A Throwback to the CRT

What produces a quiet high-pitched “squeal” while producing eye fatigue after a while?

If you guessed the CRT – or cathode ray tube – you’d be correct.

The 1991 Macintosh Classic I recently purchased has a 9” black-and-white monitor. The Classic, like all other compact Macs (minus the Color Classic models), can only display 1-bit video. The Classic jogged my memory of CRTs in general, and how painful they could be.

The Classic’s 9″ CRT monitor reminded me of CRTs

I’m thankful to have primarily lived in an era where most computers have LCD/LED “flat panel” displays. CRT-based monitors were on their way out when I was on my way into school. During my kindergarten year, the old Windows 98-based computers my school used CRT monitors. Thankfully, those computers were replaced by the Windows XP-based “Nobilis” computers with Acer LCD displays. As a kid, my first computer (the x486 Gateway 2000 running Windows 3.11) had a Gateway 2000 Crystal Scan CRT monitor connected to it.

The last time I used a CRT monitor was during my internship with the Boonville Daily News. The manager toted in a giant ViewSonic monitor that we connected to an IBM ThinkCentre. After swapping the ThinkCentre out for the MacMini G4 I used, that monitor died after a few weeks of use. It’s “death” was actually quite eventful – there were no flames or sparks, but there was a loud, high-pitched squealing that could be heard all across the building. After unplugging that monitor and replacing it with an equally-vintage ViewSonic, I was back to working.

My (very dirty) desk at the Boonville Daily News in late 2014. It has the second CRT monitor (after the first one died) connected to the 2005 MacMini G4

CRT monitors always gave me headaches when working with them for extended periods of time, something that I don’t get with LCD/LED monitors. I remember taking frequent breaks during my internship so that I could avoid getting a headache.

CRT monitors themselves could be problematic.

One issue was burn-in, which was a real problem with computers where you had a static image that would always be there. (With your Macs, it’s the menu bar. With Windows, it was the task bar.) To combat this problem, screensavers became the norm on computers. (Hence, the name screensavers – as they would save your screen from the burn-in.) My Classic has thankfully been spared from burn-in, likely due to the screensaver it has.

The CRT on the 1991 Macintosh Classic is free of burn-in (likely thanks to the screensaver), but is also bright and crisp

The second problem with CRT monitors was they would wear down over time. This happens to all monitors – but CRTs would especially wear out if used frequently.

CRT monitors could also be a safety hazard, since they are just a glorified vacuum tube. One was the shock risk due to the extremely high voltages needed to draw the image (which could still be present even days after unplugging the monitor), and the other is the implosion hazard.

Despite the negatives, the “CRT days” were a different era of computer. Most computers at that time were interesting and had character. Today, it seems computers are boring.

But who knows what people will saying about the current technology 30 years from now?