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The brave new world of monitors

The brave new world of monitors

So you thought the monitor market was a bit "flat"? You bet! And it's only going to get "flatter".

Nobody stares all day at the CPU, most people don't look at the keyboard (writers excepted) and you can't even see the RAM or hard drive. Nope, when it comes to computers, what you look at is the monitor. The monitor arena is picking up steam again after being somewhat complacent. The major advances in the technology are LCD screens, flat screen CRTs, short necks, multimedia, touch screens and continued improvements in screen resolution and clarity. What this means is that there are now many choices for people who spend a lot of time staring into these little machines on their desktops.

Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) have been around since the 1970s but only recently have they begun to penetrate the monitor industry in any numbers. LCD differs from conventional CRT technology in the way the image is generated. An image in an LCD is formed by applying an electric charge to alter the chemical properties of each LCC (Liquid Crystal Cell) in the display in order to change a pixel's light absorption properties. Most flat-panel LCD screens use active matrix technology which refers to the refresh rate of the charge at the pixel level. This reduces the "ghost" that degrades the image quality of the multiplex, or passive matrix, technology.

A new development is the introduction of thin film transistors (TFT). The process of manufacturing a TFT is similar to the process used to manufacture a silicon IC. Extremely thin insulators, conductors and transistors must be laid into a glass substrate, which becomes the lower glass of the LCD. A technique called photolithography is used to accomplish this. In this process, metal and silicon are progressively added and etched away from the substrate, forming a matrix of "wires", transistors, and insulators.

The result is a monitor that is relatively light and small for the screen size, has excellent resolution and quality, boasts a flat screen with minimal distortion, is environmentally more friendly than a CRT and costs much more.

"Right now the market for LCDs might only be between 1 and 2 per cent of total sales," says Jonathan Williams of Dove Technology. "The technology is superior, however, to the CRT in a number of ways . . . it's just a question of when the price threshold will be reached before sales really start to take off. To start with, a 15 inch CRT might weigh more than 12kg, whilst a 15 inch LCD might weigh a third of that. The footprint is also much smaller, with an LCD unit being only 200mm or so deep, compared to around 400mm in depth of a typical CRT. Flicker and image quality, especially in respect to pixel intensity, are optimised, controlled by individual transistors, so consequently there is no radiation."

Pricing, however, remains the major barrier. "Last year LCDs were selling slow so the prices were dropped by 35 per cent," according to Francis File, product and marketing manager from Philips NZ. "Almost immediately sales went through the roof and we had trouble filling orders. So now the prices have stabilised and so have sales. Right now there is a worldwide shortage of LCD panels. There are only so many production facilities and they are flat out. Presumably as manufacturing capacity increases, the prices will come down further and stay there."

LCD monitors start at about $1600 and move up quickly. Screen resolutions are now up to 1280 x 1024 (SXGA) and monitors are available in sizes from 14 inch on up to 18 inch. Many LCDs have USB ports for ease of connection. Most of the major monitor manufacturers now offer LCD terminals.

One of the advantages of the LCD is the flat screen. Because there is no convex curve on the screen, there is virtually no distortion in the image. This is especially important for such exacting sciences as GIS, CAD/CAM, and art production. LG Monitors, which recently signed a distributor agreement with North Shore-based BBF Distributors, has brought out the Flatron, a flat screen CRT. "The Flatron utilises flat surfaces both for the inner and outer screens," said Wayne Hughes, sales development manager for LG Electronics. "This cuts out distortion from any viewing angle. The Flatron also incorporates a .24mm slot mask screen which further enhances clarity and brightness as well as a W-ARAS anti-glare coating."

Multimedia monitors are also starting to become more prominent. Multimedia monitors have built-in speakers as well as a microphone. These not only keep the desktop clutter down but also enable a raft of specialised applications. "The new ProView 19 inch has a typical configuration with 50W PMPO audio output," according to Tolan Henderson of PCW Computer Wholesale. "At 22kg it is a big machine, but at 1600 by 1200 resolution the image is superb."

Another innovation for CRT monitors is the short neck. The short neck reduces the footprint of the monitor on the desktop. "Where last year a 17 inch fitted on your desk, this year we can fit a 19 inch in the same space," Sony's Andrew Walker said. "We have been able to shave up to 5mm off the total length. Of course, the LCD monitors are a lot shorter, but CRTs are coming around." Most of the major vendors are bringing out short neck versions.

All monitors are not created equal

People are starting to take image quality seriously. "When someone buys their first computer, they are overwhelmed by the technology and take the bundled monitor," Henderson said. "By the time they get their second PC, they aren't as intimidated and look at the specs a bit more closely. When they buy the third system, they call the shots and that usually translates to a monitor upgrade. Designers and CAD/CAM people have always been choosy about monitors and that is rubbing off on the average punter."

