LCD monitors would be all the rage if pure product specifications and appeal were the criteria for success. However, absurd prices have kept them out of the market in any significant volume and it is only recently that they look like becoming more than a specialist whim. They may be sleek and sexy, but do they sell? Rebecca Munro investigates.
Technically, there has never been any serious argument as to the superiority of LCD monitors over CRTs. Flat-panelled monitors are the latest technology in monitor development, which generally indicates an advance in performance and desirability. They are considered more reliable in terms of graphic quality, durability and hardiness including unscratchable surfaces.
Environmentally, the LCD monitor is a better option than the CRT. Most flat-panelled monitors have minimal or no radiation emissions. They consume less energy, which makes them healthier and more economically viable. Detachable screens and adjustable tilt and rotation features give the LCD an ergonomic advantage. They allow more room on the ever-diminishing office desk and because of their light weight are easily more portable than the old CRT monitors.
Colour, resolution and consistency aren't sacrificed in the process either and the pure size of the screen and flicker-free displays mean less eye strain. And if you want to get down to real detail, they are aesthetically pleasing, all cables and wires are neatly tucked away from clumsy feet and environmental hazards such as spilt coffee.
Yet LCD monitors are still struggling to find a reliable and profitable foothold in the monitor market. The culprit seems to be cost. They sound marvellous until you have to pay for one, or 20. Thus they either rely upon people who genuinely need a feature that they can provide or else people who have more money than sense.
Manufacturers are adamant that the research and development costs of the LCD screen have been recouped and that the monitor is now entering a phase of competitive costing. Philips have in fact recently released a 15in LCD flat screen for under $2000 which instils some sort of hope for the reduction of prices across the board.
Yet according to Dipak Kuma, the assistant general manager for Hitachi's electronics group, LCD monitors still have a very low yield percentage - one silicon chip can only produce one monitor and then it doesn't necessarily work. The failure rate makes the manufacture of flat screens more expensive.
Joseph Rau, Samsung Elec-trical's marketing manager, cites the expense of establishing a semiconductor plant as the reason prices are still high. Production is still in the hands of select manufacturers and is yet to trickle down to cheaper options like Taiwanese businesses. They are unable to produce LCD screens because of this initial expense.
The LCD monitor is still in that vicious transitional cycle that supply and demand creates. Until supply increases, prices will not continue to fall dramati-cally and until prices fall, demand will not increase.
For those that are involved in the production, distribution and sale of LCD monitors, the cost issue makes the current market difficult. It is more a matter of riding out the preliminary stage of a product that has the undesirable proprietary technology label in order to have a presence in a future market that includes the LCD monitor.
At the moment, the market consists of specialist groups that benefit from an LCD screen regardless of the price. Hospitals are one of the major users according to Chris Lau, Panasonic's production man-ager for computer monitors, since LCDs have the advantage of having zero radiation emissions. Heavy industry such as steel also profits, as the LCD monitor is inherently protected from electronic interference.
Other features specific to the LCD monitor, like its adjustable viewing angles, negligible space requirements and good text quality, make it ideal for schools and financial institutions. According to Rau, some companies are even choosing the product over CRT monitors because it portrays an image of technological savvy.
The markets are out there but mainstream availability still eludes most vendors and resellers aggressively pushing the LCD monitor. Sales tactics are relying upon niche markets to fill LCD volume quotas. The advantages of the monitor are extolled but according to Philip's production manager, Tom Robson, it is like preaching to the converted. "We sell LCD monitors to buyers that are already aware of the specific benefits that they provide."
In the last year, prices have in fact dived to a third of what they were but the decline is slowing without having reached a point that rivals the CRT monitor. Panasonic's Chris Lau believes that LCD monitors are soon going to reach an "exit point" where the retail price isn't far away from the manufacturing cost of $1300. "If the price of the LCD monitor is to come down any further then manu-facturing costs have to be reduced."
Dipak Kumar says Hitachi is in the process of manufacturing a TFT monitor that will be cheaper than its Super TFT series but sacrifices quality of image for lower cost. This method gives the customer a choice in terms of cost, quality, size and type of monitor. It at least puts the LCD monitors in the realms of CRT affordabil-ity. Joseph Rau also points out that there is a world monitor shortage that will only encourage prices to stabilise. "Samsung are not going to reduce prices if we can roll out all our stock at existing cost," he says.
