Thinking thin has - until now - done little to fatten dealer desk space, but how do they compare to traditional tried-and-tested - and much cheaper - CRT monitors? profit.
Margins on flat-panel displays may pile on the pounds around a dealer's revenue line, but shifting the flat-packs out to Joe Corporate can be as easy as finding a Manchester United supporter who lives in Manchester.
But although still priced out of the reach of most PC users' purses, thin, flat-panel liquid crystal displays (LCD) are making inroads towards the mainstream in businesses where space is at a premium.
Once extortionately priced, the market for LCD panels was stagnant until mid-1998 when Phillips, keen to shift unsold stock as a result of a large cancelled order, dramatically cut the price of its Brilliance LCD panel.
Suddenly, LCD panels ceased to be mere fashion statements for company executives and became more affordable.
Despite this, it's still true to say that the majority of purchasing of flat-panel displays by corporates is mainly project-led and not part of 'run-rate' purchase orders to introduce the displays for general use throughout an organisation.
A good example of this was the recent purchase of 300 Apple Studio Displays for The Guardian newspaper. The Guardian had been using Artex display terminals for the past 12 years and these were due for retirement. The newspaper opted to switch to the Macintosh platform and chose flat-panel displays over conventional CRTs (cathode ray tubes). Sharpness of image, the minimal amount of desktop real estate required and the low heat generated were cited as the reasons.
When it comes to desktop monitors, thin is in. LCD monitor sales have grown rapidly, although they will remain the smaller segment of the display market over the next few years. According to Stuart Hudson, sales manager at NEC, LCD display sales are growing at a rate of 20 per cent month-on-month. 'In 1998, the ratio of CRTs to LCDs sold was roughly 3:1. Today it's 2:1 and parity can't be far off,' Hudson says.
The main differences between LCD and CRT are display and physical size, viewing angle, colours, resolution, brightness and cost. Although CRT may have a larger monitor size, the viewable image is often a couple of inches less, thanks to the case bezel. As a result, the viewable image of a 15in LCD flat panel is virtually the same as a 17in CRT.
The technology behind the latest LCD displays is the mature thin film transistor (TFT) that has been used in notebooks for some years. LCDs don't have the geometric, convergence or focus problems of CRTs, and their clarity makes it easier to view higher resolutions than equivalent CRTs.
For example, even 14.5in LCD panels display 1,024x768 pixels well, while 15in CRT monitors generally aren't usable above 800x600 pixels.
For a reseller, the standard sales proposition is that LCDs save you space and therefore money. The oft-quoted example is the trading room scenario: traders typically use a pair of 21in CRTs. By replacing CRTs with a thinner, lighter product in the same real estate, more traders can be accommodated in the same trading room. And with commercial floorspace in the City of London costing anywhere from £50 per square foot, thinner LCDs can obviously save money.
LCDs also consume less power - typically 8W compared to their 135W CRT counterparts. More significantly, they generate much less heat and so reduce the load on air-conditioning systems in office buildings. Finally, from a health and safety aspect, LCDs have the edge on CRTs. Lacking a refresh rate, LCDs are easier on the eye, plus they don't emit any radiation.
By the same token, LCDs aren't affected by EMF - some electrical environments are hostile to CRTs.
Although LCD displays are relatively expensive, their total cost of ownership remains attractive to managers, as displays typically have a usable life that's perhaps twice that of the PC's system unit. LCD displays are very reliable, offer low support costs and enjoy an element of future-proofing.
Finally, LCDs can be flexible in use. For example, the Apple Studio Display features S-Video and Composite Video inputs, so can be used for TV screen presentations. Flat panels are also small enough to be portable and are rugged enough to withstand the rigours of travel.
But there are downsides to LCD. Conventional CRT units continue to offer the best value for money, at a quarter or third the price of comparable LCD displays. A 15in LCD, for example, sells for about £725, while a 17in CRT sells for about £175. The introduction of flatter tubes and short neck tubes means there's still plenty of life in CRT, and price erosion continues apace - something that's ground to a halt with LCDs.
There's also some question over the service life of the cold cathode tubes used to backlight LCD displays - no one really knows their maximum life span. At the moment, their life is measured by the time taken for their brightness to dim to 50 per cent of maximum.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of LCD displays is that they have a single optimum resolution, while CRTs are happy displaying at any resolution in their bandwidth. If a user wants to use a lower resolution, then either only part of the LCD panel is used or the pixels have to be scaled up to fill the screen, resulting in a blockier look. LCDs aren't as fast as CRTs either, so fast motion video (FMV) reproduction isn't quite as good.
Lastly, some early LCDs were limited to 262,144 colours rather than the full 16.7 million colours. Colour calibration is another area of weakness - graphics professionals who demand the ultimate in colour fidelity are able to precisely control factors such as colour temperature on a CRT, something that is much more difficult with an LCD.
On the technology front, TFT technology continues to evolve and manufacturers continue to develop displays that have higher resolutions and deliver brighter, more contrasting images with wider viewing angles. Manufacturers are also looking to further shrink the casing size with thinner bezels, while at the same time increasing LCD panel sizes. Samsung, for example, is planning to introduce 21.3in and 30in LCD this quarter, although it's hard to see desktop use for displays larger than this.
