Flat, thin, big, beautiful -- pricey

Flat, thin, big, beautiful -- pricey

Those back-breaking, power-wasting monitors are nearly obsolete - the flat panels are here. The new displays can save in a lot of ways: in size, weight, power - even eyesight. About the only thing they won't save your customer, at least in the short term, is money. So, how do you sell this expensive concept to the price-conscious market?

Flat-panel LCDs may not be new, but they've tended to cost far more - and perform worse - than their CRT predecessors. As a result, LCDs initially found homes on notebook computers, in which portability was critical and buyers weren't so price-sensitive.

But in the past year, that situation has changed. Flat-panel technology has improved, providing better image quality. Colours jump off the screen and text is sharp even in the smallest font sizes. And price cuts from suppliers have made the idea of LCDs on the desktop possible.

Several of the new monitors are bypassing traditional analog display technology, as well. To work with the graphics cards found on the majority of PCs, most desktop LCDs must contain an analog-to-digital converter.

But today's all-digital panels are eliminating that conversion process - keeping PC images digital all the way from the CPU to the screen. That eliminates performance bottlenecks and provides significantly better picture quality.

But while the Asian financial crisis initially prompted LCD makers to cut prices in order to bring in much-needed cash, it also caused many of them to stop construction of LCD manufacturing facilities. As a result, the latest crop of digital flat-panel displays is actually more expensive than the last.

Flat-panel prices might soon be dropping, however, thanks to a new technology called Field Emission Display (FED). Like CRTs, FED panels use illuminated phosphors to produce images, but they don't require the bulky electron gun found in CRTs.

FED desktop monitors slated to arrive next year should cost under $1000 - making them competitive in price with similarly sized CRTs, according to Rob Enderle, vice president in charge of desktop and mobile technology at US-based Giga Information Group.

FED monitors do have one disadvantage: "The current generation of flat-panel displays arguably don't wear out," Enderle says, whereas "FED technology tends to run out of steam in three years."

That means buyers should expect to replace their FED monitors after about 36 months.

But for now, digital active-matrix LCDs are all the rage. There are a few things you should consider worth telling to your customer. First, will they be re-engineering a space shuttle cockpit or an oceanographic submarine? If so, the choice is made for them. Where space, weight and/or energy are expensive, there just isn't another option.

And what about the office life full of flicker-free, high-resolution, true-colour displays and even full-motion video? Although most of these monitors offer a dot pitch of nearly 0.30 mm and appear slightly grainy, the colours are vivid and true - CRT displays seem almost pastel in comparison - and this can make granularity much less noticeable.

The development of flat-panel technology, which uses liquid crystals instead of cathode rays to display images, occurred largely in connection with laptop and notebook computers, where size and weight are crucial and users have been willing to accept relatively poor video performance. But as the technology has matured and costs have come down, flat panels have begun to look like viable alternatives to those desktop-claiming monsters to which we've been resigned for so long.

Some already outperform traditional display technology. And given that flat-panel displays are fast overcoming design limitations that the CRT industry hasn't begun to address, the future may belong to thin screens.

For starters, flat panels take up less than a third of the area consumed by CRT displays and prop-ortionately weigh even less. Power consumption is similarly reduced.

Best of all, these screens are easy to look at hour after hour, and they emit no radiation other than light.

It is true that one problem remains. The up-front cost is more than twice that of an equivalent CRT. But the power savings will add up over time. Moreover, these units should last for the long haul because the component most subject to burnout is the backlight, and that generally is replaceable for a minor cost. Both facts should be appreciated by your customers.

The flat panels reviewed here reflect the ways that vendors try to come up with the right balance of performance and cost to meet users' needs. In general, flat panels fall into two camps: analog and digital.

The analog displays feature easier setup than the digital ones, as they use AGP or PCI video cards with them. The digital monitors require special video cards, but since they generally seem faster and sharper, they are well worth the extra installation effort.

Two of the flat panels reviewed here are analog units (Compaq and IBM) and two are digital (SGI and ViewSonic).

Compaq TFT5000. Two ergonomic features set this flat panel apart. One is that in addition to adjusting its viewing angle, you can adjust its height by about 2.5 inches. The other is even more relevant: the display pivots 90 degrees to portrait mode. When used with the included software utility, I could see and edit an entire page in XGA (726 x 1024-pixel) resolution, which was still large enough to read easily.

