It isn't easy to get noticed in Las Vegas, where decorating often means covering a room in marble, installing an opulent candelabra, or wheeling in a rhinestone-studded baby grand piano. But even Las Vegas pays heed to the latest in technology. Washington Mutual Bank assistant vice president Greg Gopal recalls that when his company wanted to add pizzazz to its financial centers, it brought in flashy LCD monitors to replace its staid, bulky CRTs. The resulting look flat-out impressed his customers--and his competition. "It looks like a high-tech machine," marvels Gopal, an eager convert to the flat side.
LCDs have found niches in environments like hospitals and as part of store kiosks. Their high prices have kept them from being widely adopted elsewhere. But analysts predict that, within the next decade, the LCD monitor will supplant the CRT as the top choice for both professional and personal use. LCDs are lighter, more space- and energy-efficient, and--even more important--better for your eyes than CRT monitors.
However, don't expect CRTs to disappear anytime soon. LCDs represented just 3 percent of the total monitor market in 1999, according to industry research group Stanford Resources. The initial costs necessary to manufacture these monitors are enormous--"a billion dollars" per product line, according to Sam Miller, ViewSonic's director of advanced display technology. Those costs have been passed on to customers as sky-high prices, limiting sales. Another factor: the lack of a standard digital interface. That issue was resolved with the adoption in fall 1999 of the Digital Display Working Group's Digital Video Interface, or DVI.
Thanks partly to standards like DVI, the LCD scene is changing: More flat panels are appearing on the market, and the average price of a 15-inch LCD monitor these days has dipped to under $1000.
It's been more than a year since our last LCD roundup, so we decided to take a new look at the LCD monitor market. The LCDs we saw made a good impression: Almost all of them did exceptionally well at presenting crisp, legible text. Some were less effective with color graphics, however, struggling to render realistic skin tones, or displaying either faded and washed out or oversaturated colors.
The average street price of all the monitors we tested was $1042, ranging from $899 to $1299. By comparison, the average street price of a 17-inch CRT--which has a viewing area equivalent to that of a 15-inch LCD--hovers around $300 for a unit with acceptable image quality. So it's no wonder that cost-conscious shoppers have shied away from LCDs.
We collected a sample of 15 monitors for this review and evaluated how well they displayed routine business items such as text in word processing documents, a newsletter, and spreadsheets, as well as application windows, color and black-and-white photos, and Web pages. To distinguish image quality further, we tested the monitors' ability to display a plain white screen, text of varying sizes, gray-scale images, and a background image of very closely spaced, vertical black-and-white bars. Then we combined the results of these performance tests with rankings based on price and features to come up with our overall rating.
We awarded our Best Buy to the Eizo Nanao FlexScan L330. The FlexScan L330 combines the best overall image quality we saw with an appealing $949 price tag. Honorable mention goes to the Philips Brilliance 150P, which offers a solid all-around package for the same low $949 street price, and to the CTX International PV510, which offers impressive text and graphics performance as well as the lowest price on our chart ($899), but is held back by its thin support and skinny feature set.
Our tests show that under-$1000 LCDs perform so impressively that there's no compelling reason for you to spend more. That is, unless you really want the extra bells and whistles.
Pricier models include interesting new features: The Samsung SyncMaster 150MP, for example, has television tuner, video-in, and picture-in-picture (PIP) capabilities, and the Compaq TFT5010 offers optional touch-screen functionality, making this monitor especially well suited to providing or collecting customized information in a public setting (like taking surveys, giving out visitor information, or listing product availability). Newcomer AG Neovo's M15 offers a wealth of extras, such as a unique protective outer glass and an unusual swiveling capability.
These add-ons complement another new feature: dual-interface LCDs, which allow you to use an analog interface to connect an LCD to your computer--just as you would a CRT--or use an all-digital interface. We've seen dual-input LCDs before, but in the past you couldn't be certain which digital specification the LCDs supported. The flat panels on our chart that feature dual inputs include the Philips Brilliance 150P, the Compaq TFT 5010, and the NEC MultiSync LCD1525X.
LCD monitors are--by their very design--digital devices, but most graphics adapters available today are intended for use with analog monitors. Digital-to-digital (or "pure digital") transmission avoids the signal degradation or "noise" typical of analog-only LCDs and therefore is theoretically better. To run an LCD monitor in digital mode you'll need a digital graphics adapter (typically costing $150 to $300).
Is a "pure digital" interface worth paying for? Unfortunately, although companies tout these interfaces as the wave of the future, it's not clear from our tests that digital LCDs deliver significantly better image quality than analog LCDs. (See "
Some LCDs offer landscape and portrait functionality. You must install special software to use it, however, and some companies, such as CTX, charge you for the software that enables you to switch. Additional features you should look for include built-in speakers--a practicality that fits an LCD's mission to free up desktop space--and USB ports, which help you connect peripheral devices such as printers or digital cameras more easily.
Our chart lists the backlight warranty for each LCD. Though an LCD's backlight is the one component most likely to fail, it has approximately twice the longevity of a CRT monitor's tube (20,000 to 30,000 hours versus 10,000 to 20,000 hours).
LCDs save desktop space--you can count on saving at least 1 square foot, and sometimes much more. But there's more: LCD monitors also use less electricity, generate less heat, and weigh much less than their bulky cathode-ray cousins--LCDs on our chart ranged from 5 to 20 pounds, compared to almost 40 pounds for a 17-inch CRT. And they're ideal for medical offices and hospitals because they don't emit the electromagnetic radiation that CRTs do, so they don't cause EMF interference in other high-tech medical devices.