LCD panels will also increasingly use digital interfaces. According to DisplaySearch, only five per cent of the desktop LCDs sold in 1998 had digital interfaces; this number is expected to grow to 17 per cent this year.
Because CRTs are based on analog outputs and LCDs on digital signals, a war of interface standards is heating up. Most flat-panel displays convert the analog signal into a digital format that drives the LCD. This conversion can result in problems such as mis-shapen text.
Non-converting digital flat panels are increasingly available, but may require proprietary interface cards and certainly need a compatible graphics card with a digital port. For this reason, manufacturers such as SGI and ViewSonic sell digital flat-panels and graphics cards as a package.
To end the confusion over which card to run with which monitor, and to eliminate the necessity of digital-to-analog conversion, a digital flat-panel interface standard is in the making. Unfortunately, two different standards - DFP and OpenLDI - each created and backed by different industry consortiums, are vying for the hon-our. Recently, the Digital Display Working Group convened to attempt to converge all interests into a common standard.
In the meantime, flat panel dealers should be aware what monitors require a graphics card, and if so, which is the compatible standard for which monitor.
A number of organisations are creating competing digital-interface standards for LCD monitors on the desktop. The most popular is PanelLink, which is backed by the Digital Flat Panel Working Group, an organisation that includes powerhouses such as Compaq and ATI. But VESA, the standards body for the monitor industry, has yet to weigh in with a standard, and competing packages from Sun Microsystems and others await evaluation.
Whichever digital standard or standards wins out on the desktop, the effect will be the same: the analog-digital converter (ADC) in an LCD monitor will become unnecessary, and monitor electronics will be greatly simplified. This will result in a price drop to perhaps £500 for a 15in LCD monitor by 2000.
Digital connections for LCD panels are nothing new - notebook computers have used these connections for years, because they simplify the graphics and display circuitry required for the system and create a better-quality image. The first LCD displays could only be used with special graphics adapters but most models can be hooked up to a standard analog port on a VGA card.
Going digital gives the advantages of flawless reproduction: after all, the image starts life in digital format in display memory and the LCD display is a digital device - converting to and from analog is an unnecessary complication. Going digital also requires less hardware, such as ADCs, in the LCD display, which will result in production cost savings of as much as £100.
From the glut situation that existed in mid-1998, LCD display supply is now failing to match demand. Panel production is still problematic and the production process is in the process of being refined to maximise yield rates. It's now got to the point where few, if any, manufacturers can rapidly fulfil large contracts. As a result, desktop LCD display makers are looking to increase prices by about 10 per cent.
Last year's glut had seen prices dramatically cut by as much as 50 per cent, but this naturally stimulated demand for these desirable products.
However, a lack of investment in production capacity in Japan and Korea, coupled with increasing demand for notebooks, has meant that supplies of LCD panels for the desktop market have become irregular. This is particularly true of the 12in and 13in display markets; the 14in and 15in markets seem to be less affected.
As a result, manufacturers have been looking upmarket, concentrating their efforts on the incoming 18in displays. Samsung, for example, is looking at 17in displays for the simple reason that four 17in panels can be cut from standard glass, which will only yield two 18in panels.
CASE STUDY: SCOTTISHTELECOM
ScottishTelecom, a subsidiary of Scottish-Power, has more than 1,500 PC users who spend up to eight hours a day in front of a monitor. ScottishTelecom wanted to work with a supplier that could ensure the quality and durability of displays was consistent. The choice it made was Eizo, a specialist monitor manufacturer, distributed in the UK by Professional Display Systems (PDS).
'Our decision to decouple our monitor and PC purchasing was based on the belief that specialist third-party manufacturers, rather than PC suppliers, produce the best monitors,' says Javed Yaqub, desktop services co-ordinator at ScottishTelecom.
'Using a PC supplier to provide you with a full hardware bundle may seem like the most convenient and least expensive option, but our experience has disproved this theory.'
The company opted for a mix of screen sizes, the most common being 17in, which is an ideal size for most users. A minority of users, who are involved with more specialist applications such as AutoCAD, use 19in monitors.
One of ScottishTelecom's requirements was that the monitors should be robust, as they have to stand up to constant usage and are frequently left on for extended periods of time. Eizo's power down function, which reduces power consumption to 5W when the monitor is inactive, is particularly useful under these circumstances.
Reliability was a significant issue for the company, as the cost in downtime and the inconvenience of monitors breaking down was something it wanted to avoid.
The majority of flat-panel monitors offer very good image quality, which means that employees suffer less from eye strain and work in greater comfort, while the company in turn benefits from increased productivity. These findings are supported by recent research carried out by the City University on behalf of the Computer Suppliers Federation. This found that individuals performed tasks up to 50 per cent quicker on a superior monitor. Users were also 10 per cent more accurate when using larger screens.
'As a responsible employer, we see it as our duty to supply our workers with the best quality display equipment,' says Yaqub. 'Our decision to go for flat-panel units has also justified itself on a cost basis, because the cost of ownership is low due to the monitors' reliability and long life cycle.'
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