Flat panels handiest in tight quarters


FLAT PANEL monitors are hot tickets these days, particularly among college students. With the same type of liquid crystal display used in laptop computers, they take up about half the space of conventional monitors. At their best, they produce crisp, clear images, and most important, they look incredibly cool.

But cool has its price. Flat panel screens are more expensive than traditional monitors. Their images may not be ideal for all eyes, and they don't save as much space as you might think. So before you blow a bundle on one, make sure you know what you're getting.

I started looking hard at flat panels in the course of reviewing a Samsung 171v, which represents a new generation of relatively affordable 17-inch LCD screens. Until recently, flat-panels that size cost $1,000 or more, which makes the 171v a breakthrough of sorts with a street price below $700 (See What's Hot).

The trouble with evaluating monitors is subjectivity. Some viewers prefer the sharpest possible image - they want to see each individual pixel on the screen. Others like a softer, more natural appearance. As a result, it's hard to buy a monitor from specifications alone. Your eyes are the ultimate arbiter.

That said, let's take a look at the technology behind flat panel monitors and standard screens to see why they're different.

Like a TV set, a traditional monitor uses a cathode ray tube (CRT) - a vacuum tube with an electron gun that bombards a coating of red, blue and green phosphors on the front of the screen. The phosphors glow when they're hit, producing dots of red, green and blue light that our eyes interpret as the image.

CRTs have been around for 75 years or so; the technology is mature, which means it's possible to make a good monitor cheaply. CRTs also scale up reasonably well at the desktop level, which makes larger screens affordable.

Flat panel technology first appeared in the late 1960s on timers and watches. It showed up in computers 15 years later, making possible the first truly portable PCs. Flat panels employ a layer of liquid crystals that form a film of transistors between layers of polarized glass. Each transistor becomes a "pixel" or dot on the screen that can either block light or allow various colors to come through. The actual illumination comes from a neon tube at the edges of the screen.

Although their cost has dropped considerably in recent years, LCDs are still more expensive to manufacture, particularly in larger sizes.

As a result, a superb 17-inch CRT monitor sells for less than $200 and a good 19-inch model goes for less than $300. In the flat panel world, a 15-inch screen goes for $350 to $400, compared with $650 for the least-expensive 17-inch model. Larger LCD monitors cost well over $2,000.

From a performance standpoint, CRT monitors are more flexible and can deliver better color, contrast and motion than flat panel screens for less money. Yes, you can find a great LCD - but you'll pay for it. (The ultimate is Apple's 23-inch HD display at $3,499).

Another issue is image dropoff - the picture fades when you view an LCD from an angle. While expensive flat panel screens are almost as good as CRTs, lower-priced models exhibit considerable side-angle fading.

Also, flat panels tend to perform well at one particular resolution. Often it's a relatively high one - 1,024 by 768 pixels or more. This produces text that's uncomfortably small, particularly for those of us with reading glasses. Switching to a lower resolution produces text that's larger, but often fuzzier, too. CRTs are much more adept at multiple resolutions.

On the plus side, you get a bit more screen with LCD monitors. Displays are measured diagonally, and with a flat panel monitor, what you see is what you get. The edge of the screen on a CRT monitor, by way of contrast, is typically covered by the case. So the viewable diagonal of a 17-inch monitor is actually a bit less than 16 inches.

Do the math and you'll find a flat panel provides about 17 percent more viewing area than a CRT of the same size. Likewise, a 15-inch flat panel monitor delivers almost as much viewing area as a 17-inch CRT.

Now the space issue. Flat panel monitors use less because they don't have a picture tube. My regular 17-inch desktop monitor is 16 inches wide and 17 inches deep, for a footprint of 272 square inches. The 17-inch Samsung flat panel is 17.5 inches wide by 8 inches deep, or 140 square inches. That's half as much real estate as the standard screen.

The question is, what do you do with the extra space? It's behind the monitor. There must be something you can store in that 8 inches, but not anything you'd want to fetch regularly.

The real value of a flat panel is on a desk that's too shallow to accept a standard monitor and keyboard with enough space between them to keep your eyes at a comfortable viewing distance. In other words, the typical college dorm desk (or any desk that will fit in a New York apartment).

So, if you have enough space for it, you can get a great display for a lot less money with a standard CRT. What you won't get is the cool factor.

There's virtually no way to make a CRT look good, while flat panels have an elegant, modernistic feel that exudes high-tech hip. Apple, a company that has always paid attention to design, exploits this feeling better than anyone. In fact, it has virtually abandoned CRTs in favor of sleek, flat panel studio displays and LCD screens that seem to float above its new iMacs on a movable arm. Makers of monitors for Windows-based machines are starting to pay attention to style, too.

The bottom line: Decide whether you want a flat panel monitor because you need one or because you like the looks of it. And if you decide to buy one, be prepared to pay extra for the same quality you can get with a much cheaper CRT.

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