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IBM churns out new flat panels, all-in-one PC

Big Blue releases a new series of flat-panel monitors and will continue to turn up the heat on industrial design and style as the year progresses.

Thin finally might be in for IBM.

Big Blue is releasing a new series of flat-panel monitors and will continue to turn up the heat on industrial design and style as the year progresses, and it introduces more products.

In May, the company will introduce a flat-panel computer monitor with a 20.8-inch screen. The monitor will boast picture-within-a-picture TV streams, various split-screen configurations, and a resolution level that IBM predicts will be the highest on the market. Eighteen months ago, just two prototypes of the monitor existed.

Later in the year, IBM will release a Pentium 4 version of its NetVista PC, an all-in-one computer with a built-in flat-panel monitor that can be mounted on a moving crane arm. The PC guts are housed in a chamber behind the monitor.

"We want to redefine how PCs fit into an environment," said Bruce Rasa, product marketing manager for the NetVista line at IBM.

IBM has been stung by attempts to sell PCs to the Lexus crowd in the past. An emphasis on stylish PCs hurt the company in 1997 when the rest of the industry was pursuing the then-radical concept of a $1,000 PC.

Circumstances have changed, though, giving stylized computers a new lease on life. For one thing, an increase in manufacturing capacity has drastically reduced the cost of flat-panel monitors.

Although flat panels rarely dipped below $1,000 last year, prices have steadily dropped since the end of last year and probably won't hit a stable bottom until the third or fourth quarter.

"There is going to be significant growth in flat panels," said Mickey Manitply, a worldwide product manager at IBM. Flat-panel prices are coming down to the point where they're just about twice the price of a standard CRT, Manitply added.

Historically, customers migrate to new types of monitors when the incoming technology costs either twice as much as, or $200 more than, current technology, he said.

IBM's new T540 15-inch flat-panel monitor sells for $599. In December, the equivalent IBM monitor cost $929. The T750, with a 17-inch screen, sells for $1,269, a product that would have sold for $1,899 in December.

The 20.8-inch T210, though, is in a price class all its own. It will cost $5,929 but will feature a resolution of 2048 by 1536 pixels, otherwise known as Quad XGA, or QXGA. Some analysts have opined that this is detailed enough for X-rays.

In addition, energy costs have made flat panels more attractive. Flat panels require far less electricity than CRTs. A 15-inch flat panel can, on average, run on 30 watts, while an equivalent CRT monitor takes 70 watts of power. Annually, the difference comes to 40 kilowatt hours--basically, a lot of electricity.

"With a CRT monitor, you've got to run a cathode ray gun. With a (flat panel) you only have to run the light source," Manitply said.

Beautiful is better
A growing, although by no means explosive, interest among customers for better-looking PCs also gives IBM hope. The new monitors and the upcoming version of the NetVista all share the black chassis and beveled edges found on the ThinkPad line. Richard Sapper, who created the ThinkPad look, is one of people who worked on the upcoming NetVista's industrial design.

"Black has been the subject of debate," Rasa said. At the CeBit trade show in March, "a lot of things were going silver," he said. "Silver is picking up steam, but I wouldn't call it for everyone."

Still, the company acknowledges that getting customers to spend money on new technology, especially in the current economic climate, isn't easy.

All-in-one PCs face additional burdens. Typically, corporate customers have avoided these products because the computers become obsolete after three years, while monitors can last five years, according to Roger Kay, an analyst at IDC. As a result, all-in-ones end up costing more because the screens get replaced more rapidly than they normally would. Adding memory or changing parts has also been more difficult on these machines than on standard PCs.

To get partly around this problem, the upcoming version of the NetVista will contain a removable panel that lets the owner swap hard drives or add memory, Rasa said.

And not everyone shares the same aesthetic values. One corporate buyer told Rasa that he liked a lot of the features of the upcoming NetVista, but not the mouse. The man found that retrieving weapons on one particular video game was difficult.

"It's not optimized for weaponry applications," Rasa said.