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Pro Monitors versus Home Monitors

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For years I’ve been buying mid-cost monitors for my business and for my personal use.   They are not the cheapest monitors, but they are definitely in the “cost conscious” category when it comes to monitors.   My typical “pain point” is the $250 mark.    Since I like to buy my monitors “paired” so I can use a dual monitor setup I don’t like to get to far over that range.  If possible I like to be under $200 for something with good resolution.   I don’t worry too much about color both because I’m not a graphic designer and because I am color blind (yes, I can see color, but not ALL colors).   So I look for something high resolution and fairly big.     I try to get something with good customer reviews but tend to shy away from the “editor’s choice” or “top rated” monitors mostly because they ignore my $250 rule.  A few things have changed over the past year that has also changed my thinking about monitors.

First, as a work-at-home dad I am now spending all my computer time on the SAME set of monitors.  I am no longer going from a set of monitors at home to a set of monitors at work.   That for the hours I am on a computer they are always spent viewing the same screen.    That also means buying 2 monitors instead of 4.    In theory I should be comfortable with spending $500/monitor, but after more than a decade of training myself to never look above $250 it is a hard habit to break.

Second, after closing my last business and deciding to spend more time with family in between hacking WordPress plugins for a living, I hoarded a bunch of computer equipment I was interested in after the business closed.  That included a bunch of monitors (all my friends and family got upgrades, side bonus of closing a 12-person office).   I ended up with a 3-way monitor setup  as my daily setup.   To be honest I originally started with 4 monitors but my video card in the HP Envy 17 could not handle it and the desktop computer put out way too much heat.    I also couldn’t see that much real-estate with two 27-inch, a 25-inch, and a 24-inch monitor.    It also just looked ugly as the resolution was the same but pixels sizes varied widely.     But I did learn one thing, for a coder the 3-way monitor is absolutely the most efficient setup you can have.     While EVERYONE, other than the casual home user, benefits greatly from a dual-monitor setup, coders have a unique environment in which three monitors is the magic number.     There are a lot of blog articles that tend to agree with this assessment.  If you code for a living, try it and you’ll see what I mean.

Third, as I get older I find that along with everything else, my eyes can’t keep up.   I need to take breaks from being in front of the computer screen more often and my eyes are “tired” after much shorter sessions of staring down the code as I try to bend it to do my bidding.

Time For An Investment

After a month of “thinking about it”, doing research on all kinds of monitors, thinking about it some more, deciding I wanted three 24 or 25″ monitors (27″ is just far too spread out to keep everything “in my field of vision”), and then waiting/wanting/hoping the monitor I had selected would come down in price… I finally did it.  I bit the bullet and bought a higher end monitor that was a good bit outside of my $250 price point.   After selecting what I felt would be the right monitor for me, I went price shopping.    I found the best price after shipping to be at ProVantage (which, was true 2 days ago… as I edited this article to put the links in place the price has jumped by to $457.26 from $342.29…33% price increase in 24 hours!) .   Any time I need to get business class computer equipment that is restricted from consumer channels (like Amazon or Best Buy) I end up at ProVantage more often than not.  I’ve used them many times before and trust them, though they often lose out on the Amazon Prime products thanks to the shipping differential.  In this case Amazon Prime does not carry the monitor I selected, though they have other vendors with free shipping that DO carry the monitor (and are now LESS costly than ProVantage).

So I spent $350 for a monitor and decided to give it a try.     If the monitor really was the much better than ALL of the 6 other monitors I have in my household, 3 different ones on my desk alone, I would go “all in” and purchase the other 2 to round out the “pairing” or “tripling” as the case may be.

Was It Worth It?

Well, lets just say that less than 3 hours after getting my new monitor setup I ordered the other 2 monitors.   So yes, definitely worth it.  But why?

Some of the deciding factors are definitely due to the feature set of the monitor.   These features can be found on consumer grade and home monitors.    However finding the combination of ALL these things is rare, as I discovered in the month of research before making a decision.     However the PRIMARY deciding factor was the overall clarity of the monitor.     Both surfing the web and  reviewing code text was instantly clearer and more legible on the new monitor.    All 3 monitors on my desk are HP models.   They are 25″, 24″ (the new one), and 27″.   None are “low end” but tow are considered high-end and some of the best monitors for consumer use over the past 2 years.

