LCD, Plasma, CRT & OLED monitors

01/29/2001) – Everybody loves the look: a large, skinny screen that occupies only a sliver of your desktop or hangs like a picture on the wall. And whether you typically work on page layouts, juggle multiple windows, play games, or watch DVD movies, you’ll find that a large screen makes most work easier and most play more fun.

But while 15-inch LCDs have become more affordable in the last year or two, very large flat-screen displays-whether for a desktop, a boardroom, a reception area, or a state-of-the-art home theater-have continued to command astronomically high prices that leave them out of reach for all but businesses with specialized needs, or the super rich.

That is finally changing.

LCD monitors won’t compete in price with their CRT counterparts anytime soon. But the same price drops that have already brought many 15-inch displays under the CDN$1500 mark (see “Dream Screens,” are beginning to make larger LCDs more affordable-less than $2300 in the case of two 17-inchers we review here.

There’s good news about the really big screens used for so-called digital signage (such as gate information at airports), presentations in large boardrooms, and dramatic-looking wall TVs, too. Once priced at $30,000 and up, more and more superlarge, 40-inch-plus plasma displays are dipping below the $15,000 mark. No, they won’t replace standard TVs-or rear-projection systems-in the near future, but upscale consumers who love home theater are already taking them seriously. According to industry observers, plasma’s audience should broaden by 2005, when prices could sink to $6000 or less.

By then, we will probably have new display choices that solve problems today’s offerings don’t even address (see “Future Visions,” below). Technologies such as organic light-emitting diodes promise to unite energy savings and a CRT-quality display in a superthin-possibly even flexible-panel. Meanwhile, advances in ultra-high-resolution screens and microdisplays may offer eye-soothing performance and render extremely clear text in a way that today’s monitors can’t even approximate.

The 17-Inch Solution

So who needs to go larger? Anyone who’s ever tried to write a report in a word processor while doing research in a browser, running a spreadsheet, and keeping an eye on e-mail will appreciate a roomier screen. We looked at four of the latest large LCD models from Eizo Nanao, NEC-Mitsubishi, and Samsung, all offering terrific-looking displays and good value. Text looks so sharp and crisp that most people will feel no eyestrain at these models’ 1280 by 1024 native resolution-although 17-inch LCDs benefit from a larger font size.

The chief strength of NEC Corp. – Mitsubishi Electric Corp.’s MultiSync LCD1700M $2250 is its exceptionally wide viewing angle-160 degrees horizontally and vertically-coupled with decent built-in speakers. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.’s new $2250 SyncMaster 170T has both an analog interface and a newer DVI digital interface; the latter will become useful as more graphics adapters that support digital video output (which offers superior quality for LCDs) appear. Both of the units carry 17-inch screens.

Once the screen sizes exceed 17 inches, prices rise steeply: Some 17-inch monitors are half the price of their 18-inch counterparts. (Blame lower yields for 18-inch screens for this disproportionate price differential.) For example, Eizo’s 18-inch FlexScan L675 screen costs $4350-which is still an improvement over the $4500-plus prices 18-inch LCDs used to command. In the Eizo’s case, you’re also paying for such high-end features as an ultrathin bezel and a screen that can be rotated for landscape or portrait-style viewing.

Even some of the largest screens cost less than they used to. We were impressed by NEC-Mitsubishi’s 20-inch MultiSync LCD2010X, which goes for $6250-not cheap, but far better than the $12000-plus price tags on comparable-size displays of the last few years. And the LCD2010X can handle both analog and DVI digital hookups.

Rhoda Alexander, an analyst with display market research firm Stanford Resources, expects prices to continue falling through the rest of 2001. By year’s end, some 17-inch displays will likely sell for less than $1500, with average prices resting at that mark or slightly higher. But don’t wait beyond then if you’re serious about buying: By early 2002, supply is expected to get tight again, and then prices will stabilize or rise once more.

The Wow Factor

There’s no getting around it: Plasma displays have an undeniable wow factor. Match a high-resolution, 50-inch plasma display with a DVD like Toy Story 2, and suddenly you’re in home entertainment heaven. The on-screen colors are pure, the detail is breathtaking, and the visual impact is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

But plasma screens aren’t just for fun. Scott Evans, product manager for the NEC-Mitsubishi plasma monitor line, estimates that only about 20 percent of the 50,000 to 60,000 plasma displays sold last year went into the homes of the wealthy. Most are used for public displays and corporate multimedia presentations in such high-traffic places as airports, corporate office lobbies, and trade show exhibits.

