It may seem like a no-brainer, yet the jury is still out: ultra-sleek FPD (flat-panel display) monitors look impressive, they take up less desk space and the price point continues to drop. But 90 per cent of the market is still opting for CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors, which utterly dominate the market in terms of units sold, according to the latest research figures by Inform.
So what does the market hold for FPDs? The obvious answer is growth, although not the sort of stampede the channel would be hoping for. Add to this the current economic climate, in which getting anyone, be it corporate or individual, to part with money is like pulling teeth, and lo and behold the channel has to evoke a strategy that's largely unheard of in good times: actual selling.
It's a bit like the old days of printer sales. A printer, is a printer, is a printer.
So for a reseller to flog anything except an HP (back then) they had to really be able to sell something on its merits, or bundle it with something that did sell on its own . . . or pack up and move to Nimbin.
According to market tracker Inform, CRT unit sales oscillated between 92.2 and 96.8 per cent of the total indirect market this year. However, while CRTs account for most of the sales, the reality, from a bottom-line perspective, is that flat screens are getting closer to their CRT cousins.
"It's interesting because CRTs account for the [bulk] of units sold, but by value, flat screens account for around 25 per cent of the market," says Chris Herbert, a senior research analyst with Inform.
Determined by the cost of the unit and the subsequent margin, the value of FPD sales fluctuated between 11.7 per cent and as much as 25.6 per cent of the market for the year. The increase in percentage is expected to continue as the price comes down.
The most popular screen size for CRTs by a long way is 17 inches, with 50.5 per cent of the market in October, followed by 15-inch CRTs with 35 per cent and FPD (all sizes) at 7.4 per cent. As far as vendors go, it's a toss-up between LG Electronics, Philips, Samsung, Viewsonic and Mitsubishi, all of which took between 11.3 and 16.2 per cent of the market this year.
Price point affordability
Competition between FPD manufacturers and improved manufacturing processes has driven down the cost of FPDs. But has the price point reached a level where consumers can justify the added expense of a flat-screen monitor? The answer is unclear, according to Michael Mannasz, product manager of display technologies at Hitachi.
"The price has come down but we're still talking three to four times the price of a CRT," Mannasz says. "It's still not there for every mum and dad, but certainly corporates can see the value in it."
Mannasz says a certain degree of fluctuation in pricing is brought about by manufacturers over-producing, but this will stabilise as the market matures. And though he still believes there is a place for CRTs given their affordability and some technological benefits not yet reached by LCD screens, Mannasz is confident that large corporates and big government departments are weighing up the total cost of ownership in favour of FPDs.
Perhaps one of the unforeseen benefits of the economic downturn for monitor sales is the emergence of the poor man's upgrade. Choosing to stick with their existing processing power, some consumers are opting for a new flat-screen monitor rather than purchasing the full PC package, Mannasz says. But people are also becoming more conscientious of what peripherals are included in a bundled offering. "People are starting to get a bit smarter and don't want to take what's in the bundles."
He claims FPD represents a good up-sell opportunity for resellers because offering a flat-screen monitor instead of a basic CRT can be the difference between closing a sale and a customer walking away.
Due to the inherent "softness" of LCDs and the use of flat screens in environments where people are likely to "touch" the screen, such as in retail displays or designers discussing artwork, FPDs are more susceptible to accidental or deliberate damage, says Rudie Hoess, managing director of distributor Camcom International.
"It's the glaring Achilles heel," Hoess says. "The cost of investment can go up considerably with damage. An FPD will only be a replacement to a CRT if it is equally reliable in performance and is as robust."
The risk is quite real, considering the natural tendency of users to lash out when venting frustration in high-stress environments. A number of vendors, including US-based FPD manufacturer Neovo, are seeking to overcome this factor by using a variety of solutions, such as a protective glass sheeting over the screen.
Such measures are aimed at second-generation buyers who have been "burnt" in the past, either with point-of-sale (POS) terminals, FPDs used as advertising displays or industrial markets, where there is a greater likelihood of damage. However, adding a protective layer does increase the cost, with the potential to put it out of reach of the average punter.
A case in point is the gaming market. It's also a market where touch-screen FPD and CRT monitors are becoming more prevalent. Bruce Berisa, marketing manager of distributor Redflex Touchscreens, says advancements in protective coatings have taken touch screens to the level where they will survive a misguided beer bottle from a disgruntled punter.
This robustness has driven the use of touch-screen FPD and CRT monitors into new markets like vending machines, on-board computers in police cars, and utilities.
Like monitors themselves, the cost of equipping a touch-screen layer to monitors has reduced dramatically. Nevertheless, the market is generally at the mercy of the software applications written specifically for the touch-screen monitor.
Berisa claims that touch screens are not suited to traditional computing where a mouse or other device is generally used to navigate through the system. Instead, they're ideal for, say, doctors who can enter patient information straight into a tablet-like screen and move on to the next.