ProVantage $350 Monitors
ProVantage $350 Monitors

What factors made me decide to swap all 3 monitors to the new one?

  • Text is easier to read.
  • Contrast is better, the difference between the light and dark tones is less “muddied”.
  • The new screen is 1900×1200 (16:10) versus 1920×1080 (16:9)… that extra 120 pixels is 3+ full lines of extra code in the same space and I really prefer the taller v. wider format.
  • The screen has 4 built-in USB ports which means I can eliminate by USB hub = 1 less device + 1 less power cord.
  • The stand rotates, tilts (a lot), and has a a great vertical adjustment.   I didn’t realize how much I missed the ability to make the monitor “tall” and get it properly in my line of site without using boxes or stands.
  • The monitor has DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort options.  The DisplayPort means one less adapter to deal with.
  • The bezel is a matte finish v. high gloss.   This makes a BIG difference, surprisingly more than I thought.
  • The monitor has a very light anti-glare coating versus the “oooohhhh SHINY like Apple” screen which looks great when it is off or in a dark room but otherwise makes a great mirror.
  • Did I mention text is easier to read?   A LOT easier.

Granted some of these features can be found on other monitors, but ALL the features in one place?  Not so much.    In addition there are some other features I like that didn’t push me to the decision but I still like the thought such as the down-facing connections so I can get the monitor tight to the wall if I decide to mount it like the old monitor (going with a 3-way stand for now).   The neck of the monitor has a pop-out plate for routing cables THROUGH the neck, keeping them neatly corralled near the base of the monitor.    The control buttons are right on the front of the bezel, while behind-the-bezel buttons look cleaner it is a major PITA for the one time you need to adjust something and cannot find the buttons… really for a work computer I don’t care and don’t even see those 4 small buttons on the front while I’m working.     The stand attaches and DETACHES with the best neck-to-monitor system I’ve seen yet.  It snaps in place and a push of a button releases it for when you want/need to attach your wall mount or tri-stand when they arrive 6 hours after the monitor did… which you had to open right to play with and thus attach the neck even though you knew more parts were coming.

So What Did I Get?

My final choice was the 24″ HP ZR2440w.    Below are a couple of pics that show the difference between this monitor and the HP2509M when viewing text.   Besides the moire patterns inherent in non-synced digital imaging of displays, you can also see a distinct difference in contrast and clarity.  Using a digital camera highlights the difference more than is perceptible to the naked eye, but as my code-geek buddy Rob said as soon as he saw the ZR2440 today… “Holy Crap!  I can even see that text from here without my glasses on.”    That is saying something as the monitor is a 24″ versus the 25″ and 27″ it sits beside.

HP ZR2404w versus HP 2509m
HP ZR244ow versus HP 2509m. The text clarity of the professional ZR2440w compared to the consumer 2509m is astounding.

The other picture is of the monitor itself with camera flash on versus the HP2711x monitor.    Both the HP2509M and HP2711x are designed as “look pretty on the shelf in the retail showroom” and “look nice when watching Blu-Ray DVDs in a dark room”.   They do look great if you play games & use the monitors for home theater in controlled lighting conditions.  But during a normal work day with daylight coming in a window and nothing-but code and base graphics on the screen the  ZR2440w blows them away.   No contest.    You can see how big a difference the little bit of anti-glare makes versus the consumer monitors.   Every light source reflects, whether you notice it or not, on the “oooohhhh sooooo shiny and Apple-like” monitors.  That is NOT a good thing for coding as all those light sources are competing for attention when you are looking at the screen.

HP ZR2440w for Code
HP ZR2440w for Code. The camera flash is on to show the glare from other light sources. Glare is minimal.
The HP 2711x glare is very noticeable versus the 2440w.  Good for movies in a dark room, not so much for coding.
The HP 2711x glare is very noticeable versus the 2440w. Good for movies in a dark room, not so much for coding.

