LCD Monitors

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted April 11, 2002

Thanks to prices that plunged from near $1,000 to $400 or less, 15-inch flat panels were the hottest peripherals of 2001, with LCD monitor sales more than doubling (from 6.4 million to 13.5 million) over the previous year. Now that 15-inch LCDs are so firmly established as an alternative to 17-inch CRTs for running Windows at 1,024 by 768-pixel resolution, shoppers are starting to aim their sights higher - to 17-inch LCDs that can replace conventional 19-inch monitors while taking far less desk space and using less electricity.

Once you select a screen size, look for a monitor that supports 24-bit color and whose brightness is even and consistent across the screen, which is a function of its backlighting. An LCD monitor with uneven and blotchy lighting is one to avoid. Another tip, particularly if you're accustomed to working with a relatively bright CRT monitor, is to look for a contrast ratio of at least 200-to-1,although this is a personal preference.

The best way to buy a monitor is to see and evaluate it in person. If you can, check out the way an LCD monitor displays your desktop at the resolution that you like to work with, and, if possible, evaluate the LCD monitor as it displays your software and data. For example, if you often work with small type, precise desktop published documents or CAD, or with photographs where color reproduction is crucial, by all means, display your work so you can verify if an LCD monitor is up for the job.

NEC MultiSync LCD1850E Review

Eric Grevstad
www.hardwarecentral.com

The newest slimline from NEC-Mitsubishi Electronics Display of America isn't cheap: suggested retail $899, though readily available on the Web for $850 or $860, and that's without the frills of many active-matrix monitors such as digital video interfaces, multimedia speakers, or the ability to pivot between landscape and portrait (horizontal and vertical) orientation.

So why is $899 a fair price? Because while most LCD monitor shoppers (and, judging by Apple's iMac deliveries, the first LCD monitor shortages) focus on petite 15-inch panels and a few status-seekers splurge on 17-inch displays, the 1850E measures a capacious 18.1 inches diagonally, making it a razor-sharp, space- and energy-saving substitute for a 19-inch or maybe even a 21-inch CRT, as long as you don't need the ultra-high resolutions possible with the latter.

And there's nothing to distract you from its 1,280 by 1,024-pixel display, because the skinny white bezel (a black model is also offered) measures only about 0.75 inch on each side and an inch at top and bottom -- thin enough for wealthy, lucky day traders to squeeze two or three monitors onto a desk, or for the rest of us to forget we're looking at a monitor and imagine we're just looking at our data.

The almost floating effect is enhanced by a stand that looks like a fixed pedestal and foot, but swivels on a hidden lazy-susan base. In short, the NEC MultiSync 1850E may be one of the simplest but it's also one of the most stylish PC screens we've seen. If merely having an LCD instead of CRT monitor is no longer an executive perk, having a plus-size panel with a supermodel-slim bezel surely is.

Setting up the display proved easy, once we quit fussing with the two sliding panels which it turns out are used for attaching a mounting arm and checked the manual to discover the hidden rear door that covers the power and video connectors.

A (slightly short) power cord is included; in another nod to clean design, the power supply is built in, instead of cluttering your floor with a laptop-style AC adapter. The display draws a thrifty 45 watts. While there's no digital port for fancy new PCs' video adapters, the MultiSync has not one but two analog VGA ports, so you can leave it connected to your desktop PC and then come back from a business trip and plug in your notebook. (One choice on the on-screen setup menu dictates whether the monitor will stick with the first input it finds or automatically switch to a second computer when you connect one.) One VGA cable is supplied in the box.

The MultiSync 1850E measures a trim 15.7 by 17.2 by 8.5 inches and weighs just 19 pounds. Some fussbudget at NEC-Mitsubishi insisted on two power switches, with a "vacation switch" at the side that disables the usual on/off button on the front. Seven miniature buttons below the screen let you enter, maneuver through, and exit the on-screen control menus, as well as reset your settings to their automated defaults.

The latter are usually a good idea; we were as impressed with what the company calls its "no-touch auto adjust" of brightness, contrast, and image size and centering as we were stymied by the mildly confusing process of alternating between "next" and "control" buttons to navigate different layers of menu options and "adjust" buttons to actually change settings.

