Crystal clear – evaluations of six 17-inch Plug-n-Play monitors – includes product directory and related articles on multimedia monitors and the Plug-n-Play standard – Hardware Review – Evaluation
17-Inch Plug ‘n Play Monitors Set Themselves Up to Help You Handle More Applications
MOST PEOPLE BUY MONITORS WHEN THEY BUY THEIR computers and think no more about it. They may squint, ache, and get blurry vision without realizing the culprit is sitting right in front of their eyes. If your computer is a constant companion in your office and you haven’t upgraded your monitor yet, you’ll do your eyes, your back, and your work habits a favor by looking into the latest general-use 17-inch monitors.
The advent of Windows 95 has made screen space a more precious commodity than ever. From word processors to Web browsers, new applications use more graphical elements than ever before. And as computers have become better at switching among various tasks and programs, window after window opens onscreen. Pretty soon your virtual desktop looks as cluttered as the wood-and-plastic version it sits on. A 17-inch monitor offers between 15 and 16 inches of actual screen to let you keep everything looking sharp.
Most of the 17-inch monitors we tested have more sophisticated controls than the one you’re likely to buy with your computer; many allow you to maintain several sets of specifications (brightness, resolution, and so forth) so you can easily switch back and forth to get the best image, depending on what you’re doing on the computer.
Each monitor we saw uses onscreen controls, a welcome trend. Press a button and you’re greeted by a Window that describes the various settings. Using onscreen calibration gives the user more precise control over setting and, in the monitors we saw, allowed the manufacturer to give more options for adjusting the screen. Since larger monitors show flaws that aren’t apparent on their smaller cousins, this flexibility is extremely desirable. Make sure your next monitor includes onscreen controls.
We examined monitors from Nanao, NEC, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, and ViewSonic. The six units in our review range in price from $649 to $970 (street). The Sony and Nokia units, which both use the Sony Trinitron aperture-grille screen that some feel delivers a sharper image, came in on the high end of the price scale. All the monitors reviewed come with three-year parts-and-labor guarantees and free tech support via toll-free numbers. Note that these monitors are intended for general use. If you are a graphics professional, look for the higher-performance 17-inch models (or, better yet, their 21-inch versions) that these manufacturers supply. Those high-end models have even higher refresh rates and finer control over monitor settings.
Each of the units we reviewed conforms to the Microsoft Plug ‘n Play hardware standard (see the accompanying box, “Plug ‘n Play”), which automatically adjusts your monitor to a manufacturer’s recommended setting. Also, each can work with Macintosh computers. The Nokia even supports Apple’s Autosync capability–roughly equivalent to Plug ‘n Play for monitors.
We only looked at monitors that are available in stores across the country. Though it’s reasonable to purchase a monitor directly from the manufacturer or by mail order, it’s important that you get a look at a unit before you make a purchase. In the end, much about monitors boils down to a matter of taste. With 17-inch monitors more expensive than most printers, scanners, and fax machines, you don’t want to make a pig-in-a-poke decision.
How We Tested We tested the monitors with Sonera Technologies’s DisplayMate for Windows test suite to point up even minute flaws in the monitors: unfocused spots, geometric irregularities, magnetic interference (which you’ll notice as flickering or as waves of dark and light), and moire (which gives the screen the appearance of being viewed through a couple of thicknesses of window screen). All the monitors we saw displayed one or more of these problems to some degree during the Sonera tests. In particular, we noticed slight smudges in the focus of monitors that include an antiglare coating–a trade-off given that technology’s ability to greatly diminish a screen’s eyestraining surface reflections.
Although no monitor is perfect, the inconsistencies we saw in these units were comparatively minor. All six monitors performed well, which means you’ll probably make your decision based on price. Make sure to conduct hands-on tryouts in the stores to determine which looks best to you and then shop around for the best deal, whether in the store or through a catalog.
When you’re in the store, beware of salespersons trying to steer you toward monitors with built-in speakers. These are often marketed as multimedia units (see “Monitors That Sing”). In our testing we preferred the monitors without speakers, since speaker magnets tended to interfere with picture quality (although the ViewSonic unit seemed to avoid these problems fairly well). On the whole monitors with speakers cost roughly $50 more than those without. Nokia’s multimedia 447X AV monitor actually costs slightly less than the nonmultimedia 447X unit we reviewed. ViewSonic only had speaker-laden models that met our other review specifications.
