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Tracking LCD Display Trends

Bigger is in, wider is better.

If you haven’t upgraded your workstation or your monitor in a few years, chances are good that you’re at least looking around for a good deal or planning to make a purchase soon. If so, you have plenty of company: The release of the latest versions of Adobe’s software lineup, including the CS3 packages, as well as the recent release of Windows Vista, has prompted many users to upgrade their computer, including their monitors.

Once you begin your shopping process, you’ll probably notice that it’s increasingly difficult to find CRT monitors for graphicarts workstations. Although some monitor manufacturers are still making these, more and more are turning their attention to thinner and wider versions of monitors. They’re betting that the future of their businesses-and their share of your desktop space-is in LCD monitors.

And as more manufacturers enter the market, prices on LCD monitors continue to drop. Economies of scale have pushed down the price for graphic-arts-capable monitors, to the range of several hundred to several thousand dollars. Plus, LCD-technology improvements have allowed manufacturers to create monitors that are widescreen, akin to the screens on LCD televisions and in movie theaters.

Monitor manufacturers also are working hard to make best use of LCD technology for the graphic-arts market. Improvements in the basic technology during the last few years have enabled them to create monitors that can display 95% or better of the Adobe RGB color space. Some monitors can be calibrated and the settings copied and transferred to other monitors of the same make and model. There are wide-screen models on the market today that can display a double-spread at full size with plenty of room for palettes and toolbar, but manufacturers are planning even wider wide-screen monitors for release in the near future.

Adopting LCD

DisplaySearch (www.displaysearch.com), the Austin, TX-based company that does display market research and consulting, says the year-over-year growth of unit sales was up 26% on a unit-volume basis from first quarter of 2006 to first quarter of 2007. Overall, reports DisplaySearch, people most often purchase 17- and 19-in. monitors, but the sales rate of wide-format monitors 19-in. and wider is significantly on the rise. And, as43you might guess, DisplaySearch predicts a steady decline in the sales of CRT monitors of all sizes during the next few years.

Whether it has been a concern about costs or the color-fidelity capabilities of LCD technology, some graphic-arts professionals have elected to keep their CRT monitors. More and more, though, professionals are choosing LCD monitors over CRT. Part of the reason may be that they no longer see a big difference in image quality.

"We’ve seen a lot of progress in the past few years with LCD technology, making the quality comparable to CRT," explains Andrew Weis, Samsung Electronics Americas’ senior product marketing manager, display products. He adds that economies of scale are beginning on the manufacturing level, reducing the cost of LCD displays across the board and making them much more affordable than they were even a few years ago.

Daniel Mayer, color business unit manager at LaCie, acknowledges that quality of LCD panels was an issue for some time, but he says that has improved over the last few years. He also says that quality improvement has opened the way for monitor manufacturers to add larger-format models. "This generation of quality is significant enough to have people reconsidering their tube displays."

LCD monitors, he adds, are more stable than CRTs in that the colors do not shift or drift as much because LCD technology is less susceptible to environmental disturbance.

The big and the wide

Even if you don’t yet have a wide-screen monitor sitting on your desk, you’ve likely seen them in stores. It’s still possible, of course, to buy a graphic-arts-level LCD monitor that is not wide-screen, such as the ViewSonic VP930b 19-in. LCD with a nearly square display area of 14.8-in. horizontal and 11.9-in. vertical. And although most people who have an LCD monitor on their desks spend their days looking at a 15-, 17- or 19-in. monitor that is nearly square, much wider screens are beginning to make their appearance in the workplace.

According to DisplaySearch research, the larger size monitors are attracting all kinds of buyers: "Demand for wide displays still remains hot with both major and minor brands introducing new wide products on a daily basis." Pointing out that six of the top 10 bestselling display sizes are wide-screen, the consultancy also notes that the biggest percentage increase in sales over the two quarters has been in 22-in.-wide monitors. The increase may be due, in part, to buyers doing careful cost comparisons. "Many suppliers are producing 22-in. displays more efficiently than 20-in. wide displays, so 22-in. wide is selling at similar (and sometimes lower) pricing than 20-in. wide."

Weis backs up DisplaySearch’s findings, saying that he anticipates the 22-in. wide-screen LCD monitor becoming even more affordable. He anticipates that it will be the dominant screen size for the next year or two.

Overall, LCD-display manufacturers are betting heavily that the wide-screen trend is one that will appeal to graphic-arts professionals. Mayer says that although LaCie continues to offer the regular format in 19-, 20- and 21-in. sizes, he has seen more professionals looking to go wide with particular interest in monitors that support a 16 x 9 format instead of a 4 x 3 format.

Mayer says the largest wide-format LCD screen he expects to see this year will be 30 in. To go larger than 30 in., or even 26 in., he says will require improvements in the quality of LCD panels-at least for monitors suitable for graphic-arts professionals.

Graphic-arts professionals find the wide-screen format appealing because at larger sizes it allows them to see a double-spread at full size. A letter-size double spread won’t fit at full size on even 17-in. standard format screen but fits comfortably on a 22-in.-wide format, and with room to spare on a 26-in. screen. A wider format screen also allows designers to spread out toolbars and palettes so they don’t block the view of a page. Many of the wide monitors can also pivot from horizontal to vertical, allowing the user to view an entire tabloid page without reduction.