Berisa uses the example of beauty salons, where POS, customer data and appointment-booking information can be easily entered into a purpose-written application. And let's face it, in a salon, image is everything.
THE COST EQUATION
According to a white paper produced by UK-based visual display analyst firm Meko, which was sponsored by NEC-Mitsubishi Electronics, there are several primary and secondary cost issues associated with purchasing a FPD monitor over a CRT.
First cost benefits
Space. On average, a 15-inch FPD monitor occupies a 63 per cent smaller footprint than a 17-inch CRT. The cost of floor and desk space can then be calculated down to the last centimetre, but the real savings comes from enabling more staff to work in a limited area. For some installations - in call centres, for example - the savings are substantial, especially if it means small or medium-sized companies can avoid relocating to larger premises.
Office design. The phosphor that glows to create the image for a CRT monitor is also reflective. Ambient light reflecting off the screen from a window or fluorescent light can severely impede a user's ability to see what's on the monitor. In circumstances where it's difficult to control ambient light, like a retail store, it's difficult to increase the brightness of a CRT without encountering "blooming" or the spreading of the cathode beam when the current is boosted, which leads to a lack of focus. Because FPDs don't use phosphors, the argument is there is no fundamental problem with glare, and people can design office or home-desk layouts to better suit the aesthetics of the surroundings.
Weight. The comparatively large weight of CRTs means desks and mountings have to be more substantial. The use of FPDs enables a wider range of mounting options including "arm" mounts that remove the screen from the desktop altogether. Weight also plays a factor in transportation, ease of installation and portability. It can take more than one individual to carry 19-inch CRTs and above.
Customer-facing applications. In situations such as travel agencies, where staff might want to share information with customers, the light weight and ease of positioning of FPD monitors can be a significant advantage.
Power consumption. Next to form factor, power consumption is one of the biggest selling points for FPDs, which consume about one-third of the power of CRT monitors. In an office environment this can lead to a considerable reduction in the power bill.
Air conditioning. When the power supplied to monitors is converted into heat it is difficult to regulate the temperature of a small enclosure housing a lot of PCs.
Lifetime. The lifetime of a CRT is generally quoted as 20,000 hours before the monitor fades to 50 per cent brightness. An FPD will also tend to reduce in brightness, but over a period of 50,000 hours. Replacing the back-light will restore the FPD to "as new" condition as long as it hasn't been mechanically damaged.
Secondary cost benefits
Less visual fatigue. Intensive users of computer displays often complain of visual fatigue. Recent research suggests this has to do with the "resting point of vergence" (RPV), or the point where the eye muscles are most relaxed -- about 100cm straight ahead. The plane where it is most comfortable for the brain to superimpose both images (from the left and right eye), known as the "vertical horopter", tends to be with the bottom of an object closer to the body. With less glare and greater ease of movement, FPDs make it easier to tilt the screen in accordance to users' RPV.
Reduced interference. CRT monitors are subject to magnetic interference when in close contact with another monitor or other electrical equipment. For applications where users are often required to scan multiple monitors side by side, such as finance and stockbroking, it is advantageous to have FPDs.
Marketing image/style. A hard to quantify, but largely noted benefit of FPDs is their perceived image. They are widely seen as "high tech" and can enhance the image of a company with clients and suppliers when used in public areas such as training, meeting rooms and reception.
In terms of new offerings from vendors, Hitachi has launched an "on-glass projection system". Effectively, it enables any digital image to be projected onto any glass surface. Targeted initially at retailers for use as window advertising, the technology has a number of possible applications. But at $25,000-$30,000 per system, Hitachi's Mannasz admits the cost is still prohibitive.
In the areas of design, video editing and other intensive graphic fields, flat screens have found a natural home. For all the reasons previously discussed, people who stare at screens all day tend to have a natural affinity with anything that's going to relieve a little of the stress. It's also a market that has an affinity to things that look stylish rather than pure functionality.
It's a market in which Apple has long been established, so it's perhaps not surprising the manufacturer has dropped CRTs in favour of a purely LCD strategy.
Myrna Van Pelt, corporate affairs manager of Apple Computer Australia, says the move hasn't made any substantial impact to the number of units sold, with buyers' decisions usually coming down to resolution. "Looking at the sales figures and the forecasts, the connect rate has remained the same," she says. "Our resellers have confirmed that sales of LCDs are improving."
But not even FPDs have escaped the general downturn of the industry. "The current economic climate, which has impacted desktops as everyone would agree, has also impacted FPDs," Van Pelt says.
One of the selling points, however, is that FPDs have the look and feel of a screen that is two inches bigger - a 15-inch FPD gives the user a 17-inch experience, Van Pelt says. This comes in handy for new markets such as in galleries to display digital art and in airports for departure and arrival display screens.
The jury might still be out over whether FPDs will force CRTs into extinction, but next year will certainly see the industry a lot closer to a verdict.