To be fair, we got the rhythm of it after a few minutes, and appreciated the display's variety of manual tuning options, ranging from image positioning and expansion ratios to sharpness and color modes (native, sRGB, or three color temperature settings).

"Expansion ratios" refers to the display's default behavior of blowing up resolutions below 1,280 by 1,024 instead of centering them on a black background. When we set Windows to 1,024 by 768 (and ignored the MultiSync's plaintive pop-up suggestion of returning to native resolution), we experienced typically, slightly jagged text and image edges but a perfectly legible, usable display overall.

Alternately, you can stick to 1,280 by 1,024 but reduce eyestrain by using the bundled Portrait Displays LiquidView software, which works like a deluxe version of Windows Display Settings' Large Fonts option to combine normal-sized documents and images with jumbo icons, application title bars, and dialog boxes, scaled to your choice of four sizes from 107 to 150 percent of normal.

Like other flat panels we've tried lately, the NEC MultiSync LCD1850E offered sharp contrast (its advertised contrast ratio is 350:1) -- not quite the whitest possible white backgrounds, but a crisp 0.28mm pixel pitch and flicker-free viewing even beneath our office fluorescents at its default refresh rate of 60Hz. (The display is also capable of 75Hz refresh at native resolution, but we didn't notice a real difference or preference when trying the latter setting as we have with some LCDs.)

NEC-Mitsubishi's official specs peg the LCD1850E's response time at 50 to 70 milliseconds, which looked smooth and ghost-free to us for office applications, although fast-motion game players and DVD video watchers may want to seek a flat panel with a quicker response time of 30ms or less.

We'll stop a bit short of the company's claim of 80-degree viewing angles left, right, above, or below dead center, but the screen did stay exceptionally readable at fairly extreme angles. Color gradients in our DisplayMate test pattern were viewable almost to the edges of the screen, though dark hues weren't quite as distinct as those of Samsung's SyncMaster 171B unless we fiddled with the contrast.

Overall, the NEC MultiSync LCD1850E is a tempting choice if you're looking for a sleek LCD monitor that's big enough to banish eyestrain while impressing your officemates -- perhaps a slightly better bet for mainstream office work than for multimedia play or digital photo/video editing, but an elegant preview of computer displays to come.

Pros:
A big, bright flat panel with topnotch automatic tuning
Elegantly slim, nearly-no-bezel design and internal power supply

Cons:
For this price range, we like LCDs that can pivot to portrait mode
Slightly awkward menu navigation buttons

Samsung SyncMaster 171B Review

Eric Grevstad
www.hardwarecentral.com

Like virtually all 17-inch flat panels, Samsung Electronics USA's new SyncMaster 171B offers a true 17-inch (diagonal) viewable size - splitting the difference between the display areas of 17- and 19-inch CRT monitors -- and 1,280 by 1,024 resolution. At $799, it's affordable, though not the cheapest 17-inch LCD available (Samsung's own 171S is $749 and Hitachi's CML171 and NEC-Mitsubishi's LCD1700V, for instance, are $699). It has just one familiar DB-25 VGA analog connector, without the dual or digital input options of higher-end LCDs, and no built-in frills such as audio speakers or a USB hub.

Unlike lower-priced models, however, the SyncMaster 171B has the classy ability to pivot or rotate 90 degrees from landscape to portrait mode, letting you view a full, virtually life-size page of a word processing or desktop publishing document or see more of a Web page or spreadsheet with less scrolling.

It also has a handsome, tidy design, thanks to an internal power supply instead of a notebook-style AC adapter or power brick: Both the VGA cable and power cord fit through a hole in the black height- and tilt-adjustable base, leaving your desktop as clean as possible. The Samsung draws only 34 to 40 watts, though the power cord is on the short side -- though our old CRT had cord to spare, the 171B's plug barely reached the same outlet and pulled taut when we spun the screen to portrait mode.

The 171B doesn't boast the almost-no-bezel design of the latest elite LCDs; a chunky silver border around the screen contributes to its overall size of 17.5 by 18 by 8.25 inches. That's still, of course, a far smaller footprint than comparable CRTs -- which are a lot harder to move around than the 12-pound Samsung, too.

