Flat-panel displays: Sleek CRT alternatives

Flat-panel displays. The words conjure up images of those futuristic Etch-A-Sketch-looking slates you see on portable computers and hospital TV shows. Actually, the term flat panel rarely refers to notebook displays, which are necessarily flat. Rather, it designates the PC displays that have emerged as an alternative to the space-hogging cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors that most of us use on our desktops.

If you aren't sure about converting to flat panels, there are a few things you should consider. First, will you be re-engineering a space shuttle cockpit or an oceanographic submarine? If so, the choice is made for you. Where space, weight and/or energy are expensive, there just isn't another option.

Staying in the office instead? How about flicker-free, high-resolution, true-color displays and even full-motion video? Although most of these monitors offer a dot pitch of nearly 0.30 mm and appear slightly grainy, the colors are vivid and true - CRT displays seem almost pastel in comparison - and this can make granularity much less noticeable. With some flat panels, however, even this slight trade-off is not necessary. In fact, the Silicon Graphics Inc. 1600SW included in this review is the all-around finest monitor of any I've seen.

The development of flat-panel technology, which uses liquid crystals instead of cathode rays to display images, occurred largely in connection with laptop and notebook computers, where size and weight are crucial and users have been willing to accept relatively poor video performance. But as the technology has matured and costs have come down, flat panels have begun to look like viable alternatives to those desktop-claiming monsters to which we've been resigned for so long.

Some now even outperform traditional display technology. And given that flat-panel displays are fast overcoming design limitations that the CRT industry hasn't begun to address, the future may belong to thin screens.

For starters, flat panels let you reclaim your desktop, taking up less than a third of the area consumed by CRT displays and weighing proportionately even less. Power consumption is similarly reduced. Best of all, these screens are easy to look at hour after hour, and they emit no radiation other than light.

But one problem remains: The upfront cost is more than twice that of an equivalent CRT. But the power savings will add up over time. Moreover, these units should last for the long haul because the component most subject to burnout is the backlight, and that generally is replaceable for a minor cost.

The flat panels reviewed here reflect the ways that vendors try to come up with the right balance of performance and cost to meet users' needs. In general, flat panels fall into two camps: analog and digital.

Three of the flat panels reviewed here are analog units (those from Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Corp. and Korea Data Systems Co. Ltd.), and three are digital (from Sceptre Technologies Inc., Silicon Graphics Inc. and ViewSonic Corp.). The Sceptre and ViewSonic units comply with the Digital Flat Panel initiative, which is one of the current digital standards, and they come with ATI Rage LT Pro adapters. A competing standard, OpenLDI, is favored by SGI, and a suitable Number Nine Revolution IV card was provided with the SGI display. The ATI and Number Nine cards provide analog output as well as digital, however, and they also may be used with CRT monitors.

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Compaq's TFT5000

Two ergonomic features set this flat panel apart. One is that in addition to adjusting its viewing angle, you can adjust its height by about 2.5 inches. The other is even more relevant: The display pivots 90 degrees to portrait mode. When used with the included software utility, I could see and edit an entire page in XGA (726-by-1,024-pixel) resolution, which was still large enough to read easily.

Compaq's TFT5000 didn't come with a printed user's guide (an Adobe Systems Inc. Acrobat version is included on CD-ROM), but a printed card provided basic setup instructions. I didn't need it, though. I only had to plug the standard VGA cable into my existing video card and the power brick into the monitor and a power outlet.

The monitor came up looking very sharp and bright. An on-screen display menu allowed me to set brightness and contrast, display position, clock phase, color and power management options in any of six languages (all European).

The CD-ROM ran automatically upon inserting it into the drive. However, after loading the Compaq video drivers and choosing the "Reboot Later" option, I was bounced back out and had to manually reopen the CD-ROM and choose Install New Software again to look at auxiliary programs to install.

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IBM's T55A

This starkly handsome monitor was the only one to arrive in black. (The SGI 1600SW was charcoal gray.) Clean, sharp lines and a no-nonsense base made the package visually appealing.

