This was supposed to be the year that bulky cathode-ray tube monitors for desktop computers disappeared, replaced by the slick, svelte and affordable liquid-crystal displays that have been catching on among PC buyers.
But it turns out that CRTs aren't going away without a fight. This year, according to the research firm IDC, sales of LCD monitors did finally nudge past those of CRT displays, but the result was as close as some election-year polls: LCDs nabbed 50.2 percent of the market.
"The early predictions were that CRTs would get slaughtered this year, but that hasn't happened," said Bob O'Donnell, analyst at the firm.
O'Donnell blames bad pricing moves by the manufacturers of the flat-panel displays, which also go into laptop computers and some television sets. "Basically, the LCD guys got greedy and kicked their price up," he said. "But it turns out people are more price-sensitive than the monitor guys were willing to admit."
This may force budget-minded consumers this fall to settle for a hefty CRT instead of the stylish LCD they had in mind.
Prices were on the way down last year and electronics stores had a hard time keeping the displays in stock, but LCD prices surged north early this year, slowing sales momentum. And although LCD monitors are much cheaper than they were a few years ago, there's still a wide price gap between the two display types. For example, a 19-inch CRT display typically costs $250, while a similarly sized LCD runs about twice that price.
That price gap can shrink if you factor in operating expenses. Many industry analysts estimate that LCDs cost about the same as CRTs over time, thanks to their lower electrical consumption. But for many shoppers, sticker price still comes first.
"In terms of demand, I think everyone would like to own an LCD," said Rick Schwartz, senior product manager at Gateway. "But the trend right now is for really affordable PCs. You're not going to see a $499 PC with an LCD monitor."
And some figure that almost no price difference is too small. Tom Anderson, vice president of worldwide marketing for consumer PCs at Hewlett-Packard, remembers a few years ago when HP sold both 14- and 15-inch CRTs. The price difference between the two shrank and shrank -- but as long as there was a difference, many customers went for the slightly cheaper set with the smaller screen. "People bought that 14-inch for a long, long, long time," he said.
Rival computer giant Dell tells the same story; "There's always going to be a holdout," said Robert Thompson, product manager of displays at Dell, "but 99 percent of our customers want to buy flat panel, it's just that the price isn't there."
The remaining 1 percent of CRT loyalists seems to be mostly hardcore computer gamers. These users typically lead the market in their willingness to ante up for cutting-edge gear, but many of them still feel that CRT monitors remain the display of choice for playing computer games.
Whether that's true is a matter of dispute. While early LCDs did not always refresh picture elements quickly enough to deliver a crisp picture, many think that LCDs are nearly as good as CRT displays these days on this front.
But some don't. Craig Levine, manager of Team3D, a professional computer game-playing team sponsored by Nvidia and HP, figures that today's LCD screens can refresh each picture element about 80 times per second. But cutting-edge new video graphics cards can generate 125 such images per second -- meaning that the computer may be generating images faster than that LCD monitor can actually display them.
Can the human eye actually tell the difference? Maybe, maybe not -- but folks obsessive enough to make a living playing computer games aren't going to take any chances.
"LCDs are nice for my mom or my dad or your typical college kid," Levine said. "But my gaming machine, it's got a CRT and it's going to stay that way."