A power button and five control buttons are artfully stacked along the right edge of the bezel; the bottom one does a first-class job of automatically adjusting the display to centered, full screen size and focus. If you prefer manual controls, another button summons a typical on-screen menu with typically slightly awkward, numerous button presses to navigate through and select items and move settings or values up and down.

In addition to changing brightness and contrast (the former doable by pushing buttons without entering the control menu), you can adjust color temperature in broad (reddish, bluish) or individual RGB value increments; sharpen or soften focus; adjust horizontal and vertical image size and position; or tweak the image lock to reduce noise.

In addition to Windows drivers (for Win 95/98/Me or NT/2000, not specifically for XP yet), the SyncMaster comes with a Natural Color software utility that lets you fine-tune the display's 16.7-million-color palette to match your printer's. You can also save and switch among "profiles" -- combinations of color, brightness, and contrast settings, with prefab profiles including 5,000K and 7,500K color temperatures for publishing and a game setting that brightens dark dungeon corridors. We found the software quite handy, though not handy enough to agree with its default installation in our Windows Startup menu.

It took two tries to install the supplied Portrait Displays Inc. Pivot software, which at first ignored its hotkey or menu-click command, but after that we enjoyed the ability to swivel the screen image 90 degrees by pressing Ctrl-Shift-R from the Windows desktop, along with rotating the screen itself. (Did you know that in 1,024 by 1,280 portrait mode, Microsoft Outlook's calendar has room to show a whole 24-hour day?) Our only quibble is that the onscreen menu stays east-west even when you've turned the monitor north-south.

And in either orientation, the display was sharp and bright - a shade shy of the absolute whitest whites, despite "patterned vertical alignment" technology that Samsung boasts outperforms most LCDs' twisted-nematic designs, but crisp enough to credit the advertised 400:1 contrast ratio and 0.264mm pixel pitch.

The Samsung doesn't offer the option of centering lower resolutions (such as 1,024 by 768) within a black border, but does a fair job of scaling them to full screen -- not the smoothest we've ever seen, but tolerable if you don't mind slightly jaggy text. CRTs remain superior to LCDs for switching among resolutions or enjoying fast-moving games or video, though the 171B's response time seemed swift and ghost-free to us.

In turn, LCDs whip CRTs when it comes to flicker-free viewing, even at the Samsung's default refresh rate (vertical frequency) of 60Hz. Unchecking the "Hide modes that this monitor cannot display" box in Windows' Display Properties let us switch to a 75Hz refresh; the unit's scanning range is listed as 30KHz to 81KHz horizontal and 56Hz to 85Hz vertical, but trying an 85Hz refresh produced a "Video mode not supported" message. The latter is, to be sure, far preferable to burning or blowing out without warning, and the Samsung looked fine at 60Hz even under our office fluorescents -- we couldn't notice a decrease in flicker at 75Hz as we have with some LCD monitors.

The 171B also earned high marks for wide viewing angles: We won't go quite as far as Samsung's advertised 170 degrees in both the horizontal and vertical planes, though what sliver of the screen we could see at near-right angles was indeed legible. Nor did we have to crane our heads to one side to distinguish dark color gradients in our DisplayMate test pattern.

Unfortunately, our 171B lost points due to a small flaw: While we didn't spy any bad ("stuck" on or off) pixels, there was a faint line a quarter-inch long, like a fine pencil mark or a hair trapped beneath the glass, near the top right corner. It was unquestionably a fault of our particular test unit, and rarely noticeable unless we consciously looked (in landscape mode, it was high enough to appear in an application's toolbar instead of its workspace), but disappointing nonetheless.

Otherwise, we're impressed with the SyncMaster 171B: If a 15-inch LCD feels like a status symbol, a 17-inch flat panel feels positively luxurious, and once you grow accustomed to the option of portrait-mode pivoting you truly hate to do without it. If you're going to treat yourself to a desktop LCD, why stop at a smaller, fixed display?

Pros:
17-inch size and pivot display make 15-inch LCDs look humble
Neat, no-power-brick design and easy automatic tuning

Cons:
Small flaw or scratch near one corner of our test display
Short power cord; clumsily translated English documentation

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