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As teenagers in the 1980s, my friends and I dreamed of going off to college and blasting the stereo, watching TV, and studying all at the same time. This, to us, was the ultimate expression of freedom from parental control.

We never imagined that we could do all these things with the help of a computer monitor. With built-in tuners, models with liquid-crystal displays double as stylish, flat-screen TVs -- looking good and saving space at the same time. Hook them up to an antenna or set-top box and they'll handle high-definition television, too. And with LCDs' sharp, sweeping pictures, spreadsheets and presentations have never looked better.

The only downside is the distraction. When I tested Sony's (SNE) aerodynamic MFM-HT75W in my office recently, I couldn't resist flipping out of PC mode to catch the Tour de France live or a rerun of The Daily Show I'd missed the night before. Multipurpose monitors like these have been around for a while, but their prices were high enough to kill the kids' college fund. Now they can be had for under $600.

The best all-around pick is the Sony. Below the extra-wide 17-inch screen, its wide silver frame curves forward gently at an adjustable angle until it touches down on your desk. Inside the sloping nose: a subwoofer and stereo speakers that generate high-quality sound. All the controls are hidden on the side, so you see only the elegant round power button. One downside: Despite producing an excellent image in TV mode, the Sony can't display it in widescreen format, unlike most LCD televisions.

On the other end of the design spectrum is the minimalist ViewSonic VP201b, another HDTV-ready monitor that sells for under $600. ViewSonic framed the 20.1-inch LCD in a simple black bezel that's less than an inch thick and mounted it on a sturdy adjustable base. Also included: a USB hub for connecting peripherals. While the VP201b isn't the best in its class for professional video editors and graphic designers, its sharp picture and excellent contrast are more than good enough for the rest of us.

College digs may not accommodate the giant television screens students are used to at home, but there's no need to settle for a tiny set. The Philips (PHG)Brilliance 230W5VS gives you a spacious 23-inch-wide picture that can easily display two pages of text.

But at nearly $1,500, you're not going to buy the Brilliance for the wide screen alone. So Philips put it in an attractive silver case that will spruce up any dorm room or apartment and loaded it with lots of consumer-friendly frills such as a built-in memory-card reader for viewing digital media as well as a picture-in-picture feature that allows you to surf the Web or write papers and watch high-definition TV at the same time. Dream as we might, my friends and I couldn't have envisioned how far computer monitors would take multitasking.

By Andrew Park


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