The Amiga 4000 Tower: The Monitor

Decisions, decisions...

By Michael Webb, Editor-in-Chief, MikeWebb@CompuServe.COM

Now, as you probably know, using an Amiga makes buying a monitor for it a somewhat more involved decision than buying one for a PC or Macintosh. This is because the Amiga's standard display modes run at the video-compatible horizontal frequency of about 15.75 kHz, while modern PC's and Macs generally run at 31.5 kHz or higher. Since the days of the ECS, Amigas have supported such modes ("VGA scan rates"), but a lot of software used the 15.75 kHz modes by default, and allowed no choice. Many Amiga users have stuck with video monitors like the 1084S, tough on the eyes in interlaced and non-interlaced modes alike, but guaranteed to be compatible. Only the lucky owners of display enhancers (e.g. FlickerFixer, FlickerFreeVideo 2, or Amiga 3000(T)) were spared the expense of a multiscan monitor if they wanted both an ergonomic display, and compatibility. That is, unless they were into video, in which case they probably needed one anyway. Either that, or multiple monitors.

I have had an FFV2 in my A500 for some time, and it has made at least this part of life pleasant. Although I use a multiscan monitor (the CD-1401) with it, any VGA monitor would have worked most of the time. I knew that moving to AGA would change things, however, and that a versatile monitor would be a necessity. While a display enhancer simply intercepts the video signal at the hardware level, and is completely transparent to software (and software, in turn, can't "defeat" it), AGA, with its video bandwidth so significantly increased over that of the ECS, took the different approach of simply providing non-interlaced versions of the popular modes, capable of displaying just as many colors. I'm not sure if that decision was the wisest, but I'll get more into that in my "Chipset" section.

So What to Do?

Unfortunately, our choices are drastically narrowed these days, as most so-called "multiscan" monitors no longer sync below 31.5 kHz. Commodore always provided monitors for use with Amigas, however, and Amiga Technologies followed along with its own Amiga-specific lineup, having Microvitec do the manufacturing. Consequently, today, Amiga users have the option of purchasing 14-, 15-, and 17-inch monitors that support all of AGA's modes (and therefore all of ECS's and OCS's). And to make things more interesting, a 20-inch Toshiba monitor/TV that also syncs into the 15.75 kHz range has been available as well.

So that's essentially "Amiga Monitors and Video 101." I started thinking about a monitor about the same time I started thinking about an A4000T, back in the beginning of 1997. And since I was on a "bigger is better" theme at the time, I decided to go with the big 17-inch Amiga-specific monitor. I remembered the negative reviews of the 14-inch version when it was introduced a few years ago, but I had heard that the entire line had come a long way since then.

Let me tell you, I've had my share of bad experiences with monitors. When I decided to take my Amiga 500 beyond the 15.75-kHz barrier, I had to lay out a large sum of cash to cover the Super Denise, display enhancer, and multiscan monitor. This was not a mass purchase I took lightly. I decided to use the November 1994 AmigaWorld three-monitor review as an information source. I looked for Creative Computers's AD-1970, but couldn't find one anywhere; instead, I ordered CEI's A-1962. I was thrilled with it at first; the display was bright, colors were bold, and details were clear and sharp. Then it started periodically letting out a loud, high-pitched scream. I took this as a bad indication of the monitor's overall "health," and arranged an exchange. Along the way, something possessed me to exchange for CD Solutions's CD-1401. This was a mistake. To summarize, at first, no matter how I adjusted it, the screen was too wide to support good overscan, and was just plain too wide for use with my PC; there was one line that was always warped to one side, and a visible warp repeatedly moved from the top of the screen to the bottom; the colors were fairly dull and the display dim; and Super72 didn't work (this later turned out to be a problem with the FFV2, and I still don't know why). Things got more interesting when the display turned mostly orange with neat streaming effects running continuously across the display. That monitor went back and forth between New York and California four times each way (other times, it turned purple, and later, green). We eventually considered it a loss, and simply began to tolerate its partially warped display with either no blue at all or way too much blue, depending on the monitor's mood. This is an experience I will not forget. All this time, I wondered why these $500 monitors could not match the extraordinarily cheap 14-inch VGA monitor that came with my PC. Its display isn't particularly sharp, but it is solid, and the colors are excellent.

I don't mean to gripe, but rather to lay the groundwork for a very understandable uneasiness on my part upon my next foray into the monitor market. But, the A4000T would need a monitor, so I prepared myself for more "fun," and went for it. I ordered the 17-inch Amiga monitor (no connection to The Amiga Monitor, of course...) from Software Hut in the middle of the summer, thinking I would have plenty of time to try it out with the A500 until I bought the A4000T. It arrived quickly enough. And sure enough, the monitor nightmare was to continue.

