Flat hunting

Introduction

Like something straight out of a science-fiction movie, flat-panel monitors are a slick addition to any desktop. When they first appeared, LCD screens were an expensive fashion item. It was difficult to justify buying them, because quality did not match price. Over the past three years, flat-panel prices have become reasonable – if not yet cheap. Quality has also improved, but there’s still a way to go. Here, we take a look at the current crop of flat-panel monitors and check out the latest developments in this fledgling technology. The models we examined are LCD-based, using similar technology to laptop screens. The main difference is size: the PowerBook screen measures 14.1-inches diagonally, while those we looked at go up to 18.1 inches. All bar one use a traditional analogue interface, the exception using new digital interface technology. There are some flat-panels smaller than 14-inches available, which many Macintosh users will find too cramped for creative uses. Currently, 18 inches is the largest LCD flat-screen available; but other options, such as plasma screens, offer viewing areas as large as 40 inches. Unfortunately, they are usually unsuitable for computer use because the smallest available pixel size on a plasma screen is much larger than with either CRT or LCD monitors. The way plasma – or “gas plasma”, to give it its full name – works is similar to neon-lighting technology. Each pixel is a tiny fluorescent light, illuminated by a small electrical charge. The results are impressive, but more suited to television – which has a relatively low resolution – than to up-close computer work. Even if this didn’t put you off gas plasma screens, the price tag certainly will: a 40-inch screen will set you back more than £10,000. LCD flat-panels cost considerably more than their CRT (cathode ray tube) equivalents. A 15-inch LCD screen now costs between £700 and £1,000. Although similar to last year’s prices, quality does appear to have improved. The larger sizes – more than 15 inches – are still very pricey. The cheapest 18-inch screen is just under £2,000 – a considerable and, for many people, unjustifiably large outlay. But why would you want a flat-panel monitor anyway? For most people, there’s no technical justification for choosing a flat-panel monitor over a CRT – it’s just a matter of aesthetics. Sadly, IT managers are notoriously unimpressed by upgrades that are based on aesthetics. But with more and more companies looking to become feng shui-compliant, maybe flat-panels will be considered a welcome improvement on office aesthetics. Realistically, flat-panels are most useful for impressing clients. A presentation on one will always impress, and a flat display in a reception area gives the impression of a high-flying, high-tech company. Graphics professionals usually get the pick of the crop when it comes to new and impressive equipment. It’s something of a turnaround for the sales department – and the receptionist – to be the natural recipients of the latest computing goodies. For creative teams, quality is an issue with flat-panels. Their colour fidelity is OK for most things, but they are difficult to calibrate to a high degree of accuracy. One of the reasons for this is rather silly: the suction cup of the hardware calibration tools damage the fragile LCD screen. Hardly an insurmountable problem, I admit, but it has affected the ability of manufacturers to achieve perfect colour. Another factor is that data is translated too many times before hitting the screen. A traditional monitor is analogue, and uses pulsing magnets to direct the cathode ray. LCD monitors address each pixel individually, and these are turned on or off digitally. This becomes complicated, because the obvious way to control a digital monitor is with a digital signal. The signal starts out being digital, but because monitor outputs are analogue, flat-panel monitors require hardware to convert an analogue signal to digital again. Only one of the monitors tested – the Silicon Graphics model – has a digital input. This requires a digital output from your Mac, supplied by a digital-video card. The only problem with this is that the screen can take only a digital input, and video cards with a digital output are as rare as rocking horse poo. Luckily, we managed to get one from Formac, which has beaten even Silicon Graphics in launching a Mac-compatible digital-video card. That’s assuming the one I have isn’t the only one in existence. (For an in-depth look at the Formac card, take a look at the review of it on page 44). If you’re in the minority, and rely on a colour-calibrated monitor, a flat-panel monitor will not be able to match your colour fidelity. In this regard, the rest of us have nothing to lose by turning to a flat-panel model. In some ways, a flat-panel monitor actually beats the accuracy of CRT monitors. Trinitron monitors have terrific contrast and the colour is good too, but they suffer from poor convergence. If you’re looking at a Trinitron or a Diamondtron monitor, take a look at the straight black line in the corner of the screen. You will almost certainly see that the top and bottom of the line are shadowed by a blue or green tinge. This is a symptom of misconvergence; the cathode rays are slightly off target. This doesn’t happen with LCD panels as they don’t use cathode rays. Another problem with traditional monitors is their pincushion alignment – so-called because it’s the shape of the image on the screen. Lines are often not straight and this can distort the picture. You can adjust the pincushion, trapezoid, flare and other things, but often it makes things worse. The LCD panels don’t have this problem, because all pixels are arranged in straight lines. You get a perfect picture and a perfect aspect-ratio every time. Space race
