The monitor is probably the most underrated component of any computer system. Not only can cheap monitors be hard on the eyes, but smaller-sized screens can also reduce productivity by forcing you to constantly open, close, and shuffle windows on the screen.
For this reason, it makes sense to get a monitor that's well-suited to your workload. For most users, that means starting with a 17-inch screen. This size screen provides substantially better visibility than a 14- or 15-inch screen but is much less expensive (and takes up much less desk space) than the 19- or 21-inch monsters that are better-suited to graphics professionals.
A 17-inch monitor will typically operate at a 1,024 x 768 resolution (as with projectors, this resolution is often referred to as XGA). Make sure the monitor offers this resolution at a refresh rate of at least 72 Hz, or you'll feel as though you're watching a strobe light. Resolutions higher than XGA are nice in theory, but most users will find that 17-inch monitors aren't large enough for extended viewing of 1,600 x 1,200 pixel images. For fine on-screen detail, look for a dot pitch of 0.28 or less. Smaller dot pitches translate to a finer image, particularly when working with smaller fonts or fine lines.
One monitor that definitely deserves a look is the Philips Brilliance 107. With outstanding 0.22 dot pitch for detailed images, it comes with built-in speakers, and can be used with PCs or, using the included adaptor, with Macs. The monitor sells for less than $400 and offers resolutions of up to 1,600 x 1,200. Or try the Sony CPD-201VS. For about $50 more than the Philips model, you'll get better speakers.
For more on computer monitors, see May's "Bytes" column.