Apple recently announced that it would abandon its line of traditional CRT displays in favor of slender, lightweight LCDs. With such advantages as brightness, flicker-free screens, and small footprints, flat-panel displays are tempting alternatives to bulky CRTs--especially now that prices have dropped significantly.
Macworld Lab compared a dozen 15-inch analog LCD contenders ranging in price from $399 to $800. These monitors plug directly into your Mac's VGA connector, making them compatible with a wider range of desktops, laptops, and recent iMacs than digital models are. (The $599 Apple Studio Display, for example, is an excellent digital option, but its proprietary connector means it works only with recent G4 desktops.) The greater compatibility of VGA comes at the expense of image clarity: the computer's graphics card converts your Mac's signal from digital to analog, and then a card in the monitor converts it back to digital, resulting in increased noise. Digital panels deliver this signal in digital form from start to finish, resulting in less noise and a sharper, clearer image. (See our review of 15-inch digital flat panels at www.macworld.com/2001s/reviews/0717-lcds.html.)
Of the 12 models we tested, Acer Peripherals' FP 563 and Envision Peripherals' EN-5100e stood out with great image quality and reasonable prices, while Samsung's SyncMaster 150MP, despite its high price, won us over with its TV tuner and fine picture quality. At the other end of the spectrum were Princeton Graphic Systems' LCD15, which delivered a washed-out image, and Planar's PT1503N, whose confusing controls and mediocre performance overrode its attractive price tag.
Because analog LCDs are designed for general, everyday use in your home or office, we evaluated each monitor's color image quality, its text sharpness, and the effect of viewing angle on its image quality. We also tested the on-screen controls for usability and popped in a DVD to gauge each display's ability to play back motion video.
After connecting these plug-and-play flat panels, we performed the manufacturers' recommended auto-adjustments using the control buttons on the front of each display. The monitor reads the signal from the Mac's graphics card and attempts to adjust the screen image's position and size for the best overall image quality. (The Sony Multiscan N50 adjusts itself when you power on the display and whenever you change resolutions.) Most of the displays looked fine after automatic adjustment, although the Princeton required fine-tuning to eliminate noise and to correct horizontal positioning.
The displays' front-panel controls vary in design and ease of use. We liked the elegant Samsung, with its stylish buttons and touch-sensitive on-screen graphics, and the NEC-Mitsubishi 1530V and ViewSonic VE150m, with their simple, easy-to-use controls. We found the Planar's vertically oriented buttons confusing and hard to navigate, while the Acer's controls had us scratching our heads until we located a cleverly hidden thumbwheel. In addition, the large size of one button on the Acer misled us to press it whenever we wanted to make adjustments, but instead of bringing up a control menu, it started the automatic adjustment process. On the Eizo Nanao FlexScan L350 display, the control buttons are so well integrated into the front panel that they practically disappear.
Image Is Everything
We looked at the same high-resolution photographic image on all 12 displays (see "The Skinny on Flat Panels"). In our color-quality test, we checked for color saturation and for details in highlights and shadows. The Sharp LL-T1511A and the Envision scored well here, offering up bright, saturated images. Except for one, the rest of the displays fell squarely in the middle, with acceptable image quality, minimal loss of detail, and good color saturation. Only the Princeton did poorly, yielding relatively washed-out results (we couldn't correct the problem using the on-screen controls).
To evaluate text quality, we displayed a Web page that used a variety of font sizes and colors. We looked for crisp, sharp text that would be easy on the eyes over time.
Most of the monitors displayed acceptable text quality. The Acer led the pack, with excellent contrast that made for good legibility. Princeton's offering received low marks for soft-looking text; when we tilted the display upward, the text fared better but our necks did not. And although the iiyama Pro Lite TXA 38i did well in this test, vertical lines marred the lighter regions of the image.
Front and Center
In general, LCD displays suffer from viewing-angle constraints that can make a big difference in the colors you see on the screen. LCD panels are designed for viewing straight on, a little below eye level--a problem when several people look at the monitor simultaneously.
