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Monitoring a Winner

It's now possible to get upscale flat-panel computer monitors for downscale money.

Like an excellent $9 Syrah, affordable flat-panel monitors are showing fine form for less-than-fine prices.

I have been testing one such affordable unit for the past month or so: a 22-inch liquid-crystal display from ViewSonic -- the VG2230wm ($389).

My verdict?

Don't let the low price fool you: ViewSonic is making an excellent monitor.

Yes, the picture is not on par with the best screens, but at way less than $500, the overall value is solid.

So solid, in fact, that if you're reading this story on a dirty old traditional cathode ray screen, it's time to make the trip to the Goodwill shop with the thing.

It's time for a monitor upgrade.

The World of Flat

Flat-panel displays have long been the gold standard for personal computing.

They took up less desk space, required less energy, and did not point a streaming beam of electrons at your brain as traditional cathode-ray monitors -- with their vacuum tubes and large magnets -- did.

But the original flat panels had drawbacks. Performance tended to be feeble. Panels were blurry, dim and had lower contrast. And they cost a bundle: $750 was a minimum.

Now all that is changing.

Today, decent liquid-crystal flat panels have excellent technical specs: Contrast ratios are on par with better TVs. Image blurriness has been cleaned up, as the time it takes for the screen to refresh itself has been reduced.

And panels now last -- lives for these sets run in the tens of thousands of hours.

Not only are flat panels good-looking and good to look at, they're downright cheap.

Decent 19-inch liquid-crystal displays from companies such as

Dell

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,

Hewlett-Packard

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,

Gateway

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(GTW)

and others can run less than $300. Some very good monitors, such as the 17-inch Dell UltraSharp 1707FP, are down near $200.

Take the ViewSonic I tested: The unit comes in a well designed, very well proportioned aspect ratio of 16 horizontal units by 9 vertical units, just like the screen you see at the movies.

The display is done in an average black-plastic case, but with a very nice silver border that runs around most of the set.

Better yet, the screen has a high-quality, low-reflectivity glass. I saw no harsh light flares on the screen from my less-than-perfectly lit office. There are very nice height controls and a sensible, if a bit clunky, base.

And the 2230 is flat. Blissfully flat.

My test unit opened up about two feet of desk space over the existing cathode ray set.

Setup was also easy. ViewSonic has done a smart job of integrating the power cords and control cables into the back of the unit.

There is even an analog video input, a nice touch for today's more complicated, entertainment-oriented computer systems.

Picture quality was impressive, but be warned: These discount monitors are not world-class instruments. They will seem garish and overly bright against even an average better panel, such as a Pioneer Elite.

I popped in the latest episode of "24" and Jack Bauer was a blown-out mess.

But for office duty, the ViewSonic was solid. With a little fiddling, I backed off the brightness level by about half, and the ViewSonic rendered crisp images.

And there is no denying the 1,680 lines of horizontal and 1,080 lines of vertical resolution. These monitors do the job.

There are downsides, though.

You will be disappointed if you are looking for better materials. The unit is almost entirely plastic.

And the interface and software controls are the usual monitor Morse code: Decreasing the brightness took three clicks on one button on the side -- you have to guess which of five.

Then you have to pause at the right menu. Don't miss it, because if you do, it's five more clicks to get back to the same command.

Then two more clicks to get to the brightness controls, another tricky button change. Another click. Another pause. And then you are clicking away, backing down the contrast.

Honestly, don't we all have better things to do with our time?

But overall, the ViewSonic 2230 is a fine monitor. If you're using an older screen, I would seriously recommend an upgrade. And if the price just isn't enough for you, buy 10.

For $3,890, you could have one heck of a video wall.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.