LCDs Clean Up Their Image, Digitally

LCD monitors are hot. Want proof? Apple recently eliminated their line of Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) displays and scaled down their monitor offerings to three digital LCD panels that use Apple Digital Connector (ADC) technology to provide power, signal and USB through a single cable. The catch? The ADC graphics card requires another connector only found on the last two versions of G4 desktops and G4 Cubes near the AGP slot on the motherboard. While Apple is the only company making a single cable monitor, it isn't the only company making LCD panels.

Macworld Lab tested four new 15-inch LCD displays in digital mode: NEC's MultiSync LCD 1525x, Samsung's SyncMaster 150T, Princeton Graphics' Senergy 560, and Eizo Nanao's FlexScan L371. In this roundup, we found the NEC MultiSync LCD 1525x to deliver the best combination of price and performance, but owners of the newer Power Mac G4s or G4 Cubes equipped with Apple Display Connectors are wise to go with the Apple Studio Display 15-inch LCD.

Dual Personalities

CRTs can cost a third as much as a comparably sized LCD monitor, but price hasn't stopped a growing number of people from choosing an LCD monitor over a CRT monitor. LCDs not only add real estate to your desktop, but they're also lightweight, sleek, sexy, and becoming more affordable. However, unless an LCD is hooked up to a computer equipped with a graphics card featuring a digital port, it takes buying one to drive these monitors digitally. Few LCD manufacturers sell digital-only monitors; they can reach a wider audience by including both analog and digital connectors. This way, just about anyone can use the monitor as an analog display and those who have a compatible graphics card benefit from the direct digital connection.

Every Mac in recent memory has shipped with a VGA (analog monitor port) connection and earlier Macs just need an inexpensive adapter to make them compatible with any of these four monitors. Each of the monitors in this roundup offers the broad compatibility of an analog display and the cleaner performance of a digitally driven LCD monitor. When using an LCD in analog mode, the graphical data your computer sends to the monitor undergoes two conversions from digital to analog to digital via the graphics card. Noise develops as a result of the imprecise nature of these conversions and can manifest itself on your display as sparkly pixels, distorted horizontal bands, and positioning problems. Controls such as auto-adjustment buttons can do a pretty good job to compensate for these problems, and manual adjustment controls can help tune out noise. Using a digitally compatible graphics card with a DVI connector to connect to a digital panel keeps your computer's signal in tact from start to finish, thus eliminating the need for any such auto-adjustment controls and delivering clearer graphics on screen.

Plug It In, Plug It In

Each of the monitors in this roundup is Plug and Play and requires no additional software to be recognized by both Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X (10.0.4). The Senergy 560 and Samsung SyncMaster 150T provide viewing in both landscape and portrait orientation, with the installation of the included Portrait Display Lab's Pivot software. The MultiSync LCD 1525x and the FlexScan L371 offer only landscape orientation. All except the Senergy 560 include a DVI (digital video interface) cable, as well as a standard 15-pin VGA monitor cable to connect the CPU to the monitor. Princeton sells a DVI to DVI cable for $40 on their Web site. If you own one of the last two generations of G4s, with the 66MHz bus, you will need to purchase a special DVI to ADC adapter to use any of these four monitors. ( Belkin sells one for $50.)

All of the displays except the SyncMaster 150T include an integrated USB hub, handy for connecting USB peripherals such as a keyboard, speakers, and hard drives. This is also helpful if you keep your CPU beneath your desk. The FlexScan L371 and the Senergy 560 have one upstream and two downstream USB connections, while the MultiSync LCD 1525x supplies two upstream and four downstream USB connectors. The SyncMaster 150T includes built-in speakers and microphone. The speakers work well, but unfortunately the latest G4s don't ship with audio-in ports, so we were unable to test the microphone.

Dueling Displays

The LCD displays in this roundup are designed as general use monitors, so we evaluated performance when displaying the following: general text documents, high-resolution photographic images, and standard Display Mate test patterns. To test text sharpness, we used a Microsoft Word document with various fonts, sizes, and colors. Each LCD monitor delivered legible text, but none showed text quite as smooth and unbroken as our reference CRT Apple Display, especially in regards to 8-point text. Each of the monitors' text was rated acceptable by our panel of experts.

Out of Control

While these displays accept both analog and digital input, the analog image quality controls are only available in analog mode. The SyncMaster 150T further limits the user's options when it comes to color temperature settings and contrast. This limitation proved costly in the high-resolution photographic jury. The SyncMaster 150T delivered brilliant, saturated colors that just about everyone who walked through the lab noticed, and thereby qualifying it with an acceptable rating. However, on closer inspection, the images were blown out in highlight areas and most of the detail was lost in the darker areas of the image. Because the controls were locked, we were unable to adjust the screen. While the FlexScan L371 also locks out digital users from adjusting color temperature, this was not a problem because the display produced pleasing color and excellent details in both high- and low-light sections of the image. The MultiSync LCD 1525x's display was less saturated, produced good details in the highs and lows, and produced accurate color. The Senergy 560 display appeared dark, oversaturated, and muddy, barely meriting an acceptable rating from our panel.

It Depends On How You Look at It

The angle at which you view an LCD monitor can greatly affect the colors displayed as well as the saturation. Our jury looked at each monitor from various angles: far left, far right , and straight on. All but the Senergy 560 scored an excellent rating; it suffered from glare at the extreme viewing angles but still managed an acceptable rating overall from our jury.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Though the Eizo FlexScan L371 scored the best in our jury tests, the difference in performance didn't warrant the whopping $899 price tag. We found that of the LCDs in this roundup, the $649 NEC MultiSync LCD 1525x offers the best mix of performance and price. But if you own a Mac with an ADC port, we recommend the $599 Apple Studio Display 15-inch LCD. It performed better than the NEC MultiSync LCD 1525x and scored as well as the Eizo FlexScanL371, it delivers power, data, and USB connection in one cable and costs less than any of the panels in this roundup.

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