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Thin monitors all the rage at Comdex

New liquid crystal display screens for PCs are springing up all over Comdex.

LAS VEGAS--New liquid crystal display screens for desktop computers are springing up all over Comdex this week, but significant obstacles to widespread acceptance remain.

Toshiba, Hitachi, Compaq Computer, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, and

IBM's 16-inch LCD screen
IBM's 16-inch LCD screen
South Korea-based LG are showing screens that offer improvements in clarity, size, and viewing angle.

LCD screens made their entry in the computing world in portable computers, but now the big new market is in replacing the bulky cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors most commonly attached to desktop computers.

Major players in the desktop LCD market include IBM, ViewSonic, Compaq, and NEC, Mentley said.

Among the products on display at the computer show in Las Vegas are 18.1-inch displays from Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi, Korean manufacturer LG, and Acer. Acer, for instance, said its 18.1-inch LCD monitor will be shipping next year and be priced at about $2,500 at that time. An 18.1-inch LCD approaches the viewable area of a 21-inch CRT monitor. The latter are typically priced over $1,200.

Japan-based Eizo had an 18-inch model that is priced at about $3,200 on the street. NEC's LCD1810 18-inch LCD monitor goes for $3,600.

And Compaq demonstrated a display using a completely digital interface, eliminating some problems that arise when an LCD display is plugged into a computer that's set up for an "analog" CRT system--the standard today. This 15-inch display, shipping now, is priced at $899--one of the most competitive prices for a 15-inch LCD monitor yet.

Compaq has been offering a Presario machine with an ATI video card that sidesteps those needless conversions. Compaq and ATI selected a stripped-down version of a digital standard from the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA).

On another front, Toshiba was showing off its displays made with a polysilicon manufacturing process. This allows Toshiba to make ultra-thin LCDs since the accompanying "driver" chips are attached directly to the display's glass. With traditional LCD technology, driver chips are attached to the periphery of the display, making it more bulky.

It also allows for ultra-high resolutions for small size displays. The relatively small 10.4-inch active-matrix polysilicon LCD can generate XGA (1024 x 768 dots) resolution. Toshiba said these screens are targeted for small devices such as handheld computers.

But these smaller screens aside, Dave Mentley, a display analyst at Stanford Resources, cautioned that there are still some roadblocks in the way of the widespread acceptance of the larger LCD desktop monitors.

For one thing, CRT monitors are getting bigger, cheaper, and better, providing LCDs with serious competition. There is a relatively small market for the screens, with a projected market of 750,000 units sold worldwide--a sliver compared to the CRT market of 80 million to 85 million.

In addition, selling large LCD screens isn't particularly profitable for LCD manufacturers, he said. And LCD manufacturers in Asia, stung by economic woes, aren't particularly interested in costly capital upgrades to plants better suited to smaller LCDs geared for portables.

Still, there are advantages to the LCD monitors. At big sizes, LCD systems can have richer colors and sharper pixels, he said.

Another issue for the future of desktop LCDs is uncertainty about the way they'll connect to computers. CRT displays use information sent out of the computer with an analog electrical signal, but LCD displays are inherently digital.

That means the digital information the computer stores gets converted twice, once in the video card from digital to analog, then again in the display from analog back to digital.

"It's ridiculous to have a digital bitmap in the computer, convert that to an analog data stream, then convert it back to digital. There's no reason to do that," Mentley said, except to make LCD displays compatible with current video cards.

The result of all the conversions, particularly in larger LCDs, is distracting "jittery" pixels that hop back and forth between two positions, Mentley said.

But acceptance of a VESA digital standard hasn't been widespread, Mentley said. Instead, the ultimate digital standard is more likely to come from a working group including several computer industry powerhouses like Intel, Microsoft, Dell, and Compaq.

The working group is scheduled to release a draft standard in the first quarter of 1999, he said.