Compaq's TFT5000 didn't come with a printed user's guide (an Adobe Systems Acrobat version is included on CD-ROM), but a printed card provided basic setup instructions. I didn't need it, though. I only had to plug the standard VGA cable into my existing video card and the power brick into the monitor and a power outlet.

The monitor came up looking very sharp and bright. An on-screen display menu allowed me to set brightness and contrast, display position, clock phase, colour and power management options in any of six languages (all European).

The CD-ROM ran automatically upon inserting it into the drive. However, after loading the Compaq video drivers and choosing the "Reboot Later" option, I was bounced back out and had to manually reopen the CD-ROM and choose Install New Software again to look at auxiliary programs to install.

IBM T55A. This starkly handsome monitor was the only one to arrive in black. (The SGI 1600SW was charcoal grey.) Clean, sharp lines and a no-nonsense base made the package visually appealing.

The case wasn't the only dark aspect, though. Brightness was only average on the first unit I received, even at the maximum setting, and the screen was somewhat darker across the top than elsewhere. This condition was only improved if I tilted the screen down from the perpendicular, but travel is limited in this direction. Interestingly, brightness was also improved by viewing from a side angle. A call to IBM confirmed that the display's appearance should not have been so. A replacement display, when it arrived, was bright compared to the other monitors.

The T55A came with a floppy disk that ran a menu-driven program for optimising the display with a video card. An on-screen display menu was also available to set brightness, contrast and other features in five languages (all European).

As with the Compaq unit, I could just plug this analog unit into an existing video card and use it, although optimising with the included utility did improve the display characteristics. The stand was extremely steady and resisted tilt adjustment enough that an accidental bump wouldn't change it.

SGI 1600SW. A large (17.3 inch diagonal) flat panel is flashy in itself, but this unit's charcoal-grey case and futuristic stand also make a statement. Like the Compaq, this display is vertically adjustable, although it does not pivot.

What really stands out, though, is the super-sharp detail and punchy colours at 1600 x 1200-pixel resolution. This sharpness (at least partly owing to a dot pitch of 0.23mm) and the display's wide screen allow workable viewing of two full letter-size pages side by side.

Although this display's overall dimensions are smaller than the 18.1 inch diagonal ViewSonic monitor, SGI's OpenLDI digital video transfer scheme allows better addressing at resolutions higher than the ViewSonic can reach. The ViewSonic adheres to the DFP standard and tops out at 1280 x 1024 pixels.

It also didn't hurt that I had a bundled Number Nine Visual Technology Revolution IV OpenLDI digital video card with 32MB of SDRAM on board. This screamer provided the juice to power the 1600SW for full-motion video at maximum resolution.

One caveat: I encountered unexplained, frequent low-memory situations on a machine with 40MB RAM only when using the Number Nine video card.

It's impossible to say whether there's a bug in the video driver or some unrelated memory leak, but you may want to be ready to install more RAM along with the 1600SW, at least for the short term.

ViewSonic ViewPanel VPD180. The ViewPanel VPD180 is a sharp, bright digital monitor more than large enough to run a maximum 1280 x 1024-pixel resolution without eye strain. Its 18.1 inch diagonal measurement makes it the largest flat-panel monitor commercially available, according to ViewSonic. And assisted by the bundled ATI Rage LT Pro video adapter, the 24-bit colours splashed across the big screen were luscious. The ViewSonic adheres to the DFP standard and tops out at 1280 x 1024 pixels.

Other than size and vividness, the VPD180's distinguishing features are a rotating base and a row of ports hidden behind the screen, just below the point where the base connects. These include power and video inputs, of course. But there is also a Universal Serial Bus input with two corresponding outputs, helping to manage cable clutter while providing extra connectivity options.

ViewSonic hasn't published brightness and contrast figures for this unit, but both look comparable to Sceptre's BT15D+. With about 50 per cent more viewable display, the effect is more stunning on the VPD180's screen. And a smaller dot pitch (0.281mm vs. 0.297mm) contributes to a slightly less grainy picture.

I did notice that at one particular enlargement level, word processing documents became virtually unreadable. This did not seem to be a resolution problem because both smaller and larger viewing sizes showed no difficulties; instead, it apparently was a glitch in the video handling in the driver. A revision may have resolved the issue by the time you read this.

