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Why This 20-Year-Old CRT Monitor Is Better Than a 4K LCD

LCD displays have their merits, but they still don't match the responsiveness of clunky CRT screens.

by Jared Newman
Sep 24 2019, 4:00pm

Image: Etienne DUBOIS/YouTube

Let's say you have $1,000 to burn on a desktop PC gaming monitor. You could buy a brand-new 4K display with quantum dots, high dynamic range, and a fast refresh rate, or splurge on a curved QHD monitor so wide that it stretches into your peripheral vision while playing.

Alternatively, you could venture onto eBay and spend similar money on a CRT monitor from 20 years ago.

The latter option might not be as ill-advised as it seems. Within PC gaming circles, some people insist that cathode ray tube monitors, despite their lower resolutions, smaller screens, and considerable bulk, are superior for games because they respond to input faster and have less motion blur than LCDs. Although this argument's been floating around for years, it just got a new wave of attention from Eurogamer's Digital Foundry, which recently created a video extolling the outdated display tech.

"Today's premium-priced gaming LCDs are trying very hard to recapture CRT's major benefits—low latency, high refresh rates and reduced input lag—but as good as many of these screens are, for our money nothing beats a good old-fashioned cathode ray tube display for desktop gaming—not even the very best LCD screens on the market," Digital Foundry editor Richard Leadbetter wrote.

Unfortunately, getting a CRT monitor that works well with modern PC games is a lot harder than buying a 4K LCD monitor on Amazon. While CRT TVs and monitors are readily available on Craigslist or your local thrift store (sometimes even for free) only a handful of models support the widescreen aspect ratios that some modern games require. The most prized CRT monitor of them all, Sony's GDM-FW900, recently sold for $999 on eBay, and buying a compatible graphics card or video adapter could raise the final cost even further.

The payoff, however, will be imperceptible input lag and no motion blur, along with a feeling, perhaps, that you've kept another aging monitor out of an e-waste graveyard. PC gamers have arguably spent more for less before.

The case for CRT gaming

On a CRT monitor, the screen is coated in millions of phosphor dots, with one red, green, and blue dot for every individual pixel. To light up each pixel, an electron beam scans across the screen, focusing electrons on individual phosphor dots and causing them to emit photons. Applying more voltage to the system generates more electrons, in turn causing each dot to emit more light.

That's a lot to wrap your head around, but the thing to keep in mind is that the electron-to-photon exchange happens instantly. While CRTs do have some sources of lag⁠—namely, the time spent buffering each video frame and scanning each line of the frame from top to bottom on the screen⁠—those delays are on the order of microseconds. When you move your mouse or press a button on the keyboard, the response time is imperceptible.

"It's the chemistry of the phosphors," said Barry Young, a longtime CRT display analyst who is now the CEO of the OLED Association. "You hit it with an electron, and it creates a photon immediately."

By contrast, an LCD requires physical movement on the part of every pixel. On an LCD, the back of the display emits a constant stream of white light, which passes through a polarizer and onto an array of liquid crystals. Applying voltage to each crystal causes them to twist, altering the amount of light that comes through the screen's front polarizer.

Compared to electron-photon conversion, the physical movement of liquid crystals inside an LCD display takes a lot more time, introducing input lag. It also creates blurriness when there's a lot of motion happening across the screen.

Raymond Soneira, the president of display research firm DisplayMate, has found that this issue even persists on panels with faster refresh rates than the usual 60 Hz. This may explain why Digital Foundry's John Linneman described the CRT experience as "cleaner, smoother, [and] nicer" compared to even the best LCDs.

"The issue here is that you're comparing an electronic conversion—that is, from an electron to a photon—with physically twisting the liquid crystal," Young said. "The faster something moves across the panel, the less capable an LCD is with keeping up with the movement."

In fairness, LCD panel makers have done a lot to close the gap with CRTs. Young points out that liquid crystals twist faster than they used to, and LCD panels can further reduce latency and motion blur by buffering an additional frame in their timing controllers or inserting artificial frames.

As the CEO of the OLED Association, he also argues that OLED displays provide the same responsiveness as CRT monitors because they also involve electron-to-photon conversion, only with organic chemicals (the "O" in OLED is for organic) receiving the voltage instead of phosphor dots.

"There's really no difference between OLEDs and CRTs," Young said.

Still, large-screen OLED panel makers to date have focused nearly all their energy on televisions, so the only OLED monitor on the market today is a 22-inch panel from Asus that costs $4,000. Young said the manufacturer of those panels, JOLED, is building a larger factory next year, bringing down costs, It may be a while until OLED monitors can compete with even the best LCDs on price.

Hunting for the CRT holy grail

If you're convinced that a CRT monitor is the way to go, you'll still have a lot of competition in finding a great one.

Adam Taylor, who creates educational tech videos under the name EposVox on YouTube, has spent years trying to find a Sony GDM-FW900 in decent condition. He's set up multi-keyword searches on sites like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace, and regularly puts out feeler posts in his area to see if anyone might have any leads. For a monitor that doesn't need any repairs and doesn't have any major cosmetic issues, Taylor said in an interview that he's willing to pay up to $500.

The FW900's big selling point, Taylor said, is its 16:10 aspect ratio, which is much wider than the 4:3 aspect ratio of most CRT monitors. Although a 16:9 aspect ratio is more common among LCD monitors today, most games still support 16:10, which would fill the entire screen on a FW900. The monitor also has a maximum resolution of 2304x1440 at a refresh rate of 80 Hz—pretty good even by modern standards—and it can hit a super-smooth refresh rate of 160 Hz when the resolution is cut in half.

"It can do ridiculous things while still supporting a modern workflow, because it's 16:10," Taylor said.

Beyond the FW900, Taylor said the same monitor has sold under different makes and models, including the HP A7217A, SGI GDM-FW9011, and Sun GDM-FW9010, but those are no easier to come by. A couple 16:9 CRT monitors also exist, including the Intergraph InterView 28HD96 (famously used by John Carmack to code Quake) and 24HD96, but they're even rarer.

Even if you can find one, you'll need a graphics card with an analog output, such as Nvidia's 900 series and AMD's 300 series cards, or a digital-to-analog converter. You'll also have to go in knowing the monitor may not last. As the phosphor inside a CRT ages, it will naturally lose its luminance, and that's assuming it doesn't suffer any other issues along the way. Repairing a CRT can be tedious and dangerous, Taylor says, and repair shops are practically nonexistent.

"It's one of those things, you don't get to keep it forever," Taylor said. "You know that getting into it, because it's very old technology that is very prone to problems and needing maintenance."

Still, Taylor is he's glad to see CRT monitors getting another round of attention. That's not always the case with some of his fellow CRT enthusiasts, who fear that more media coverage will inflate prices and bring in too many newbies, Taylor said. But outside of some occasional instances of people capitalizing on the hype (like the FW900 that sold for $999 on eBay) he hasn't seen much evidence of price gouging. Most CRT monitor sales, he said, come from people who've hoarded them in garages and basements and just want to get rid of them.

Besides, getting CRTs into the hands of people who want to play with them is better than having them wind up in warehouses, waiting for a recycling solution that never comes.

"We have no way established, at least in the U.S., to get rid of these things, and so to see people use them and have fun with them in a way that keeps them from just being destroyed pieces of glass and lead in the streets is a super good place for me," Taylor says. "There's a whole elitist, 'This is better,' aspect to it, but just using the screens and having fun, I think, is really important."

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