Pros, cons of flat panel monitors

January 17, 2002|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

It looks like a grapefruit half with a laptop computer screen floating above it, but Apple's latest incarnation of the popular iMac is more than a design gimmick. It's an indication that bulky monitors are on the way out.

With the release of the new iMac, Apple is the first major manufacturer to abandon the traditional cathode-ray tube entirely. And the iMac is the first mass-market computer that comes with a flat panel screen as standard equipment.

Although it accounts for only 5 percent of the market, Apple has always been a style-setter, and makers of Intel-based PCs are likely to get the message - that flat is phat.

Flat panel monitors certainly look good - at first glance. They're only an inch or two thick, so they occupy a fraction of the space of standard monitor. They exude a sleek aura of high-tech hip, and many users love their sharp images. Most importantly, they're finally affordable .

Does this mean your next monitor should be a flat screen? Not necessarily. Like most changing technologies, this one has its plusses and minuses.

Traditional monitors use cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), much like those in TV sets. They produce images by passing a beam of electrons over miniscule dots of red, blue and green phosphor that coat the front of the screen. After 70 years of development, manufacturers have learned how to make good, cheap CRTs. An acceptable 17-inch monitor costs as little as $200, a great one is $350. The major knock on the CRT is the depth of the picture tube, which makes monitors ungainly space hogs.

Flat planel monitors use the type of liquid crystal display (LCD) found in laptop computers. They sandwich a thin layer of liquid crystals between layers of polarizing filters and special conductive glass to create an electrical grid with millions of tiny transistors that can be switched on and off to allow pinpoints of light from thin fluorescent tubes to pass through.

Because they don't use an electron gun that requires distance to project its beam, LCDs only have to be thick enough to house a few layers of glass. And they use only a trickle of electricity.

Unfortunately, liquid crystal displays are far more difficult and expensive to manufacture than CRTs. This is particularly true in larger sizes, because their complex circuitry has to be very close to perfect.

As little as 18 months ago, a 15-inch destop LCD monitor cost more than $1,000, and larger displays cost two to three times that much. Even then, all but the best LCD screens lacked the brilliance, refresh speed and color fidelity of cheaper CRTs. But as technology improved and new factories that could produce larger screens came online in Korea and Taiwan, the price of flat panels tumbled while quality increased.

Flat panel displays are still more expensive than CRTs, but the gap is shrinking. You can find a 15-inch LCD monitor for as little as $350 today, although better models are still $500 to $600. Even before Apple's announcement, Gateway was selling a system with a 15-inch flat screen for $999.

According to International Data Corp., 15 percent of the monitors sold last year were LCDs, and IDC predicts it will jump to 23 percent this year. Some analysts expect prices to rise slightly as demand catches up with a temporary oversupply, but all expect flat panels to increase market share.

Does this mean a flat panel screen is right for you? If saving space is your primary consideration and you're willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars extra, the answer is yes. Otherwise, consider the pros and cons.

First, you'll have to settle for a somewhat smaller screen with an LCD. Today's most popular tube-based monitors measure 17 inches diagonally, compared to 15 inches for affordable LCDs. But the viewable area of a 17-inch tube is only 16 inches in most cases, while flat panels use the whole screen. That diminishes the difference. However, if you want a larger monitor for desktop publishing, photography or aging eyes (19-inch CRTs are increasingly popular), you'll need a truckload of money for a bigger flat panel.

Second, unless you buy a premium flat panel screen, the display won't be as bright as a CRT, and the image will fade slightly when viewed from an angle. Flat panels are less likely to flicker the way some tubes do under fluorescent light, but they aren't as fast at refreshing the screen. This makes them less attractive for gamers who crave action.

A crisp display of text and images is one of the LCD's major selling points. This is largely a matter of taste - some people appreciate it, while others find that the LCD's crisp dot definition produces text that seems jagged.

A problem I've found is that LCD screens are designed to work best at a particular resolution - typically 1,024 by 768 pixels on a 15-inch monitor. This produces text and icons that are too small for my middle-aged eyes. Changing the display to a lower resolution, such as 800 by 600 pixels, produces noticeable fuzzing of text on most LCDs I've tried.

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