When they first came on the scene a few years ago, flat-screen monitors were like the best sports cars: gorgeous but unaffordable. Today, they're more like midsize luxury sedans -- looking sweet as ever, but still not priced like commodities.
I recently tested nine screens in the 15-inch to 19-inch range, splaying them across a desk in my office. People kept stopping by to sample the goods. I turned them away like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. "No flat screens for you!" I barked. I had research to do. Now, though, I can share my thoughts. All but the cheapest flat panels delivered high-quality images. But I discovered a wide range of features -- some of which may sway your purchase.
Of the screens I tried -- from leading players such as Dell and Samsung and smaller makers such as Planar Systems and AOC Monitor -- my personal favorite was a 17-inch beauty from AOC, the LM729. Elegant and user-friendly, it sported silver trim with a black speaker running across the bottom that served as a visual anchor. The display swiveled 270 degrees, making it easy to show images to people beside you. Prices ranged from $400 to $450 on various Web sites, a great value compared with the typical price of $525.
In the 15-inch class, you can't go wrong with any of the top-selling models from Dell, IBM (IBM), or Samsung. They're all well-designed, reasonably priced, and offer decent resolution. But each model had at least one unique feature that might win you over. My vote for the most handy goes to Dell, which built 2 USB ports into the side of its monitor. This is helpful for quickly viewing photos or files that you can transfer with any of a variety of tiny storage gizmos designed for just such a use. If adjustability is key, then consider the IBM ThinkVision L150, whose base swivels a full 360 degrees, or the Samsung SyncMaster 153T, whose screen doesn't swivel, but can rotate from the horizontal to vertical position.
Digital media devotees should consider the Samsung SyncMaster 172MP -- a snazzy monitor with several multimedia features. It comes equipped to receive HDTV signals and includes audio and video inputs, including an S-video line, that allow you to hook up your DVD player or VCR to the screen. But all that functionality has a downside: The adjustment controls are confusing. Press one button the wrong way, and the image vanishes, sending you scurrying to the user guide.
At the high end, there are stunning plasma screens from Fujitsu, NEC (NIPNY), and Samsung measuring 50 inches and up. But prices also can exceed $10,000. Whatever your budget, make sure to test-drive the models in the stores. Seeing really is believing. By Spencer E. Ante