• The Mac Night Owl Review: A Digital Flat Panel on the Cheap

    November 26th, 2005

    Several weeks after setting up a client with a new (make that refurbished) Mac mini, he phoned and said he needed a monitor. His aging CRT display had begun to show pictures with a green texture. The symptoms would sometimes vanish after a period of time, but that period had grown longer in recent weeks. I’ll avoid the obvious puns here, except to say that this particular client watches dollars very carefully and he didn’t want to spend a bundle.

    But he also had some basic requirements, and one was that it should be a digital flat panel display. He also wanted me to keep the price under $200, but when I said that the cheapest flat panels were usually analog only, and that the picture wasn’t as good, he decided he might be willing to spend a bit more if I could find something suitable.

    The issue of quality never came up beyond that basic requirement. He didn’t care about accurate colors, so long as the picture was bright and sharp. Then I found an product listing at Wal-Mart for something that might meet his needs. I had never before heard of the IC Power brand name, and I assume it’s probably one of those house brands that turn up at the store, such as Durabrand. I fully expected to have to return it for a refund, but the client was tempted by the $277.00 purchase price for a 19-inch display complete with digital input and cable, and he asked me to pick up one for him.

    On the surface, the specs seemed satisfactory for a non-critical home or business user. Unlike Apple’s displays, this one had a standard 4:3 aspect radio; expecting widescreen at that price would be a bit much. It even had a pair of tiny speakers, and that was something else the customer had inquired about. That afternoon, I pulled the display out of its thin box. Although rated at 13 pounds, it seemed light as a feather; a tad flimsy in fact, but I held my tongue as I slipped the base onto the unit. I plugged in the video and audio cables, snaked the power cable under his desk for his power strip and turned everything on.

    I didn’t pay much attention to the standard Mac OS X startup screen, but when the desktop loaded, I looked a little more carefully and critically. Yes, the picture was pretty sharp, although not quite as crisp as a genuine Apple display. Over the next few minutes, I invoked the Color setup screen in the Displays preference panel and made an attempt to calibrate the thing. I had to fiddle with brightness and contrast somewhat to get an acceptable compromise, but when all was said and done, the picture seemed quite good, though the colors seemed a bit too rich for my taste.

    The monitor was rated for an 85 degree viewing angle in each direction. I didn’t take precise measurements, but the picture remained adequately bright at the normal viewing range. The customer was thrilled and he was more than pleased with the sound quality from those little speakers. For my taste, it played loud enough, although bass was lacking. I’d rate it as somewhat below the quality of the stereo speakers on a first generation iMac, and that might not be saying a lot.

    I offered the client an older computer speaker system I had at hand, but he said he had spent enough on equipment for this year, and just wanted to get on with his life.

    Now in all probability, this display will not be available for very long, for people on a budget will deplete the stock rapidly. So if you click that link I provided above, and it’s no longer available, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m also not all that confident about its longevity. Yes, it has a 13-month warranty, and the lamp is rated at 50,000 hours. But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if that client called me a year or two from now, with a loud complaint that his monitor stopped working. Or it may just keep on purring for years; you can never tell with cheap gear of this sort.

    In the end, it’s fascinating how quickly prices of flat panel displays have fallen. Not too many years ago, a 19-inch LCD with digital input would cost upwards of $2,000, and the picture quality may not have been that much better.

    When you compare the $277.00 IC Power 19-inch display with the 20-inch Apple, which sells for $799, the former may indeed suffer in the comparison. But not to the degree you expect, and if you’re on a budget and busy outfitting a new Mac mini, the IC Power offers a lot more quality than you have the right to expect.

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