A final note: If you’re in the market for a 17-inch monitor, check your desk. These 50-pound monitors are several inches deeper (front-to-back) than the 14- or 15-inch model you may have now. We had to rearrange our testbed quite a bit to make sure that we could ergonomically balance monitor, keyboard, and mouse placement. It would be a shame to do your eyes a favor only to ruin your typing hands.
Rating: * * *
From the moment we hefted the $970 (street) FlexScan F2-17 out of the box, we knew we were in for a sophisticated monitor experience. The unique flywheel/button/onscreen image controls were a treat to use. They seemed to promise flexibility and high quality, and the monitor lived up to that promise. The monitor’s Plug ‘n Play capabilities worked as advertised. Only a bit of ineradicable moire and a few other onscreen oddities kept us from giving this unit an even stronger recommendation. As is, it’s an excellent choice.
We were momentarily boggled by the assortment of buttons and wheels on the front but soon came to appreciate the unique combination of controls and their unequaled precision. Of course, the Auto button, which automatically adjusted the monitor to reasonably good preset parameters, didn’t hurt either. Just one tiny beef with construction: On our desk, we couldn’t get the monitor to tilt up quite far enough for our comfort.
On the whole, the screen images were very good. However, a bit of moire resisted every effort to eradicate it. We also saw some curious bowing on just one side (the right) of the image. Since no monitor allows adjustments to just one side of an image, we did our best to eliminate it. We also saw slight streaking between colors when we tried a TV test pattern-like image with large color bars. Text was good but not as sharp as that of the two Trinitron monitors (Sony and Nokia).
Overall we liked the Nanao. With monitor preference in large part an individual choice, the flexibility offered by the FlexScan’s unique controls is likely to deliver images tailored to the way you like them.
NEC MultiSync XV17+
Rating: * * * *
The MultiSync xV17+ was a standout monitor in a group of worthy competitors. The multitude of possible image adjustments combined with a $849 street price and a premium brand name more than offset trivial color anomalies and a screen slightly smaller than all others on our testbed except for the Nokia unit.
Plug ‘n Play worked here as it did on the others, so setup worked like a charm. We were pleased with the monitor’s construction and appreciated the consistency of its controls. The onscreen adjustment window, once uncommon but now present in all the units we tested, is full of options for adjusting geometry and colon
A special note about gross color adjustments: The NEC was extremely flexible in color temperature, allowing us to choose among five settings ranging from 3,900K (a distinctly yellowish “dim” screen) to the bright and nearly bluish 9,300K. Only the Nokia offered a similar number of settings, but it didn’t allow anything below 6,000K. Although the NEC’s 15.6-inch diagonal screen size was the second smallest of the six we saw, it differed from the rest by only 1/10 to 3/10 inch. You probably won’t notice the difference.
Our testing found excellent color and clean, sharp lines and curves. The only notable problem was a slight amount of ghosting when large black areas bordered large white areas. We also noticed a bit of moire but were able to correct that with careful adjustments. As with all the other monitors, we also noticed a small amount of electromagnetic interference when large appliances were switched on nearby.
Clean, crisp, and even, the NEC screen combined with the company’s sterling reputation make this a monitor to reckon with–certainly first among equals.
Rating: * * * 1/2
Sharing with Sony the distinction of being one of two Trinitron monitors in our review, the 447X displayed bright, true colors and good picture quality. Listing at $1,099 and selling for about $949 on the street, this monitor had good color and the kind of sharp, clear lines associated with the Trinitron aperture grille (which places the colors onscreen as portions of lines rather than as the tiny dots of dot-matrix). And its special FullScreen technology pulled the screen image out to the very corners of the glass, taking advantage of every fraction of an inch of its big, brilliant screen. Even so, it had the smallest viewable screen area.
Plug ‘n Play worked fine on our machine, as did the monitor’s Autosync capability, which cues the monitor to adapt for Macintosh duty. The controls–two buttons and an onscreen menu–took a little practice to use effectively, but we liked their size and Nokia’s reliance on the onscreen menu rather than tiny button labels. Gross adjustments were extremely simple, and those who like their monitors mercury-vapor bright will adore the 10,000K temperature settings, which gave us whites significantly brighter than paper. (There are four lower settings for the rest of you.)