The 16 x 9 format is the international standard of high-definition televisions (HDTV) as used in the United States and is the default aspect ratio for digital video cameras. Hence, digital photographers and videographers feel comfortable with the format and it even feels familiar to still-image graphic artists because it’s the format used in movie theaters and HDTV sets. The 4 x 3 format is still used for standard televisions and digital photography. Even so, the 16 x 9 format can be found in digital cameras for the graphic arts.

People who spend a lot of their work time looking at and editing digital images, says Weis, seem to prefer wide-screens that are 20 in. and larger. "The 24-in. model has been popular," he says, referring to the 245BW model Samsung launched a few months ago. The company is planning to release another 24-in. monitor (the XL24) and an even larger 30-in. unit (the XL30) by the middle of 2008. NEC is also planning to release a 30-in. model in the next few months, and Apple makes a 30-in. Cinema HD display.

Improved color gamut, greater RGB color space

Some monitor companies are, for the first time, using LED backlighting in a few monitors to boost the color gamut and color-display capabilities of an LCD monitor. Although using an LED backlight instead of the customary fluorescent tubes is more expensive, it allows manufacturers to make thinner monitors that consume less power.

Up until now, LED backlighting technology has been limited to use in more expensive laptop LCD displays because of the cost of the LEDs. LED backlit monitors are also mercury-free. Standard LCD displays contain mercury and thus require special disposal handling when the displays are no longer needed.

Using LEDs to backlight an LCD display allows a manufacturer to bump up the color gamut of an LCD monitor. Case in point: the 21-in. NEC MultiSync LCD2180WG LED. Released in March 2007, this NEC monitor with LED backlighting can display more than 100% of the Adobe RGB and NTSC color spaces, according to Stan Swiderski, an NEC product manager. ViewSonic and Samsung also have announced larger size wide-screen LCDs with LED backlighting.

Related to the trend of using LEDs for backlighting is the trend just noted in the NEC model: manufacturers are creating LCD monitors that can display more than 90% of the Adobe RGB color space. These monitors are on the high-end of the professional curve and the high-end of the price curve as well. Still, if mission-critical color is vital to your business success, selecting such a monitor might be worth the investment.

Exactly how much beyond 90% of the color space that you want a monitor to display is probably more a subjective and budget-dependent decision than anything else. A few percentage points is the spread in the specifications from various manufacturers. Other factors, such as cost and how much you want the included accessories may help in making the final decision. For example, the NEC LCD2690WUXi, a 26-in. LCD monitor displays 93.6% of the color space while the Eizo ColorEdge CG 221, a 22-in. monitor boasts 98% coverage of the color space. The 25.5-in. LaCie 526 displays 95% of the Adobe color space and 98.5% of the ISO coated color space.

Critical features

Monitor manufacturers that cater to the graphic-arts market are well aware that graphicarts professionals are not technology geeks and would rather spend their time doing their jobs and not fussing over their monitors. So, they are always working to make it easier to calibrate monitors and make them easier to use overall.

Swiderski notes that more people are interested in accessories that make color calibration easier. "A lot of people are buying hoods, for example," he says. Some monitors designed for the graphics-arts market come with hoods, although these tend to be the more expensive models. Colorimeters and color calibration software are also included inthe purchase price of more expensive monitors. Manufacturers and third-party vendors sell accessories such as hoods and calibration software for use with less-expensive models.

Mayer explains that LaCie’s monitors for the graphic arts are outfitted with special touches the company feels work well for the industry. For example, the hood is a single piece with hinged flaps and the inside is lined with a dark velvet material to cut down on light reflection as much as possible. There is a slot in the hood so the colorimeter can be used without removing the hood.On some monitors, such as LaCie and some Samsung models, you can also create a profile on one monitor and move it to another without recalibrating. If you use more than one monitor for the same project, this feature would be useful. It can also be useful for remote or soft proofing.

Swiderski says that one of the biggest features that graphicarts professionals look for beyond color-management tools is the ability to set and lock a monitor’s controls. Some locking systems, though, are little more than a lock/unlock toggle in the software. If locking the adjustment controls on a monitor-either through buttons on the monitor or software-is important to you, this is a feature that you will have to ask about and make sure the locks work the way you want them to work.

Time to buy or go wide?

If you’ve glanced at the new wide-screen monitors with more than a bit of interest or the new CS3 software is on your upgrade list, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the latest LCD monitors, especially as the fall tradeshow season approaches. If you want to wait until 2008 when all the new fall models are available, you mayfind that prices have dropped a few percentage points and your money will buy a few more inches on a display.

Going wide will put you on the leading edge of the way of technology adoption, but not so far out you will find yourself on the bleeding edge. You’ll pay a little more for a wide-screen monitor than you will for a standard-format one, but that money can buy some much appreciated elbow room on screen. You might even find that you can work without squinting or sitting hunched over the monitor.

Molly Joss (molly@mollyjoss.com), Gilbertsville, PA, is an experienced publishing professional with knowledge of printing, graphic arts, and magazine and newspaper publishing. She is the author of seven books related to the media industries and graphic-arts software.

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