Thin Is In--Way InFlat-panel LCDs are the hottest things going. Your next computer monitor just may be flat. At these prices, why not?
If you want to hear a tale of buyer's remorse, talk to any early adopter of flat-panel LCD monitors. Three years ago, I dug deep into my pockets to purchase both an 18-inch and a 15-inch flat-panel display for my business. Based on cutting-edge digital technology, the two monitors were compact, striking, and frightfully expensive. They cost me almost $4000.
How times have changed. Starting in 2000, prices on flat-panel displays began crashing harder than the stock market. Today I can buy a nearly identical pair of LCD monitors for less than $1000. Even more intriguing, there's an incredible selection of innovative products on the market. You can find super-slim monitors that border on art pieces, wide-screen models that can double as home theater displays, and do-it-all units that pack a host of connections, ports, and interfaces into a single box. Quite honestly, it's enough to make an early adopter cry.
The Skinny on Flat
I may be blubbering, but there are a whole lot of people happily snapping up affordable flat-panel displays. In fact, research firm ISuppli/Standford Resources says that by the end of 2003, there will be more flat panels sold than traditional CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors. The study projects that in 2004 LCD sales will outnumber CRT sales by more than four to one.
In short, that CRT monitor lurking on your desk is an endangered species--and it's about time. CRT monitors suck more electricity than any other component in your PC, throw off copious amounts of heat, and generate enough radiation to require that they contain heavy-duty lead shielding. All that, and the screen flicker these displays produce can cause eye strain and headaches.
It's no wonder that computer buyers are driving these aging monitors to the brink of extinction. For as little as $280, you can buy an inexpensive 15-inch flat-panel display that boasts nearly as much screen area as a 17-inch CRT monitor in the $150 to $200 range. These displays feature native resolutions of 1024 by 768 pixels, making them appropriate for light office use, e-mail, and word processing. But wild-eyed multitaskers and game players will want to look for something a little bigger.
Drop another $50 to $100, and you can slip into a nice 17-inch model that ups the screen resolution to 1280 by 1024 pixels. That's a big deal, because unlike CRTs, flat-panel displays will gracefully support only one screen resolution. With 1280 by 1024 pixels on the screen, you can see more cells in a spreadsheet, read documents without scrolling, and more easily view those digital photos you just snapped. While some 15-inch LCDs may let you move up to 1280 by 1024 resolution, they do so through something called pixel interpolation, which can make images look fuzzy.
How does an LCD monitor factor into a new PC purchase? If you're willing to stretch your budget, moving to a 15-inch LCD monitor from a 17-inch CRT adds about $100 to the system price. That gap widens to about $150 when moving to a 17-inch LCD from a 19-inch CRT.
But you don't have to pay extra. If you're buying a new Dell, for instance, and you don't want to increase your budget, you can cut a few corners to land a 15-inch flat-panel monitor. Maybe you end up with 256KB of RAM instead of 512KB. Or maybe you buy a PC with an integrated graphics chip set instead of a tricked-out 64MB video card. The compromise is up to you, based on how you use your PC. But rest assured you can still afford a powerful system. You can get a Pentium 4 processor running at well over 2 GHz and a 40GB-plus hard drive. And your 15-inch flat-panel will have almost the same viewing area as a Dell 17-inch CRT monitor, which actually has a 16-inch viewable surface.
Tricked Up, Tweaked Out
When it comes to flat panels, prices go down, sizes go up, and features are all over the place. With store shelves suddenly glutted by dozens of LCD monitor lines, vendors are scrambling to put enticing new features into their wares. Premium flat-panel displays include tweaks like integrated speakers, dual analog and digital video ports, and even USB ports.
Monitors like the Dell 1901FP and 1703FP feature an integrated USB 2.0 hub that can host up to four connections to USB devices such as digital cameras, printers, mice, and scanners. Others, like the Samsung 150MP and 170MP, have an integrated TV tuner that lets you display broadcasts in full screen or in a picture-in-picture box so you can work on your PC while keeping an eye on the game. Many flat panels can be rotated 90 degrees so the monitor is tall and thin--perfect to display a single full-screen Web page or minimize scrolling for Word documents.
