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Flat-panel display buyers: Shop carefully

While flat-panel display prices have hit an affordable range, a careful eye on details is required to buy a model that meets the expectations that come along with such a high price tag.

    A few weeks ago I exchanged a few e-mails with a New York University graduate frustrated over some problems with her new flat-panel monitor.

    Her parents had sprung for an Apple Computer PowerMac G4 with a whopping two processors and a breathtakingly beautiful flat-panel display. Barring any educational discounts, I figure that computer set the graduate's parents back $3,300--approximately $800 for the monitor alone.

    With prices falling fast on sleek liquid-crystal displays (LCD), more consumers and businesses may consider them as alternatives to much larger cathode-ray tube (CRT) models. In fact, flat-panel monitor prices have plummeted in recent months, with some now selling below $400. Turn the clocks back a year, and add $1,000 to the average price of LCDs. I choke on my coffee just thinking about it.

    But for all of the technology's benefits--cool look, small size and increased safety (there's less prolonged radiation exposure from LCDs)--buyers should still be careful when purchasing LCD monitors. Because manufacturing costs are still fairly high, companies expect consumers and businesses to put up with smaller flaws. Additionally--and perhaps the most important--paying a premium over the price of a CRT monitor won't guarantee a higher-quality display.

    This is a lesson that Gabreila Richard learned.

    Gabreila, who had planned to use her new PowerMac for design purposes, found a series of "dead pixels"--or areas where the display doesn't work right--on her new Apple LCD monitor.

    "This was irritating to me because the defect was located in the center of the screen and was very bright," she wrote in an e-mail. In her case "a few small pixels stayed green, no matter what the background was." These dead pixels usually appear as bright blue, red or green pinpoints on a screen--and in many cases are hardly noticeable.

    But the simple process of exchanging a defective product turned into a tough lesson. Not only did the store where her parents bought the machine refuse an exchange, she also had trouble in getting Apple to honor its warranty.

    "What is most annoying is Apple's reluctance to exchange or repair the defect, which was no fault of my own," Gabreila said. "The Apple rep even stated that nine out of 10 monitors have a defect like this when they are purchased--and I am probably one of the luckier ones."

    In Apple's defense, computer companies have long had stiff return policies on products using LCDs. Any laptop-toting road warrior knows the danger of dead pixels. (By the way, in college I dated the lead singer of a Sex Pistols wannabe punk group, the Dead Pixels--I swear.)

    Apple's tech support document #22194 sums up most manufacturers' position about bad pixels:

    "Because the manufacturing yield of perfect active matrix panels is very low, displays may have some subpixels that are either always on or always off," the document states. "The cost of accepting only perfect displays could nearly double the price of a product using an LCD display."

    Computer or peripheral companies typically won't exchange LCD products for fewer than eight to 10 dead pixels. Considering the panels typically cost a minimum three times the price of a comparably sized CRT monitor, these type of rules might be a tough pill to swallow for most consumers who want their expensive product to be perfect.

    Bright or blight?
    Since LCD monitors cost so much more than CRT models, many consumers would think the premium price would seem an assurance of quality. But price often doesn't tell the whole story.

    The cheapest 15-inch LCD monitors sell for below $400. Some are good bargains, but many aren't. Refresh rates, or the frequency at which a monitor can redraw images on the screen, and dot pitch, a measurement that when high will result in images that are less than crisp, are some elements to keep an eye out for. Low refresh rates and high dot pitch should set off an alarm when shopping for LCD monitors.

    Cheaper-quality flat panels sometimes suffer from fuzziness or image "ghosting," which can be a nuisance for text and a serious flaw for video. They also might not be as bright as many CRT or more expensive LCD monitors.

    The safest buy is a monitor that supports both analog and digital connectors. Without going into all the details, typically--but not always--digital monitors deliver the crispest, brightest images. A monitor using a digital connection tends not to ghost nor blur high-quality video, such as DVD.

    To take advantage of a flat-panel monitor's full potential, computers should include a video card that offers both analog and digital video interface (DVI) connectors. Some consumers might have to buy a new video card to get the most out of the monitor. But because most digital flat-panel monitors come with both connectors, it is possible to use an analog video card; the image quality suffers some, however.

    The flat-panel options
    Compaq offered the first consumer digital LCD monitor with the Presario 3630 PC, which hit retail shelves about two years ago. Apple, however, is the first major computer manufacturer that offers only digital flat-panel monitors. In fact, the company went so far as to dump CRT models for LCD.

    Apple's flat-panel displays, in many respects, set the standard for quality at a (relatively) reasonable price. Apple's $599 15-inch and $999 17-inch LCD models are some of the best flat-panel monitors available. But they do have problems: The displays only really work well with Macs released after July 2000. Rather than using standard DVI connectors, the monitors use a special plug for video, USB and electric. This causes problems when hooking up to computers with standard connectors.

    Still, Apple's 15-inch digital display is probably the lowest-priced, quality digital LCD monitor on the market. In the 17-inch arena, Apple faces tough competition from Dell Computer. Dell's 1701FP analog-digital LCD monitor sells for $50 less than Apple's comparable model, and it delivers a crisp, ghost-free image. Among other computer manufacturers, Hewlett-Packard and IBM also offer competitive models.

    Major monitor makers--such as Eizo Nanao, NEC Mitsubishi, Princeton Graphics, Samsung and Viewsonic--also offer good flat-panel monitors. For example, some of Samsung's 17-inch models, such as the SyncMaster 770T or 170T, offer good dot pitch and bright displays for the money spent.

    A final word of warning: While flat-panel monitors look great, they still cannot match CRT models in many of the most important monitor features. Generally, the higher the resolution, the more data that fits on a screen. Most 15-inch LCD models tap out at 1024-by-768-pixel resolution, while many 17-inch LCD displays go up to 1280-by-1024-pixel resolution.

    In contrast, a typical 19-inch CRT monitor--which has about the same viewable area as a 17-inch LCD model--offers a maximum of 1600-by-1200-pixel resolution, for as little as a quarter of the price.

    Flat-panel displays may be cool and fashionable--and, frankly, I love them--but CRT monitors still offer better resolution, picture quality and value for the price. A year ago a good 17-inch LCD monitor cost as much as a cheap used car. Now the choice is between a fancy monitor or filling the car's gas tank for a year.