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Monitor prices have plummeted recently, and those in the 21-inch class (with viewable areas measuring between 19 and 20 inches diagonally) are available for less than $1,000 -- even some targeting professional Adobe Photoshop users and layout artists. Macworld Lab tested nine monitors in the 21-inch class that cost less than $2,000, and found that you don't necessarily have to choose a more expensive display to get the best quality.

There are three monitor-tube technologies: the truly flat Sony FD Trinitron; its derivative, the Mitsubishi DiamondTron NF; and the older shadow mask, which has a slightly bulbous surface. We found that a monitor's tube technology didn't greatly influence its display quality, although we prefer the flat tubes because they provide a more uniform image. Quality differences are ultimately due to the electronic controls that regulate a display; we found considerable variation in output quality among monitors using the same tube.

From left: the NEC Technologies MultiSync FP1350x, the LaCie electron22blue II, and the Philips Electronics Brilliance 201P

The Search for Quality

Of course, overall image quality -- which includes clarity, sharpness, color saturation, and uniformity -- is the most important factor when choosing a monitor. Color fidelity is also highly important, and crucial for professionals. Although it's impossible for a monitor to display exactly the colors you see in print (light-emitting displays always seem a bit brighter than reflective inks on paper), a good monitor should be able to come very close.

After using Apple's built-in color-management tools to tune all the monitors to their best output, we used two sets of tests to determine which had the best display. The first set included two tests: we compared the output of each monitor -- in its uncalibrated setting -- to a printed color target image; and we displayed a text-heavy Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on each monitor to compare sharpness and uniformity. We found that the NEC MultiSync FP1350x, the Philips Brilliance 201P, and the Sony Multiscan G520 performed the best in these tests.

For the second set of tests, we used a ColorVision Monitor Spyder with OptiCal software ($399; 800/554-8688, ) to calibrate each monitor, and we then repeated both of the previous tests and added a third: comparing each monitor's CMYK samples to those of a Pantone swatch book. In all three tests, the Philips, the NEC, and the Princeton EO 2005 did very well. After we calibrated the LaCie electron22blue II using its optional $599 BlueEye system, it displayed excellent results across the board.

Gauging the Goodies

The CTX Pro PureFlat PR1400F, the Eizo Nanao FlexScan F980, and the LaCie electron22blue II all come with built-in USB hubs: at least one uplink port to connect to the Mac and several downlink ports to connect to peripherals.

Another feature that's common in the more-expensive monitors is dual input, which lets two computers (or another source, such as a TV or VCR) share a monitor; a switch lets you change from one source to the other. Of the models in our group, only the iiyama Vision Master Pro 510, the ViewSonic P220f, and the Philips don't offer dual input.

Macworld's buying advice: If you're on a budget, the Brilliance 201P, from Philips Electronics, is the monitor to buy: its low price and excellent quality make it an obvious choice. Although it has no bells and whistles (such as a USB hub or dual input), most people won't need them. If you do need dual input, go for the NEC Technologies MultiSync FP1350x, which shows very high quality overall and costs less than $1,000.

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