Flat screens available at thin prices

With their recent rapid nosedive in price, flat-panel displays are now affordable alternatives to bulky CRT monitors for many, or maybe most, users. The wary buyer, however, can be forgiven for wondering what a user is giving up with these sub-US$500 flat panels. The quick answer is nothing – these are the same monitors that were selling for US$200 to US$500 more just a month ago.

For the past year, I’ve worked with a succession of flat-panel monitors, most often 18-inch models. In no particular order, I’ve used displays from the following companies: NEC-Mitsubishi Electronics Display of America Inc., Philips Electronics NV, ViewSonic Corp., Nokia Corp. (its monitors are now a division of ViewSonic), Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and Sharp Electronics Corp.

Many of these displays are 18-inch panels priced at US$3,000 a year ago and maybe US$1,200 today. Was there a design or production breakthrough to justify such a dramatic change? Hardly. The price drop is fundamentally a marketing manoeuvre inevitable, but sooner than expected and a welcome development for users.

But it was a manufacturing consideration that led to the recent introduction of 17-inch LCD monitors. Just a tad smaller than their 18-inch predecessors, they’re considerably cheaper to make, with higher yields and less waste. Though 17-inch displays are now appearing at prices of about US$1,000 to US$1,100, they’re so new, I’ve had the chance to try only two of these units, one from IBM and the other from Samsung.

Sharpening the Technology

The most recent LCD development comes from Sharp, which has introduced a 16-inch LCD for US$849. Indeed, the Sharp unit is so new, it arrived just one day before my original deadline for this review. Sharp has long been a flat-panel supplier to others, but the new units represent the first to appear under the company’s own brand.

These monitors have some very effective technology that offers increased brightness and contrast and really black blacks. Smaller than the others, the Sharp unit still operates at a native resolution of 1,280 by 1,024 pixels, like the 17- and 18-inch monitors, and its slightly smaller pixels result in an image that appears to be sharper. The Sharp is perhaps the most interesting of all of the monitors I reviewed.

Before discussing specifics, however, I need to say that there isn’t a loser in this bunch. A few monitors stand out for apparent brightness, contrast and sharpness, but the rest aren’t bad. I’d be happy to live with any of them.

I liked the Sharp as soon as I unpacked it. Yes, the display is smaller than the 17- and 18-inch units, but Sharp has also considerably pared down the plastic housing.

Flat-panel monitors are famous for their footprints being smaller than those of corresponding CRT monitors, but a large panel can still be pretty imposing. The Sharp is one of the thinnest units I’ve seen; it doesn’t dominate my desktop the way bigger monitors do. The base is about the same size as the others, but Sharp has cleverly designed it to hold the relatively large power brick all LCD monitors seem to need.

Finally, the Sharp appeals to me because the control buttons work easily and well, and there’s an auto-configuration setting that takes care of most of what you need.

On the downside, I have to mention two things. First, the unit actually died after a day of operation. This appears to have been caused by a defective power brick; I’ve never seen anything like it. Second, when I switched resolution from the native 1,280 by 1,024 pixels to 1,024 by 768, the screen image was letterboxed that is, in a different proportion than before, with unused black areas on the top and bottom. This is unusual, but after a minute or two, I wasn’t aware of the difference.

I was most impressed by the Philips Brilliance 180P right out of the box. It, too, seemed sharper than others.

Bright Lights

I had great hopes for the new IBM monitors, but after using the 17-inch T750 for just a few minutes, I was disappointed. It didn’t seem quite as crisp as the Philips (I wasn’t able to compare them side-by-side), though the resolution was equivalent and the contrast was outstanding.

To investigate this, I used DisplayMate for Windows (www.displaymate.com), a diagnostic program that’s useful for monitor setup and testing, from DisplayMate Technologies Corp. in Amherst, N.H. After going through DisplayMate’s setup program, I cut the monitor’s brightness considerably and its contrast by a lesser degree.

After that adjustment, images were noticeably clearer and crisper. This demonstrates the importance of proper setup for desktop LCD panels. It’s much easier to do now than it was a few years ago, and several monitors automate many of the most complex steps. Still, this was the first LCD monitor I’ve looked at in two years that didn’t seem to be well adjusted out of the box.

What’s the best flat-panel monitor? Take your pick. A few stood out from the rest for subjective image quality, but none of the others were bad. All were better than similar panels I tried a year ago.

With an unlimited budget, I’d likely opt for the US$1,299 18-inch Philips. If I were trying to squeeze out every penny, I’d probably pick one of the US$499-class 15-inch panels, such as the IBM T540 (which only reaches that price when bought with a system). With just a little more money, I’d try very hard to get the Sharp, a nice compromise in both size and price.