"When you go into an electronics shop," said Walker, "you can see banks of TVs lined up so that punters can compare visual quality. I'd love to see that in a computer store where people can look at monitors side by side. Even though the general specs might be the same, there is a wide variation between the average bundled monitor and a high-end model. For instance, the Sony Trinitron 21 inch is the best-selling TV in New Zealand because people can see the difference. Monitors are the same. Your eyes are a critical component of your body and there is really no excuse in making them work extra by compensating for poor image quality."

"The things to look for in a monitor in respect to quality, according to Dove's Williams, "are resolution, refresh rates and dot pitch. Given a constant power source, the higher the resolution, the slower the refresh rate. A faster refresh rate reduces flicker and ultimately reduces eye fatigue. One of the advantages of the LCD is that flicker is reduced so that it is much easier on the eye. Like anything else in this business, it is just a matter of education."

Touch screens: the pressure is on

There are two components of touch screens: the glass screen itself, which is constructed to match the shape of the display exactly, and the controller. The controller uses ultrasonic waves on the glass to identify the x,y locations on the screen. As you touch the screen, you change the wave profile; this change is detected by the controller which then calculates the x,y location for transmission to the software program. Touch resolutions can be as fine as 4000 x 4000 pressure points. There is a third component, the z value, which represents pressure.

There are touch screens and touch monitors. Touch screens are the screen itself and can be fitted on most standard CRT and LCD monitors behind a special cowling. Touch monitors are pre-fitted monitors with the glass, controllers and software installed and ready for immediate use. "Our Elo brand of touch screen can be fitted to any of 130 different monitor types," says Robert Moulder, general manager of Redflex Touchscreens. "The major innovations to come about lately are the introduction of pressure-sensitive screens . . . they can be programmed for up to 255 steps of pressure. At the most basic the pressure can be adjusted to mimic 'left click/right click'; more complex operations can be programmed in, for example a catalogue viewer can scroll faster by pressing harder.

"Touch screen technology has been around for almost 30 years. It was first developed by the US Atomic Energy Commission. What is driving the technology now is the development of software, which works in conjunction with the screens. We have drivers for all popular operating systems including DOS, Windows, Mac, OS/2 and UNIX. We also have 'MonitorMouse' software which enables a touchscreen to take the place of the mouse."

Applications for touch screens are varied. For instance, kiosks and ATMs use the technology as well as the latest versions of Palmtop computers like the Palm Pilot. They are especially useful in industrial applications where basic functions can be entered by untrained staff.

There are specialty touch monitors on the market as well. Z-World's OP7100 is a C-programmable that combines a fast microprocessor with a sensitive display. It is designed for remote terminals and automated systems. The touch mechanism controls customised graphics as well as text and scrolling capabilities.

Graphics cards: the need for speed

Graphics cards speed up the display rate. For most office functions, graphics cards aren't required. For image intensive applications, like games, CAD/CAM or GIS, graphics cards can spell the difference between productivity and boredom.

Graphics cards are essentially dedicated RAM engines that enhance 3D graphics by increasing redraw rates and adding speed to texturing. The main component of a graphics card is the chip. 3Dfx has been the market leader with its Voodoo II chips but that is being challenged by nVidia's RIVA TNT chips. "3Dfx is starting to manufacture its own cards in addition to supplying the chips," says Williams of Dove, which is distributor of Diamond graphics cards, "which means that they are now a competitor to our Diamond brand. The Riva TNT chip with TNT [twin texel] is faster and supports 32-bit graphics pipelines which translates to extremely high resolution. We expect to see the market open up in the near future."

Graphics cards are an essential component for any type of game or graphics PC. The features to look for include the chip set performance specifications, and flat panel display support if you are running under LCD and versatility. There are different types of cards, specifically for 3D or CAD, so make sure that the application is compatible with card specs.

24 inch monitor's wide aspect ratio has pros, consby Stephen BealeHow much is a bigger Macintosh desktop worth to you? While a 21 inch monitor can display two pages side by side, LaCie's 24 inch electron24, with a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels, gives you enough added room to open a column of palettes next to that spread (the viewable area is 22.5 inches). But you'd better need those extra pixels, because at any other resolution you're getting what amounts to a 21 inch monitor with a wide frame on each side.

When you hoist this 40kg beast out of its packing crate, you'll immediately notice the wide aspect ratio - seemingly perfect for showing letterbox movies. The electron24 displays an image measuring nearly 19 x 12 inches, compared with 16 x 12 inches on a 21 inch monitor.

