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IBM fine-tunes its flat panels

Big Blue gives the nod to two new height-adjustable flat-panel displays, as the picture for the screen technology gets brighter.

IBM gave the nod to two new flat-panel displays on Friday, as the picture for the screen technology gets brighter.

The company launched a pair of 15-inch ThinkVision models, including one with a height-adjustable screen, filling out its flat-panel line.

IBM was the first big-name manufacturer to launch a height-adjustable flat panel, the ThinkVision L200P, a 20.1-inch model introduced last February.

Before the addition of the new feature, now available in the company's 15-inch, 17-inch and 20.1-inch models, raising the height of a flat panel's screen meant resting the display on a phone book or some other object. Most people aren't likely to consider the ability to adjust the height of their screen a major breakthrough, but the design tweak shows that companies are buffing up their flat panels in an effort to win customers as the display market heats up.

IBM has also created a one-button automatic setup feature and an on-screen display menu system that explains each function to help guide a person through customizing its settings. The idea behind the feature is to help customers and to reduce tech support calls, said Tim Anderson, worldwide product marketing manager for displays in IBM's Personal Computer Division.

ViewSonic and Hewlett-Packard also have added height adjustment to some of their latest flat-panel models. HP offers 15-inch and 17-inch flat panels to match its consumer-oriented Pavilion desktops, for example. ViewSonic offers a height-adjustable VP ThinEdge line for businesses and PC enthusiasts.

While new features might help attract some buyers among business and consumers, the main force behind the rising popularity of flat-panel displays among both camps, to date, has been price. Flat-panel sales continue to increase as the displays come down in price.

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During May, flat-panel unit sales at retail in the United States passed those of CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitors for the first time, according to the NPD Group. In addition, sales of larger 17-inch and 19-inch displays are expected to increase, displacing 15-inch displays over time. In May, sales of 17-inch units were three times higher than in the same month last year, according to NPD Group data.

The 17-inch flat panel is the "sweet spot" for IBM right now in the United States, with 19-inch models increasing in popularity, Anderson said. IBM still sells a large number of 15-inch panels worldwide, he added.

Earlier this week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates predicted that within three years, 20-inch LCD (liquid-crystal display) flat-panel screens would become standard for most workers.

The trend toward customers buying larger flat panels is expected to accelerate as LCD screens come down in price, allowing manufacturers to offer larger displays for the same price. Prices of bare LCD panels, which make up most of the cost of a flat panel, had stabilized earlier this year, but flat-panel makers now expect screen prices to head downward again during the second half.

Gateway said earlier this week that LCD panel prices were steady in the first half, but could decrease by as much as 5 percent through the remainder of the year.

Falling LCD screen prices will let manufacturers offer rebates for their existing flat panels and accelerate the move toward larger displays, analysts said.

"Pricing has firmed up a bit," NPD Group analyst Steve Baker said. "I think there seems to have been, in the last few weeks, some increase in the level of rebates. I'm sure you'll see some more aggressive pricing come back-to-school and Christmas."

Increases in flat-panel sales have lured more competitors to the market.

eMachines, for one, has been waiting for several months to launch its own line of flat panels. The low-price PC seller quietly entered the market this week with a new 15-inch flat panel, dubbed the E15T, which is currently selling at Best Buy stores for about $300 after rebates. eMachines will add a 17-inch model, the E17T, within a month or two, company executives said. It will likely cost about $400 after rebates.

But the pricing battle is already fierce. Samsung's 15-inch, 17-inch and 19-inch flat-panel models, for example, were advertised this week by Best Buy for $279, $399 and $699 respectively, after rebates. Average prices for 15-inch, 17-inch and 19-inch panels sold at retail during May were $353, $529 and $767, respectively, according to NPD Group.

IBM has set the price for its basic 15-inch L150 flat panel model at $329. The L150p model, which offers screen height adjustment and a higher, 400-1 contrast ratio for a sharper picture, will sell for $379.

The panels will hit the market Aug. 1, IBM said.