Review: The skinny on big LCDs
By Richard Jantz
(IDG) -- Just as 15-inch LCD monitors became a hot item last summer thanks to a precipitous price drop, 17- and 18-inch LCD monitors are now available at prices that demand a second look, although they still represent a hefty investment. What's the difference between an $800 economy display and a $1,300 deluxe monitor? We tested 15 flat panels -- eight 17-inch and seven 18-inch models -- to find out.
Our test group included monitors from Benq, Compaq, CTX, Dell, Eizo Nanao, Iiyama, NEC-Mitsubishi, Planar, Samsung, and ViewSonic. The contenders ranged from an $1,899 luxury model that made our 18-inch chart on the strength of its outstanding features and unbeatable image quality to a $629 monitor that couldn't compete on graphics quality or features, and failed to earn a place on the 17-inch chart.
Our choices for the Best Buys occupy a middle ground that combines reasonable price with image quality good enough for daylong, everyday work. Remarkably, one company took both the 17- and 18-inch Best Buy spots. In the 17-inch category, the $769 ViewSonic VG171 augments the best overall image quality in its class with a low price. Among the 18-inchers, the $949 ViewSonic VG181's solid features, under-$1,000 price, and strong image quality give it the edge over the competition. Both models benefit from ViewSonic's top-notch support, too.
What to Look For
Because they still cost as much as some PCs, big LCDs require you to do some careful comparison shopping before plunking down your cash. Here's a quick tutorial on what to consider when you're shopping for these displays.
An LCD monitor's diagonal screen size as listed on the vendor's spec sheet is unambiguously what you get -- unlike with CRT monitors, which have a viewable screen size about an inch less than the stated diagonal measurement of the tube.
Unlike with CRTs, support for multiple screen resolutions is not especially useful with LCDs. In our experience, all LCDs look best at their native (and maximum) resolution; in the case of our 17- and 18-inch models, it's 1280 by 1024 pixels. To display lower resolutions, LCDs use only a portion of the pixels they contain and then scale up the resulting image, with varying degrees of success. Typically, nonnative resolutions are so blurry as to be intolerable in daily use. The greater detail provided by a high-resolution screen is rarely a disadvantage, though. If 1280 by 1024 makes text and icons too small for your liking, you can increase their size by using either Windows' Display Properties control panel or a utility such as Portrait Displays' LiquidView.
Having dual video interfaces -- both analog (VGA-style) and all-digital (DVI) inputs -- is desirable. In our testing, we've seen that an all-digital connection generally produces a better-quality image: DVI doesn't require the signal conversion (from digital to analog, and then back to digital) that an analog interface does. But to use the digital input, your PC must have a digital-capable graphics card, and these range in price from about $150 to $300.
Decoding the Spec Sheets
Though the image quality of an LCD monitor depends on several factors, two common specifications that are cited by display manufacturers are brightness and viewing angle. The brightness of an LCD monitor is measured in candelas per square meter (cd/m2), or nits. The monitors that are reviewed here range in brightness from 200 to 300 cd/m2. The higher this number, the greater the brightness the display can produce.
Viewing angle describes how far from the monitor's center you can sit before the picture starts to blur or lose contrast. Manufacturers provide a measurement, in degrees, in both the horizontal (left/right) and the vertical (top/bottom) planes. Viewing angles typically range from 120 to 170 degrees. The greater the viewing angle, the easier it is to view the monitor when you're not sitting directly in front of it. Keep in mind, however, that the viewing-angle specifications cited in our features chart come from the manufacturers; PC World did not independently verify them.
Another factor that affects image quality is the technology used to compensate for displays' viewing-angle limitations. The least-expensive method uses a light-diffusing film to counteract angle-of-view distortion; two other systems, which operate on the liquid crystals inside the panel, are called in-plane switching (IPS) and multidomain vertical alignment (MVA). IPS and MVA are more expensive but also provide a wider viewing angle. We think IPS strikes the best balance between extending the viewing angle and maintaining a reasonable price. Unfortunately, manufacturers usually don't tell you which technology their monitors use. Check out our chart to get a feel for what's typical, and try out several displays before you buy one.
A Perfect Fit: Ergonomics
All the monitors we reviewed let you tilt the screen panel vertically, and most also let you swivel it horizontally. Far less common are monitors you can adjust for height, such as the Best Buy ViewSonic VG181 and the premium-priced Eizo Nanao FlexScan L685. This ergonomic extra may be worth its additional cost if it enables you to work comfortably for long hours.
Many LCD panels come with a base and software that permit you to pivot them from landscape to portrait orientation. This capability adds to the cost of the monitor, but it's useful for displaying long text documents such as Web pages and word processing files, as well as page layouts in desktop publishing programs.
Still not a Perfect World
LCD monitors do have some drawbacks, including jaggy-looking type and pixel response times that are slower than those typical of CRTs; the latter can have the effect of text that blurs as you scroll or icons that leave trails as you move them around the desktop. Generally, the brightness and sharpness of text displayed on LCD monitors (as well as the high resolutions) far outweigh any jagginess you may perceive.
Most LCD monitors sold today redraw their screens fast enough to adequately display moving images. But when you play games or scroll through word processing files or Web pages, you may be bothered by pixel artifacts or blurriness. MVA-type LCDs have faster pixel response times than others, but currently they aren't very common for desktop use.
Another consideration is how many dead pixels constitute a defective panel. A dead pixel remains permanently lit or permanently dark because of a malfunctioning transistor, and it can be noticeable on screen. Manufacturers' policies about when they will replace a panel with dead pixels vary, so investigate your monitor vendor's policy before you buy to ensure that you won't get stuck with imperfections you can't live with. All the models in this comparison come with a three-year warranty on all parts, including the backlight.
In the Lab: How We Evaluate LCD Monitors
PC World employs the same tests for LCD monitors that we use for CRTs: A panel of 12 judges rates a monitor's text and graphics quality by viewing typical business letters, spreadsheets, Web pages, and scanned photos. And we look at screens designed to gauge how well a monitor displays very dark and very pale shades of colors and gray. We also test LCD monitors using screens meant to provoke jitter and moiré.
The judges view a maximum of eight monitors side by side. For this comparison we viewed 17-inch and 18-inch models in separate sessions.
Digital or Analog?
PC World can test only four digital-interface monitors at one time, so we judged some monitors that have a dual interface using their analog connection for this comparison. We tested as many dual-interface monitors as possible via their digital inputs, giving preference to the higher-priced models, on the theory that they're more likely than lower-priced units to be run with a digital-capable video card.
For each test, judges award each monitor a rating on a scale of 1 (worst) to 7 (best). We derive text and graphics quality word scores from these individual ratings. We base a monitor's overall rating on the scores it receives for text and graphics quality (each one accounts for 25 percent of the total score), price (20 percent), features and ease of use (20 percent), and service and support (10 percent).
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