First Offense

When I first powered up the monitor, I was alarmed by a very significant bowed warp, but fortunately, this was easily remedied through one of the monitor's geometry adjustments. The next thing I noticed, however, was that the 1764 shared the CD-1401's moving warp, and later, when I tried it with the PC in 1024x768, I saw that it was intolerably blurry. And I don't mean anything like the fuzziness of my cheap VGA monitor; everything was clearly out of alignment. I soon observed that the bottom of the monitor was very badly scratched and marked up, and that it had been manufactured over a year before. All of this pointed to the possibility of a used monitor that some dissatisfied customer had returned. I was not pleased about this; nor was I pleased about what came next, which I can describe only as a "runaround." First of all, because of Software Hut's 15% "restocking fee" on all "refunded" items (even on defective(!) merchandise), given the high cost of the monitor, I was going to lose at least $100 if I chose not to continue doing business with them. Now, I can understand instituting a restocking fee to protect against abuses (i.e. customers returning merchandise for no particular reason), but for a defective item? Anyway, they directed me to speak to Electrohome, who does their repairs; Electrohome then agreed with me that warranty repair on out-of-box-defective merchandise is absurd. Software Hut would do an exchange, and I felt I had no choice. Of course, I would have to wait at least a month until they got some new units in. At least the word "new" gave me an ounce of faith.

But I was rapidly losing faith. And I was particularly frustrated with having to return the monitor, because aside from its problems, I was impressed with it.

Strike Two

Eventually, the replacement monitor arrived, and I felt as though I had finally reached Monitor Nirvana. It was every bit as good as the first, but without the first monitor's problems, and also without the "Amiga Technologies" badge, and now called the "GPM 1701" (things change over the course of a year). So what is good about this monitor? Many things, actually. First of all, it is a flat-screen 17-inch monitor supporting all AGA display modes. Second, the display is bright and details are sharp. I see no warps, and I can adjust all screens to fit as I please. Speaking of adjustments, the monitor performs this task by way of an OSD (On-Screen Display) which may seem awkward at first if you're used to simple knobs and dials, but is very comprehensive and helpful. Aside from a variety of size, position, and screen geometry controls, it features color control and various advanced features. One of the nicest is its ability to memorize entire sets of settings for up to 32 different signals and recall them when it receives those signals (i.e. any new screen mode will appear in the same position, size, etc. as it did when you last used it), something terrifically useful in the case of an Amiga with its multiple display frequencies, many of which can be used at one time (although only one, of course, is actually displayed at one time). And for those pesky electromagnetic disturbances, the monitor can even degauss itself. Did I like this monitor? Yes, you could say that. It made the CD-1401 look even more like, well, you know. I'm sure I wouldn't be so dazzled were I more familiar with modern monitors with their own OSD's and the like, but I can tell you, this is a good monitor. And it's Amiga-specific, which is even better. But, of course, it too would soon fall from grace.

After I had been using the monitor for about a week, one morning, I heard a loud pop, and looked to see the display go black, and then come back into focus, as if resynching. I wasn't even using the computer at that moment. I was concerned, but there was nothing else I could do, until much later that day I saw that the top centimeter or so of the display had suddenly become parallelogrammed to the left. To this day, I don't know if the two events were related, but I do know that a few minutes later, while my back was turned, the entire display turned into a single bright horizontal line. This meant the monitor was no longer scanning vertically, definitely not a good thing. Minutes later, that too disappeared (though if this ever happens to you, and you have hope for the monitor's eventual repair, don't leave the monitor on for more than those few minutes, because a partially stationary electron beam produces a very bright image that will burn into the phosphors in no time flat). All this time, I noticed a faint electronic squeak coming from the monitor every half-second or so.

Can you imagine what I was thinking at this point? Good, because this is a "family-oriented publication," and I'd best leave such things open to imagination. Anyway, I got more or less the same story from Software Hut this time, once again being referred to Electrohome, and once again having Electrohome agree with me that it would be unfair to me, the customer, to do warranty repair on an "out-of-box" (one week's time qualifies) defective item. Once again, Software Hut would do the exchange, but I would have to wait for a new batch to show up. But this time, because "nothing had been found to be wrong" with the first one I returned (a real joke), I was presented with the opportunity (although "threatened" seems the more operative word) to pay shipping on the new one if the second one, too, was found to be "just fine." I laughed to myself and assured them that they would find something wrong with it. Anyway, I gritted my teeth and once again threw fate to the winds, and kept my eye on the calendar.