The unusual aspect ratio is a mixed blessing. To have the monitor display the maximum resolution of 1920 x 1200 pixels, you need to install iXMicro's ix3D Ultimate Rez graphics card (optionally included in the package). Unfortunately, the card doesn't support any other resolution appropriate for the monitor, such as 960 x 600 pixels. Instead, you get a standard selection of high-resolution display options that are more suitable for a 21 inch display. If you pick one of these resolutions, the picture appears stretched across the screen. You can use on-screen controls to scale the picture horizontally, but then you're left with a wide border on each side, defeating the purpose of a 24 inch display - and the extra money you shelled out for it.

The electron24 uses a Sony Trinitron aperture-grille CRT, and image quality is good - but not great - compared with image quality of the best of the 21 inch monitors we've tested. In IDG Lab tests, the monitor received high marks for brightness and colour reproduction but only average scores for sharpness. At the default resolution, 8-point text in one of our test documents looked a little blurry, but sharpness was otherwise acceptable.

A 10-button array on the front of the monitor lets you adjust colour, picture size, positioning, and other settings. It's a convenient arrangement once you get the hang of it, but the buttons are so closely spaced that it's easy to hit the wrong one.

A plastic hood is included to block out ambient light. A nice touch, perhaps, but it doesn't do much to enhance the viewing experience.

What's new from . . . Compaq

In a bid to deliver more desktop space to its customers, Compaq has released two new flat panel monitors targeted at the high end of the business market where screen clarity and space saving are paramount.

TFT8000 Flat panel monitor. Compaq's new 18 inch flat panel monitor features 16.7 million colours, enabling the user to experience "true colour" quality of a photo-realistic image, with a new in-plane switching technology giving it the wide-angle viewing area of 160 degrees.

Highlights

1280 x 1024 resolution

Supports Macintosh and Sun Microsystems graphic modesWide-angle viewing without loss of colour density or contrastLiteSaver allows users to specify turn on and off timeIntelligent Manageability for easier network supportUniversal Serial Bus (USB) powered hub in the base of the display allows two USB peripherals to be connected to the monitorDual VGA inputs to connect to PCs to a single TFT 8000Price: $7195V500 CRT monitor. Touted as the monitor that maximises the return on your money, Compaq's new full-featured 15 inch monitor is targeted at a traditional office environment and high-end SOHO market.

Highlights

.24 mm horizontal dot pitch

1024 x 768 resolution

Flicker-free 85Hz refresh rate

Convenient on-screen controls

Price: $450

Compaq

Tel 1300 368 369

What's new from . . . ViewSonic

VG180 Flat Panel. Then new 18.1 inch flat panel LCD monitor from ViewSonic's ViewPanel Series combines a lightweight design with a large viewing area and great image quality. As such, the company claims VG180 provides users who work with graphic-intensive applications and space limitations with "a comprehensive display solution".

Highlights

1280 x 1024 resolution

30 to 80KHz horizontal scanning range

Wide viewing angle of 160 degrees

Features 150 nits of brightness

Supports 16.7 million colours

Consumes 65 watts of power

Fits on a desktop or can be mounted on a wallTCO '95 emission and ergonomic standardsPlug & Play+ supports DDC1 and 2B protocolsVG 150 ViewPanel. Described by ViewSonic as "ideal for mission-critical applications where work space, weight and power conservation" are paramount, this flat panel monitor is available in a light grey or black cabinet for business and home office users eager to enhance the aesthetics of their working environment.

Highlights

Supports 16.7 million colours and 210 nits of brightness350:1 contrast ratio allows for crisp lines and sharp textFlicker free, native resolution of 1024 x 768120 degree viewing angle 30ms video response timeInterested resellers should contact Amanda Huang in the US at Viewsonic on Tel 886-2-2248-4072What's new from . . . AcerFP 551 monitor. The 15 inch Acer LCD monitor (FP551) has all the normal features of an LCD (space saving, light weight, low power consumption) but moves ahead in the market with features such as the "I key" auto adjustment and auto scaling functions.

Highlights

True colour supported

Plug & Play

Maximum Resolution: 1024 x 768

Pixel Pitch: 0.3mm

Colour: 16.7 million (FRC)

Viewing Angle: L/R: 60degree/60degree, U/D: 45degree/55degree Contrast Ratio: 300: 1 Brightness: 250 cd/m square Response Time: 56ms Power Consumption: 36W (max) Weight: 5.8kgRRP: $2599Distributed by Servex AustraliaTel (02) 8762 3513Desktop displaysFrom status symbol to desktop darling, the path of the monitor has never looked better.by Russell KayIn many offices, flat-panel display monitors have become the newest high-tech status symbol. But realistically, why should anyone even consider equipping an organisation's users with desktop flat panels? That's a question that most users are going to have to confront over the next few years - because flat-panel monitors are coming on strong.