What's more, they're easy on your eyes because they don't refresh their screens in the same way as CRTs. If a CRT monitor's refresh rate is set too low, it causes noticeable screen flicker, which can cause eyestrain in some people. But LCD flicker is undetectable to the human eye and does not cause eyestrain.
On the downside, besides their high prices, you should also be aware of LCDs' limited viewing angles. The viewing angle is a measure of the angle at which you can view the screen from the sides and top and expect to see an image clearly. A typical LCD viewing angle is 60 degrees, though 70 degrees is preferable; CRTs typically allow a much wider viewing angle. The NEC MultiSync LCD1525X provides the widest viewing angles of any LCD on our chart, at 80 degrees. Wider viewing angles have been achieved with high-end developmental prototypes of LCD panels--advancements that will eventually trickle down to the consumer level. In the meantime, many of the LCDs we tested swivel and tilt--a low-tech but certainly not unreasonable way to address the problem.
With few exceptions, the LCDs we tested produced crisp and extremely legible black-on-white text (typical of word processing documents and Web pages). But, although we calibrated all the monitors to the same contrast and brightness settings, we saw noticeable variations in the panels' abilities to display color images. Some had screen contrast that was too high--enough so that a battleship-gray toolbar in Windows looked almost white, and usually vivid icons looked either faded or, at the opposite extreme, oversaturated. Among our chart-makers, the number eight Samsung SyncMaster 150MP showed relatively tepid graphics, and the number seven Acer FP558 was plagued by screen blotchiness.
To help correct color quality, some vendors include image- or color-adjustment software with their LCD monitors (see the
While some people will wait patiently for prices to come down even further, those of you who are ready to make the switch to a 15-inch LCD right now will find a generous number of excellent choices on our Top 10 chart. If high style is what you seek, check out the unusual case designs of Sony's SDM-N50PS or AG Neovo's M15; bargain hunters should consider CTX International's PV510.
Pitch-black and pixel-perfect, the Eizo Nanao FlexScan L330 earns top honors for its superlative text and graphics display, and for its price: a competitive $949.
Most growing companies eventually need to contend with cramped office space. Perhaps you are feeling the squeeze yourself, and wondering if it would be worth upgrading to LCD panels the next time your office plays monitor-go-round. Dan Shaughnessy, who leads the information technology team at the American Academy of Pediatrics' offices in Elk Grove, Illinois, faced a similar decision last year. To help ease the crowding, Shaughnessy ordered more than a dozen LCD monitors. He plans to keep ordering them in batches, until all 300-plus employees have converted to LCDs.
Predictably, it's a top-down process, from the CEO to the file clerks. But as luck would have it, "there was one model left over from testing, which just happened to end up on my desk," Shaughnessy chuckles.
In his first foray into the LCD market, Shaughnessy didn't stick to a single brand, instead ordering several different models to evaluate and compare their performance. His department has tried out half a dozen brands, including monitors from ViewSonic, Philips, and NEC.
The desire to reclaim desk space was what prompted Shaughnessy and the AAP to consider LCD monitors. "We wanted to give people back some of their workspace," he explains. In addition to the smaller footprint, he finds that built-in speakers help keep the workspace neat.
The premium cost of LCDs, however, did give Shaughnessy's organization pause. "That was a concern," he admits; price "is why we haven't converted everybody yet." Shaughnessy doesn't expect the LCDs to pay for themselves anytime soon, but he points out that they have important "soft benefits" that help compensate for the higher price: "People claim LCDs are easier on their eyes," he says, and they have a larger viewable area than they did with their 15-inch CRTs. He also hasn't yet seen any screen burn-in with the LCDs, which had proved to be a problem with the five-year-old CRTs that are gradually being replaced.
So what's the verdict? "Everybody who has one is very happy, and the people who don't have one are asking when they're going to get one," Shaughnessy reports.
Conventional wisdom holds that digital-to-digital signals produce better image quality than signals converted from analog to digital and then back to analog. But does that claim stack up? Since some of the LCD monitors we tested offer dual analog and digital interfaces, we compared their performance in both modes. We expected to see a marked difference, but that's not the way things turned out.
The five monitors we looked at for this roundup that offer both digital and analog output are the Compaq TFT5010, the NEC MultiSync LCD1525X, the Philips Brilliance 150P, the Princeton Senergy 560, and the ViewSonic ViewPanel VP150m. (The last two didn't make our Top 10 chart.)
Two of these five, the Philips and the Compaq, displayed text and graphics at about the same quality in both digital and analog modes. In a "blind" test, two teams of testers looked at these monitors in both analog and digital mode but voiced no real preference for either one. The NEC MultiSync LCD1525X achieved similar results. In sum, you'd probably be just as happy with these LCDs' analog image quality as you would with their digital output.
On the other hand, two dual-input LCDs--the Princeton Senergy 560 and the ViewSonic VP150M--did show a noticeable difference in their digital and analog image quality. The VP150M earned an adequate score for the quality of its digital images--the same score earned by the Compaq TFT5010. But in analog mode, the VP150M delivered some of the lowest image scores we saw for both text and graphics.
The Princeton Senergy 560 showed the biggest difference. The 560's digital image quality captivated our testers, earning the highest image-quality score of all the dual-input LCDs. The monitor's analog image quality, however, was deemed the worst of the entire bunch. So, in the case of the Princeton, a digital graphics adapter might just come in handy. Considering the 560's affordable $899 street price, it could prove a sweet entrée to the world of pure digital display.