Here's the skinny on flat-panel monitors -

The first thing people say when they
see a flat-panel monitor on your desk is "Cool!" The second is, "I want
one."


I speak from experience. Over the last four months, four active-matrix liquid crystal
displays on my desk have drawn just those remarks.


My Reviewer's Choice designation goes to Compaq Computer Corp.'s TFT500 monitor. Compaq
is not known as a monitor maker, and the company's TFT500 is not a perfect monitor. My
early production test unit had a couple of rogue pixels, but it delivered the best imaging
and color accuracy of the four monitors.


Close on Compaq's heels was NEC Technologies Inc.'s MultiSync LCD2000 with its huge
20-inch screen.


The on-screen commands were excellent, but color accuracy was less than optimal. Heavy
vertical banding marred images.


Coming close to the NEC were Panasonic's PanaFlat LC40 and ViewSonic's VP140 ViewPanel.
The 14-inch LCDs had virtually the same on-screen controls and generally good images. Both
pumped up reds and failed to get colors accurate.


Any of the monitors would be a fine addition to your PC, or they can be mounted on the
wall above. Flat panels weigh less, save desktop real estate and consume only half as much
power as equivalent CRT monitors.


None of the tested models earned a grade higher than B+ because old-fashioned CRT
monitors still give superior images and color accuracy at a more reasonable price.


LCD prices have now plummeted from their former astronomical levels but still remain
stratospheric. Some desktop flat-panel monitors still cost as much as $18,000.


The four down-to-earth displays I examined started around $2,500--enough to buy an
entire computer system with a CRT monitor.


As prices have dropped, the quality of the slender displays has risen. When I last
looked at an LCD monitor [GCN Shopper, June 1996, Page 16], it was part of the first
generation of affordable flat panels with less-than-optimal image quality and proprietary
graphics cards.


Image quality has since gone way up, and proprietary graphics cards are no longer
needed. Second-generation LCD displays attach by standard VGA connectors to almost any
video card.


Like desktop CRT monitors, flat panels create colors using red, green and blue bars to
produce a single pixel. Each actuated RGB bar looks like a single color to the naked eye.


Achieving color accuracy is tough for flat-panel monitors. In the table, you'll notice
differences in color depths. LCDs handle a
limited number of colors--262,144 to be exact.


A technique called frame-rate modulation lets one draw use one color and the next draw
use another color, which fools the eye into seeing different hues. That's how some monitor
makers say they can reach 16.7 million or even unlimited colors.


I learned about frame-rate modulation when I tested for color accuracy by displaying
solid Pantone Matching System colors in a graphics file at the maximum color depth allowed
by an 8M Imagine 128 graphics accelerator card from Number Nine Visual Technology Corp. of
Lexington, Mass.


Each monitor's grade depended on how well it could match the Pantone colors and
correctly differentiate similar colors. I tested all monitors with the same PC and
graphics card. Each monitor's .inf file was loaded into Microsoft Windows 95 to ensure
appropriate settings.


The Compaq TFT500 did no frame-rate modulation and performed surprisingly well on a
variety of colors. Some hues were a little light, but the factory default settings had
about half the colors pegged perfectly.


The NEC LCD2000 reproduced about 30 percent of the colors accurately, though sometimes
the edges flickered a bit. Anything heavily red or green tended to be dark, and blues were
light.


The Panasonic and ViewSonic made the red tints too dark. On the ViewSonic it was
impossible to distinguish between red and orange. The Panasonic did a little better, but
oranges still looked polluted.


LCD monitors are great for standard desktop use but not for extreme color accuracy.
Where color accuracy or desktop imaging work is paramount, stick with a conventional CRT.


The price may seem forbidding, but flat-panel monitors definitely are on their way to
becoming desktop fixtures.


Compaq's TFT500 deserves a Reviewer's Choice for its crisp images. But some changes
would improve it. The panel needs a glass cover with a glare mask. Its anti-reflective
coating was poor, especially for handling sunlight. The on-screen controls were primitive
and lacked options the other monitors offered.


Yet it still produced a sharp image, perhaps because it was the only display with true
one-dot-per-pixel resolution.


All the monitors convert an analog video signal created by the graphics accelerator
card into a digital signal. At lower resolutions, the NEC, Panasonic and ViewSonic
emulated the lower resolution and showed the image full screen, or edge to edge.


The maximum viewable resolution on the Panasonic and ViewSonic was 1,024 by 768
pixels--almost the total number of pixels available on those displays. But at VGA
resolution of 640 by 480 pixels, 1.6 pixels had to light up to create one dot.


Although CRT monitors can fudge odd sizes, LCD monitors must either commit the pixel or
not. Therefore, on most emulated lower resolutions, edge-to-edge images look a little odd.


The Compaq TFT500 didn't bother to work edge to edge. For every dot of image
resolution, it lit up a pixel. At lower resolutions, instead of stretching the image from
edge to edge, it showed a blank border.


Overall, its images were uniformly bright. Edges appeared hard with little difference
between vertical and horizontal. Jaggies, a problem on LCD monitors, were minimal.
Backlighting was bright enough. To compensate for fading, the edge pixels seemed extra
bright but weren't distracting.


Two faulty pixels did stay lit all the time, but my test unit had been at a couple of
previous destinations, so the jostling in shipment might have caused those specks.


NEC's MultiSync LCD2000 makes a striking addition to the popular MultiSync family. Most
21-inch CRT monitors don't even have a viewable area of 20.1 inches diagonal as the
LCD2000 does.


It reached 1,280-by-1,024 resolution and left a lot of real estate for computing. For
some reason, there was vertical banding, visible even a distance away from the screen, in
solid-color areas.


The LCD2000 tended to ghost or duplicate certain elements, especially the cursor arrow,
off to one side.


Certain colors annoyingly caused areas of the screen to appear to jiggle, especially at
less than maximum resolution. I suspect this came from the frame-rate modulation.


The LCD2000 had NEC's XtraView technology that shows screen images clearly over a wide
perspective.


It used to be that LCD users had to look dead-on to see the entire display area.
XtraView gives the same basic view from an angle as well as dead-on.


The NEC's image, though clear from most vantage points, was a little grainy.


I followed NEC's setup recommendations, but the optimal refresh rate wasn't quite
right. Some bands showed up sharper than others. On-screen controls were excellent and
clear.


At close to $7,000, this monitor is still a bargain. Not so long ago, flat panels half
this size cost twice as much. Despite the graininess, I enjoyed using this monitor for
weeks without eyestrain.


Panasonic's PanaFlat LC40 and ViewSonic's VP140 ViewPanelwere identical in everything
but name and price. Panasonic builds both, and both are good bargains, but the PanaFlat
has a price advantage.


ViewSonic officials refused to provide a government price, favoring an estimated street
price.


The Panasonic looked a bit clearer and did slightly better at color accuracy, and its
.inf file was better. ViewSonic's file transposed letters in the monitor name, calling it
the PV140.


Peachy images Images on both displays looked slightly fuzzy. That was especially true
at lower resolutions where the screen images were stretched. I would prefer to have an
option not to stretch images edge to edge.


Handy on-screen controls were good, especially the auto-sizing control, which
determined the edges of the screen and stretched or contracted the image.


I expect Panasonic and ViewSonic to produce larger LCDs soon, but the VP140 and LC40
are small enough to be excellent choices where workspace is limited.


GCN Lab assistant Donovan Campbell contributed to this review.


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