The case wasn't the only dark aspect, though. Brightness was only average on the first unit I received, even at the maximum setting, and the screen was somewhat darker across the top than elsewhere. This condition was only improved if I tilted the screen down from the perpendicular, but travel is limited in this direction. Interestingly, brightness also was improved by viewing from a side angle. A call to IBM confirmed that the display's appearance should not have been so. A replacement display, when it arrived, was comparably bright to the other monitors.

The T55A came with a floppy disk that ran a menu-driven program for optimizing the display with a video card. An on-screen display menu also was available to set brightness, contrast and other features in five languages (all European).

As with the Compaq unit, I could just plug this analog unit into an existing video card and use it, although optimizing with the included utility did improve the display characteristics. The stand was extremely steady and resisted tilt adjustment enough that an accidental bump wouldn't change it.

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KDS' VS-F15

The VS-F15 is the least-expensive unit in this roundup, but you wouldn't guess that right off the bat by looking at the video display. The monitor's resolution, brightness, contrast and color rendering will please most users who are accustomed to CRT displays.

A longer acquaintance may reveal a couple of limitations in comparison with the rest of the roundup. The 0.297 mm dot pitch is at the high end of this group, along with the IBM and Sceptre units, and there is more fuzziness than grain in the picture, as is the case with CRTs.

Potentially more significant is the fact that, alone among these displays, the KDS unit does not offer 24-bit true color, instead topping out at 18 bits (262,000 colors). However, that is still more than enough for most uses. I probably would not have noticed the difference in testing.

The case is simple. It is remarkable only for the unique placement of the four control buttons - on the back of the unit, set within finger-size grooves so that you can find them easily without looking.

As with the other analog displays, an auto-calibration utility was provided on disk. However, the instructions in the user's guide for running the utility from the on-screen display (in English only) were nearly impenetrable.

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Sceptre's BT15D+

What first distinguishes the Sceptre is its reduction of the clutter on your desktop. Stereo speakers are built-in, with input and headphone jacks and a volume control. The unit's power brick is tucked inside the stand, so I only had to connect a power cord directly. The stand also has a hidden turntable to allow side-to-side pivoting so effortless it feels like cheating.

Like the ViewSonic unit, the Sceptre display complies with the Digital Flat Panel initiative for digital video, and it arrived with an ATI Rage LT Pro DFP video card. But the BT15D+ is smaller, at 14.9 inches diagonally, and it tops out at XGA (1,024-by-768-pixel) resolution. Its dot pitch - 0.297 mm, which is the same as IBM's T55A and KDS' VS-F15 - also is about 0.016 mm coarser than the ViewSonic's - a difference just about big enough to notice.

But size and resolution aside, the BT15D+ provided video virtually as luscious as the ViewSonic display. The BT15D+'s brightness and contrast were among the best in this roundup, trailing only the SGI 1600SW.

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SGI's 1600SW

A large (17.3-inch diagonal) flat panel is flashy in itself, but this unit's charcoal-gray case and futuristic stand also make a statement. Like the Compaq, this display is vertically adjustable, although it does not pivot.

What really stands out, though, is the super-sharp detail and punchy colors at 1,600-by-1,200-pixel resolution. This sharpness (at least partly owing to a dot pitch of 0.23 mm) and the display's wide screen allow workable viewing of two full letter-size pages side by side.

Although this display's overall dimensions are smaller than the 18.1-inch diagonal ViewSonic monitor, SGI's OpenLDI digital video transfer scheme allows better addressing at resolutions higher than the ViewSonic can reach. The ViewSonic adheres to the DFP standard and tops out at 1,280 by 1,024 pixels.

It also didn't hurt that I had a bundled Number Nine Visual Technology Corp. Revolution IV OpenLDI digital video card with 32M of SDRAM on board. This screamer provided the juice to power the 1600SW for full-motion video at maximum resolution.

One caveat: I encountered unexplained, frequent low-memory situations on a machine with 40M RAM only when using the Number Nine video card. It's impossible to say whether there's a bug in the video driver or some unrelated memory leak, but you may want to be ready to install more RAM along with the 1600SW, at least for the short term.

