The Thin Crowd
Go to the Buyer's Guide List to see prices and descriptions
If you've been waiting for the prices of liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors to come tumbling down, there's good news and bad news. The good news is, you can buy one of these thin-profile monitors for less than $1,000. The bad news is, the monitors in this lower-end category should be selling for around $500 or less by now--but they're not. What happened?
"Prices have come down dramatically in the past two years. Five years ago, our first LCD model was a 13-inch monitor that cost $13,000," says Chris Connery, product-line manager for NEC's personal-display division in Itasca, Illinois. "Two years ago, we could see going head-to-head with the prices on traditional cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, but the Asian market almost dried up. All LCDs are made in Japan and Korea, and demand outstripped supply, pushing up prices. The popularity of laptops, PDAs and similar products that use flat-panel technology swamped manufacturers. However, the Taiwanese are coming on board now, opening new factories, so next year we should see prices come down again, but not until the third quarter."
Measuring 2 or 3 inches in depth (a far cry from CRTs that occupy an average of 16 inches on your desk), flat-panel models have several other advantages over their bulky brothers: Their viewing angle is much wider, so several people can see the screen from different angles at the same time; they can be wall-mounted and, using a mounting arm, turned to face any direction (great for spreadsheets and Web surfing); they don't emit light, so static electricity doesn't build up and attract dust; and many have on-screen, touch-panel menu controls for adjustments. They are also brighter and flicker-free, and their power needs are substantially lower. An LCD can also weigh up to 25 pounds less than a CRT.
Do all these advantages mean it's time to switch? By shopping around, you can buy a CRT for as little as $300 these days. If you use your computer mostly for text documents and you have plenty of room on your desk, you may think twice about investing in an LCD now, and instead wait until next year, when that magic $500-and-under price tag is expected to become a reality.
These days, LCDs are available with analog, like CRTs, or digital technology. Analog makes it easy to connect a monitor to a standard PC. You simply plug it in to the correct port and use it. With most digital LCDs, you must buy a graphics adaptor with a digital signal connection to hook up the monitor to your PC, which can add $100 or more to the cost.
Connery believes the difference in quality between analog and digital is debatable. "The average person can't tell that digital is more crisp, and special graphics cards add to your cost," he contends. "At the moment, digital waxes and wanes are due to [the lack of] a unified standard, which is in the process of being established worldwide so we won't need special cards down the road."
Traditionally, PCs have had to change the image signal going to display screens from a native digital format to an analog format because CRT monitors use analog signals to produce on-screen images. Although LCD monitors require a digital signal, the PC industry had created an analog conversion standard in answer to the huge number of CRT monitors already on the market. To ensure plug-and-play compatibility with computers, LCD manufacturers produced flat-panel monitors that reconverted the signal back to a digital format compatible with LCD screens.
Compaq's standard for digital LCDs, called Digital Video Interface (DVI), may soon put an end to this issue. In the coming months, it's likely you'll be hearing more about DVI, as it's en route to becoming a universal standard for digital LCDs by the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA).
Another feature on an increasing number of monitors is USB compatability. USB is an interface for peripherals that allows for a data stream up to 10 times broader than what can be accomplished through a standard serial port, as well as the ability to "daisy-chain" peripherals together through a USB hub.
When purchasing an LCD monitor, there are a variety of other options to consider. Even those with lower price tags contain some innovative features. For example, Samsung's SyncMaster 530 TFT sits on a multimedia stand with built-in stereo speakers and a microphone, has an optional touch-screen and protective glass, plus zoom control to expand screen images two, four or eight times their size. Princeton's 14-inch DPP500 model includes a digital interface so you won't need a special card; an antiglare, hard screen coating; and a 48-hour advance replacement program for the first year. An upgraded version, the DPP550 ($999 street), has a 15-inch screen.
CTX Opto's PanoView 741 LCD flat-panel monitor turns in two directions, while its upgraded version, the 751, tilts up, down and sideways. Both are PC-, Mac- and VESA-compatible, with a USB hub. Compaq's FP700 sits on a flip-out stand, like a photo frame, and NEC's MultiSync LCD1500M comes with four USB ports so you can connect peripherals such as a videoconferencing camera, keyboards, scanners and mice; hot-swappable capability (meaning you can plug in and out without turning the computer off); and front-mounted stereo speakers on the monitor panel.
When shopping for an LCD, request an in-store demonstration and look at these features:
- Brightness. Measured in candlelights per meter and referred to as "nits." The higher the number of nits, the brighter the image.
- Resolution. Measures the clarity of an image in pixels-per-inch. The higher the resolution, the sharper the image.
- Viewing angles.
- Digital or analog.
- Rotational capabilities from traditional landscape to portrait. Some monitors can be turned sideways to get a full portrait view of an image, or a full Web page. Especially convenient in videoconferencing.
- Mounting flexibility to hang on a wall or suspend from a swing-arm or rest on a desk.
- Touchscreens for adjustment controls and menus.
- Automatic save and reset for user controls.
- Security locks so the monitor can't be removed from its base.
Jill Amadio is a freelance writer in Newport Beach, California, who has covered technology for nine years.