I had considered a few others but the reviews, features, and pricing all came together for me with this monitor.    I wanted 24″ or 25″ for the triple setup.   I wanted VESA mounts so I take up less desk space with stands.  I have a wall arm that takes ZERO desk space and LOVE IT, so the triple stand with a single footprint may work but I feel I’ll be doing 3 swing arms soon.   I also wanted native DisplayPort and HDMI connections for my HP Envy 17.   That is because the laptop can drive 2 DisplayPort monitors AND an HDMI monitor at full resolution and full refresh rate.  If you use adapters on the DisplayPort connections and drive 3 monitors weird things can happen to the refresh rate or resolution.

So 24/25″, Vesa mount, and DisplayPort + HDMI connectors limited the marked to surprisingly few monitor choices.    A Dell monitor was in the mix and some lesser-known off-shore brands that had good reviews.  Maybe the off-shore would have worked but I’ve learned to go with quality brands you know.

In the end the HP ZR2440w turns out to have been a great choice.     Sadly so, possibly.    Now that I’ve spoiled myself with this level of display I doubt I’ll ever go back to anything less.  In fact I’m wondering how much nicer the $1200 displays I was briefly contemplating really look with all that color perfection.     Good thing I’m color blind and can talk myself out of those options!

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Choosing A Wireless Router

Last week the network dropped.  Again.   This was the 5th time in about a month that I lost all connectivity mid-session.  I was in the middle of pushing some web updates and, as usual,  Comcast left me hanging.   When I made my 10PM call to customer service I was met with one of the rudest know-it-all “customer disservice” people I ever encountered.   She argued with me about everything and told me I had no idea what I was talking about when I told her that rebooting my laptop would not get my cable modem to sync up with their head end router.   (I had checked the logs on the modem and it lost sync and the signal level was out of spec.)

Even though the Comcast Business Class service rep., who came out the next morning instead of THREE DAYS later as the “service rep” insisted was the ONLY option, was very helpful and knowledgeable ; the damage had been done.  I was sick of sudden drops, lag, and network throttling that Comcast insists they do not do.    It was time for a change.

What does this have with wireless routers?  We will get there in a minute… just bear with me.

Knology To The Rescue

Fast forward three weeks.  The Knology installation guy shows up at my house EARLY (take THAT Comcast), was courteous, professional, and *gasp* actually knowledgeable about his trade.     He tested the lines, replaced several faulty splitters that Comcast had installed and eventually got a perfectly clean signal at the modem connection point.    We connected the modem and had a great connection.   The 20M/2M service was actually pulling 27M/2M consistently with 0.0001% rate fluctuation.    This guy actually tested things after he installed (take THAT TOO Comcast).   Everything looked great.   Then all hell broke loose.

I HAD NO WIRELESS ROUTER!

My old Comcast modem had wireless.   The new Knology modem did not.

Setting Up My Wireless

I left the install connected to my wired hub and went to work.  While at the office I picked up a couple of pieces of wireless network equipment we had lying around that was no longer being used.   In the mix I had an old Netopia Wireless DSL modem, which can be used as a wireless access point if you disable the DSL port and a 2-year-old Belkin Wireless N router that was a $200 top-of-the-line unit back in the day.

When I got home the first thing I did was hook up the Belkin Wireless N.  I was connected within minutes.  However I did notice the network was lagging.    I attributed it to being on wireless and having several devices on the wireless network as well as the TiVo and DVD connected.     Then I started getting dropped connections. However this time the modem logs looked perfect.  NO errors, no sync problems no dropped connections there.     Eventually I narrowed down the problem.  It was the Belkin router.    It was getting all kinds of packet loss and transmission errors and was dropping a TON of packets with .190-199 in the last IP address octet.  Very odd.

I temporarily tried the Netopia Wireless but that is a simple A/B series wireless router.  It worked, but was very quickly saturated as soon as other devices came online.  It simply did not have the bandwidth over the wireless channels to get the job done with a tablet, 2 wireless phones, the VOIP hard line phone, 2 laptops, the TiVo and the DVD player.    It worked but was slow as heck at peak load.

I needed something better.

