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Flat-panel displays require much less desktop space than traditional displays, and their sharp, flicker-free images reduce eyestrain. But despite the advantages flat-panel displays provide, high prices limit most flat-panel displays to environments in which conserving space is an absolute priority. Prices have gone down over the past 2 years, but flat-panel displays still cost at least three times as much as traditional displays.

If the advantages of flat-panel displays outweigh the cost in your situation, you need to consider some factors before making a purchase. First, newer models that have digital interfaces generally provide clearer, more stable images than displays with VGA analog interfaces. Several digital interface standards compete in the market: Plug and Display (P&D) from the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), Digital Flat Panel (DFP) from the Digital Flat Panel Working Group, and Digital Video Interface (DVI) from the Digital Display Working Group (DDWG).

The P&D interface, introduced in 1997, shares some technology with the DFP and DVI standards. Few digital flat panels use the P&D interface today. But if you choose one that does and it doesn't come with a graphics card, you need to check with the vendor to see whether you can use one of the more common DVI-compliant graphics cards and, if you can, which adapter cable you need.

The DFP standard, introduced in 1998, gained support from numerous system, monitor, and graphics-card vendors. If you don't have a graphics card with a DFP port, then you might want to look for a DFP-compliant display that comes with a VGA analog interface. The DFP standard shares technology with DVI, so if your graphics-card vendor doesn't support DFP, you might be able to use a DVI-compliant graphics subsystem. Check with the display vendor to ensure compatibility and obtain the appropriate adapter cable.

The DVI standard, introduced in 1999, has a broad vendor support-base that includes many supporters of the DFP standard. The DVI standard supports high resolutions and the VGA analog interface, so you can use the display with your existing graphics card and upgrade to a DVI-compliant graphics card later. Including a VGA port is the flat-panel display vendor's perogative, so check with the vendor before you purchase. Because of DVI's ability to support the VGA interface and vendors' quick adoption of this standard, DVI seems likely to become the dominant standard.

Screen size is another decision you'll need to make. The most popular screen sizes are 15" and 17", but some vendors offer 18" models. The native resolution for 15" displays is usually 1024 * 768 pixels; 17" and 18" models typically provide native support for 1280 * 1024 pixel resolution.

Unlike CRT-based displays, flat-panel diagonal screen dimensions accurately represent the true viewable image size. A 15" flat panel's viewable area is between that of most 15" and 17" CRTs but might be more readable than a traditional 17" tube-based monitor because flat-panel displays don't experience focus and registration problems. Likewise, a 17" flat-panel display provides a larger viewable image and better readability than a CRT-based display with the same screen dimensions. Some flat-panel displays let you pivot the screen from the traditional landscape orientation to a portrait mode, which can be helpful for desktop publishing or spreadsheet work.

If you plan to use the screen for presentations, videoconferencing, or applications in which color accuracy is important, pay close attention to the vendor's horizontal and vertical viewing angle specifications. Unlike CRT-based monitors, a flat-panel display's brightness, contrast, and color accuracy can degrade as the viewing angle increases. Some vendors have found ways to minimize this problem and claim horizontal and vertical viewing angles as high as 160 degrees.

If you're short of desk space, you might prefer a model that provides a built-in microphone and speakers. Some models also provide a wall mount or an optional flexible arm, leaving your desk free for other things.

After you've narrowed your choices to a few models, check out the vendors' warranties. Some vendors provide 3-year warranties; others cover their displays for just 1 year. Pay particular attention to the coverage provided for the display's backlight; it's a common (and expensive) failure point in flat-panel displays. Some vendors who provide a long warranty period might not cover the backlight for the full warranty term.