The Skinny on Flat Screens

Prices have come out of the stratosphere, but keep an eye on image quality

Flat-panel monitors are the runway models of PC equipment--slim, sexy, and full of Hollywood glam. Rather than the bland putty color of most traditional monitors, they sport eye-catching ebony and metallic tones. "They're gorgeous," says Douglas A. Balut, a Chicago-area homeowner who bought three 17-inch Samsung displays for his basement sports bar and one for his home office.

It's easy to be mesmerized by the Versace factor of today's flat panels, many of which have the sheen of a sequined evening gown. Compared with cathode ray tubes, the liquid-crystal display technology used in most such panels reduces glare. Many of the models now swivel 360 degrees, double as TVs, and feature panels that are viewable across 170 degrees. That's key if you're buying monitors for a team of employees who need to gather in front of one screen.

One good option is the NEC MultiSync 1880SX, which held much of its focus and color when viewed from various angles. To boot, these puppies are no longer priced in the stratosphere. Fifteen-inchers start just above $300 and 17- and 18-in. screens run as low as $650.

Saving space was the main reason Larry Maurer switched to flat panels. To free up room on cluttered desks, the director of information systems for Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J. replaced what he calls "monster" monitors with 300 skinny, 15-in. NEC displays. "We got professional-looking monitors with the same viewable area as the old ones," he says.

Which screen is right for you? There are several factors to consider. Size matters, and so does image quality--but don't jump to conclusions based on specs from a Web site. To figure out your own requirements, visit a store and test several monitors, keeping brightness, color quality, and viewing angle in mind. And make sure to check the picture settings. Manufacturers often crank up the brightness so monitors impress on the showroom floor. One last tip: Beware of "the jaggies"--jagged edges in the text.

Video nuts may want to step up to 17- and 18-in. screens. You'll pay more, but the picture quality is superior. That's why Balut turned to Samsung's $900-plus 17-in. MP monitors, which double as TVs but aren't "big, ugly, dusty televisions." More evidence that, for the right mix of glam and functionality, flat panels are picture perfect.

By Roger O. Crockett

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