look much better when playing video.
Incredible black levels
Because of the way LCDs are used, it is essentially impossible to display true black in an image. An LCD panel consists of the LCD itself, with its set of color changing pixels and a backlight. Without the backlight, you won’t see the picture. That’s because LCDs don’t give out any light of their own.
The problem is that when a pixel turns its display black, it’s not blocking all of the light from behind it. The best that you can get is a kind of gray tone. Modern LCD screens are much better at compensating for this, with multiple LEDs that evenly dimming the lighting of the panel and local backlight, but true blacks are not yet possible.
CRTs on the other hand can display black, almost perfectly through, as it pulls the image onto the back of the screen. Modern technologies like OLED work almost as well, but still far too expensive for mainstream consumers. Plasma was also very good in this regard, but has largely been phased out. So now in 2019 the best black levels are still in CRTs today.
Retro content is designed for CRTs
If you like consuming retro content, including old video games from the pre-HD consoles and standard 4: 3 aspect ratio video content, it may be best to watch when you’re on a CRT.
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It’s not that consuming this content on a modern flat screen is bad in any way; it’s just not what the creators were using for reference. So what you see will never be accurate with your intentions.
Some video games actually used CRT quirks to create effects like running water or transparency. These effects don’t work or look strange on modern flat screens. That’s why CRTs are very popular and sought after among retro gamers.
Why You DON’T Want a CRT-2019
While there are many ways in which CRTs are lensly superior to even the best of modern flat panel displays, there is also a long list of disadvantages! After all, there’s a reason the world is moving towards new display technology.
It is also important to keep in mind that the flat panel displays in the era of the shift were far inferior to those of today, yet people felt the benefits of LCDs were on balance a better deal.
CRT screens are large, heavy, power-hungry and less suitable for productivity and watching widescreen movies. While dissolving borders aren’t a big problem for video games, any kind of heavy work turns into struggle with low resolution text and a lack of desktop real estate.
Despite their size, actual dimensions may be tiny, relative to flat panels. It’s certainly not a CRT equivalent to the 55 ″ and larger monsters we have today. Despite the significant image quality and movement advantages of CRTs, over even the best of modern flat panel displays, which only have a small niche group of people willing to deal with the long list of disadvantages associated with using CRT.
So once you are thinking of venturing into the world of CRTs, make sure you know what you are getting into.