LCD’s out of its shell

They’re sleek and sexy, and look great on the CEO’s desk, yet they’re becoming affordable enough that lesser mortals can enjoy their benefits. Thanks to these, and other, more mundane factors, flat panel monitors driven by liquid crystal display technology (LCDs) are rapidly charging towards market


In fact, analysts predict LCD monitors for desktop computers will surpass the traditional CRT display in revenue this year, and leap into the lead in units shipped in 2004.

IDC projects worldwide revenues for LCDs of over $US20 billion in 2003, while CRTs will come in at about $US12.3 billion. In 2002, revenues for the technologies were roughly equal, at $US15 billion each. Analysts at Austin, Tex.-based DisplaySearch pegged the CRT shipment decline worldwide at 16 per cent between Q1 2002 and Q1 2003.

In Canada, research from Evans Research Corp. shows LCD shipments are quickly cannibalizing the CRT market; in the first quarter of this year, three quarters of the units shipped were CRTs, and by the fourth quarter, that is expected to shrink to less than 50 per cent.

In the second quarter of this year alone, Evans says LCD shipments hit 174,000 units, an annual increase of 114 per cent. It estimates that this amount will skyrocket to almost 307,000 in the fourth quarter.

LCDs have come a long way from their first incarnations in early laptop computers. From small, expensive displays with poor resolution, limited colours and slow refresh rates that made viewing them painful at times and limited their usefulness in tasks involving image motion, they have grown to almost match their CRT counterparts in functionality.

Monitor vendor TTX has been around since the days of the monochrome CRT and vice-president and general manager of TTX Canada, Gil Broude, has seen a lot of changes, even over his half dozen year tenure.

“”Six years ago, it was a CRT world. The ‘big deal’ changes were when another size came into the (pricing) sweet spot,”” he said. “”In the past few years there’s been dramatic growth of LCDs. Many vendors have had them in their product lines for more than three years, but they were boutique items. Today the shift to LCDs is increasing on a monthly basis. Value is what’s driven it. Factories are able to manufacture economic quantities, which lowers the price, and technological changes have improved yield.””

The shift is so pronounced, in fact, that Sony has decided to stop making its 17 and 19 inch CRTs, following similar moves by Sharp Electronics, Matsushita and Hitachi, who have either cut back their CRT offerings or discontinued them entirely. Sony will only manufacture 21 and 24 inch CRTs, preferring to concentrate on LCDs.

Technically, however, LCDs still lag in many ways. Each size is designed to work best at a specific resolution — for example, a 15 inch LCD is happiest at 1024 x 768 — and, says Broude, if the user is not running it at its optimal resolution, the LCD will look terrible.

DisplayMate Technologies, which specializes in tools for testing and calibrating displays of all sorts, from CRT and LCD monitors to projectors, lists areas in which LCDs still fall short.

Because of the way in which images are generated by altering the molecular structure of a liquid crystal, which in turn affects how the light passes through it, LCD displays don’t respond as quickly to changes in the image. On older LCDs, this made even watching a simple animation close to impossible; today’s displays are significantly better, but still not as good as CRTs.

As well, the technology doesn’t allow for as dense blacks, or as smooth grayscales, and whites tend to saturate. Colour reproduction, without intensive calibration, is not as precise. Contrast ratios tend to be lower (despite what the specs say), and the viewing angle is much narrower than a CRT’s.

And, as with any new (or sexy) technology, LCDs cost more than their CRT counterparts.

On the plus side, LCDs have a smaller footprint than bulky CRTs, and sip less than a third of the power (thus generating a lot less heat). Yet they’re bright, with sharp images at their optimal resolution. And with an LCD, radiation is not the concern like it is with CRTs.

Shawn Aghdassi, operations manager at Toronto-based Intellect Computer Source, notes that because the quality of the image on an LCD is not as good as that of a CRT, many of his business customers are still relying on the older technology for their graphics applications. Despite this, his LCD monitor volume has quadrupled in the past year, from one monitor in 20 to four or five.

But if he were selling to the public, rather than mainly to businesses, Aghdassi believes his LCD ratio would be much higher. “”The public is more into the look of the computer,”” he said. “”LCD displays are selling because they’re smaller. The public doesn’t care that much about picture quality. If it looks nice and occupies less space, they’ll buy it.””

But, argues Broude, LCDs are catching up with CRTs in quality. “”There seems to be migration from CRT to LCD even in the circles of professional users,”” he said. He cites a New York Times article quoting several graphics professionals who have made the transition to LCDs. Based on that, he insists, “”I think the CRT will be dead, even in areas like CAD and graphics, where they’ve resisted up to now.”” He predicts the CRT market will collapse to a 10 per cent share of monitors sold within two years.

Monitor size could also be a factor in LCD growth. IDC says, until 2004, the 15 inch LCD (equivalent in viewing area to many 17 inch CRTs) will lead the market; but in 2005, 17 inches will be the form factor of choice, with 18 inch units hot on their heels.

Larger monitors tend to appeal to users working with graphics.

Evans also predicts robust growth in the 17 inch segment, with triple digit increases in shipments forecast for the rest of the year. Lower prices allow companies such as IBM and Dell to drive awareness of LCDs by bundling 15 inch LCDs with their computer systems, instead of traditional CRTs.

LCD manufacturers are increasing their capital spending to keep up with demand to avoid a supply shortage like the one that plagued the industry in early 2002. DisplaySearch predicts record investments of $US8.3 billion, a 27 per cent increase, in 2004, and says several manufacturers are accelerating the opening of new plants, breaking ground in late 2004 from early 2005.

Broude is excited about the new developments revitalizing his industry.

“”For 15 years, changes (in monitor technology) were incremental,”” he said. “”VGA replaced green screens, and once we were in the VGA world, it was just little things like higher resolution and larger sizes at the same price. After 12 years of changes, people were still buying CRTs. There was nothing dramatic that would compel people to replace a monitor if it was still working. Over the past five years, people have not been replacing a working monitor when they replaced a PC. Today there’s a really compelling reason to do so.””

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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