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Flat-panel monitors have more growing up to do
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule


Flat-panel monitors have more growing up to do


Technofile for Dec. 13, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

If you've watched the TV show Nancy Roberts and I do on Tuesday nights, you've probably noticed a change this year. We have computer screens in front of us just as we had the first three years of Point 'n' Click, but this year we switched monitors. We joined the flat-panel revolution.

The screens are totally flat and only a few inches thick. Eventually, all computer monitors will be flat and thin. Some day all TV screens will be, too. But after working with the flat-panel monitors on the TV show and checking out a dozen others, I'm convinced that flat-panel displays have a long way to go before they're worth considering for most of us.

But I should point out I'd change my mind in a flash if the darn things weren't so expensive. I checked a local discount computer store and found two models selling for $900 each and two for $1,000 each. They came in 14-inch and 15-inch sizes.

Because of the way standard monitors are built and because of the crazy way they are measured, a 15-inch standard monitor actually has no more than about 13.8 inches of viewable diagonal measurement, and a 17-inch standard monitor has about 15.7 inches. Flat-panel monitors are measured accurately, so a 14-inch flat-panel monitor actually has a larger screen than a 15-inch standard monitor, and a 15-inch flat-panel monitor has roughly the same screen size as a 17-inch standard monitor.

I'm mentioning this because you can't compare prices unless you consider the size discrepancy. A 15-inch flat-panel monitor should be compared to a 17-inch standard one when you're checking prices.

With that in mind, I checked typical prices of 17-inch monitors at a discount store. The cheapest was $200. The cheapest flat-panel monitor with the same size display was $900. A very good 17-inch monitor (made by Sony) sold for $400. You could buy two Sony 17-inch monitors and a Zip drive for the price of one flat-panel display.

That's the first problem. When flat-panel displays are $200, they'll take over the computer world. That's not going to happen soon, because a typical flat-panel monitor has millions of separate elements, and most manufacturers take a monitor off the production line if only four or five of those elements don't work right. That's an expensive way to make a display. (Standard monitors work like TV sets, without all those separate elements.)

The second problem is technical. Standard monitors use analog signals. Flat panel monitors use digital signals. Makers of flat-panel displays have to make a choice: Either they build in analog-to-digital converters so you can use the monitor with your present PC or Mac setup, or they tell you to make a change to a new kind of graphics card. An all-digital monitor won't work with all the PCs and Macs currently in use.

The first solution is not a good one, because the conversion from analog to digital doesn't work very well. The picture quality suffers. (Nearly every flat-panel monitor you can buy today uses this conversion method.) The second one produces exceptionally sharp and stable images, but asking you and me to give up our video cards just to plug in a new monitor is just plain too much.

The third problem is fragility. You do not buy a $900 flat-panel display and invite the cat to climb over it. The surface of the screen is soft and oddly squishy, like a superfine window screen stretched on top of a paste of Jell-O. One poke with a pencil point and you are looking at a $600 repair. (Flat-panel displays cost almost as much to fix as they do to buy.)

The fourth problem makes most flat-panel monitors almost useless for the millions of game players who consider Windows nothing more than a convenient entertainment system. Most flat-panel displays have one actual resolution—usually, 1024 X 786. (The numbers represent the number of separate picture elements measured across and down.) Games usually require a much lower resolution, 640 X 480.

Standard monitors have no problem showing a screen drawn at 640 X 480 resolution. But most flat-panel displays take an either-or approach to showing a lower-resolution screen on a higher-resolution display. They extrapolate the 640 X 480 screen into the larger one, making everything look blocky and ugly, or they show the 640 X 480 screen as a small part of the larger 1024 X 758 screen. The second approach keeps the quality of the 640 X 480 screen, at the expense of size. Both methods are dumb. (A few flat-panel displays use clever circuits to create a passable display of the low-resolution screen, but most don't even try.)

Flat-panel displays have many advantages, of course. They use much less electricity, are light and easy to carry or move, emit no low-frequency radiation, and, at least in the all-digital models, have a very steady image. The time will come when the problems I've listed here will be history. Until then, be wary of the beguiling flat displays. They have some growing up to do.


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