If you love your Mac for its sleek design, a svelte LCD monitor is the perfect complement. With a flicker-free screen and tiny footprint, an LCD is easy on the eyes in more than one sense. Macworld Lab compared fourteen 17-inch LCDs aimed at general use in the home or office, ranging in price from $550 to $1350. Although that's still steep when compared to $400, the average price of a 19" CRT, we found a few worthy products including the AG Neovo X-174.
The Hook Up
Before you start your search for the perfect LCD you need to look at the back of your Macintosh. Today's monitors offer one or more of the following connections: VGA, DVI, or ADC. A screen hooked up to a digital DVI or ADC connector offers sharper, clearer images than those connected via an analog VGA connector. Analog LCDs can display "noise," a byproduct of converting the video signal from digital to analog and then back again. The ADC (Apple Display Connector) port combines a DVI signal with power and USB. The single cable leaves your desk relatively clutter free but ADC is only available on cards shipping in newer Macintoshes.
Except for the Apple 17-inch Studio Display, each of the monitors in this roundup can plug directly into an analog VGA connector, making the monitors compatible with current and older desktops and laptops. Five of the fourteen models offer both analog and digital inputs: AG Neovo's X-174, Iiyama's Pro Lite 44A, Philips' 170B, Planar's 17.4-inch Multi-Media Monitor, and Samsung's SyncMaster 170T. These monitors are the most compatible, as they can plug into DVI or standard VGA connectors and, with a third party adapter, into ADC ports. The Apple 17-inch Studio Display requires the ADC port available on only recent G4 desktops.
Small but Wirey
After connecting these plug-and-play monitors, we performed the manufacturer's recommended auto-adjustments when available, using the control buttons on each display. The controls vary in their design, functions and ease of use. The controls are on the bottom of the front panel, except on Envision's EN-7100e they are hidden along the top edge and on AG Neovo's X-174 they are discreetly located along the right edge with the button names printed on the front. With its tiny silver buttons for the menu, exit, auto adjust, and menu selection arrows, the Samsung SyncMaster 170MP not only has the most elegant looking set of controls, but some of the easiest to use.
Many of the controls available on monitors driven in analog mode are not necessary, and therefore not available, in digital monitors. Phase, timing, and position controls are present in analog monitors to compensate for errors that occur during the conversions of the graphical data from digital to analog and back to digital. Since all of these monitors except the Apple can connect via VGA, they came with a full set of controls, but some of the controls are disabled when the monitor is connected via a digital connection.
Pick a Card
The only significant setup problem we encountered was with Samsung's SyncMaster 170T, which didn't work with the ATI Radeon card at the monitor's native SXGA resolution (1280 x 1024 @ 60Hz) when we connected via DVI. It displayed the picture for a few seconds before the screen went blank. The monitor worked fine at this resolution with ATI's Rage Pro and NVIDIA's GeForce 2 cards. Samsung attributed the problem to the ATI Radeon card, which outputs a signal outside of industry specifications. As it was the only panel to exhibit this problem, we suspect that the Samsung panel has narrower tolerances for signal variances. Samsung sent us a working replacement model and says that future shipments of the SyncMaster 170T will be fully compatible with the ATI Radeon card.
All of the digital panels had difficulty displaying some non-recommended resolutions with NVIDIA GeForce2 graphics cards. An LCD's native resolution is based on the number of red, green and blue pixel bundles. In the case of these panels, there are 1280 columns of pixel sets and 1024 rows. Decreasing the resolution requires the image to be blown up, or scaled, to make 1024 x 768 pixels, for example, fill the screen. For some resolutions both the NVIDIA graphics card and the in-panel electronics attempt to scale the image causing strange results. Selecting the non "stretched" mode in the monitors control panel will allow the monitor to display lower resolutions.
As we found in our June 2001 feature ( http://www.macworld.com/2001/06/features/color.html ), LCDs aren't ready for professional color work. However, some models display colors that compete with those of general-use CRTs. To judge color quality, we compared a digitized version of the Gretag-Macbeth Color Checker across all fourteen monitors. AG Neovo's X-174, the Apple 17-inch Studio Display, Samsung's SyncMaster 170T, and Viewsonic's VE170 displayed the richest blacks and rendered the spectrum of colors more accurately than the other monitors. The other monitors offered acceptable results, although the Acer's FP751 and Proview's PL765's colors appeared slightly washed out. Adjusting the Acer's controls helped the problem a bit, but we were unable to improve the Proview's color.
To evaluate photographic detail, we used Macworld's standard photographic image. We checked for color saturation and details in highlights and shadows. The NEC-Mitsubishi 1700M delivered the best results in this category, producing bright, saturated images with detail in a broad range of areas. The Apple came in a close second in this category. In contrast, Acer's FP751, Envision's EN-7100e, and to a lesser extent the Proview PL765, produced over-exposed highlights and murky shadow areas. The other displays provided acceptable results.
To evaluate text sharpness, we examined a Microsoft Word document with a variety of fonts. The Apple 17-inch Studio Display and Planar's 17.4-inch Multi-Media Monitor produced the cleanest, most readable type but no monitor managed an excellent rating. Envision's EN-7100e suffered from unacceptably blurry text. The Proview eeked out an acceptable rating with text which was readable but slightly less crisp.
Left of Center
Due to their use of backlighting, LCDs suffer from limited viewing angles. The image can radically alter as you move your head to the right or left from the center of the screen. To judge viewing angle, we examined a set of color gradients for color shifts.
AG Neovo's X-174, NEC 1700M+ and Iiyama's Pro Lite 44A displayed colors most consistently over the widest area. The Apple and Samsung 170T had a tendency to lose dark and unsaturated colors as our angle increased. Colors on Acer's FP751 quickly inverted once we moved away from the center of the monitor. The entire screen also took on a pink tint when we moved off-center.
The fourteen monitors we tested included various extras. The most fully outfitted model was the Samsung Syncmaster 170MP, which includes an integrated TV tuner with remote control, speakers, VGA, S-Video and Composite Video inputs. The Acer includes speakers, USB hub and Kensington lock ports. The Iiyama and Viewsonic VG175 both allow you to pivot the screen from landscape to portrait. To reposition the image they include Portrait Display Inc.'s MacPivot software. Unfortunately, Portrait Display Inc. has no plans update their software for Mac OS X.
Macworld's Buying Advice
Although CRTs are still a better choice in terms of cost, text sharpness and color accuracy, LCDs keep improving on all counts. If you've been wishing for more room on your desk, we recommend the AG Neovo X-714 for its wide viewing angle, excellent color quality and reasonable price. It also accepts VGA, DVI and S-Video inputs. 17" LCD Monitors Benchmarks
Behind Our Tests
We tested the monitors using two Apple G4 466 with 256 MB RAM, Mac OS 9.1, and 5 ATI Radeon cards. Dual input monitors were tested in digital mode. A jury of experts looked at a variety of documents and rated each panel as Excellent, Acceptable or Poor for each test. -- Lab testing by Jeffy Milstead and James Galbraith