The Netgear Utopia

Netgear N600
Netgear N600

I did some homework and found several glowing reviews for the Netgear N600 series wireless N routers.   Since it was now Sunday and neither my Netopia DSL router or my Belking N router were up to task for a big marketing and site update project, I decided to shop local.   Turns out Walmart had the very router I was looking at AND it was a fair price.   Even with taxes it was within $5 of the Amazon pricing and was near or below most online competitors.

40 minutes later I had returned from Wally World with my new router (and a big-bag of M&Ms, a new garden hose, and 3 coloring books for my son… this is WHY you don’t go to Walmart to shop for “just a router”… dang impulse buys).      Within 15 minutes my new router was installed, fully configured to my liking with a new SSID and passwords, and was online.

HOLY SMOKES WAS THIS THING FAST!!!

I mean LIGHTNING FAST compared to ANYTHING I was using before.     I immediately saw my laptop speed tests pulling the full 27M/2M speeds we had seen with the wired test unit at the router.  This was with all the other network equipment still online.

Bad Communication = Slow Networks

After doing a good bit of testing, re-trying the Belkin, re-connecting the Comcast service (it was not turned off yet), and doing a bunch of general cross-checking and sanity tests it had become clear.    Choosing the right networking equipment is paramount to maintaining solid throughput to your desktop (or tablet) computers.  If any link in the chain is weak you will suffer.

The technical reasons for highly variant network performance has a lot to do with packet re-transmission.   To keep it somewhat less technical, think of it as a simple phone conversation where you MUST get every word right.   To do this you ask the other party to repeat every word they hear.   If they say a word incorrectly you repeat that word until they say it back correctly.    On a poor connection this may happen 3 or 4 times on every-other-word.   That can make for a VERRRRRYYYY long conversation.

In today’s networks a lot of things can go wrong to make your surfing destination and your computer “repeat the words” over & over again.   A wireless network often adds a lot more possibilities for interference.   For example, turning on the microwave oven, or a neighbor turning on their TV.    You don’t HEAR the interference, but your wireless network does.  Think of it like someone turning on a vacuum cleaner right next to you while you are doing the “repeat every word” conversation with your long distance friend.  You are likely not going to hear very well and be repeating a lot of words.

Erradicating Slow

In my case several things were causing problems.   The Comcast connection to my house is not very good which means the “volume” of the conversation is very inconsistent, too loud some moments, too soft at others.   Then the modem Comcast had was an old model that was very slow, think of it as if you had a semi-retarded phone operator in the middle trying to keep up with the “repeat the word” conversation and they just skip words when they fall behind.    The Belkin router refused to repeat any word with the “ch” sound in it, like a Chinese waiter mixing up L’s and R’s and you trying to guess what they really meant.     The Netopia DSL router was mostly just very retarded and easily distracted, barely being able to keep up with a slow deliberate conversation.

In the end I eliminated all the slow, retarded, missed-translation, volume related issues.    A tested solid clean connection with a modern high-speed modem from Knology connected directly to the Netgear N600 Wireless N Router keeps everything humming along.  The conversations are crystal clear and the Netgear N600 + Knology modem rarely, if ever, repeat a word.   A 2-minute conversation takes 2-minutes, not 20.    That translates into getting the full 20M (27M) /2M service all the way from “the Internet” straight into my wireless network.

Get The Best

In your network, choose the best equipment you can afford.   Read online reviews and select the RIGHT solution.   Higher price does not always mean better performance.    In my case the reviews proved out to be well founded and I too give the Netgear N600 (WNDR3400v2) 5-stars.

Netgear N900
Netgear N900

I liked the Netgear N600 so much I bought the “big brother” N900 (WNDR4500) for the office and I like that one EVEN better.  It too was quick to setup and improved network performance.  It also gave us the ability to quickly and easily turn a USB drive into a network share and turn my old Brother MFC-4800 laser (another great piece of equipment, by the way) printer/scanner into a network printer/scanner within minutes and with one quick/simple applet install on our Windows and Mac computers.

If you are in the market for a wireless router I highly recommend the Netgear N600 and N900 routers.