Monitor-y report

The ‘death’ of the CRT, dead pixels springing to life and plasmas and portability pushing to the forefront of people’s minds. It has been a very busy year in monitors.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  August 28, 2003

INTRODUCTION|~||~||~|It has been a hectic year in the monitor world with more people than ever buying flat screens, both Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD) and plasma. In this feature we will look at this trend, and others, to keep you abreast of the latest technology. After all, there is no part of your PC system more used than the monitor, so you need to known what’s going on.

Looking first at LCDs a recent report by the NPD group indicated that May 2003 was the first month that LCD monitors started to out-sell Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) models in the USA. On a worldwide scale LCDs are expected to exceed CRTs in terms of revenue this year, while next year they will take over in volume terms, according to IDC. IT’s most cynical commentators are taking aim at the poor old CRT.

Further ammunition has been provided by Sony, which has stopped production of its popular 17” and 19” Trinitron CRT monitor lines. A recent statement by Sony corporate said, “The rate at which the computer display market is shifting from CRTs to LCDs has further increased and market conditions have become severe. In this severe environment, we are looking to increase the efficiency of our CRT computer display business and are re-evaluating our strategy for computer display applications.”

The worldwide trend towards LCDs is hard to ignore. What’s more, parts of the Middle East are leading the drive, with LCD uptake in the UAE and Saudi Arabia outstripping that in most of Europe. “We know that there is a huge appetite for LCD monitors in the region, and we are doing our best to satisfy the market,” says Robert Dung, managing director of BenQ Middle East. Michael Kim, IT products manager of LG Electronics Gulf said continues, “In more developed and affluent parts of the region, we’re seeing a massive swing across to LCD screens.” KS Vasudevan, senior manager of Samsung Gulf Electronics in Dubai agrees, “The market has definitely shifted firmly towards Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LCD monitors.”

||**||II|~||~||~|It is clear that companies prize the space-saving benefits that LCDs bring, as well as their steady and pleasant screen quality. LCDs monitors have heralded a shift in work culture. They allow companies to use desk space more effectively and work better than CRTs in open plan offices. They also consume about 60% less power than CRTs, more in keeping with today’s environmentally friendly priorities.

Companies also often find it easier to gain ISO certification after they convert from CRT to LCD monitors. However, the real motor behind rapid LCD uptake is falling LCD panel prices. This allows manufacturers to lower the prices of their products and makes them more appealing to businesses and consumers alike.

While the upward rise of LCD monitors is indisputable we have also seen that the CRT monitor has not gone away. Not all top monitor vendors are re-evaluating their monitor lines as radically as Sony. “Samsung has no plans to discontinue its CRT range. Our objective is to meet the market demand as long as it exists,” says Vasudevan. Kim adds, “It would be commercially fatal to do away with a high profile line as successful as the Flatron range of CRT monitors.” It certainly seems that LG and Samsung, two of the region’s biggest sellers in the monitor market, think there is plenty of life in the CRT.

Vasudevan says, “The overall demand for colour monitors in the Middle East region is estimated to be over 1.5million, with TFT monitors accounting for 22%.” That leaves almost 80% accounted for largely by CRT monitors. LG puts the LCD portion of the total monitor market in the region at a mere 10%, which presents an even more encouraging picture for the CRT monitor.

Why is it that CRTs have managed to hold on? They are still favoured by many users, particularly those in the graphics industry, who swear by the CRT’s superior colour fidelity. CRTs have also traditionally been the first choice for gamers. This is due to the high screen resolution they boast, as well as the colour fidelity that also appeals so much to graphics users. They are also more flexible in terms of screen resolution than LCDs. If you can live with their bulk, CRTs can reward you with excellent quality. However, price is once again the most important factor. Kim says, “Most of the demand for CRT screens comes from premature markets and areas where low budgets have an affect on IT spend.” This was echoed by Vasudevan. “We can see CRTs still remaining the mainstream monitors in countries with relative lower GDPs like Egypt. And there is still a large number of CRT monitors in the education sector, which have been investing heavily in IT of late. Many governments in the region have been implementing ambitious IT projects to boost IT education at grass-roots level,” he says.

Where cost is king the CRT is still in the clear. However, more affluent markets are swinging towards LCDs and the upgrade segment, in terms of revenue and quantity is becoming dominated by the LCD. There is still a hefty price difference between LCD and CRT monitors however, and as long as it exists there will be distinct and lucrative markets for both products in the region.

||**||III|~||~||~|Plumping for plasmas
Another key display trend is also closely linked to cost. Plasma screens seem to be falling in price faster than a CRT dropped from a helicopter, with the cheapest models a third of the price they were a year ago. Plasmas have been around for donkey’s years, in fact they were invented way back in 1960s and have slowly been growing in popularity since. This could be the year, however, that plasmas break into the mainstream. Forget playboy’s living rooms and corporate receptions, plasmas could become commonplace in your office and home. Panasonic predicts global demand will double to 1.3 million this year and will rise to 4.1 million units by 2005. Plasmas are screens in which each pixel is illuminated by a tiny bit of charged gas (plasma). Each bit of plasma is like a tiny neon light and together they make up a screen that holds many advantages over other display technologies.

