Cheaper alternatives to plasma have other advantages, too
The VisionStation's domelike enclosure reflected sounds, and the table got hot, but it produced amazing simulation effects.
The VisionStation is realistic enough to make you airsick
The SyncMaster 210T LCD is small and light enough to be a desktop monitor, but it's sharp enough for any presentation.
A big presentation or simulation monitor doesn't have to be plasma to look great. CRTs and LCDs can outperform plasma monitors in some respects, and they cost much less.
Plasma monitors work by exciting phosphorus dots in a neon-xenon gas atmosphere weakly ionized by ultraviolet radiation. They are thin, fragile, heavy and expensive, and the ionization process generates a lot of heat.
The average price of the three alternative monitors in this GCN Lab review is less than half that of a high-end plasma display. Although they cannot be compared against one another because each fulfills a different purpose, they can all compete against a plasma monitor for simulations or presentations.
Although plasmas generally make higher-quality images, some of these alternatives come very close and even have a greater viewing area than small plasmas.
Presenters were quick to figure out that their work would look far more impressive with plasma quality, but the carrying weights and prices were too high. So monitor makers such as Eizo Nanao Technologies Inc. and Samsung Electronics SDI pioneered top-of-the-line, high-resolution LCDs with nearly the same image quality but only 16 inches to 18 inches in diagonal viewing size and costing thousands of dollars less than plasma.Slimmed down
Samsung's 21-inch SyncMaster 210T
is so small and light at 28 pounds that it could be a desktop PC monitor, but it's high-end enough for any presentation. In contrast, a 21-inch CRT weighs about 65 pounds.
A good way to judge the quality of an LCD is to see how clearly it presents images and text outside its native resolution. The Samsung could maintain decent images and legible text while going from 800 by 600 pixels to 1,600 by 1,200 (its native resolution) and even to 1,920 by 1,440 pixels.
Above that, the settings had to be lowered to 16-bit color resolution instead of 32-bit. The Samsung outperformed most LCDs we've seen and many of the CRTs we've tested.
We liked the SyncMaster 210T's 160-degree viewing angle, picture-in-picture capability and 64X digital zoom. It showed no signs of ghosting, which occurs when a window has displayed a colorful image for at least 15 minutes and still shows the color residue after closing.
The 63-inch-high, 65-inch-wide and 41-inch-deep VisionStation
is the smallest monitor Elumens Corp. makes, and that's saying something. The concave dome-shaped, 91-pound monitor weighs a little less than plasma monitors, which generally are around 100 pounds, but the VisionStation has a significantly larger viewing area with visibility above and below. That makes flight simulation an ideal test.
But there's a drawback. Users can get motion sickness after working a long time in front of the VisionStation. That happened to three lab staff members. One sufferer had to lie down for a half-hour.
Oddly, the motion sickness came not during a flight simulation but rather from watching text emulation tests in a word processor.
The VisionStation was designed primarily for simulations rather than presentations, and we noticed a couple of design errors that merit correction.
The monitor comes in several small pieces that interlock to form a small table facing the inside of the dome arc. A single piece of metal connects the table to the dome, which means the dome flexes whenever the table moves.
Also it's necessary to have a very long cable to connect the VisionStation to the computer, which must be at least a meter away. Any closer, and the noise of the CPU fan and hard drives will bounce off the dome and seem to be coming from all directions.
The VisionStation's LCD projector has a patented Elumens lens with a 180-degree viewing angle. But digital-light-processing and LCD projectors tend to get quite hot and need ventilation, which the dome restricts. After prolonged use, the LCD unit inside the table heats up enough to be felt.
Anyone who uses the VisionStation or any LCD or DLP projector should remember to disconnect it before leaving the room.
Despite these drawbacks, the VisionStation is still a good, $18,000 alternative to plasma.A CRT as good as plasma
Until now, there has been no CRT to match plasma monitors. Enter the CTX MS2900
Like a plasma monitor, the 29-inch MS2900 displays brilliant colors by exciting phosphor dots. The CRT, first developed in 1931 by Allen M. DuMont, has a long electron gun that requires depth and bulk. The electron beam scans repeatedly across the screen to strike all the phosphor dots, and if this refresh rate isn't high enough, the user will be able to detect a flicker.
The MS2900's biggest advantage is its 29-inch viewing area, more like a color television set than a monitor. The screen is good for presentations and comes within a few inches of the size of small plasma displays.
Large speakers run along the side, making a complete presentation system. The MS2900 is inexpensive for its size, too, at $1,299. And it's far more rugged than a plasma monitor. No one will toss this 123-pound behemoth around.
The GCN Lab banged it about during setup with no ill effects. But at 19 inches thick, it was hard to get around no matter where it was put. Fortunately, the PC cable plugged into the front.
Presentations, especially those using photographs, look great on the MS2900. It would be perfect for, say, interactive training videos or computer-generated presentations.
The monitor did have several flaws. Images were distorted above 640- by 480-pixel resolution. The lower resolution is good for presentations or playing DVDs, but word processing text looks clunky.
The maximum refresh rate at 1,024-by-768 resolution is a dismal 65 hertz. A relatively fast rate even at lower resolution'82 hertz at 800-by-600 resolution, for example'still results in poor image quality. Only at 600-by-480 resolution with a 102-hertz refresh rate does the monitor approach plasma quality.
For office applications, another flaw becomes evident: blurry image corners. Things look great in the middle of the screen but distort toward the edges. This is a problem with most large CRTs but glaringly evident on a 29-incher, especially at low resolution.
There are also shading problems. Gray backgrounds generate a color-cycling effect like the rainbow glare across a CD-ROM surface.
The MS2900 is not the right monitor for users who need precise details on screen. It does a good job, however, as an inexpensive and robust alternative to low-end plasma monitors.
It cannot equal high-end, 21-inch CRTs, but for presenters or visually disabled users to whom image size really matters, the MS2900 is a big deal.