Monitors are like other computer equipment: Every year it seems you can buy a little more for a little less.

That has meant that you saved a few dollars on the same old monitors with cathode-ray tubes. This year, it's allowed many people to upgrade to flat-panel, liquid-crystal displays.

The prices of desktop LCD monitors have fallen so much that they hit the mainstream this year. Some of the cheapest models are down to $300 after a rebate.

Research firm IDC reports that worldwide LCD sales increased 143 percent last year as CRT sales dropped 17.5 percent, and the firm predicts that next year may see LCDs lead for the first time. Monitor builder NEC-Mitsubishi reports that among its products, flat panels already outsell their bulkier counterparts.

Aside from occupying less desk space and generally looking cool, flat-panel displays have other advantages. LCDs use about a third the power that CRTs do and exhibit none of their flickering, which users say reduces eyestrain.

Although the price of an LCD monitor still tops that of a CRT with the same viewable area, some argue that when you factor everything in -- from shipping costs to power bills -- flat panels come out ahead.

"Ultimately the flat-panel display is less expensive than the CRT," said Scott Hardy, manager of desktop-peripherals marketing at Dell.

But all LCD monitors are not built the same.

Screens vary in their viewing angles. Early models required that you be more or less directly in front, while newer models remain viewable from more angles. A perfect score would be 180 degrees; the current generation of LCDs range from 140 to 160 degrees.

If you're a gamer or like to watch DVDs on your computer, consider an LCD's refresh rate, which indicates how quickly its transistors can receive and transmit information. Many panels are down to a 25-millisecond refresh rate, which some think is fast enough. Others think the magic number will be 16 milliseconds.

"Lower is better," Bob O'Donnell, director of personal technology at research firm IDC. "When it gets higher you get a smearing effect."

Then comes an LCD's connection options. Beyond the standard, analog VGA plug, some LCDs include digital connectors that send video directly from computer to screen without digital-to-analog conversions -- which LCD experts say delivers a cleaner picture. The catch: Many computers, especially older ones, lack digital outputs.

Size is another thing to consider. Most consumers buy 15-inch LCD screens, which approach the viewable area of a 17-inch CRT, but prices for 17-inch flat panels are dropping fast.

"If you look at the American consumer, they really prefer a large screen. Seventeen-inch screens really start to get their attention," said Rhoda Alexander, director of monitor research at iSuppli/Stanford Resources.

In 2002, 22.9 million 15-inch LCD monitors and 7.3 million 17-inch displays were sold, according to research firm DisplaySearch. The company predicts that lower prices for 17-inchers will cause sales of the larger screens to surpass those of 15-inch displays in 2004.

LCD monitors might not be for everybody, though. Despite their advantages, they are a little more fragile than CRT screens.

"Some kids get in the habit of tapping their CRT screens with their pencils," Alexander said. "You don't want to do that with an LCD, so this might not be the ideal product to put in front of your 2-year-old."