Flat Panels for the Masses

Back in 2001, I predicted that the days of the CRT monitor as a computer display were numbered. The CRT's number, it seems, has now come up. The prices of flat-panel displays have fallen so low, and their quality has so improved, that except for people on the tightest of budgets, there's not much reason to buy a TV-type computer display.

You can now buy a 15-in. liquid-crystal display monitor for as little as $250 and a 17-in. for $400 or less. And 18- and 19-in. monitors, which are becoming increasingly popular at the lower prices, can be had for $600. Even some 20-in. models, which are significantly more expensive, are pushing the $1,000 barrier. In each class, however, you also can spend substantially more for what seems to be a similar product. How do you choose?

The cheapest products are often end-of-life models priced for clearance and can be excellent buys. Beyond that, a large number of factors determine the price of a display, of which I think only a few are important to consumers -- particularly size, resolution, and adjustability.

Unlike CRTs, where the screen resolution is determined by software, flat-panel technology provides an optimal display at only one resolution setting. Typically, this is 1024-by-768 pixels for 15-in. models and 1280-by-1024 pixels for 17-, 18-, and 19-in. products. That means that if you use a computer with monitors in any of these three larger sizes, what you see on the screen will be the same -- a full-screen spreadsheet, for example, will display the same rows and columns. But everything will be enlarged a bit on an 18-in. model, and a little bigger yet on a 19. Many users with less than perfect vision will find type on the 17-in. models too small. You can compensate for this through various settings, but it's a tedious chore. You would be much better off buying a monitor that is comfortable at the default settings.

New sizes are on their way, with a move to widescreen models, where a 17-in. screen is 14.4-by-9 in. instead of the standard 13.5-by-10. These displays, which are ideal for watching movies or working on big spreadsheets, are appearing on a variety of laptops. Sony (SNE) and Samsung each offer one widescreen specialty display, but I expect many more by yearend at prices equal to or lower than current models.

For most users, the less expensive models will be more than adequate. As you pay more, chances are you'll get features you have no real use for. For example, many of the most expensive displays come with advanced, color-matching technology that allows the user to change the overall color balance. This is essential for graphic artists, who must match what they see onscreen to what will appear on a printed page, but most ordinary users will never even figure out how to use it. Some premium models can rotate 90 degrees and come with software that will switch the computer display from the normal horizontal mode to vertical. Again, few users will find this to be of much value. Speakers built into the monitor can be handy, but the sound quality usually isn't very good. So don't pay extra for speakers unless you know you'll use them.

There are a couple of extras that some buyers may consider worthwhile. One is adjustability. Most of the cheaper displays allow you to adjust screen tilt and not much else. You can turn the display from side to side by rotating the whole unit. Better models include both a swivel and a height adjustment. The latter is especially important if you put your monitor on a desk or stand that doesn't let you adjust the monitor height independently of the keyboard height.

More expensive monitors often provide for both analog and digital video input. Just about all computers today have an analog video connector -- a trapezoidal socket, usually colored blue. Many also provide a digital link -- a rectangular connector, usually white. Digital video offers somewhat better quality and is gradually displacing the old analog standard. Since LCD displays should last far longer than computers, getting a model that includes digital input could be a smart move.

There are lots of companies making quality products, and the specifications of these monitors look very much alike, so neither brand name nor data is a lot of help in choosing. The best way to pick a display is to see it in action before buying by checking out both the image and the adjustments. Monitors vary in subtle ways, as do tastes, and you are going to be looking at that screen for a long time. By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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