For their screen size, you can’t get much thinner than a plasma display. On average they are about five inches wide, which is nothing when you consider the depth of CRTs. True, LCD screens can be as thin as two inches but these LCD monitors have a screen size ceiling of around 40 inches. This is around the size that plasma screens start at. LCD projection TVs rival plasmas for screen size, but again these are much thicker than plasma screens.

This thin-ness hands plasmas a versatility that other big screens can’t match. For example, you can just as easily mount a plasma screen on the wall as use it like a conventional TV. They are available in sizes up to 71 inches and if you want an impressive screen at work or want to re-create a cinema experience at home, size definitely does matter. Screen quality is the third benefit. Plasma screens are brighter than LCDs and more suitable for movie watching (which is also boosted by their cinematic 16:9 aspect ratio). They are also sharper with excellent colour fidelity and can be viewed at wide horizontal viewing angles, unlike many other technologies.

It’s not all good news though. Plasmas screens are heavy despite their thin dimensions, and often need professional installation. If you want to wall mount you may also have to re-inforce your walls. There are signs, however, that plasmas are coming down in weight as well as price. Samsung’s SPD-42P3S 42-inch plasma ($3,940) is just over two inches slim and weighs a manageable 28kg. The other main consideration is price. Even with prices falling they are still easily the most expensive display option on the market.

Plasmas are not the only option when it comes to the big screen. LCD monitors go up to around 40” in size and this is enough for many people. These can be used as TVs as well as PC monitors and while screen clarity can’t match normal TVs they can do a job. The advantage they have over plasmas is that they are much cheaper but for real aficionados the quality and features of the plasmas can’t be touched by LCD models.

||**||IV|~||~||~|A more viable alternative are projection TVs, both CRT and LCD. These can match plasmas for screen size and again are cheaper. For example, compare the Samsung SPD-42P3S 42-inch plasma ($3,940) with the newest 43-inch Samsung LCD projection TV ($2,860). Again, though they can’t quite match the plasma for screen brightness and quality. Within the projection TV realm LCDs hold the aces over CRT models, with better screen definition, brighter picture, much wider viewing angles and slimmer form factor. They are still nowhere near as slim as plasma screens though, and certainly cannot be wall mounted. Samsung has also recently claimed that its new LCD projection TVs are very close to plasma screens in terms of picture quality. Plasmas, however, are still definitely at the top of the big screen food chain.

Switching to more outlandish innovations in the monitor world, we can’t ignore SmartDisplays. Microsoft has been heavily involved in the evolution of these wireless, touchscreen portable monitors. One of the most convincing products has come from Viewsonic. The airpanel V150 gives you a 15” LCD monitor that you can cart around the office or home, and remotely access work on your PC. It is a blend of PC and display that still must be refined, but there’s no denying the kick you get accessing you e-mails with it on the couch, while the PC is in another room. The price will inevitably drop in time and if it can lose a few kilos it could well catch on.

Collapsible
Even more ‘out there’ are the collapsible flat screens from NEC-Mitsubishi. These LCDs, just released in the USA, have acrylic screens and flexible frames that allow them to be folded. The 15” and 17” models are priced in the same bracket as normal LCDs and aimed at the desktop market. This makes the screens more easily portable, although it is a far cry from thin screens that can be rolled up and transported. These are still in gestation and are likely to be for some time.

Another issue that has loomed large over the monitor year has been the tendency of some monitor manufactures to claim to have LCD panels with zero dead pixels. However, this is not always quite what it seems. Zero dead pixels does not necessarily mean that there are no faults on a monitor screen, there can still be sub-pixel defects which can lead to visible flaws. The key issue here is education. Middle East customers should be armed with the knowledge of what they are getting when they buy a monitor. Russell Cole, product manager of LCDs in Viewsonic EMEA says, “There are sub pixel failures and full pixel failures. Some companies, such as Viewsonic, do not tolerate full pixel outages within their specification but partial pixel failure is tolerated. True zero defects is possible but not really a commercially viable option for volume LCD displays. Wording is very important. Some vendors will state ‘no pixel failures’, which should not be confused with ‘no sub-pixel failures’.”

Don’t this pixel peril put you off however. The health of the LCD monitor market has never been better and stiff regulations are in place that mean the LCD panel of today, as well as being much cheaper than that of five years ago, is also of much superior quality. We predict that the trends towards portability and plasmas will continue apace and that the main innovation in the LCD world will be towards ever increasing screen size, along with decreasing bezel size and weight.

As LCD prices continue to tumble the CRT share of the market will shrink but it will continue to occupy an important niche thanks to its unique qualities and significant price advantage. It has been an important year in the monitor market and we predict that next year will be even more crucial.||**||

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