A relatively new technology that, like the cathode-ray tube, uses phosphors to create images, plasma has some strong points: It’s bright, has a wide viewing angle, and does video very well.

Plasma is subject to image burn-in, however, much as early CRTs were (remember the days when screen savers were more than a personal statement?), and it does lose brightness over time. Display manufacturers have been hard at work on that problem. Craig McManis, vice president of sales and marketing for the industrial displays division of Pioneer New Media Technologies, says that it takes 30,000 hours for his company’s plasma displays to lose half their brightness. An always-on display in an airport might need replacement every three years or so, but that translates into a lot of TV viewing at home.

Plasma screens remain very expensive for mainstream home theater use, but vendors like Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., Pioneer Corp., Samsung, and Sony Corp. all now offer sub-$15,000 panels. Most of these displays work at a resolution of 640 by 480, however, and may not satisfy your image-quality standards.

Pioneer’s 40-inch, 640-by-480 PDP-V402, which costs less than $13500 on the street, is a case in point. At a normal TV viewing distance, our Top Gun DVD looked quite good, but videophiles would doubtless have found the images a bit grainy. Unless viewed from a fairly long distance, Windows applications also tend to look unattractive on such a big, low-resolution screen; and the unit lacks HDTV support.

In contrast, Pioneer’s new, top-of-the-line PDP-502MX, with its 50-inch screen, 3.5-inch thickness, and 1024 by 768 resolution, looks great-and this unit does support HDTV.

Watching the same film on it was entirely different: The colors looked truer, image edges were crisper, and details such as the F-14’s cockpit controls were clearer-all improvements you’d expect from a $19,500 product.

Few of us have that kind of money for home entertainment, however. So while you wait for the prices of plasma screens to come down, Stanford Resources analyst Paul Semenza suggests a good alternative: a $3000 rear-projection TV with a large 50- to 60-inch display.

If you want to purchase a plasma display now, note both the resolution and size: A 40-inch panel might be fine in a boardroom or reception area, but larger rooms will probably need to have a bigger screen. An on-site service warranty is a definite plus. Plasma displays, though thin, weigh more than you might expect and are no fun to cart around. And finally, McManis says that users who want to display data should confirm the screen is Windows Hardware Quality Lab-compliant.

If your budget can’t accommodate a big, flat PC monitor or wall display now, take heart: Prices should continue to slide in coming months and years. That picture on the wall may someday be a Windows app-or your latest DVD movie.

Future Visions: Flexible, Portable, and Ultraclear

While plasma displays, projection systems, and large-format CRTs duke it out for supremacy in the big-screen arena, several emerging technologies promise to solve different display challenges. Some are already appearing in products, but most won’t be commonplace for at least a few years.

Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs): How’d you like a personal digital assistant that you can roll up like a tiny, pencil-size window shade? OLED displays promise to make that roll-up PDA a reality. An emerging competitor to LCD technology, OLEDs use carbon-based (organic) materials that emit light when an electric current passes through them. They don’t require backlighting, and they use far less power than active-matrix LCDs. Their organic materials can be deposited on cheap, flexible plastic instead of on the expensive glass used in LCDs. Some problems remain to be worked out, however, such as how to keep air-borne contaminants from leaking through the porous plastics. Currently paired with glass panels, the first OLEDs have already appeared in car stereo systems and cell phones; expect to see them soon in digital camera displays.

Ultra-high-resolution displays: One reason people don’t like reading books on PCs or on e-books is that the screens are tougher to look at than paper and ink. Part of that problem is the relatively low resolution of a digital display: Notebook LCDs, for example, generally have fewer than 100 dots per inch, whereas any decent laser printer runs text at 300 dpi or more. Vendors are addressing this problem with two technologies that let you crowd more pixels per square inch: Toshiba has been experimenting with low-temperature polysilicon, while IBM has already used amorphous silicon to produce a monitor capable of 200 dpi. Unfortunately, these technologies are still very expensive.

Near-to-eye microdisplays: When you use your laptop on a plane, anybody can look over your shoulder at your work or at that DVD movie you brought. There is a workaround: new displays worn much like a pair of glasses. The image looks huge to your eyes, but your neighbors can’t see a thing. Products have already arrived, including the slick, silver Olympus Eye-Trek series. Several models are available, ranging from an older $825 version to a new, sleeker, lighter, and more powerful $1800 version. That’s not cheap, but it’s definitely more affordable than a big screen or projection display, which is the kind of experience these glasses can approximate.

Prices listed are in Cdn currency.