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ViewSonic's ViewPanel VPD180

The ViewPanel VPD180 is a sharp, bright digital monitor more than large enough to run a maximum 1,280-by-1,024-pixel resolution without eye strain. Its 18.1-inch diagonal measurement makes it the largest flat-panel monitor commercially avail-

able, according to ViewSonic. And assisted by the bundled ATI Rage LT Pro video adapter, the 24-bit colors splashed across the big screen were luscious.

The ViewSonic adheres to the DFP standard and tops out at 1,280 by 1,024 pixels.

Other than size and vividness, the VPD180's distinguishing features are a rotating base and a row of ports hidden behind the screen, just below the point where the base connects. These include power and video inputs, of course. But there is also a Universal Serial Bus input with two corresponding outputs, helping to manage cable clutter while providing extra connectivity options.

ViewSonic hasn't published brightness and contrast figures for this unit, but both look comparable to Sceptre's BT15D+. With about 50 percent more viewable display, the effect is more stunning on the VPD180's screen. And a smaller dot pitch (0.281 mm vs. 0.297 mm) contributes to a slightly less grainy picture.

I did notice that at one particular enlargement level, word processing documents became virtually unreadable. This did not seem to be a resolution problem because both smaller and larger viewing sizes showed no difficulties; instead, it apparently was a glitch in the video handling in the driver. A revision may have resolved the issue by the time you read this.

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Conclusion

After using each of these displays for a couple of weeks, I am a convert. There wasn't a monitor in this review for which I wouldn't trade any 15-inch CRT I've known. The prices are higher, but it's still an excellent trade-off. These crisp, bright, flicker-free monitors hardly take up any desktop space, and they save power. Just remember to keep an eye on the different standards available for digital flat panels.

-- Marshall is a free-lance writer who has been reviewing computer software for the past 10 years.

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Multiple flat-panel system offers three times the viewing area

This unit isn't shipping yet, but I wanted to take a quick look at it anyway. The Trio H15 may seem expensive at $6,500, but Mass Engineered Design Inc.'s three-flat-panel display unit is enough to make several types of computerati drool. The company also makes two- and four-panel units.

Of course, three 15-inch flat panels side by side give you lots of display real estate. But who needs it? Let me count the folks: graphic artists, editors, layout people, stock traders, those monitoring real-time data flows and anyone who wastes too much time switching between - or looking for - application windows buried on their desktop. And these are just the users off the top of my head.

I was dubious about the cost/benefit ratio until I got the system up and running and opened an Adobe Systems Inc. Illustrator graphic on all three panels. It was Cinerama time, with a single graphical image wrapped across a yard of usable display in a long-radius arc.

I also could use each panel more or less independently - for example, to display a single application in each panel, which I'm doing as I write this, to show different office suite application windows. This eliminates the need to move back and forth between files.

The only real drawback I found was understandable: Screen redraws were rather slow for complex images displayed across the three panels. The included Appian Graphics Jeronimo Pro four-port video card required a full-length PCI slot, which made it unusable in one of my test systems with a baby AT form factor. But for systems with enough room, multiple Jeronimo boards may be used together for displays of up to 16 monitors. Software is provided to make managing this multiple-monitor system a delight.

For more information, go to www.massmultiples.com or call (888) 603-9858 or (416) 593-4663.

- Tom Marshall

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Starting up: Analog vs. digital

Flat panels come in two flavors, analog and digital, and I looked at both. The analog displays featured easier setup than the digital ones, simply because I could use my installed AGP or PCI video cards with them. The digital monitors required special video cards, but they generally seemed faster and sharper and may well be worth the extra installation effort.

Furthermore, you don't have to calibrate the color with digital monitors, as you should with the analogs. The reason for this is that a computer's video signal starts out in digital form. The traditional VGA-derived video adapter converts the signal to analog and pipes it to a monitor. If the display is a traditional CRT unit, it needs the analog signal. But if it's an LCD monitor (this includes those that are called "analog" flat panels), then the signal must be converted back to digital before it gets to the screen pixels. This burns up some computing capacity. You also get something of a square peg/round hole situation, which color calibration is an attempt to remedy.

An all-digital flat-panel display avoids both conversions, giving you a round peg in a round hole. And because there isn't a widely accepted standard for digital video displays yet, buyers must take care that the digital video card they use matches the particular monitor's video transfer scheme.

- Tom Marshall

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