Finally, Flat Is Better

Flat-panel PC screens are cheaper, brighter, and crisper than ever. So it's bye-bye, CRTs

For the past couple of years, I have been a lukewarm fan of flat-panel displays for desktop computers. Yes, they looked cool, saved space, and were a lot easier to move around than a bulky, heavy cathode-ray tube (CRT). But the image quality was usually not as good as a top-flight CRT, and the flat panels cost twice as much for the same display size.

My reservations are dissipating. A long period of steady-to- rising prices came to an abrupt end late last year, when a lot of new manufacturing capacity came available just as demand was softening. You can now buy a decent 15-in. flat panel, which has a usable viewing area not much smaller than a typical 17-in. CRT, for less than $500. That's a drop of about 50% in the past year and only $100 more than a first-rate CRT such as a Sony Multiscan 220S. The quality of liquid-crystal display (LCD) panels has been improving for some time, especially the capacity to let you see a clear, bright screen from various angles. And a largely unpublicized feature of Microsoft's forthcoming Windows XP operating system makes possible a dramatic improvement in the appearance and legibility of text on LCDs.

FIXED PIXELS. When considering a flat-panel display, you have to be aware of some differences between LCD and CRT technology. The most important one is that pixels, the little dots that make up the picture, are permanent rectangular areas on an LCD screen; you can't adjust their size. (CRTs, on the other hand, let you specify how large you want the pixels to be.) As a result, a flat-panel works well at only one resolution setting, while a CRT gives you choice. If you are willing to trade less information--fewer lines of text in a window, for instance--for larger type, you can set a CRT at 1,024-by-768 pixels, for example, instead of 1,280-by-1,024. Since flat-panels lack this flexibility, it's up to you to make sure that the resolution is comfortable before you buy the monitor.

A second issue is digital vs. analog displays. Digital displays can offer better image quality and may be a bit cheaper, but they will work only if your computer has a digital display (or DVI) connector. Most don't, which is why most displays are either analog or dual-mode. Desktop Macintoshes have digital connectors, but they work only with Apple displays.

EXTRA BELLS. Flat-panel displays carry a wide range of prices. You can pay $400 to $900 for a 15-in. model or $750 to $1,200 for a 17-incher. To some extent, you get what you pay for. More expensive models tend to have brighter, higher-contrast screens, better antiglare coatings, wider viewing angles, and more attractive designs. But you could end up paying for features you'll never use, such as the ability for computers to share a screen, inputs for TV-type video signals, or color controls intended for graphics professionals.

I tried two relatively inexpensive models, a 17-in., $790 Samsung SyncMaster 760TFT and an 18-in., $1,000 NEC Mitsubishi Multisync 1830. Both are analog units and gave excellent image quality when tried on a variety of Windows and Mac systems. Both ran at 1,280-by-1,024 pixels, so the NEC showed slightly larger images, which might make it a good choice if your close vision isn't what it used to be. When you shop, decide what features you need--for example, whether you want built-in speakers or USB ports--then trust your eyes. If it looks good, it is good. Make sure, though, that you can return any monitor you buy. Some flat panels just don't look sharp with some display adapters, and you can't be sure until you try them.

All LCD displays will look a lot better when running Microsoft's Windows XP. The new system includes a technology called ClearType, originally developed for electronic-book readers, that provides a dramatic improvement in the appearance of type on flat-panel displays. ClearType smooths the often- jagged appearance of text. The gain in legibility is most marked in small sizes--especially in italic type, which can be very hard to read on the screen. Although some type may still appear a bit fuzzy, the overall effect is a big plus. Windows XP and 2000 also let you make some, but unfortunately not all, text bigger on high-resolution flat-panel displays.

The combination of better display software and a continuing decline in prices is likely to increase the popularity of flat panels and, of course, laptops. The venerable CRT has served us well, but its days may be numbered.

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