Conclusion. After using each of these displays for a couple of weeks, I am a convert. There wasn't a monitor in this review for which I wouldn't trade any 15 inch CRT I've known.

The prices are higher, but it's still an excellent trade-off. These crisp, bright, flicker-free monitors hardly take up any desktop space, and they save power.

Just remember to keep an eye on the different standards available for digital flat panels.

Flat panels hit Wall Street

By Kevin Burden

Hey - why do they get flat-panel monitors? And not just one, but sometimes two or three on each desk. How do Wall Street traders justify those expensive, ultra-sleek displays as being as standard as their wing tips while the majority of us stare into space-hogging, hulking tubes?

Well, Wall Street does have legitimate reasons, and they go far beyond the desire to have impressive-looking trading floors or the ability to afford the displays.

Flat panels offer traders a way to display more information on their desks. Traders are notorious for surrounding themselves with multiple screens to simultaneously monitor different exchanges, stock tickers and news programs. With flat panels they can use even more, which is why financial firms have been among the first to adopt the technology. The 3-inch-thick monitors also let those firms squeeze more traders into limited spaces.

One company that has redesigned its trading floor, using flat panels to save space, is NatWest Global Financial Markets, a foreign currency exchange firm in Manhattan. NatWest purchased roughly 300 flat-panel displays from Eizo Nanao Technologies and Compaq Computer last December, which enabled it to reconfigure the room with new desks that are a full eight inches smaller than the old ones, according to Frank Aurichio, assistant vice president of trading floor technologies at NatWest. "That allowed an additional, single row of desks in some places," he says.

But NatWest isn't putting its redesigned environment ahead of traders' needs. Despite their smaller desks, traders have more working and storage space. "That's how much room 17 inch screens were taking up," Aurichio says.

And with the smaller footprint of flat panels, traders are able to fit more of them on their desks. Where two monitors once fit, four flat panels can now sit, says Michael Nelkens, vice president of market data technologies at NatWest. "We've even hooked up as many as four screens onto one computer," he says.

The ability to connect to multiple sources is unique to certain flat-panel displays, which can further enhance the amount of information traders can display. "It's now fairly common to see our traders typing into a spreadsheet on one screen, [with] exchanges from around the world displayed on others and . . . the [Kosovo] war on CNN on still another [display]," Nelkens says.

What's new from . . . Silicon Graphics

SGI wide-viewing flat panel monitors are well known for allowing 120 degrees viewing angle that is highly regarded by financial, video and graphics professionals.

SGI 1600 SW highlights

17.3 inch diagonal size

Wide screen format allows two full pages to be displayed1600 x 1024 resolutionErgonomic design for variety of viewing angles Height adjustment optionOpen LDI digital interfacePrice: $4658 ex tax.

Silicon Graphics

(02) 8875 9500

What's new from . . . IBM

The T55A flat panel monitor is part of IBM's sleek, Energy Star-compliant line comprising the stealth-black and the more common white-case 15 inch models.

T55A highlights

Screen size 15 inch

Viewable image size 15 inch

Maximum viewable width 304.1mm

Maximum viewable height 228.1mm

Anti-glare technology for better colour reproductionErgonomic design and user-friendly setup procedureTFT LCD flicker-free technologyWall-mountablePrice: $2575 for white; $2685 for blackIBM1800 815 154What's new from . . . ViewsonicViewSonic's VPD 180 ViewPanel digital flat monitor, soon to be released in the Australian market, is part of the industry initiative to make a transition from analog to digital technology and make signal impurities or degradation of image quality the thing of the past.

VPD 180 highlights

18.1 inch screen size

1280 x 1024 native resolution

140 degrees viewing angle

Space saving and wall-mount features

Two USB accessory ports

Plug & Play

Available later this year.

Distributed by

Chips & Bits

(03) 9696 1911

What's new from . . . Compaq

Compaq's flat-panel family offers flexible design for easier adoption in an end-user environment, as well as automatic setup, display and maintenance features.

TFT 5000 highlights

15 inch screen size

1024 x 768 resolution (usually seen in 17 inch monitors)FullScreen technology allows it to handle lower resolutionCompatible with Mac and Sun platformsPivot feature for landscape and portrait viewingHeight adjustment for viewing at different anglesPrice: From $2995CompaqTel (02) 9911 1999

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