Testing showed good color and focus, though we were annoyed to see slight blooming for white characters on black backgrounds. (Blooming is when white blurs very faintly into a very small area of nearby black; for instance, in the middle of an “o”.) Also, we would have liked to have seen even sharper contrasts, though this was a problem mainly at the highest monitor temperatures. Only one small spot was noticeably out of focus–quite a feat, since the onscreen image extends almost to the very edges of the relatively flat screen.
The 17-inch Nokia is also available with speakers and a microphone, selling as the 447X AV for $925 list and $899 street. Curious that the nonmultimedia unit is more expensive, but no matter: The 447X itself is worth every penny.
Samsung SyncMaster 6Ne
Rating: * * *
A sturdy unit, the SyncMaster 6Ne delivered particularly inky blacks and appealed to us with its smart construction. We could have been happier with the image quality–we saw evidence of ghosting between white and black areas–and we suspected that the antiglare coating caused isolated focus problems. We also would have liked to have seen more robust controls. Still, this $649 (street) monitor is an excellent buy.
As with the other units, Plug ‘n Play made setup unremarkable. The controls were momentarily unnerving–a row of small buttons along the bottom of the screen–but they’re relatively clear and easy to use. We did, however, search in vain for a way to completely fix the moire we saw–we eliminated almost all of it, but traces remained.
Besides the moire and some color banding in gray areas, we liked the screen very much. Its geometry was impressive. We saw no pin-cushioning (squeezing in of the sides) or bowing (puffing out of the sides) along the edges of the image. Color was good. We noted a very slight focus problem in the corners but suspect it can be ascribed to the antiglare coating on the monitor rather than to a technical cause. Jagged edges on curved lines and diagonals were slightly visible but not particularly bad.
These minor image-quality problems kept the SyncMaster a notch behind the Nokia and NEC. If price is a major consideration, though, you can do worse than this solid monitor.
Rating: * * *
One of just two units we saw with the Trinitron aperture grille, the Sony Multiscan 17sf II had attractive, sharp curves and nice image-control flexibility. We were a little annoyed by a bit of screen distortion we couldn’t get rid of, but overall this monitor delivered an attractive picture and good flexibility.
Setup was a breeze. The controls–nine smallish buttons–were easy to use once we’d practiced for a few minutes. We were surprised to note that there is no degauss button. Degaussing is a necessary feature for larger monitors, allowing them to slough off the effects of magnetic fields and the resultant interference. Only the Sony didn’t have a degauss button, though like all newer monitors, it degausses at start-up. Although the company offers this feature on its higher-end monitors, we held the absence of a degauss button against this unit.
The high image quality strongly resembled that of the Nokia. We liked the rich blacks and colors but noticed some ghosting between large areas of black and white. More surprisingly, we saw some jagged curves in text–not a problem normally associated with the Trinitron screens. However, we felt that the utter lack of moire made it a problem that we could live with. A minute amount of asymmetric bowing could not be corrected no matter how much we adjusted the copious controls.
With excellent overall image quality, we would normally recommend this monitor for any small business. However, the Sony rates only three stars. The drawback: Price. Sony only provides list prices, which runs $1,099 for the Multiscan 17sf II. That ties for highest in this review and could mean more money out of your pocket.
Rating: * * *
The only monitor we saw with built-in speakers, 0te ViewSonic 17EA turned in solid performance. We liked the lively screen that had no blurring or distortion. The image quality didn’t measure up to the very high standard set by the NEC in this roundup, but our minor quibbles didn’t detract significantly from a $745 ($695 street price) monitor that offers something extra for the user who wants an all-in-one multimedia solution.
The ViewSonic uses an assortment of buttons combined with the ubiquitous on-screen menu to permit adjustments. It comes with 10 preconfigured settings, and you can create and store 18 more in case you work with particular graphics applications that need special screen settings for optimal performance. The ViewSonic was the only monitor with a door to cover the control buttons, which makes them unobtrusive and accessible. The volume controls for the attached speakers, located in the lower left and right corners of the unit, are also within easy reach on the front panel.