Vendors are also tapping the flexibility of these slim panels. Some models let you detach the display from its base and hang the screen directly on the wall. The NEC LCD1765 features a slim base and foldable support that makes this 17-inch panel easy to pack up for use elsewhere. Finally, a growing number of products feature adjustable stands that make it easy to raise and lower the screen. Most models let you tilt the display as well.
Before You Shop, Consider This...
A word of warning before you start shopping around in earnest: Flat-panel displays still aren't for everyone. Graphic artists and designers who require true-to-life color will find that most LCDs lack the color fidelity of CRT monitors. Likewise, gamers and videophiles may be disappointed by the relatively slow response of the individual pixels on most of these displays. Faced with fast action at high frame rates, many flat panels produce ghosting and smearing effects. The good news is that manufacturers expect to introduce products in the near future that address both of these concerns.
Also keep a sharp eye out for connector technologies. Cheaper LCD monitors--especially 15- and 17-inch models--often have analog VGA connections for hooking up with your PC. That's great if you need to use the display with an older graphics card, but the analog link produces less-than-perfect results. If you're going to the trouble of getting a flat-panel display, first check your graphics card to see if it has a digital visual interface port. If it does, make sure to buy a monitor with a DVI interface. If you must go the analog route, consider a model with both digital and analog connections. That way you can make the switch to DVI with your next graphics board or system purchase.
Screens Get Big... and Wide
If you're used to seeing new PCs advertised with 19-inch CRT monitors and can't bring yourself to think in terms of 15 or 17 inches, don't worry. There are lots of big flat-panel displays out there--for a price. When I bought my 18-inch ViewSonic VP181 three years ago, it was a rare breed. Now a surge of 19-inch flat-panel monitors are hitting store shelves, allowing buyers to maximize their graphics experience. Alas, the vast majority of these 19-inch displays are limited to the 1280 by 1024 resolution of their 17-inch siblings. What does that mean, exactly? Well, all things being equal, the 19-inch display will produce larger text and graphics, but it won't reveal any more information. You'll still be looking at the same group of spreadsheet cells on the 19-inch display as you would on a less-pricey 17-inch model.
If you want to go large, you may be better off hunting for a flat panel that runs at 1600-by-1280 resolution. But it'll cost you. The Planar CT1905S pushes 1600-by-1200 pixels and sells for about $830. By contrast, the 19-inch Planar PL191M, running at 1280 by 1024 pixels, can be had for $650. In the end, buyers who want more pixels (and have deep pockets) may be best off going larger still and getting the Planar PL201M, a 20-inch model that has 1600-by-1200 resolution for $900.
With screens getting this big, it's not hard to imagine using them to view movies and video. After all, if you're going to spend a mint on a computer monitor, you might as well get as much as you can out of it. Enter products like the Sony SDM-V72W Personal Entertainment Display ($1000) and ViewSonic N1700W ($810), a pair of 17-inch flat-panel monitors that offer wide 16:9 aspect ratios tailored for home theater use. For a PC monitor that approaches TV proportions, there's the Samsung SyncMaster 240T. At $3000, this 24-inch behemoth with an 16:9 aspect ratio won't appeal to budget-minded folks. But with 1900-by-1200 resolution and multiple inputs, the 240T can hook up with a digital tuner to display high-definition TV broadcasts.
Making the Move
LCD monitors have been among the sexiest PC peripherals for years. But it wasn't until prices dropped out of the stratosphere that consumers acted. And prices will get more attractive over the coming months, according to ISupply. The average cost of a 17-inch LCD today is about $465. By the end of 2004, the price is expected to fall to $311. The price drops should be even bigger for 19-inch models, which could slide from $728 today to $494 by the end of next year.
PC buyers may be cheering. For me, alas, it's just a reminder of exactly how much I spent on this cool technology just three years ago.
Michael Desmond is managing partner of Content Foundry, LLC, a communications firm serving the high-tech industry. Desmond has written several computer books, including the upcoming Microsoft Office 2003 in 10 Steps or Less from Wiley & Sons. He lives in Vermont with his wife and three kids. His two LCD monitors have, unbelievably, depreciated more than his retirement accounts over the past three years.