Also, the thinness of flat-panels is really helpful when you’re working in a confined space. Take a look at your current monitor and imagine what it would be like to regain all that desk space. Their space-friendliness has made flat-panels popular on City trading desks. Being able to keep an eye on two or three screens at once is a boon to stock-market traders with limited space but almost unlimited cash. Three years ago, when large flat-panels came in at between £3,000-£6,000, City traders were actually among the few buying them. Falling prices have changed all this, as office designers realize that flat-screens allow more people to be squeezed into a given space. More bums on seats, more revenue. Simple. When EasyJet opened its online booking office recently, it was kitted out entirely with LCD screens. LCD screens also generate less heat. If you take a busy office like Macworld’s, which is crammed with 21-inch monitors, the amount of heat that is generated very quickly is amazing. This is all wasted power – worsened by the need for year-round air conditioning. So, if you work for an environmentally aware company, you can always try playing the energy-conservation card. Now down to the nitty gritty. In testing the screens, we took a number of factors into account. Resolution on an LCD screen is pre-set. You can interpolate different resolutions on some models, but it’s rarely a good idea. The smaller screens use a 1,024-x-768-pixel resolution, and the larger models use 1,280-x-1,024 pixels. The Silicon Graphics monitor didn’t conform to either of these resolutions, opting instead for a wide-screen aspect ratio. This means that, with regard to resolution, most flat-panels are level-pegging, unlike CRT monitors. Another CRT variable not present with LCD’s is the way size is measured. If you take a look at a 17-inch CRT screen, you’ll see that the diagonal measurement of the image displayed is more like 15 inches. This is because manufacturers have traditionally quoted the size of the glass tube rather than the visible image. Although an accepted practise, this is an inaccurate measurement. Fortunately, things are starting to change, with more monitors now also citing visible image. It’s a relief to find that, in the world of flat-panels, what you’re told is what you get. When you buy a 15.1-inch screen you get a 15.1-inch viewable image. This isn’t because LCD manufacturers are especially altruistic, rather that there’s no way they can cook the vital stats. Another key measurement from the world of traditional monitors is refresh rate. But, because of the way LCD screens display images – and a feature called “soft decay” – a high refresh rate is unnecessary. A CRT with a high refresh rate, though, appears flicker free, at least when compared to one with a lower refresh rate. LCD technology doesn’t suffer from flicker, because the light that illuminates the image is constant, rather than eminating from a cathode ray that quickly scans the screen. Piles of style
We had to look beyond numbers to learn the real character of the screens tested. Design is more important with these screens than with most. Apart from their price making them status symbols, they need to look the part. Scores awarded to these displays take into account design, as well as the more tangible factors. It’s likely that, when used with a Mac, most of these screens would be plugged into a Power Mac G3. Almost all of the screens on offer, while not exactly clashing with the G3, only offer a neutral grey case. The obvious exception is the Apple Studio Display and the Silicon Graphics screens. The models tested can be split broadly into two categories: smaller 1,024-x-768-pixel models; and larger models, which include the 1,280-x-1,024 and the 1,600-x-1,024-pixel resolutions. Of the smaller monitors, only one – the Samsung SyncMaster 320 – is under 15 inches. Although it performed well, it wasn’t the cheapest flat-panel we tested. That honour goes to the £680 LG 500LC, which was also significantly better. At £90 less than the Samsung, it offers great value. But in the 15-inch value stakes, there’s one model that’s far and away the best on price and features: the Apple Studio Display. It offers a colour-co-ordinated solution with software controls and even a video input. But the most amazing thing is that it’s the second cheapest screen – at just £699. There are a number of reasons why the Studio Display puts the other models in the shade. The most obvious thing is its design – another classic Jetson-esque piece from Apple’s Industrial Design department. Its colour scheme has been updated from bondi blue to blueberry blue, to match the new G3. It still retains the excellent control software, which gives the user a control panel to access all the adjustment controls usually found on the front of the monitor. With fewer buttons to interrupt its design, this makes for cleaner lines. Its video input is also a great bonus, as it allows you to play video directly on the screen without even the need for your Mac. Frankly, the Apple Studio Display would still get the Editors’ Choice if it cost an extra £200. This isn’t to say that the other 15-inch screens are without worth, for many have excellent extra features, such as speakers or built-in USB hubs. However, if you were to need these, you could always buy them separately – and still save money. There’s a marked price-hike between the 15-inchers and the larger models. The most expensive 15-inch screen is the Sony LPD L150, at £999. The cheapest larger screen is £800 extra. The increased acreage does make a big difference for working with images – although even the 15-inch screens don’t feel cramped, because they are the equivalent of 17-inch CRTs. The 18-inch models are the equivalent of 19-inch CRT screens. As you might expect, the more expensive large screens are increasingly likely to boast additional features. For example, the Iiyama not only includes speakers and USB but also pivots. This feature has been around for quite a while. Years ago, Radius had a 15-inch Pivot monitor. Like the Iiyama, the screen could be tilted to give a portrait or landscape display. In the past, this was a help, as monitors were extremely expensive. Now, the feature is less relevant, more of a novelty. ViewSonic and NEC also offer 18-inch models, but the most striking of the larger monitors was the Silicon Graphics 1600SW. Once again, the first thing that makes an impression is its sleek design. But it’s not just a matter of looks that sets this screen apart. Its interface is digital, which makes for an image untainted by analogue at any stage. This does require a video card that can support a digital signal, so you should factor-in an extra £200 for the Formac card. The resolution is 1,600-x-1,024 pixels, which makes for a wide screen-aspect ratio. This is ideal for 3D modelling, or video editing or any software that uses floating palettes liberally. The image is as crisp and sharp as can be, and the whole package is high-performance. Although it’s smaller than the other large screens, the 1600SW’s 17.3-inch screen is put to good use. Ignore the slight colour-co-ordination faux pas and this is currently unbeatable in its class. It’s hardly a secret that Apple has a new flat-panel monitor up its sleeve, and that it’s likely to ship soon. Dubbed the Cinema Display, it’s likely to share many of the characteristics of the SGI model, including its digital interface. If the Studio Display is anything to go by, it will be unbeatable on price and features – and even colour co-ordination. We’ll have to wait and see.
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