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LCD Flat Panels: 19" to 21"
The war is over and flat panels won. Here are six contenders for your desk.

By David MacNeill

As a photographer, whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, the time has come to literally look at your computer monitor in a new way. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) technology in larger monitors has benefited enormously from the downward price pressure brought by mass acceptance and greater manufacturing capacity. Buying a cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor these days is a bad idea; even though the price may still be a little lower than a comparably-sized LCD flat panel, the flat panel will almost always outperform the tube, draw far less power, take up far less space on your desk, and be much easier on your eyes for long sessions with your machine. Oh yes, and they look really cool.

Flat panels used to have a bad reputation for delivering inaccurate color and for being difficult to view from anywhere but in the center sweet spot. They were also dim and sometimes not as sharp as the best tube designs. Analog video cards and LCD internal circuits would have to convert signals to make the conversion, always degrading the quality you ended up viewing. They were smaller overall than what you could get in a CRT for half the money. Needless to say, people that depended on color accuracy and quality avoided flat panels.

In 2005, that's all changed. Prices are extremely reasonable and screen sizes go up to 30 inches or more. Better still, today's flat panels are all-digital, using digital signals from any decent modern video card with a standard DVI port. As a result of eliminating the analog-digital conversion, sharpness is superb now, better than any CRT design we've seen. Color accuracy? On most panels, it's excellent. Even the worst models these days aren't so bad. Viewing angle? On the best designs, you can look at them from any angle with no perceptible degradation -- no color shifts and only a skosh of brightness lost. Again, even the worst are spectacularly better than panels from just a couple of years ago.

With prices down to Earth and image quality as good as any photographer could ask for, we rounded up six top flat panels from five reliable vendors, all in the range of 19 to 21 inches. Two of these panels even rotate from landscape to portrait orientation -- just grab the panel and spin it 'round for a whole new angle on your work. We have one panel with a wide orientation thatās superb for editing video or audio streams, or just for watching 16x9, widescreen movies.

We tested each panel for susceptibility to screen glare, off-axis viewability, sharpness, color accuracy, and overall aesthetic appeal. Each category was rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with higher numbers indicating better performance in each category. Our editor's choice reflects a simple tabulation of these ratings, but other factors may persuade you to chose another model, such as availability, price, or the need for some special feature our choice lacks.

It's also important for us to mention that we specifically excluded any flat panels that included or required additional calibration hardware. We did not perform any calibration on these monitors. We pulled them out of their boxes, left them on for a day, then went from model to model with a DVI-equipped PowerBook G4. You can, of course, opt to calibrate any of them using separate hardware and software products, but the focus of this roundup is on the photographer who wants things to work right without a lot of fiddling. If you fall closer to the professional side of things, then you can easily wrest even better accuracy from any of these monitors.

Apple Cinema Display 20"
Apple Cinema Display 20" performed stunningly well in all categories, missing a perfect score by only half a point. Externally, we liked everything about this flat panel, from its cool aluminum body, to its integrated DVI/AC power/USB2/FireWire cable, to the slick touch-sensitive switches on the right side for power and auto-brightness override.

But mama told us that it's what's inside that counts, and this beauty has all that, too. Glareless, bright, completely color accurate, and viewable from any angle (even from below), this thing is as perfect as any mass produced product can be. Don't have a Mac? Works with any DVI-equipped PC, too.
($799 direct from store.apple.com)

EIZO L778 FlexScan 19"
EIZO impressed us with the range of innovative and thoughtful features in the L778. This monitor is clearly aimed at the general user, with automatic adjustments to contrast and color that serious photographers may not completely desire. There is also an impressive stereo sound system, with two metal-grilles speakers power by dual 2-watt amplifiers. The integrated USB2 hub is a welcome convenience, and the unique stand design is great for us on work surfaces where one might want to look down, book-style, on the display in addition to standard vertical positioning. The ding we gave the L778 for aesthetics were mainly due to the funky painted silver plastic case of our test unit, so if you buy one, get it in black -- the lines work better and it's less busy-looking.
($699 direct from eizo.com)

LaCie 319 19"
If photography is your business, your passion, or both, check out the LaCie 319. The thousand-dollar price tag alone tells you these guys are selling a tool here, not a consumer appliance. Pro-grade features abound: 10-bit processing, CRT-class color gamut, glare-free surface, optional calibration software, 1780 viewing angle, high contrast ratio, auto brightness for room conditions, and portrait mode with an appropriate graphics card in your computer. We knocked it back a point for its utilitarian look, but next to the Apple Cinema, what wouldn't look kind of drab? If rotation is useful to you and you donāt need a 21" display, choose the LaCie 319.
($999 direct from lacie.com)

NEC MultiSync 1970GX 19"
This NEC MultiSync 19" is another monitor clearly aimed at the non-professional user -- not that thereās anything wrong with that. You just need to be aware that for half the money than you would spend on, say, the LaCie 319, you will get slightly less control over your color accuracy, a lot more glare, and inferior off-axis viewability. In its favor, this unit has a very nice cable management system in back, an integrated USB2 hub, and an excellent (if a little plain looking) stand and bezel design. The on-screen adjustments and diagnostics is better than most. If you can get past the glare, this is a fine monitor for everyday use. Picture quality is very good for the money.
($489 from Amazon.com, after $50 rebate)

NEC MultiSync 2180UX rotatable 21"
Not too many folks are ready to drop upwards of $1500 on a monitor, but for those who want maximum visual impact, excellent tweakability, and screen real estate that goes on for days, thereās the NEC 2190UX. This monitor is also sold in rebadged form from LaCie as the Model 321, and LaCie has a reputation among graphics pros for making superb quality, easily calibrated, highly precise monitors. Our tests confirm their confidence in NEC's technology -- the stellar numbers in our test results chart say it all. If money is no object, then this 1600x1200-pixel powerhouse of a display is a serious contender for your computer rig. ($1450 from various online stores)

Sony SDM-HS95P 19"
If aesthetics matter to you, this gorgeously designed Sony 19-incher should be on your short list. Once youāre through marvelling at the innovative, highly functional, and beautifully manufactured industrial design, bring up some of your favorite photographs and prepare to gasp as they leap off the screen. With its easel-like design, even average photos look like artworks on this thing. So crisp, so bright and saturated! Even text looks amazing on this display. Downsides? It has a lot of glare, second worst in our roundup. Glare is common in monitors built for the Japanese home market, as taste there runs to more dramatic presentation. Glare, I'm told, is considered less of an issue. One other gripe is the lack of a height adjustment, but for stunning performance like, this, we can live with it. ($550 from various online stores)

-David MacNeill (davidmacneill@mac.com)



© 2006 D.C. Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.