If you haven’t been following the less popular technical discussions going on these days, you might miss the renewed discussion of the merits of CRTs or CRT screens. Yes, we are talking about the original “tube”, which is now practically replaced by various flat panel technologies.
Believe it or not, there is a whole generation of people who have probably never seen a CRT in real life! So why are people in tech circles talking about this old technology today? What are CRT monitors used for? Aren’t modern displays better?
It turns out that the answer to these questions can be more complex than you might think. Are there any good reasons to want a CRT in 2019?
Looks Good in Any Decision
One of the biggest drawbacks of flat screens is their native resolution. In other words, they have a fixed physical grid of picture elements. So, the Full HD panel has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. If you send a lower resolution image to such a panel, it needs to be scaled so that multiple physical pixels act as one virtual pixel.
Scaled images used to look terrible on an LCD, but today’s upscaling solutions look great. So this is no longer a problem.
However, CRT images look good at any resolution. This is because there are no physical pixels in this display technology. The image is drawn on the inside of the screen using electron beams, so no scaling is required. The pixels are simply drawn at the correct size. Thus, even relatively low resolution images look nice and smooth on a CRT.
It has been a good way to improve performance in 3D applications and video games in the past. Just lower the resolution to get a smoother picture. With the advent of LCD technology, you pretty much had to display the image at its original resolution, which meant shrinking angles in other areas such as texture and lighting detail.
Using a CRT for high quality 3D applications means you can lower the resolution, keep it attractive, and get good performance. Almost no visual effect compared to the same action on the LCD.
Blur Free Motion
Flat panel LCDs use a display technique known as “fetch and hold,” in which the current frame remains completely static on the screen until the next frame is ready. CRTs (and plasma screens) use a pulsed method. The frame is drawn on the screen, but immediately begins to fade as the phosphor loses energy.
While sampling and holding may sound excellent, the perceptual effect is a blurry image in motion due to the way we perceive visible motion. Sampling and holding is not the only cause of unwanted image blur on LCD screens, but it is one of the most serious.
Modern screens either use some form of “motion smoothing”, which results in the dreaded “soap opera” effect, or insert black frames in between normal screens, which results in reduced brightness. CRTs can exhibit sharp movement without loss of brightness and therefore can look much better when playing video.
Incredible Black Levels
Due to the way LCDs work, it is nearly impossible to display true blacks in an image. The LCD panel consists of the LCD itself with its array of color-changing pixels and backlighting. Without backlighting, you won’t see the image. This is because LCDs do not emit any light by themselves.
The problem is, when a pixel turns off and goes black, it doesn’t block all the light coming from behind it. The best you can get is something like a gray tone. Modern LCD screens make up for this much better: multiple LEDs illuminate the panel evenly and dim the backlight locally, but true blacks are still not possible.
On the other hand, CRTs can display blacks almost perfectly due to the way they paint on the back of the screen. Modern technologies like OLED work in much the same way, but are still too expensive for regular consumers. Plasma in this respect was also very good, but it was abandoned. So right now in 2019, the best black levels can still be found on CRTs.
Some legacy content is designed for CRT devices
If you enjoy using retro content that includes older video games released before HD consoles and standard 4: 3 aspect ratio video content, it might be best to watch them on a CRT.
It’s not that using this content on a modern flat panel is bad by any measure, it’s just that the creators didn’t use it as a reference. So what you see will never be exactly what they intended.
Some video games have actually used CRT features to create effects like flowing water or transparency. These effects don’t work or look strange on modern flat panels. This is why CRTs are popular and in demand among retro gamers
Why don’t you want a CRT in 2019
While CRTs are objectively superior to even the best modern flat panel displays in many ways, there is also a long list of downsides! After all, there is a reason the world has moved to newer display technology.
It’s also important to remember that flat panel displays were much worse during the shift than they are today, but people thought the benefits of LCDs were generally better.
CRT screens are huge, heavy, power-consuming and less suited for work and widescreen movies. While their resolution limits are not a big issue for video games, any serious work turns into fighting low-resolution text and a lack of free desktop space.
Despite the large size, the actual screen dimensions are tiny compared to flat panels. Of course, there is no monster CRT equivalent of 55 inches or more that we have today. Despite the significant advantages of image quality and movement of CRTs over even the best modern flat panels, only a small group of people are willing to put up with the long list of disadvantages associated with using CRTs.
So if you are thinking about diving into the world of CRTs, make sure you know what you are getting yourself into.