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10/96 Cover Story: HOT STUFF!

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Hot Stuff! Introduction High Power, Low PriceBoost Your Memory-Now!Store More!What
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Want a spectacular view at an equally spectacular price? Just check out that monitor perched modestly on your desktop. In recent years, monitor prices have fallen steadily while their performance has risen. A blast from the past illustrates the point: In 1988, a 14-inch VGA monitor from a top vendor cost $949. Today, you'd get a top-of-the-line 17-inch model for that price. And a 14-incher far superior to that long-ago model would run you only about $295.

Prices have leveled off since the steep declines of yesteryear, typical of a maturing technology. Last year, prices actually inched up due to a shortage of tubes, especially on 14-inch and 15-inch models. But with supply now exceeding demand, prices have resumed their downward trend. "It's a good year for buying a monitor," proclaims senior market analyst Rhoda Alexander, who tracks the monitor market for Stanford Resources Inc. (SRI). "Prices are declining across all categories."

Fifteen-inch CRT displays, still a market mainstay-especially with bundled systems-have settled in the $300 to $500 range. The increasingly popular 17-inchers are hovering between $650 and $900 for a good brand-name unit, and prices are dropping steadily as more buyers migrate to larger screens, points out Rob Enderle, senior industry analyst for Giga Information Group. Models in the 20- to 21-inch class are upward of $1,000, generally closer to $2,000.

But the price tags alone don't tell the tale. What you get for your money is the big news, stresses John Grundy, senior national marketing manager for monitors at Samsung Electronics America. Today's displays boast a long list of improvements over their predecessors, including crisper images, improved brightness and focus, higher refresh rates, Plug-and-Play compatibility, more and easier-to-use controls, Energy Star compliance, low radiation, vastly improved ergonomics and longer warranties. Watch for continuing improvements, including support for the upcoming universal serial bus standard. Sleeker form factors are also gaining favor: Mitsubishi is working on a 21-inch display that will have the same depth as a current 17-inch model.

What's a wise buy in today's diverse market? A monitor with some upward mobility. You interact with the display more than any other component, and it can make or break your computing experience. So if you're looking to cut corners, don't do it here. A quality monitor will not only prevent headaches-literally-it also won't be outmoded or outgrown too soon, giving you a better return on your investment. A good monitor should last you through at least one system upgrade.

Right now, a quality 17-inch monitor with a 0.28mm or smaller dot pitch and a 76Hz or higher refresh rate offers the best value for most buyers, both in terms of current use and future viability.

LCDs Loom Large

While CRTs still dominate the market, they're no longer the only game in town. "Nobody's calling the CRT dead quite yet, but we do see flat-panel technology as a major part of the market a few years down the road," points out Hewlett-Packard's Bob Myers, chairman of the monitor committee for the Video Electronics Standards Association.

In fact, flat-panel displays could shove their bulkier CRT cousins right off the desktop within the next five years or so. "They could make a significant dent in the CRT market around the end of the decade," says SRI's Alexander.

Flat-panel LCD displays have a lot going for them. They're enviably svelte-a mere inch-and-a-half deep compared to a foot or so for a CRT. They're also reliable, flicker-free, and immune to both magnetic interference from other electronic gear and image burn-in. Plus, they emit no hazardous radiation.

But flat-panel LCDs are not without drawbacks. Screen size is currently on the small side, at around 10 to 12 inches diagonally. Even though the viewable area is equivalent to that of CRTs a few inches larger, it's still claustrophobic to users hungry for more screen real estate. The viewing angle is limited, although improving with each new generation, and flat panels are not up to snuff with CRTs when it comes to brightness and resolution-they're currently at a modest VGA level of 640x480 pixels. But bigger screens-13.8-, 17- and 21-inch models-are already in the works, says Bruce Pollack, national marketing manager for Sharp Electronics' LCD Products Group. And wider viewing angles and brighter screens, along with Super VGA (800x600) and XVGA (1024x768) resolution, are also in the offing. (A good example is the screen in the Compaq Presario featured on this issue's cover: It's the brightest LCD we've ever seen.)

Then there's the biggest hitch of all: LCDs cost a bundle. Sharp's 10-inch LCD display, which has a viewable area equivalent to a 12-inch CRT, sells for $2,000 to $3,000. The good news is that this price is on its way down. A year ago, this same unit sold for $8,000. Over the next two years or so, it should drop even lower. "We need to get under $1,000," Pollack acknowledges.

That could happen in the not-too-distant future as more vendors jump into the flat-panel arena, competition heats up, more consumers buy in and volume rises. Rey Roque, vice president of marketing/display products for Mitsubishi Electronics, sees prices falling from the current range of $300 to $400 per diagonal inch to $100 to $125 by the year 2000. If vendors can get flat-panel displays to roughly twice the price of a comparably sized CRT, they could start to gain widespread market acceptance.

But that's still a ways off. Clearly, you'll get a better buy on flat-panel LCDs if you bide your time. Unless you're seriously strapped for space or eager to be the first one on the block with cutting-edge technology, CRTs will remain the better price/performance choice for several years to come.-Eileen McCooey

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