The world is flat, after all

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The Independent Online

If you've bought a new computer in the past two years or so, you've probably been offered the chance to get a flat-screen monitor. For a couple of hundred pounds extra, you'll reclaim huge areas of desk space previously swallowed by the whale-like body of your previous CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor. What's more, the picture quality should be better, there's no risk of the pixels getting "burnt in" (as happens with CRTs – which is why screensavers were invented), they weigh far less (because they don't have the heavy electromagnets required for aiming the electron beam of a CRT) and you don't get any distortion of the picture at the edge of the screen (which is another consequence of the way that a CRT's electron beam has to scan from a fixed point across an angle). What's more, for the same screen "size" measured along the screen diagonal, you get a larger effective viewing area than with a CRT.

If you've bought a new computer in the past two years or so, you've probably been offered the chance to get a flat-screen monitor. For a couple of hundred pounds extra, you'll reclaim huge areas of desk space previously swallowed by the whale-like body of your previous CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor. What's more, the picture quality should be better, there's no risk of the pixels getting "burnt in" (as happens with CRTs – which is why screensavers were invented), they weigh far less (because they don't have the heavy electromagnets required for aiming the electron beam of a CRT) and you don't get any distortion of the picture at the edge of the screen (which is another consequence of the way that a CRT's electron beam has to scan from a fixed point across an angle). What's more, for the same screen "size" measured along the screen diagonal, you get a larger effective viewing area than with a CRT.

What's not to like? Only the price, which can be a couple of hundred pounds more for an LCD monitor than a CRT one; and perhaps the luminance, since LCD screens don't glow with the same active brightness as CRT ones.

If you've experienced the pleasure of using an LCD screen with your PC, you may have wondered why they aren't being pushed with equal enthusiasm by TV manufacturers.Well, the TV manufacturers have been doing more than casting longing glances at LCD screens. They have indeed begun making them, and so I jumped at the chance to try out Panasonic's TX-15LV1, which besides having a 15.2in widescreen (in 16:9 proportion) also has a built-in DVD player. While 15.2in might not sound much, it's actually the same as the TV in my home, which makes me perhaps atypical in these days of 40in widescreens that occupy more room than the furniture.

A salesman in Tottenham Court Road, London's mecca for electronics of all sorts, was telling me recently that when customers come in and slap down their money in their eagerness to buy a widescreen plasma TV (£3,000 upwards), the staff often have to ask gently how big the room is where the TV is destined for, because they've had too many experiences where the buyer doesn't have the faintest chance of actually installing the thing in their tiny living room. But he has paid for it, and he gets it.

No such trouble for us. The TX-15LV1 is svelte and silver, with a rather neat swivel base that lets you tilt it up and down. Alternatively, you can wall-mount it. The DVDs don't need a tray; like the nicest DVD drives in computers these days, this has a slot-loading system, so you just feed them in around the side.

Yes, yes, but what about the picture? A side-by-side comparison showed (to me at least) that the Panasonic gave a sharper, clearer, undistorted image, where the colours and contrast could be controlled more precisely than with the £99 15in non-widescreen standard CRT TV that I bought a year or so ago. "The picture's too harsh," suggested my spouse. I disagreed; I thought it was precise. For example, reading subtitles from across the room can be frustrating on the CRT model. With the Panasonic, it was effortless, and suggests I can put off finally succumbing to wearing glasses for, oh, another month or two.

Great! We approve of LCDs! So, what's the price? A quick browse of a few internet shops showed... £1,200.

Twelve hundred pounds! How can that be, when a DVD player on its own will cost you £200 or so from a shop, and a 15in flat-panel will cost about £450 retail? Add in the cost of the TV tuner and you're maybe talking about another £30. But that's still a long way short of £1,200, even with a decent profit margin for everyone involved. Apple Computer, for example, announced last week that it's now selling 20in LCD monitors for £1,100 (inc VAT). Stick a TV tuner into your PC, hook it up to the screen, and bingo – a really big LCD TV (about 66 per cent more viewing area) for the same sort of price as the 15in one. And your computer will probably have a DVD player in it, so you get the DVD player functionality. Seems straightforward enough.

So, are flat-panel TVs an innovation to soak the technologically eager?

"They're selling like hot cakes – we can't keep them on the shelves," responded a Panasonic spokeswoman in a slightly wounded tone when I phoned to ask. Not really an answer to the question, of course, though it's worth mentioning that Panasonic doesn't stand out for having high prices; all the LCD TVs you'll see in stores start at around the £1,000 mark.

Panasonic's product manager Andrew Denham explained that there are a couple of reasons why you can buy a computer LCD monitor for a few hundred pounds, but are going to drop a grand for a TV. "First, the DVD adds a couple of hundred pounds," he allowed. "But there are a lot of differences. The display matrix for the TV is optimised for moving images; computers usually only show static images." But computers can play DVDs. "Yes, but then you have to hook up your computer to it, which means you either sacrifice where your computer lives, or where your TV lives." Also, because the TVs are widescreen, they can't get the volume discounts that computer companies do for laptop and separate flat-screen displays.

Clearly, the TV makers have a case; otherwise someone would break ranks and start selling for less. The good news, if you feel you can wait for the screens to get bigger, is that prices are falling as LCD manufacturing processes improve. That could see them fall by a few hundred pounds by Christmas – though a slow economy could equally hold back that fall. The world isn't quite flat yet – but it's getting that way.

Panasonic: www.panasonic.co.uk.

Apple: www.apple.com/uk/displays/

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