Third Time's the Charm

By this point, you're probably thinking I'd be a fool to go through this a third time. I was beginning to think the same thing, and gave very serious consideration to just buying a Picasso IV and a nice high-quality 17-inch monitor, and forgetting about 15.75 kHz. But I was more or less locked into completing this transaction with Software Hut because of the restocking fee, and once again, despite the problems, I was very pleased with the monitor's specifications and capabilities. So with all this in mind, I waited patiently for Monitor #3 (although by now I was so jaded with the experience that I didn't put much thought into it, and just went along using my widely-traveled cheap VGA monitor). It showed up, and with dark cloud hovering, I set it up, and got underway. All too often when one has a long string of exchanges on a particular product, one unit seems to correct the previous one's problems, only to introduce some new ones of its own. I was very pleased to see that, in this situation, that did not occur. The monitor had every positive characteristic of each of the two before it, but without any of the problems (only that the colors aren't as bold as I would like, but I've never seen anything but the A-1962 match my cheap VGA monitor). It has been going along for a few months now, and I've yet to hear a pop, see a parallelogram, or observe the formation of a bright horizontal line. Thank goodness.

What it All Means

I probably need not point out that this has been a wild ride. Also, it has been a lot more than the majority of new users would tolerate. I am a seasoned "old" Amiga user, and knew what I wanted, and so I got it, amid a ton of frustration and annoyance. Not to mention the cost of shipping two LARGE defective monitors back to Software Hut. But the point is, once again I must paraphrase Steve Duff and denounce this blatant unprofessionalism. There is no excuse for sending customers items that have been returned, with little or no attempt made to repair whatever the first user found dissatisfying (IF...I repeat IF this is what actually happened; it seems that way, but I cannot verify it). Further, there is some lingering resentment about our dealings with Software Hut.

But nothing is perfect, and under the right conditions, the best of intentions can become huge problems to a consumer. I have dealt with Software Hut a number of times over the years, and I generally respect them as a competent, level-headed, accommodating Amiga dealer. Had this monitor been the only item I ever purchased from them, I probably would hesitate to do business with them ever again. But I've known them longer than that, and it isn't their usual routine. It can be taken as a sign of faith that I returned to them to buy the A4000T itself, and that when I did so, shipping and Distant Suns were included free of charge. I don't know if this is regular procedure for something so expensive, or if it was related to our monitor dealings, but I did appreciate it. And, I will almost undoubtedly buy from them again in the future. But I still will not forget this experience. The point has to do with impressions, and the dire need to bring some new users aboard the Amiga platform. We don't know exactly what these customers will want, but there is no doubt they will be expecting favorable dealings with the dealers, and good customer service. Some things are going to have to improve.

But what about the monitor itself? As I probably made clear, I am very pleased with the GPM 1701. It is an excellent monitor. But it is the third one I have had. All indications would seem to be that they had some quality control problems on their first run, but after that, made some improvements. But that still fails to explain the second monitor's sudden death. I don't know what the problem is, but I hope Amiga International and Microvitec are working on it -- and very diligently, at that. One thing's certain: all things being equal, if monitors (or the money to buy them) grew from trees, so to speak, I would buy another one of these for the A500 in a heartbeat. But given that money isn't really so easy to come by, I do not feel confident that I would be able to do so, and expect an equally superior monitor. Or one that doesn't die after a week. In any event, I am too war-weary to tolerate a back-and-forth ping-pong game of monitors going between my home and Software Hut. I may finally be a satisfied customer, but the damage has been done.

So what is my recommendation? I am going to have to go out on a limb to say this, but since that's my job, here goes: I believe the GPM 1701 may be the ultimate Amiga-supporting monitor, by virtue of its capability and size. It may be a good choice even if you don't need sub-31.5-kHz modes. It is undeniable, however, that there have been problems with the line. I believe Steve Duff experienced total death of his own monitor not too long after purchase. It is a tricky situation. Let's put it this way: if I really were in the market for a new monitor for my A500, I would order another GPM 1701. Yes, you read me right; I really would buy another one of these. Why? I personally believe that the biggest problems came with the units manufactured earlier on. The death of my second one may have been a "freak accident," a rare event precipitated by who-knows-what, and unlikely to repeat. On the other hand, that may be wrong, and it could be a very real quality-control problem.

I think this is a high-quality monitor that finally has itself sorted out. But although three is an inordinately high number of units for one person to have, especially in a half-year's time, it is a small sample. Don't just take my word for it. If you are thinking of buying a full-range multiscan monitor for an Amiga, you may very well wish to look into the Amiga International line of monitors. If you can, try before you buy. Otherwise, choose a reputable and reasonable dealer (I am not saying Software Hut does or does not fall into this category; that is really open to your interpretation). Obviously, I can't say "you can't go wrong"; based on my experiences, you very well can. But if things go well, I believe they will go very well.

All things considered, I feel as though I've landed a keeper with the GPM 1701 monitor for the A4000T. I have not forgotten the frustration, but I believe this monitor was worth the wait.