Apple's Future Looks Flat, and That's OK

It's time to say goodbye to picture tubes. The bulky beasts have served us well for more than 50 years, but in the personal computer world at least--and in the Mac world in particular--they're rapidly being replaced by flat-panel displays.

And I shall dance on their graves. I've switched to flat-panel displays on all of my computers, and I can't imagine going back.

I've reclaimed space on my desk: My 15-inch Apple Studio Display is about 2 inches deep; the monitor it replaced was 17 inches deep. I'm saving electricity: The new display sips about 50 watts, compared with the old monitor's 150. And the flat panel is brighter, sharper and free of flicker.

Apple no longer sells conventional monitors, except for the iMac, which has a picture tube. And rumor has it that the current iMac may be replaced by a new, flat-panel version at the Macworld Expo in New York next week.

Apple sells three flat-panel displays. The 15-inch Apple Studio Display costs $599, a 17-inch version costs $999, and the spectacular 22-inch Cinema Display goes for $2,499. Yes, flat panels cost more than monitors--you can buy a 17-inch monitor for less than $300. But flat-panel prices have plummeted in the last year and will continue to fall. And when comparing prices, note that a 15-inch flat panel will display the same number of pixels as a 17-inch monitor, and 17-inch flat panels are equivalent to 19- and 21-inch monitors.

Apple's three displays share the same stylish design. Two clear acrylic legs support the silvery frame that holds the screen. Around back, a third leg connects to a clever, spring-loaded hinge that lets you adjust the screen's angle by simply pushing or pulling the top of the display.

Also on the back panel are two Universal Serial Bus ports. Connect your keyboard and mouse to them, and then connect the display to the Mac using a single cable that carries power and the video and USB signals--no cable spaghetti behind your desk.

Flat-panel displays have some drawbacks. The biggest deals with resolution: the number of pixels on the screen. A flat-panel display is a grid comprising thousands of tiny, light-emitting transistors. Imagine miniaturizing the light bulbs on a scoreboard to microscopic proportions.

On Apple's 15-inch display, there are 768 vertical rows of these little lights, with 1024 transistors in each row. In geek speak, the display has a native resolution of 1024 by 768. (If you're keeping score, the resolution of Apple's 17-inch screen is 1280 by 1024, and the Cinema Display tops them all at 1600 by 1024.)

The drawback surfaces if you use the Mac's control panels to choose a lower display resolution. Perhaps you'd occasionally prefer to use 800 by 600 to have larger text and icons. To create resolutions other than its native resolution, a flat-panel display must combine its little bulbs in patterns that make text look fuzzy.

Test drive a flat-panel display before buying. Verify that text isn't too small in the screen's native resolution. Examine the display's nonnative resolutions to see if you can live with their fuzzy look.

Another flat-panel drawback deals with color accuracy: Colors can change as your viewing angle shifts. For this reason and others, conventional monitors still have a place in high-end publishing and graphics settings.

Apple's flat-panel family has another downside. To get a single cable to carry power as well as USB and video signals, Apple developed a propriety connector that is supported by only Power Mac G4 systems and the recently discontinued Power Mac G4 Cube. This connector prevents you from using Apple's displays with Windows computers or even with Apple's PowerBook and iBook laptops. It also makes it hard to connect an Apple display to an older Mac or to connect two displays to a single Mac.

Next week, I'll describe adapters that can work around some of these connection conundrums, and I'll discuss another option: buying a non-Apple flat-panel display.


Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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