Passing The Screen Test

Monitors are using more sophisticated technology-and prices are dropping

So you just bought a spiffy new computer system: multimedia capability, high-resolution monitor, the works. Text and graphics look great. But those videos. They're so dark and murky. What a disappointment. You can't do much about it today, but please stand by. Some new technology coming down the Infopike will help a lot.

The technology behind the television-style monitors that we use hasn't improved much since the mid-1980s. But I'm writing this column using an LCD1280 desktop display from NEC Technologies (800 632-4636). Although the screen measures just 13 inches from corner to corner, the display's extremely high resolution--1,280 by 1,024 pixels--lets it show as much information as a conventional 20-in. monitor. And while cramming more into a smaller area causes text and images to shrink, you can comfortably sit much closer to an LCD screen than to a TV-type monitor.

CLOSING THE GAP. The LCD1280 was introduced last year with a staggering $11,750 price tag. But this month, NEC is coming out with a new 13-in. version at $6,000 and a 12-in. model at $4,000. Such prices are still way too high for these units to grace many desktops--a top-of-the-line 20-in. monitor costs around $2,000. But flat-panel screen prices are expected to continue to plunge, and desktop units cheap enough for real-world budgets may not be that far away.

Just look at what's happening in laptops. A year ago, a 10.4-in. active-matrix was found only on $5,000-plus notebooks. Now they're turning up on laptops in the $2,500 class, such as the IBM ThinkPad 365C. The price differential between active-matrix and the older, less vivid passive-matrix screens is down to about $500. At the top end, several manufacturers are offering laptops with 12-in. displays. Because the full area of a flat panel is viewable, while a considerable part of a cathode-ray tube screen is lost within its case, a 12-in. laptop screen has nearly the same viewing area as a 14-in. monitor. Flat-panel makers, such as Sharp and Hitachi, are ready to make bigger displays, but that would require a bigger laptop case.

The trusty CRT monitor is also due for an overhaul. Current monitors are designed to make text on the screen as crisp and readable as possible, hence the poor appearance of videos and other images. Later this year, NEC will introduce new monitors that use a technology different from either of the two borrowed-from-TV systems used by current CRTs.

STRONG PALETTE. Prototype units that I have seen give much livelier video images without sacrificing text quality. No pricing has been announced, but the new displays will likely be competitive with current high-quality models.

Two other display techniques may also make an impact soon. New plasma technology being developed by Sony, Fujitsu, and others could be used to build flat-panel screens as large as 50 in. Sony demonstrated a 24-in.-by-15-in., 3.75-pound prototype Plasmatron at last fall's Comdex trade show. While blues are a little weak, other colors are lively, and the images are very sharp. For even bigger displays, Texas Instruments' Digital Micromirror Device (DMD) technology could produce much brighter projection systems for presentations or home theaters. The first product to incorporate the device, the $9,500 Diamond D-400 from nView (800 736-8439), claims to project a viewable computer image in normal room lighting.

Consumer devices that employ either the Plasmatron or the DMD technology are at least a couple of years away. But you can bet there's a bigger, brighter--and maybe even cheaper--display in your future.