Everything You Wanted to Know About But Were Afraid to Ask

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted April 01, 2000
by Kevin Hogan

Each month on this page we take some of today's most popular yet arcane techie-speak and translate it into POE (Plain Old English). If employees are clamoring for new monitors, it might be worth learning the particulars of this acronym. The products that use it do more than just look cool:

WHAT IS IT?
LCD (liquid crystal display) is the dominant technology used in the ever-growing market of flat-panel displays. It has been utilized for years in notebook and handheld computers, as well as in equipment with monochrome displays like digital watches and calculators.

Since 1997, it has been offered in desktop displays as an alternative to the traditional CRT (cathode ray tube) technology. Screen sizes in LCD monitors have increased to 20 inches and beyond. The resolution and colors on these monitors are equal to if not superior to CRT. The only thing keeping LCDs from sitting on every desktop is their considerable expense. These babies are expensive!

HOW DOES IT WORK?
An LCD display consists of two magnetic sheets with a fluid liquid crystal solution that floats between them. When an electric current is sent through the liquid, the crystals combine so that light cannot pass through them. Think of the crystals as millions of tiny shutters -- some let the light shine through, and others block it, ultimately creating images illuminated by a back light.

When shopping for LCD monitors, you need to decide between passive matrix and active matrix display types. The active matrix is also sometimes known as a thin film transistor (TFT) display. Passive matrix LCD distributes the crystals into a number of squares housed in a grid system. Active matrix displays support more precise transistors, which improves a monitor's refresh time and ultimately makes for a better image. Also be sure the monitor uses an all-digital interface, which enables a monitor to perform faster and show a higher-quality image.

WHY DO I WANT IT?
The advantages to flat panels displays are numerous, but they do have some drawbacks as well. Besides the fact that they just look so darn stylish, the most obvious plus is the amount of space they will save on the desktop. Take a second look at the CRT that's probably sitting on your desk right now. It's huge right? The smaller footprint makes a big difference for those with space limitations.

LCDs also use less power, emit less electromagnetic radiation, and flicker less, which makes them easier on the eyes than those hot, humming CRT behemoths. Another nifty feature of LCDs is that they can pivot onto their side so the image appears in portrait mode.

There are some limitations with these monitors however. A CRT screen is viewable from a very wide angle. LCD monitors don't have the same leverage. The image disappears quickly as you move your head from directly in front of one. They also usually work in only one resolution mode. CRTs work in a number of different resolutions.

The biggest negative to flat-panel displays these days are their price. A 15-inch LCD will on average cost two times more than a good 17-inch CRT. For some, the cost could very well be worth it. But even if at present these monitors are cost-prohibitive, like most other technologies, the prices will continue to drop as new devices are introduced. So it pays to at least keep an eye on them.

WHERE DO I GET IT?
Popular CRT monitor manufacturers such as ViewSonic, Mag, Sceptre, Princeton, and Compaq, all offer LCD monitors of one stripe or another. A good place to compare and contrast not only monitors, but any sort of computer hardware or software is at www.cnet.com. If you really want to know everything there is know about LCDs, check out www.eio.com/lcdintro.htm. There you can find details of the technology's illustrious history as well as a nitty-gritty analysis of how liquid crystal works. Not for the faint of heart!

Kevin Hogan is executive editor for SBC. Have any questions you want answered but are afraid to ask? Drop us an e-mail at asksbcc@ftmg.net.

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