In our viewing-angle tests, we looked at a color image from several angles to see how much the image changed. The bad news: viewing angle affects all the displays to some degree; they all lose saturation when you move your head too far off center. The good news: for all but the Planar (which exhibited a large shift to green with subtle changes in viewing angle), it took an extreme viewing angle to change the image substantially. The displays that exhibited the least-dramatic shift in this test were the Acer, Envision, and Samsung.
It's Show Time
If you've ever used an LCD display, you know that they have a slower response--the time it takes for a pixel to go from on to off--than CRTs. Move your cursor arrow around the screen quickly, and you're likely to see trails as the display attempts to follow the movement.
We played a DVD to see if this slower response affected motion video on these displays. We didn't see any motion artifacts, but viewing angle was an issue; from extreme vantage points, the video looked different as colors shifted and varied in intensity. Problems that showed up in earlier tests appeared in this test as well: the AG Neovo S-15V, for example, which had heavy text and generally looked oversaturated in our photo-quality and text tests, looked a bit dark during video playback, and the Princeton still had a washed-out appearance.
A major pitfall with LCD flat panels is their inability to yield the same picture quality across all supported resolutions. Unlike a CRT, a 1,024-by-768-pixel LCD panel is a fixed grid of 1,024 columns of 768 pixels; when you specify a lower resolution, the display attempts to fill the screen with interpolated pixels, distorting images and text in the process.
None of these monitors support resolutions higher than 1,024 by 768. That isn't a problem if you stick with the display's native resolution, but you may run into trouble the first time you hook up your LCD monitor and the computer starts up in an unsupported higher-resolution mode. If you still have your old CRT lying around, hook it up and adjust your Mac's resolution settings. Otherwise, zapping your PRAM should force your computer to start up in a viewable 640-by-480-pixel resolution.
Not Just a Pretty Picture
In addition to being thinner and lighter-weight than CRT displays, LCD monitors consume less power and emit less radiation than their picture-tube-based counterparts. Many of the displays we tested go a step further, offering features that range from truly useful to merely novel. The AG Neovo and Samsung models have an S-Video port for displaying video from a camcorder or VCR; the Samsung also boasts an integrated TV tuner with remote and picture-in-picture capability. The Sharp and Sony displays have built-in sensors that detect ambient light; they automatically pump up brightness for better viewing in daylight and decrease it in low-light environments.
In addition, the Sony has a nifty sensor that puts the display into power-saving mode when the user isn't in front of the display and wakes it up when the user returns. The iiyama has a powered USB hub, which let us attach a USB keyboard and speakers to the monitor. The Sharp panel also has a USB hub, but because it lacks power, it's useful only as a USB extender or for very low-power USB devices (such as a mouse). The iiyama's pivot feature allows you to change the screen orientation from landscape to portrait with the help of bundled software, although the software caused our computer to crash.
When it comes to industrial design, these displays cover a lot of territory. Seven models--the Acer, Envision, iiyama, NEC-Mitsubishi, Princeton, Sharp, and ViewSonic--have the more traditional look of a slim bezel (the frame around the screen) and a sturdy base. The Planar also has a traditional design but is available in five translucent colors.
The other models break with tradition. The black Eizo, for example, has a textured bezel with a corrugated appearance. We admired the Samsung's sleek style and integrated handle. We also liked the AG Neovo's scratch-resistant glass panel, which covered the actual LCD display, and the thick black bezel, which gave this model the look of a stylish, high-tech picture frame.
The Sony has minimalist styling, relegating most of the display's electronics and connectors to a box you can tuck away under your desk, and just one slim cable connecting it to the monitor. This makes the monitor itself very thin and lightweight.
Macworld's Buying Advice
If desk space and design are higher priorities for you than precise color and wide viewing angles, the latest crop of 15-inch flat-panel displays makes a good argument for switching from a CRT. Three models we tested are particular standouts: Envision Peripherals' EN-5100e, with its bright, crisp image quality, just barely beat Acer Peripherals' FP 563 as our choice for the best pairing of low price and great performance. And if you don't mind spending more to get additional features, Samsung's stylish SyncMaster 150MP is a good selection; it includes a built-in TV tuner with picture-in-picture capability, and it performed solidly in all of our tests.