Commentary: Hail to Apple and flat-panel monitors!

Funny how things change. Conventional wisdom held that desktop computer screens couldn't be flat. At least not flat and affordable.

Funny how things change. For many years, conventional wisdom held the world to be flat--and mere mortals should be careful not to fall off. Then we learned otherwise. More recently, conventional wisdom held that desktop computer screens couldn't be flat. At least not flat and affordable.

But here's Apple Computer--owed a tremendous debt by a universe of smug Windows users for all its years of advancing the state of the market-- again changing things. Soon flat-panel LCD displays will be the Apple standard. And the world will be a better place for it, especially as Windows PC vendors fall into line.

LCD's have much to recommend them:
* Images are bright, crisp, and they don't flicker.

* They don't take up nearly the desktop real estate as a conventional monitor of the same display size.

* They don't pose the radiation hazard that conventional monitors do.

* They use much less energy and are generally more environmentally friendly.

But of course there is also a downside:
* Some LCD panels are resolution-specific, meaning you can't easily change screen resolution they way you do with a conventional monitor. Make sure you like the way the screen looks before buying.

* Precise color management is an issue. Apple will need to solve it for its customers who work with graphics a lot. How well Windows will do remains a question. Precise color matching isn't a big deal for most people, though, so this isn't a generally a deal-breaker.

* Conventional monitors will be less expensive than flat panels for a very long time. And they are more flexible if you like to change screen resolution.

How much should you spend?
* I wouldn't buy a flat panel that I haven't seen in operation or at least read a detailed review of that was prepared by an organization I trust.

* Prices seem to be in the $400 to $900 range, depending on size, image quality, features, and where you buy. A display bundled with a new PC may be less.

* We're early enough into affordable flat panels that I'd want to stick with a name brand, to ensure quality and the availability of the proper drivers.

There is certain inevitability about all this. Someone eventually had to figure out the earth isn't flat, and someday flat screens had to become affordable. Just a month ago, I dropped $449 down at the warehouse store for a 15-inch flat screen for one of my PCs at home. The price was right, the monitor solves a desk space problem, and it works just fine. No Windows Me driver, but that's only a minor problem.

I have been using LCD desktop monitors on and off for several years, generally marveling at the screen image and recoiling at the price. It's the sort of thing you don't want to become accustomed to if you can't really afford one--sort of like a titanium bicycle--or a titanium Macintosh iBook, for that matter.

Still, when you start checking specs for your next desktop, or perhaps have some money to spend on an add-on, flat-panel monitors should be on the list.