Wide Screens Open for Business

Dreamy-eyed, you tick off the advantages of a wide-screen LCD monitor: oft-used programs side by side, spreadsheets and blueprints fully visible, photos and art in exquisite detail, room for as many toolbars as you want--and don't forget how great DVDs would look. There's no need to deny your dreams: Smaller wide-screen LCDs are both practical and attainable. We tested various LCDs--three 17-inch monitors, five 23-inch displays, and one 24-inch unit--and their superb quality and surprisingly reasonable prices (as low as $664 for a 17-inch model and $1599 for a 23-incher) present a far-from-harsh reality.

The extended family of wide-screen LCD monitors includes odd-size screens, such as those measuring 20 or 20.1 inches. We chose to test 17, 23, and 24 inches because those categories have the best mix of affordable products for head-to-head comparison. The 24-inch display we tested has the same 1920 by 1200 native resolution as the 23-inch models, and most testers did not discern a difference in size when the units stood side by side. One vendor not represented here is Sony; the company's most recent model available during our test period was slated to be discontinued by the time you read this story.

Why Be Open to Wide?

Although these monitors are more affordable than in the past, they aren't easy on the wallet. The 17-inch LCD monitors in our October chart averaged around $540; the 17-inch wide-screen models have averaged around $680. There's no easy regular-format comparison to a 23- or 24-inch wide-screen monitor, but this group's average price tag of $2140 is not trivial. Committing to such an outlay requires a good reason--preferably, several good reasons.

Justifications for a wide screen's higher cost are not hard to find, though. Investing in a wide-screen monitor makes good business sense for some applications. I spend a huge amount of my day in Excel using spreadsheets," says Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research at technology analysis company ISuppli. "I need to track a lot of data across the screen. In that environment, it's a very nice format to use."

Despite the business benefits, Alexander predicts that wide-screen LCDs will edge their way into the office via the living room: "We'll see a groundswell in the U.S. market with TV viewing." With television shows like The West Wing and 24, and an ever-increasing number of DVD movies, available in wide-screen, it's easy to get accustomed to the format. "People will become more used to it for computer monitors as well," she says.

Many of the models on our chart bank on crossover appeal. Most of them accept A/V inputs like component, composite, and S-Video. Some have TV tuners, and many are HDTV-ready. Certain models come with speakers better than those usually found on monitors, but built-in monitor speakers--even with special sound functions--are no replacement for a full-fledged speaker system. For this review we evaluated entertainment functions, but we graded these models as monitors and not as TVs.

Of the smaller models, Sharp's LL-M17W1 handily won our nod for Editor's Pick, with its first-rate image quality. Impressing our jury with beautiful graphics and unparalleled text quality, Samsung's SyncMaster 243T was our Editor's Pick in the 23- and 24-inch category--even though it has few of the entertainment bells and whistles found on other models.

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