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How To Set Up Your New Monitor and Treat It Right

By Nathan Edwards

Whether with a new or existing display, there are a few free tweaks you can do right away to knock your monitor up a notch. Let’s walk through the steps you should take to break a shiny (or matte) new monitor into your setup.

So you've just unpacked your new monitor. Maybe it's one you bought based on part one of my monitor guide, or maybe it isn't. Either way, just because it's awesome doesn't mean it's as awesome as it has the potential to be. There are a few things you can do right away, for free, toknock your monitor up a notch. Let’s walk through the steps you should take to break a shiny (or matte) new monitor into your setup. Don’t worry, we’re not going to do any actual breaking.

Image Credit: Flickr user jonlk via Creative Commons

Ergonomics (That's Latin for "Therefore, gnome science")

First, make sure your monitor is in the most ergonomic position. According to OSHA (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, not the wildling), that means it should be between 20 and 40 inches from your eyes, with the top of the monitor near eye level. Computing Comfort has a more in-depth ergonomic education tool for guidance. They agree with OSHA that your monitor shouldn't be any closer to your face than 20 inches--farther if your monitor is bigger, though this is a tricky balance with large high-res monitors (with default Windows DPI settings). You don't want the monitor too far away; if you have to lean in to see what's going on, your monitor's too far away, and if you have to turn your head to see part of your monitor, it's too close. Somewhere between 20 and 30 inches is probably the sweet spot; the top of my my 27-inch 2560x1440 panel is about 28 inches from my eyes, and I find that it works well. "Just about arm's length" is a good approximation of the correct distance.

Your monitor should also be tilted back between 10 and 20 degrees from vertical, so the top of the monitor should be the farthest away from you.

Find dead pixels

Photo Credit: Flickr user Berkhakim via Creative Commons

Few things are as annoying as dead pixels, and they’re something that can be difficult to ignore once you notice them. This is an area where ignorance can be bliss--if you’re the kind of person who can’t ignore a dead pixel, not knowing it’s there on an old monitor may be doing your sanity a service. Most new monitors actually come with a guarantee that lets you exchange for a new panel if you find a certain number of dead pixels (usually no more than five). We investigated dead pixel policies for major monitor manufacturers, too. The LCD DeadPixel Test is a dead-simple way to find dead pixels: it's just a series of one-color fullscreen images. By putting them up one at a time you can see which pixels aren't changing with the rest.

Huge caveat: Make sure you clean your screen first. When I first ran the dead pixel test on my Yamakasi Catleap, I freaked out at all the purple pixels I saw. Every single one of them ended up being a speck of dust. So use a lint-free cloth and see if that makes the "dead pixels" go away.

Save Your Eyes and Your Circadian Rhythms

F.lux is a simple program that changes your monitor's color temperature based on the time of day. During the day your monitor is cool and crisp, with a color temperature of around 6500K (closer to daylight), but at night it dials down the color temperature to a warmer, more yellow glow--the default is 3400K. Both settings are adjustable--I keep my daytime setting at 6200K. The yellower light is easier on your eyes (why do you think Gunnars are yellow?) and according to F.lux, can even help you get to bed earlier. The theory, which has studies backing it up, is that blue light tricks your brain into thinking it's still daylight, so you stay up later, while lowering the color temperature of your monitor (and thus getting rid of the blue light) after sundown helps keep your circadian rhythms on schedule. If you do non-color-sensitive computer work after dark, you'll definitely appreciate F.lux.

Alas, F.lux overrides software display settings in Windows. F.lux's FAQ states "Currently, we don't recommend running f.lux on calibrated systems running Windows, but we expect to have a solution for this soon." The solution to this, such as it is, is to do as much of your calibration as you can with your monitor's hardware.

Calibration

There's still a lot you can do to gussy up your monitor without messing with color profiles or any of the complicated stuff. The easiest way to do basic calibration is to use your monitor's on-screen display and Windows' built-in Display Color Calibration tool. Your monitor probably has some buttons on it, and an on-screen display that lets you adjust brightness, contrast, and gamma. If so, that's what you'll use to help you change the settings on your monitor.

Unless you're a cheapskate like me who bought an inexpensive Korean monitor without a video processor or on-screen display. Then you have to choose between software calibration and F.lux.

Right-click on your desktop and select "Screen resolution." Make sure your monitor is running at its native resolution (for an LCD, that'll be the highest you can go), then hit Advanced Settings. Go to the Color Management tab and hit Color Management. Go to the Advanced tab and make sure your default profile is set to sRGB.

Basic Mode

Now hit Calibrate Display. Windows will walk you through a series of adjustments to your gamma, brightness, contrast, and color balance that can improve your picture quality. The gamma and color balance can be adjusted with sliders in the calibration wizard, but brightness and contrast can't. If your monitor, like mine, lacks controls for brightness and contrast, you'll have to adjust them using your graphics card's control panel--either Nvidia Control Panel or Catalyst Control Center. Again, though, anything you adjust in Display Color Calibration will be mooted as long as F.lux is running.

Intermediate Calibration

If you want a more robust way to adjust your monitor, use the Lagom LCD Test website. This set of test images will help you calibrate your brightness, clock, contrast, gamma, and black and white levels. Lagom recommends using your monitor's on-screen adjustments for this.

After the images that help you adjust your monitor, there are a few that help show your subpixel layout, response time, viewing angle, contrast ratio, and subpixel layout. This is all stuff you can't change, and therefore those tests are highly recommended if you want to feel bad about the fancy new monitor you were just feeling good about. Or feel better about your excellent purchasing decision.

The Expensive, Easy Way

The calibration options I've mentioned should be fine for you unless you do a lot of photo editing or graphic design, and you need the colors you see to be exactly the colors that will be printed or show in the final product. If that's the case, not only will you need a really good IPS monitor, but you'll also want to invest in a hardware calibration tool like the i1Display Pro or the DataColor Spyder4. These are easier to use and less subjective than the old eyeball-and-test-image method. Or, if you prefer a non-hardware-based version that still costs money, try DisplayMate, which costs $70 (or $80 with physical media).

Now What?

You're done! Don't forget that many PC games allow you to set in-game brightness, contrast, and gamma from within their graphics menus, so if you find your games aren't looking right you can usually fix that in game.

It's a bummer to have to choose between F.lux and software calibration, but for me the choice was easy. I'm not a photographer or graphic designer, but I do spend a lot of time staring at a computer screen after sundown. F.lux has saved my eyes much grief.

Do you use F.lux? Are there other tips and tricks you can't live without? Anything I missed? Share them in the comments!

Previously on Tested: In 2010 Will Greenwald advocated calibration. In 2011, Wes asked if hardware monitor calibration is still necessary.