If it seems like I’m writing a lot about products these days. . . well, I am. It’s the holiday season, so it’s a good time to be thinking about such things. I have been doing a lot of experimenting with my home computer setup in the past few weeks. I’ve seen a number of people write about the 24″ widescreen Dell monitors (aka Dell UltraSharp 2405FPW 24-inch Wide Aspect Flat Panel LCD monitor) and how great they are purely as monitors, but that’s only half the story. In relative terms, this is a pretty cheap monitor (do a search for “dell coupons” and you’re likely to find a big discount somewhere — I got mine for less than $900 including tax and shipping), but the price belies that fact that you can solve more problems with it than just having a big screen for your computer. I bought one recently and I have pimped it out well beyond my original intentions of just having a big monitor.
Here’s what I have hooked into the five monitor inputs:
- my work laptop using the VGA connector
- a G5 using the DVI connection
- a DirecTivo satellite TV tuner hooked into the S-Video connection
- an XBOX (the old model, not the 360) using the composite connection
- nothing in the composite input yet
The switch on the front of the monitor allows me to switch easily across all these devices, so I can use the monitor for the computer, a satellite TV stream via my DirecTivo, the XBOX, or my work laptop without messing around with cables or other switches. It’s really convenient.
The coolest thing, though (and something that doesn’t seem to be heavily mentioned in what I’ve read about the Dell widescreen) is the picture-in-picture capability. What this means in practical terms is that I can keep a little TV window on my computer desktop while I’m working. I’m a big college basketball fan and during college basketball season, I keep up with the games and spend a lot of time at the computer looking at stats and scores. Now that can be combined on the same screen. Yay.
(I know what some people are thinking — “I don’t watch TV.” Well, this isn’t for you then! An aside on this matter: I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t watch TV — I only watch DVDs of movies and TV shows.” To me, that’s kind of like saying, “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat chicken” — something I’ve heard more than once. Ahem. In this vein, I recommend checking out “Five things (besides a television) that you could constantly remind people you won’t use” on the excellent 5ives.com site by Merlin Mann of 43 Folders fame.)
Here’s a shot of the picture-in-picture capability with my OS X desktop and CNN running in the bottom corner:
Another really nice thing about the Dell monitor is the built-in card reader that sits unobtrusively on the side of the monitor — if you weren’t looking for the card slots, you would hardly even notice them. I use a camera with an SD card, so this feature allowed me to unhook the ugly USB SD card reader device I had hanging off my computer. It doesn’t just do SD cards, though — it can read 8 other types of cards. The monitor also has a USB hub with 4 ports hanging off of it. I threw my old USB hub in a drawer when I got the Dell and the connections on my desk are much cleaner now.
Some people give Dell grief for ripping off the form factor of the new Apple Cinema Displays, but I think this monitor innovates beyond what Apple has done (and I’m no fan of Dell). None of the innovations are rocket science (the SD card reader, the multiple independent inputs including VGA), but they are small touches that make the whole monitor much greater than the sum of its parts. (see the Dell specs vs. the Apple Cinema Display specs for a comparison). Granted, this isn’t necessarily more simple than the Apple product, but it offers more features, and features that I actually needed. (Full disclosure: I don’t have access to a current Cinema Display, so let me know if I’m missing something feature-wise.)
The only (understandable) downside to the Dell monitor is that with all those video sources pumping into the screen, you need a way to handle the audio. The computer audio is easy — just use the speakers you already have hooked up to your computer. To get audio for your TV tuner and/or XBOX, you need to put a stereo receiver in the stack and run the audio output for them through it. This is kind of a drag since your computer audio will be separate.
I tried to figure out a good way to run the audio from my DirecTivo through the Mac, but just couldn’t figure it out. I’m not a total amateur at such things, so I’m surprised it didn’t work. When I ran audio out from the DirecTivo’s optical out into the G5’s optical in, the Sound control panel showed that I was getting audio levels, but the speakers wouldn’t output the audio. If anyone has any tips on how to make this happen, let me know. For now, I have my computer speakers and some regular JBL speakers hooked into a stereo receiver for the DirecTivo and the XBOX.
Despite the minor annoyance of having two sets of speakers, my new setup totally rocks. I highly recommend the Dell if you want a nice monitor — but don’t forget to check out all the other nice benefits beyond the huge display.