NEC's product manager Geoff Cootee believes that the LCD's instigation into the consumer-based market comes back to price - which will only be driven down by an increase in the volume of LCD monitor transactions. Current figures show that the number of LCD monitors being moved has increased dramatically in only the last year. However, inroads into the CRT stronghold are non-existent and are variously anticipated from the middle of next year to five years away.
Yet according to resellers, there is still a profit to be made with the quantity of LCDs now being sold. It is a matter of recognising the restrictions that price places upon potential customers and working from there. It also means that resellers will have to be content with an opportunistic approach to the monitor market.
According to Rau: "There is no loyalty in this sector at the moment and resellers have to sell any product that the customer happens to want." However, big deals like the one Samsung have just made with Reuters, that involves the provision of 30,000 LCD screens globally, will eventually trickle down to provide some steady business for local resellers.
Economies of scale determine the channel's position in relation to LCD monitors. At present, resellers and the channel are caught in a transitory stage involving some tough decisions in regard to arranging themselves within the monitor market. Some vendors and resellers are presently avoiding the shift into LCDs, citing lack of market momentum as a valid justification. Daewoo explains that the LCD monitor is not a priority at the moment and thus it is not distributing them. Mid next year it will consider entering the fray, though only if the flat-panelled monitors increase their profile in the general market. Hewlett-Packard is also still focusing strongly on CRT monitors and is reluctant to promote its single LCD screen as a better option in a climate that does not guarantee a foreseeable shift in direction.
Others are becoming involved in the LCD monitor now with manufacturers looking to the future and positioning themselves for the long-term dominance of LCD monitors. Panasonic's production manager, Chris Lau, is pushing the product strongly and is attempting to juggle a dual market strategy - CRTs for the home and LCDs for the business. He believes that there is a profit to be made now if the market is played correctly. Hitachi is in the same position and operates on the organisational principle of targeting major project areas. This system sells direct or through partners and has specific industries and com-panies in its market footprint.
Selling direct are not the words a reseller likes to hear. According to Kumar, the LCD monitor hasn't developed enough market strength or volume to require permanent channel strategies. Yet both Hitachi and Philips move products through Harris Technology, a Sydney-based reseller that has forged its own niche in an already specific market. Managing director Ron Harris is committed to the long-term prominence of the flat-panelled monitor. "I featured the Philips 151 on the front page of the catalogue and have the four LCDs that I stock in the front of the store. Customers walk through the door and it hits them straight away."
Harris has sold 200 LCD monitors in the last couple of months and although he has moved more CRT monitors he believes that hardly any customer would want a CRT instead of an LCD screen. "My sales people use them in the front of the store and immediately liked them more, they have no reflection and of course everyone knows that they have less radiation." Harris admits that he is still selling to a specific market but is anticipating a decrease in prices early next year with the strengthening of the Australian dollar. "Philips pricing the LCD monitor under $2000 is a breakthrough and I am selling heaps because the LCD is basically a nicer screen to work with."
Product round up
The Philips 151AX has a 15.1in screen and weighs in at 5.2kg. Philips claims it emits no radiation and isn't subject to electronic interference. Environmental considerations further come into account with the monitor consuming just 38 watts. It has an EPA energy star and NUTEK compliant power management system.
The monitor is compatible with all standard video cards and all common VESA modes up to 1024 x 765 at 75Hz. It has a dot pitch of 0.3mm that con- tributes to the monitor's brightness and contrast.
The 151AX has a three-year onsite warranty and is available for $1890.
The Compaq TFT 450 is a 14.5in monitor that can be viewed from 120 degrees. It has particular side-to-side wide-angle viewing and a super bright picture, due to the 185 nits, flicker-free screen. It is environmentally monitored by the CRT Fault manager that checks the temperature, power and focus of the monitor.
It has a three-year warranty on all parts and a one-year warranty on labour and site inspections.
The Panasonic LC50 has a 15in monitor that is less than three inches deep. It uses 50Hz of power and is plug-in compatible to CRT monitors. It has a wide viewing range of 140 degrees. The LC50 has a high refresh rate that allows side viewing without the usual hazy picture and text. The colour and resolution are pretty standard, including a pixel pitch of 0.2775mm and 1024 x 768 resolution at 75Hz. It also has built-in speakers. Panasonic provide a three-year nationwide warranty.
