The Skinny On Svelte Screens

Flat computer displays are getting easier on the eyes--and on the pocket

My first personal computer, an Apple II+, used a television set as its display. Nearly two decades later, nearly all desktop computers still use the same sort of cathode-ray-tube (CRT) monitors. Heavy and bulky though they are, these modified TVs are bright, crisp, and relatively cheap. But a couple of new products demonstrate that better and cheaper flat-panel displays could soon make computers less bulky.

I'm writing this using a new Compaq Computer TFT500 flat-panel display. Its true 15.1-in. screen has about 90% of the viewing area of the 17-in. CRT it replaced. At $3,800, compared with $750 and up for a good CRT, the TFT500 is a luxury item. A year ago, it would have cost at least twice as much. NEC Technologies and Panasonic offer 14-in. models for around $2,700, and prices could fall by half again over the next year. And if you want a flat panel on a tight budget, Monorail is using less costly flat panels on its entry-level computers.

SMALL FOOTPRINT. One of the disadvantages of even the relatively bright flat displays, which generally use something called active-matrix technology (table), is that they are dimmer than CRTs. But on the TFT500, I had to turn down the brightness and contrast to work comfortably. Thanks to improvements in such things as backlighting and pigments, the active-matrix screen is perfectly flat, flicker-free, and can be viewed at wide angles.

The biggest plus for flat-panel displays is their light weight and small footprint. The 20-pound Compaq is just 9 in. deep. Compaq's initial target market is financial trading rooms, where the need for multiple monitors puts a premium on desk space.

Even the best liquid-crystal displays have their drawbacks. LCDs don't show rapidly changing images very well, for example. This isn't a problem in most business applications but can create jerky displays and ghost images in movies and games.

The small problems of the best LCDs become much worse in the less expensive models. Monorail offers flat-panel displays in systems starting at $799. That's less than the manufacturer's cost of a good laptop display--and it shows. I used the $1,499 Monorail 166LS, which uses a 166-megahertz AMD K5 processor and a 12.1-in. display in an attractive package.

DISAPPOINTING. Problem is, that display uses the relatively dim passive-matrix approach and is mediocre even for passive-matrix. I also found that it suffered from severe ghosting. Unless I moved my mouse very slowly my cursor disappeared. The Monorail might be a good, low-cost machine for a crowded dorm room, but I think most home users would find it disappointing.

Still the future is bright for flat panels. A passive-matrix technology now showing up could produce screens that approach active matrix in brightness and speed but at much lower prices.

And on the high end, NEC will soon introduce a workstation-class 20.1-in. screen at $8,000. In the next couple of years, new technologies, notably plasma discharge, could give us really big flat displays for desktops or home theaters. For now, the CRT remains the most cost-effective choice, but its long dominance may be coming to an end.