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Tech 101 | Mac Focus

The Skinny on Finding Right Flat Display

July 19, 2001|JIM HEID | jim@jimheid.com

Apple's family of flat-panel displays couldn't be easier to use: Each display has a single cable whose multi-pin connector carries power, video and even USB signals. Plug that single cable into a Power Mac G4, and you're enjoying razor-sharp, flicker-free video that conventional monitors can't match.

But what if you want to use an Apple flat-panel display with a PowerBook, iBook or older Mac? What if you'd like to justify its premium price by also connecting it to a Windows PC? Or what if you want to connect two Apple flat panels to a single Mac?

All three questions have the same answer: You can't, at least not without some hassle. Apple's proprietary Apple Display Connector, or ADC, isn't supported by Apple's laptops or older Macs, and it certainly isn't supported by any Windows computers.

There are ways to work around some of these limitations. The most drastic is to buy a flat-panel display from a company other than Apple. All monitor manufacturers sell flat panels, and at prices that are generally competitive with Apple's.

You can connect a third-party display to a Power Mac G4 because the G4's video card provides two connectors. Alongside the proprietary ADC jack is a standard, 15-pin Video Graphics Array connector that accommodates a Windows-compatible monitor. And because Apple's laptops and older Power Macs are also VGA compatible, you can use a third-party display with them too.

My search for the ideal cross-platform display led me to ViewSonic's VG175, a 17-inch flat panel that sells for about $1,000. The VG175's native resolution is 1280 by 1024 pixels, the same as Apple's 17-inch flat panel. Its image quality and brightness are exceptional.

You can connect two computers to the VG175 and toggle between them using a front-panel switch. And the VG175 can perform a slick trick: Grasp the frame and push down, and the display pivots 90 degrees. This so-called portrait orientation is ideal for word processing and Web browsing--these tasks benefit from a display that's taller than it is wide.

Downsides? First, the VG175 is an analog display, while Apple's are digital. Apple says its displays' all-digital design delivers superior image quality and potentially faster performance, since display data need not be converted between the digital and analog domains. That makes sense, though in my informal tests, I wasn't able to notice a significant difference.

Second, the VG175's bundled pivoting software doesn't work with Mac OS X. In its normal orientation, however, the display works fine with OS X.

Finally, the VG175's basic beige design doesn't exactly complement the graphite-colored G4 and its futuristic mouse and keyboard. Think Payless shoes with an Armani suit.

And what of those other connection woes? To connect an Apple flat-panel display to an older Power Mac, such as a G3, you need a video card with a DVI connector and an adapter that converts DVI to ADC. (Short for Digital Visual Interface, DVI is an industry standard for digital displays.) ATI Technologies' $230 Radeon Mac Edition is one popular video card that supports DVI.

To connect the card to the display, you need the DVIator, a $149 adapter from Dr. Bott (http://www.drbott.com). The DVIator includes a power supply that provides juice for the display, and a set of cables that convert between DVI and ADC and also enable you to use the Apple display's USB ports.

With the DVIator, you also can connect two Apple flat panels to a single Power Mac G4, thereby doubling the size of your digital desktop. Connect one display to the G4's video card, and then use the DVIator to connect the second display to a card that provides a DVI connector.

In the end, if you're buying a G4 system and don't care about connecting a flat panel to an Apple laptop or Windows computer, buy an Apple display. Besides the obvious desktop fashion advantages, you'll get the benefits of the single-cable ADC connection scheme and the all-digital signal path. But if broad hardware compatibility is important, look to a third-party display. Beige isn't that hideous, after all.

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Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.

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Connect: Check out past columns at www.latimes.com/macfocus

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