NECMultiSync LCD 400V
The NEC MultiSync LCD 400V has a 14.1in monitor and weighs 6.5 kilograms. It is standard to others of this size and range in that it consumes approximately 50 watts of power, has a 45-degree vertical and 100-degree horizontal viewing range and claims to portray unlimited colours. Typically, it emits no radiation and has a small footprint.
Where the MultiSync 400V is unique is its adjustable height, pivot and swivel features. This allows the screen to turn a full 90 degrees and become a portrait monitor and to swivel on a lazy susan mechanism at the base of the monitor.
Additionally, the monitor can be detached from its stand and attached to your desktop or any other surface, a feature that allows a lot of personal choice in the set-up of an office or desk. The LCD 400V only has a one-year warranty.
NEC also have two larger monitors available, an 18.1in and 20.1in series that it claims are the only ones of their size on the market.
Hewlett-Packard's 14in 1024LCD monitor offers the standard fare in terms of monitor dimensions, power consumption and menu options. It uses 30W of power and has an on-screen menu.
Where the 1024 shines is its excellent brightness and even distribution of colour and text consistency. Additionally, the antiglare protection covering the screen allows focus to be maintained from an angle up to 45 degrees.
Hitachi are producing a 14.1in LCD monitor that claims to have the widest viewing angle on the market - 160 degrees both vertically and horizontally. It is otherwise a standard monitor with a 100/1 contrast ratio and brightness at 120cd/m2. It has 21 user programmer settings and five factory presets. It is within the standard range of energy consumption using only 35 watts.
Samsung Syncmaster 520TFT
This 15in monitor offers the equivalent viewing area of a 17in CRT monitor, as do most LCD screens. Samsung have chosen to focus on solid engineering features to differentiate the Syncmaster from its competitors.
This includes an original swivel and tilt feature that organises all cables and wires out of the way and it can come with an option kit that allows the monitor to be wall mounted or situated on the desk. The monitor has a multimedia basis and is available for $2475.
That LCD monitors are going to be around for a while in some capacity is undeniable. That people would like to use LCD monitors over CRTs is also a pretty sure bet. Where the future starts to get a bit murky is how prevalent this technology will become and when it is all going to happen. And of course this relies on the LCD's ability to be competitive price-wise.
The IT industry is envisaging the LCD screen eventually replacing the CRT monitor in mainstream use. Some companies, including Daewoo, are expecting prices to fall by as early as next year, which will induce them to enter a market that wasn't previously perceived as viable.
Others, such as NEC's Geoff Cottee, are anticipating a wait of another three to five years before the LCD becomes an acceptable replacement product. They have been developing the MultiSync range for the last 13 years and are prepared to reap the benefits of flat-panelled screens in the event of their general consumption.
According to Kumar of Hitachi, the CRT monitor will be phased out completely in the advent of lower prices. Presently, manufacturers are struggling to move LCD monitors in any volume. It is not economically viable for them to include flat-panelled screens in vendor bundles as manufacturing costs are too high and the bundle would not support the additional cost. Customers don't have the option of eliminating the CRT monitor and voluntarily buying the more expensive LCD because vendors provide incentives to maintain the package. The dominance of the LCD will be epitomised by the flat-panel monitors replacing the CRT in bundles and in doing so instantly increase its volume distribution.
In order to achieve this repute the LCD monitor will need to start addressing issues of supply and demand. The future will only include the LCD screen if they can make up the gap between the tens of millions of CRT monitors and the half a million or so LCD panels distributed each year. Price is of course the only thing stopping the mass dispersal of LCD monitors.
However, Paul Robson, product manager at Philips, doesn't anticipate that LCD monitors will ever be in line with CRTs in terms of price. "LCD pricing will never compare with CRT monitors but it will improve." That leaves the LCD monitor subject to the powers of marketing. If the prices are close enough then the obvious advantages of the LCD monitor might give the new technology the push it needs into a more consumer-based market, rather than relying solely on business sectors for sales. If the price comes down enough, which most IT companies are predicting will happen eventually, then the actual value of the LCD screen will be superior because you will be paying less per square centimetre of monitor.
Compaq Tel (02) 9911 1999
Hewlett-Packard Tel 13 1347
Hitachi Tel (02) 9888 4100
NEC Tel 13 1632
Panasonic Tel 13 2600
Philips Tel 13 1391
Samsung Tel (02) 9638 5200