Flat-panel Monitors: 5 things to know

It's hard not to admire the sleekness of flat-panel displays. They are a perfect example of form melding with function to create a superior product.

Is it time for you to trade in your trusty cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor for a stylish new liquid crystal display (LCD) model?

Here's a look at what makes flat-panel monitors appealing. And what might keep one off your desk.

1. You'll save some desk real estate

The most obvious advantage of the flat-panel display is its size, or lack thereof. CRT monitors are big, honking things. Their cabinets are about 20 inches deep. They work, but they're pass�.

All of the work in a flat-panel monitor is done behind its thin screen by liquid crystals and millions of transistors. So the flat panel doesn't need a long case. If you are stretched for real estate on your desk, the small footprint is very enticing.

It's not just space savings for your computer desk. Some flat panels can do double duty as a television. To watch TV, you just hit a button on the flat panel or use the included hand-held remote control. You'll pay extra for this feature. But if your living quarters are cramped, one monitor lets you check e-mail as well as watch your favorite sit-com, if you're so inclined.

Sure, you can watch TV on your computer using a CRT. If you don't have one already, you'll need to install a TV tuner video card. But the picture quality isn't as good, and who needs the hassle of booting up your PC to watch TV when there is a more convenient alternative?

You'll also find flat-panel monitors that have built-in USB ports. This is especially handy if your computer has all four USB ports in the back of the machine. No longer do you need to pull the computer out from behind the desk to simply download pictures from your digital camera. You just plug the camera into one of the flat screen's USB ports and you're good to go.

2. You get a better picture

There's another nice thing about flat panels � they're brighter. Generally speaking, text and graphics are easier to see on brighter monitors. Flat-panel displays are also usually crisper. Graphics and text have sharper edges.

This brings us to an important point: analog versus digital. CRT monitors use an analog signal, meaning it is carried on a wa for both. Digital is sharper and, therefore, better. But whether you can use a digital flat panel depends on your video card. This is a circuit board inside your computer. Its output points stick out of the back of your computer. The video card is easy to find � your current monitor is hooked up to it. If your computer is relatively new, you may have both digital and analog outputs on your video card. If you don't know what a digital output looks like, ask a salesperson at a computer store to show you.You can probably fit a digital-output card to your computer, if necessary.

So what are the disadvantages of flat-panels, other than having to learn about digital and analog? The most obvious is price, which leads us to No. 3.

3. They're not cheap (though they save in energy costs).

While they've come down in price in the past year, there's still no getting around it: You'll pay a bit more for flat panels (although the gap in prices from CRT monitors has narrowed). That's because they're more difficult to manufacture.

You'll make up some of the difference on your power bill. Flat panels only use 30-40 watts of electricity. CRTs run about 110 watts. Over a year's time, those savings will make a small dent in your utility payments. That also means flat panels run cooler, making them more comfortable to use.

4. They're not for everyone, especially gamers.

The other major problem with flat panels is latency. Movement on the screen cannot be shown until the screen is redrawn by the computer. This is done many times per second, and is called the refresh rate. The standard for CRT monitors is 85 times per second. You'll know if a CRT monitor's refresh rate is too slow. It will flicker. Some CRT monitors can be refreshed more than 100 times per second. At these high rates, movement is smooth and the display is rock solid.� Flat panels don't redraw their screens this fast. Because of the technology, they don't flicker. You won't notice latency with office applications, such as a word processor. Nor will there be a problem surfing the Internet. But if you like to play fast computer games in your spare time, you may see the latency. Same is true for video editing. If you're into either in a big way, you may be happier with a CRT monitor. You may also notice black or bright spots on the flat-panel screen. That comes from bad transistors behind the screen that are stuck on or off. Manufacturers consider a few bad transistors normal. One or two bad transistors probably won't bother you. But check a new screen carefully. If bad transistors irritate you, take it back.

5. Know some basic specs before buying.

If you decide a flat panel is for you, here are some specs that we recommend you take to the store:

1.Contrast: You want at least 300:1.

2.Resolution: Flat panels run best at their native resolution. These are the numbers you'll see that will say "1024 by��� 768," for example. Try it in the store to be sure the panel's resolution is acceptable to you. If it's not, try other resolutions to see if the picture is acceptable.

3.Angle view: A flat panel's picture will deteriorate quickly when viewed from an angle. Look at the monitor in the store from your preferred angle.

No matter what flat-panel monitor you purchase, and even if you have one already, you'll need to adjust the picture's color, brightness, contrast and more. Most flat panels include software for that.One thing's for sure. There's a flat-panel display that's just right for you. And once you see the big picture in the small footprint, there isn't any going back.

Bonus Tip: Install Clear Type

Type on many new flat-panels often looks blurry. A solution to this problem is included in Windows XP. It's called ClearType. It can make type on flat-panels much sharper.

To find ClearType, right-click on an empty area of the desktop. Click Properties. Select the Appearance tab and click Effects. Select the box next to "Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts."

Click the down arrow and choose ClearType. Click OK>>OK. You still have to fine-tune ClearType. To do that, go to the Windows XP ClearType link on this page under "Related Resources." Once there, follow the wizard and select the type that looks best. Follow these steps, it works very well.