Who says home theater is only for the living room? True, giant-screen TVs and surround-sound speaker systems may be unwieldy in a home office, but Samsung's newest LCD monitor puts PC/entertainment convergence right on your desktop: The 17-inch SyncMaster 172MP is not only a top-quality computer display, but a stylish TV set an HDTV-ready set, too or DVD viewer.
It's not a new idea; in fact, the SyncMaster 172MP is a relatively minor upgrade from its 171MP predecessor. But the concept remains way cool: Once you clear the bulky CRT monitor and separate speakers off your desk (the Samsung has built-in stereo speakers), set up the glamorously svelte SyncMaster, and fire up a picture-in-picture window to keep one eye on CNN or the ballgame while devoting most of your screen to e-mail or office applications, you'll be hooked.
Also, the 172MP's price is closer to mainstream than mere dream: $789, including the TV tuner that was an option on previous models. To be sure, that's a hefty premium over the $400 to $600 you'll pay for a 17-inch flat panel without a TV tuner or multiple video inputs especially since the Samsung has neither portrait/landscape pivot capability nor digital PC input (just the familiar analog VGA port). But it's hundreds less than Samsung's previous LCD/TVs. The SyncMaster 172MP is still an indulgence, but it's an awfully tempting one.
Plugs Into Almost Anything
The 172MP is a 16.3-inch-square, 2.3-inch-thick slab with a fold-out carrying handle that serves as its base, letting you tilt the display back from vertical (to swivel it, you move the whole apparatus). The 11-pound monitor is accompanied by a notebook-style, external AC adapter (it draws a relatively thrifty 58 watts when not in standby mode); it's also VESA wall-mount compatible.
The Samsung's rear panel positively bristles with video connectors (excepting, as mentioned, a DVI port for the latest PC graphics cards). At the left are video, S-Video, and left and right audio jacks for hooking up a VCR, DVD player, or camcorder.
Mounted horizontally along the middle are two sets of connectors the 15-pin VGA and audio jack for your PC (along with the AC adapter socket), and Y/Pb/Pr component video and left and right audio jacks for a DVD/DTV set-top box; the 172MP supports 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i video modes. The VGA and audio cables are the only ones bundled with the display.
Next to those ports is a recess with a VGA-style connector into which the supplied TV tuner with coaxial jack technically dubbed the "antenna" feed plugs, then thumbscrews into place. Finally, in addition to the stereo speakers below the screen, there's a headphone jack on the left edge (viewed from the front).
If you want to watch TV on your PC screen, the alternative to a tuner-equipped display like the Samsung is a TV tuner card in your PC. We were a little disappointed that the Samsung tuner received only the VHF channels (2 through 13) when connected directly to our home cable feed, i.e., without benefit of our cable box; by contrast, the last ATI All-in-Wonder card we tested offered all our basic cable channels (though not premium channels) when connected north of the box, so to speak. But connected south of the box, the TV tuner is a 125-channel, both NTSC- and PAL-compatible performer.
Really Tech TV
While not an unobtrusive, thin-bezel design like the latest LCD monitors, the silvery SyncMaster goes handsomely with almost any desk decor. The built-in speakers are no match for a separate speaker system for orchestral music, but pump out noticeably more volume and bass than those of other multimedia monitors we've tried; they yielded to occasional static interference or popping noises with our desktop (a Pentium 4/2.53 with AC97 motherboard audio), but behaved themselves when using the monitor with our notebook PC.
Like all good TVs, the Samsung comes with a remote control (complete with two AAA batteries, as well as mute and closed-caption buttons). We found the slim remote preferable to the front-panel controls for summoning and navigating the display's on-screen menu for PC- as well as video-mode adjustments; the front-panel buttons are tiny chrome nubs, sensitive to the lightest brush of a fingertip, though sensibly laid out with volume-up and -down buttons to either side and channel-up and -down buttons above and below the central, light-up power switch.
Two buttons let you choose the active (full-screen) video input the PC or video, the latter cycling through the TV (cable/antenna), video, S-Video, and component connectors. A similar button cycles through PC, TV, video, and component audio.
The coolest button on either the front panel or remote is the PIP (picture-in-picture) key, which keeps your PC display on screen while popping up a video window in the corner you can choose either the usual squarish or more letterboxed aspect ratio, move the window wherever you like, and cycle through video or component rather than cable/antenna as the PIP source, as well as adjusting or muting the volume (or just listening to TV or other audio in the background during full-screen computer work).
TV shows that look a little blocky in full-screen mode, not because the Samsung's not sharp but because you normally don't sit as close to a TV set as you do to your monitor (as a TV set, the 172MP looks fine from a couple of yards away), look crisp and terrific in the picture-in-picture display. And it's surprising, or maybe a sad comment on our video-addicted culture, how quickly you grow to like the convenience of keeping The Weather Channel or the stock market in a corner of the display the screen's 1,280 by 1,024 resolution leaves you a fair amount of room to work, though you find yourself scrolling more often than you would without the PIP window, and there's no better way to keep up with breaking news or Judge Judy.
Clear from Corner to Corner
With the TV turned off, the SyncMaster 172MP is a sharp, sunny 17-inch monitor that shows its native 1,280 by 1,024 resolution at either the LCD standard 60Hz or a 75Hz refresh rate both flicker-free, the latter a bit crisper under our office fluorescents and does a fair if soft-focused job of scaling lower resolutions to full-screen size. Our test unit showed no bad pixels and an impressively wide viewing angle. Fast-moving DVD scenes looked great, in keeping with the display's rated 25ms response time, though text turned streaky for a split second when scrolling through long Web pages.
While contrast was excellent (specs cite a contrast ratio of 500:1), we have the same minor gripe about the 172MP we had about the last Samsung flat panel we eyed at 250 nits, the screen isn't quite bright enough to bring out details in deep shadow, or to differentiate the darkest two or three hues at the edges of our DisplayMate and other test patterns. (While we're grumbling, Samsung provides a helpful HTML manual on CD, along with color-matching software, but when we tried copying the Adobe Acrobat version of the former to our PC's hard disk, it kept telling us we needed the latest Korean language pack.)
Otherwise, the SyncMaster 172MP scores as both a PC monitor and a TV or other-video-source display, and scores highest when playing both roles at once with its picture-in-picture or TV-audio-in-background capability. It's a bit pricey if you're content with your current monitor, you can get TV functionality plus personal video recording for less money with an ATI All-in-Wonder card but it's versatile, practical, and a status symbol even as LCD monitors become more commonplace.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.