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Flat monitor for Linux does it all

The SyncMaster 170MP flat LCD monitor has a built-in TV tuner  

July 24, 2000
Web posted at: 1:15 p.m. EDT (1715 GMT)

(IDG) -- There's no denying it: size matters. Anyone that says otherwise is just being civil. Psychologists might call it an inferiority complex, but in this case, the smaller it is, the better!

I'm talking about LCD monitors. Never having owned one for a substantial period of time, the ingenuity of this well-made device was a pleasant surprise.

There are numerous LCD monitors priced above $1,000. We took a look at the Samsung SyncMaster 170MP, which possesses most conventional monitor features and is compatible with Linux desktops. The product also has one great feature for power users: it acts as a television.

The SyncMaster 170MP and the smaller 150MP are active-matrix LCD monitors with analog video connections. The 170MP measures 17 inches diagonally, but is larger than a cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor marketed as 17 inches. Because of the curvature of their screens, almost all tube monitors use less space than the diagonal measurement indicates. Thus, a 17-inch monitor actually gives the user a little over 16 inches of actual video image. Even the flat-screen Sony Trinitron and similar products have some blank space at their edges, where there are no pixels. With an LCD monitor, 17 inches means 17 inches, so it tends to look more like an 18- or 19-inch monitor.

Standing it up

Initially, the SyncMaster seems to have a handle at the bottom. This is actually the monitor stand -- it tilts back to allow the monitor to be placed at different angles. Unlike a tube monitor, there's no need for a rotating base; you can turn the whole monitor with one hand because it weighs only 14.3 pounds.

Although the SyncMaster's plug-and-play capabilities are compliant with VESA standards, they work for Windows systems only. Installation mostly consists of connecting a number of cables. There is a VGA-to-VGA connection for the video signal, a DC power connection to an external power supply, an audio cable from the PC to the monitor's dual built-in speakers, and a connection to a TV antenna.

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The SyncMaster also has two pairs of video and audio inputs for an RCA-type connection (one video and two audio connections), an S-VHS input, and two other RCA-type audio connections. All of these connectors fit vertically into the ports, so you don't need a lot of extra space for cables hanging from the back. The monitor can support four signal sources simultaneously: one PC VGA source, two video sources, and one TV or cable-TV source.

Switching the screen view across these four sources is as simple as pressing a button. When away from the screen, you can even use a remote control. And if you want to view more than one source at a time, there is a picture-in-picture (PIP) option. With two size options for the PIP, as well as dynamic positioning, you can do two things at once.

A TV star, too

The SyncMaster 170MP has a built-in TV tuner capable of receiving the five different TV broadcast signals used in the US, Japan, and Europe. Once you set the proper broadcast-signal type (we used a US cable-TV connection), you can set the monitor to scan for and program channels, and you can then add or remove channels manually.

Picture quality depends on signal quality. For example, a DVD connected to the S-VHS input on the monitor displays a crisp picture. However, with a cable-TV connection, or even worse, a regular TV antenna, picture quality will vary. The processing clarity of the video and TV tuners is independent of the signal, and was initially a little dull and grainy. After adjusting the sharpness and contrast, though, the SyncMaster displayed a better picture than my Sony TV. Remember, you will be watching the screen much closer than most people would a regular TV, and thus will be more likely to notice imperfections in the picture.

The SyncMaster 170MP's built-in TV tuner is, so far, unique to Samsung products. For a substantial price increase, you can get a 42-inch plasma-screen TV with similar capabilities, but the sheer size of that screen makes it difficult to use on a tabletop. The SyncMaster is also a true monitor in that it can support a number of different screen resolutions (from 320 x 200 to 1,280 x 1,024), as well as horizontal and vertical frequencies with vertical refresh rates from 50 to 85 Hz. At higher resolutions, the maximum refresh rate falls to 76 Hz, still good enough for the average user.

Working it hard

Viewing angle is an issue for all LCD monitors. Most LCDs project light straight outward, which makes them seem darker when viewed from an angle. Not so with the SyncMaster. Although we didn't precisely measure the advertised 80-degree viewing angle (orthogonal from the screen surface in all directions), I had no problem sitting next to the primary user and seeing the screen or reading over his shoulder. Even at an angle of almost 90 degrees, the text on the screen was visible with only a slight drop in brightness.

I was, however, disappointed with the text resolution in my KDE Konsole terminal windows. Set at 800 x 600 pixels with a 63-Hz vertical refresh rate, the character widths seemed to be uneven depending on their position on the screen. I tried several resolutions from 640 x 480 to 1,280 x 1,024 at several refresh rates, with little improvement. Fiddling with the monitor's focusing controls didn't help either, although the text did become less blurry. What did lessen the problem was changing the default font. Xterms with white text on a black background using the "Fixed" font made the unevenness disappear. The monitor does not have this problem when used with a Windows desktop.

Fair pricing for a good screen

The Samsung SyncMaster 170MP costs $1,899. The 15-inch 150MP is a more affordable $1,229, but it has a maximum resolution of only 1,024 x 768. Since most LCD monitors today are in the $900-$1,500 range for 15-inch screens, the SyncMaster is a good deal considering its extra screen real estate. Although $1,899 is high compared to sub-$1,000 21-inch CRT monitors, an LCD is not just a cool screen (both literally and figuratively), but uses much less power than a CRT.

The SyncMaster's slim monitor is guaranteed to make you do a double take. I couldn't get past the strange feeling I had as I walked past my desk and caught a glimpse of the monitor's profile. Wait a minute! Where's the body of the monitor? I even caught myself checking to make sure the picture was still there. When you get past this fascination, you will find the monitor suitable for desktop use, even if you have to adjust your fonts.

Through no fault of its own, the 170MP exposes some limitations of Linux's font technology. Although the SyncMaster is cheaper than similar models by $1000 or more, LCD technology must still become more reliable and less costly before we all sport LCDs on our tabletops and the old CRT becomes a dinosaur.

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The Samsung SyncMaster 170MP
Specifications for the SyncMaster 170MP

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