Cool, Flat, and Suddenly Affordable

The latest flat-screen displays are sexy--and a lot cheaper

For more than two years, only the commodity traders at energy provider Mirant Corp. (MIR ) got flat-panel displays. All the while, the rest of Mirant's employees were begging to have the sleek set-ups on their desks, too, in place of the usual company-issued boxy monitors. "We fought it for a while," says Don Roxby, a support analyst at Mirant. But when prices dropped below $500, Roxby started buying flat panels in earnest. Mirant now has around 500 of them in its Atlanta office, and the rest of the employees no longer feel like the forgotten have-nots.

Neither should you. Top-quality, 15-inch liquid-crystal monitors now go for around $400 and can drop below $300 if you're willing to settle for an off-brand and play the rebate game right. That's not much more than the usual pot-bellied glass tube monitor would have cost you a few years ago. Bigger models are still plenty pricey, though, with 17-inch displays starting at around $800 and 21-inch models going for well over $2,000.

BEFORE YOU BUY. Shop carefully. The display is where you come eye-to-eye with your computer system, and you want to make sure you're comfortable with such idiosyncrasies as brightness, color, and viewing angle. It's all pretty subjective, which means that you should shop in person rather than depend on descriptions in a catalog or on a Web page.

If you're the type, for example, that attracts crowds around your desk to see your latest, um, spreadsheet, you want to make sure that the screen looks as clear and bright to the folks standing over your shoulder or off to one side as it does to you. Another feature to look for is whether or not the screen can pivot around to the vertical position, handy for working on letter-size documents and for Web surfing. Some models have it, some don't.

Among the 15-inch flat displays, the Samsung SyncMaster 570v looks to be the best bet. It has no visible flicker, which makes for less eye fatigue when you're camped in front of your computer for long periods of time. At $400, it's reasonably priced, and it comes with a three-year warranty, better than most. A good second choice is the NEC MultiSync LCD1530V, also $400. It's a little more compact than the Samsung and has a nice auto-adjust feature that saves you one more step when you get it home and set it up.

If you want something a bit bigger, go with the Philips 170B, a 17-inch monitor that's very competitively priced at $750. It's the sharpest and brightest of the bunch, with especially lively colors. It's the best pick, say, if you view a lot of photographs or play PC games. Or take a look at the $780 Acer FP 751. The colors are slightly more muted than those on the Philips display, but there's little flicker, and text and graphics have a nice, clear quality to them.

Once you get your flat panel home and out of the box, you'll notice a difference on your desktop immediately. The depth of a typical 15-inch flat-panel monitor is around 2 inches, maybe 6 inches if you count the monitor's base. That's a huge advantage over the 16 inches normally taken up between the keyboard and the wall. Not only does a flat screen free up more desk space for the rest of your clutter, it's lighter and easier to move around than a CRT. It's also a lot sexier.

A FAST START. Setting up a flat-panel display is a snap. Unlike early LCD screens, where you often had to open up your computer to install a new graphics card, these are plug-and-play. Just hook up the cables and turn on your computer. If you want to adjust the monitor's brightness, position, and color settings, you need to run a small program that comes with the display. That's probably a good idea. Most flat-panel displays come with the brightness turned almost all the way up. It's a merchandising trick: Every manufacturer wants its display to seem the brightest of the long line of displays sitting side-by-side on the showroom floor.

Once you've got everything adjusted to comfortable levels, you'll start to notice the difference in picture quality, something you may have missed in the store. The images are not as sharp and the colors are not as deep and vibrant as on a CRT display. For most people, that's a small price to pay for the real estate gain and the cool factor. But if you're a graphic artist or digital photographer, that's enough to make you pass on flat-panel displays, the small ones at least. On the smaller screens, the colors aren't true enough, and the images will have jagged edges.

Of course you can splurge for a high-end, 21-inch or bigger flat screen, but at what price? The Apple Cinema Display is a stunner, the Mona Lisa of computer displays, but will set you back $2,500 for the 22-inch screen. For PC users, the 21-inch NEC MultiSync LCD2110 is nearly as good. It's a cool four grand.

That's not necessary for the majority of buyers, who deal mostly with word processing, spreadsheet, and database programs. Any of the newer, flat-screen displays can easily handle the images that most people run across on Web pages, say, or digital snaps e-mailed by friends. Today's bargain prices should be incentive enough to pick up a new slim-and-trim flat panel for your system. Your desk will thank you for it.

By Darnell Little in Chicago

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