If you've ever worked with a good desktop flat-panel monitor, you know the primary reason users want one - everything looks better on it. And the monitors take up so little physical space - especially compared with large CRT monitors - that they return a significant chunk of desktop real estate. For most people, to use one is to want one. The obvious problem is justifying their cost, but there are other issues an IT manager needs to take into account.

For one thing, screen size may be far more important to the user than the monitor's footprint on the desktop. Many, perhaps even most, users are likely to prefer a $1000, 19 inch CRT to a $2000-15 inch flat panel. The CRT is somewhat more versatile: it can be used at higher screen resolutions that allow more windows to be open on-screen simultaneously - and let more data be displayed. And as far as CRT size being a problem, if the monitor is placed in a corner, as is common in offices today, the physical size of the unit is less important - the space that would be gained by using a flat panel may not be of real use.

But anyone who uses multiple monitors (a feature enabled by Windows 98 and NT 4.0) can instantly appreciate the reduced footprint of flat-panel displays. It's hardly surprising that financial trading firms, which might have three or four monitors on each person's desk, were among the first to adopt flat panels.

My friend flicker

You must also take into account the support, maintenance, flexibility and applicability issues when deciding whether to move to flat-panel displays. And even when you've decided you can justify or afford one, you need to determine if it's the right choice for your users' applications.

For most office and productivity applications, that's no problem. Flat panels present a stable image with no flicker whatsoever, and the clear definition of their pixels - with no image blooming or focus problems - makes on-screen type and graphics appear sharper than do similarly sized CRTs.

There's a significant trade-off for that sharpness, however. Unlike CRTs, the LCDs used in flat panels are designed with a single image resolution in mind. For 14 and 15 inch desktop flat panels, that's usually a resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels, which may be too small for easy use by some people.

A few years ago, before the advent of desktop flat panels and big-screen laptops, the commonly accepted wisdom held that you didn't run Extended Graphics Array (XGA) on anything smaller than a 17 inch monitor. Now we're looking at 14 inch LCDs running XGA, and for some users that presents icons and menus that are just too small. (There are work-arounds, but they clearly involve extra support time.)So if XGA is too fine, why not run at a lower resolution of, say, 800 x 600 pixels? That's what you would do with a CRT monitor, but it may not be a workable option for an LCD panel. At present, there are only two ways to display a lower resolution on an LCD screen: one is to reduce the physical size of the displayed image (by putting a black frame around it), which defeats the purpose of going to a lower resolution in the first place because it doesn't change the displayed size of anything. The second, more common approach is for the display to interpolate pixels as best it can. But once you deviate from an LCD panel's built-in resolution, you give up the one-to-one correspondence between horizontal pixels (in the output image) and horizontal triplets of thin film transistor elements (in the physical display panel).

It's that one-to-one relationship that makes the image so sharp and clear in the first place. Some flat-panel displays handle that translation with relative grace and minimal image degradation. But some cannot, instead showing visible irregularities and bad-looking letters and numbers - just the things we work with most.

Big adjustments

Finally, while the flat-panel display industry is in the process of moving to digital interfaces with graphics cards, most of the panels available today are using analog output. That makes setting them up a very different experience than with CRTs; you'll need to make adjustments you've never heard of before. It's helpful that you no longer have to adjust image sizing and placement or correct geometric distortions, but those corrections were relatively intuitive and easy to make.

Instead, you now have to adjust some obscure - and often hair-trigger - parameters such as clock phasing and frequency. Making those adjustments isn't that difficult, but the real problem is that most users and technicians don't clearly understand the basic functions of the new controls or their interactions. Thus, if you roll out a number of flat-panel monitors, you can expect to have IT staff spend time setting up the display for each computer separately. You may also need specialised software tools like Sonera Technologies' DisplayMate for Windows.

Maybe too light?

The remaining advantage of the LCD display is its light weight - it has one-quarter to one-third the bulk of a similarly sized CRT monitor. Flat panels are easy to move around; with many, you can detach the panel from its weighted base and hang it on a cubicle wall or extension arm.

Unfortunately, that portability and detachability also make flat-panel displays obvious - and attractive - targets for theft. Newer flat panels come equipped with built-in slots for locking devices, from vendors such as Kensington Technology Group, that are much like those already being used to protect laptop computers from walking away.

Thin will be in

IT managers planning for future technologies should right now be considering how to deal with the many issues raised by flat-panel displays and resellers need to understand the technology to help them with the decision. It's clear that they are gaining in popularity, falling in price and creating demand among users.

According to Ross Young, president of DisplaySearch in the US, flat-panel monitor sales are expected to grow by over 600 per cent per year in the near future. In the end, it might not be a matter of whether you roll out flat-panel displays - but when.


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