We tested the monitor mainly with the speakers off, to minimize any effect that their magnetic fields might have had on the monitor and to ensure that all the monitors in our tests were given equal footing. That said, we were pleased to note that any interference from the speakers when they were on was relatively minor, certainly no more significant than that from nearby appliances. The color was good but not spectacular, with some color banding visible in gray areas and a touch of jaggedness on some curves. Text focus was excellent and the characters were pleasantly sharp and clear. We did notice a slight overall bluish cast to the screen–ascribe that to the antiglare coating on the glass, which will reduce your eyestrain.
For good or ill, multimedia monitors are gaining in popularity. If that’s what you want, this monitor is a remarkable choice. If you prefer to keep your speakers separate, you don’t have to use the ones that come with this monitor.
[TABULAR DATA OMITTED]
The one-to-four-star ratings are based on performance, features, setup, ease of learning and use, availability, warrant, support, documentation and price.
* * Fair
* * * Good
* * * * Excellent
Plug ‘ n Play makes setting up each of these monitors simple. Our test results also showed each produced roughly equivalent results, hence the uniformly good ratings. The best of the bunch is NEC’s MultiSync XV17+, which offers a striking number of adjustments and a reasonable $849 street price. If price is an issue, check out Samsung’s SyncMaster 6Ne or ViewSonic’s multimedia 17EA model.
Pulg ‘n Play
Microsoft’s Plug ‘n Play standard is one of the most-touted features of Windows 795. When it works, as it did for each of the monitors we tested, it makes melding your monitor and machine as easy as attaching the cables. Macintosh folk have enjoyed this ease of use for years, but at last it’s available to the rest of us–computing as we all hoped it would be.
Essentially, Plug ‘n Play puts the burden of setting up the monitor on Windows 95. The operating system detects the presence of equipment new to the machine and asks it for the proper settings. Microsoft has certified all sorts of Plug ‘n Play-compliant peripherals, including monitors, modems, hard drives, and CD-ROM units.
Before the magic of Plug ‘n Play can work for you, you’ll need all the components that make it work. In this case, not only did we need to run Windows 95 on our PC and have a Plug ‘n Play monitor, but our BIOS and video card had to be Plug ‘n Play-compliant as Well. Had our card not been in compliance, we would have found ourselves configuring the monitor in Win 95’s Control Panel–not a particularly onerous task, but a bit annoying nonetheless. Overall, when all the pieces are in place, Plug ‘n Play makes lifting the monitor out of the box the hardest part of installation.
Monitors That Sing
It had to happen: Now you can buy a multimedia monitor to go with your multimedia computer. In the case of computers, multimedia generally means that the machine includes a CD-ROM drive and sound card; in the case of monitors, it means built-in speakers and sometimes a microphone. Is it the best deal for your office? Although we were initially enthusiastic about multimedia monitors, we aren’t so sure now.
The trend toward multimedia monitors has been driven in part by the continuing popularity of CD-ROMs and other audio-video entities. In the office, computer telephony-using the computer as a combination phone/answering center/fax–has also driven the demand for integration. If you have to put that many pieces of equipment on your desk, why not combine them in one place and eliminate desktop clutter?
For one thing, speakers and monitors don’t necessarily mix from a technical point of view. Speakers require magnets, which can cause monitors to flicker. The problem may not be visible to the eye when you see a monitor in the store, but the headaches you start getting after a while will let you know it does flicker.
Second, placement is all. If you’re looking for that wall-of-sound effect, the speakers may be too high or too low for you. More important for business use, a multimedia monitor’s microphone often sits somewhere around your collarbone and is likely to pick up typing noise along with your voice.
Finally, the sound quality simply isn’t there yet. Even a relatively inexpensive set of nonmonitor speakers these days delivers good sound. Many have controls to adjust the treble and bass, just as one would on the stereo across the room. The speakers attached to monitors haven’t anything like the range of Sound these separate units offer. They may provide convenience for the Cramped desktop, but the multimedia monitors we saw tended to detract from, rather than add to, a full multimedia experience.
ANGELA GUNN is a New York-based writer specializing in Internet coverage. She’s sworn off her 14-inch monitor for good after this review.
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