Through the Looking Glass -- 8 Widescreen Monitors Reviewed

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Trying to choose an LCD monitor from the ever-growing, ever-affordable selection available can be maddening. Our reviews of eight new panels help make sense of it all

Imagine a Wonderland where the most powerful components in existence are free for the asking. You’d have the speediest CPU on the market; two or three of the newest, most outrageous videocards; the fastest, most capacious drive available; as much top-drawer memory as your operating system of choice could address; and, of course, multiple 30-inch flat-panel displays.

Now, grow up and face life, Alice. The state of the economy is no fantasy, so you’ll probably need to make more realistic component choices. The good news on the display front is that manufacturers haven’t been sitting on their mushrooms smoking hookahs; they’ve been innovating and driving down costs to the point where 23- and 24-inch widescreen LCDs are the new sweet spot.

Before you set out on your next monitor-shopping adventure, however, make sure you have a firm understanding of the most important specifications, features, and quality and performance criteria, lest you fall prey to the industry’s Jabberwocky. Rest assured, we’ll guide you through the thicket. We’ve also dug up a number of specifications that manufacturers have taken to omitting from their published data sheets.

Even the most thorough checklist can’t reveal how a monitor will perform in the real world, so we gathered eight of the top manufacturer’s latest models and put them through a benchmark wringer. Our test bed consisted of an Intel Core 2 Duo E8600 running at 3.33GHz, an Asus P5Q3 Deluxe motherboard, and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 285 videocard. We relied on DisplayMate Multimedia with Test Photos Edition ( www.displaymate.com ) for diagnostic testing and analysis. And since we use our monitors for entertainment as much as anything else, we also used Fallout 3 to test gaming performance and the Blu-ray edition of Watchmen for movie performance.

Let’s head down the rabbit hole.

Spec Speak

It pays to understand the features manufacturers tout as well as the ones most don't disclose in their spec charts

Backlight

All LCD monitors require a source of illumination, with cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL) being the most common (every display in this roundup uses one). White LED backlights are one alternative solution, found most commonly in mobile displays. Some high-end displays use RGB LEDs, which enable them to deliver a wider color gamut. CCFL and both types of LED backlights have drawbacks: CCFL backlights deliver a narrower color gamut, while LEDs can age at different rates, causing color and white-point shifts over time.

Color Depth

Color depth indicates the number of bits the panel uses to represent the color of one pixel. A display that uses eight bits each for the red, green, and blue channels (28) can produce 256 shades of each color for a total of 16,777,216 colors (256x256x256). Most LCD monitors based on twisted nematic (TN) technology, however, cannot transition eight bits per pixel quickly enough to compensate for fast motion, resulting in unacceptable blurring and smearing while displaying movies and games. To get around this problem, mass-market LCD panels use six bits per pixel (26) to represent the RGB color space. Since this reduces the total number of displayable colors to just 262,144 (64x64x64), many panels use frame-rate control (a dithering method) to have each pixel display a slightly different shade with each successive screen refresh. Frame-rate control can enable a six-bit panel to simulate 16,194,277 colors.

Color Gamut

Color gamut describes a subset of a defined color space that a display is capable of producing. For the purposes of this comparison, we asked each manufacturer to report its display’s color gamut as a percentage of the NTSC color space. Most of the manufacturers claimed their displays delivered 72 percent of the NTSC color space.


The triangle in the center of this chromacity diagram represents the NTSC color gamut, used to measure the color output of LCDs.

Contrast Ratio

Contrast ratio is supposed to measure the relative magnitude between the brightest (white) and darkest (black) colors the display can produce. Unfortunately, the manufacturers’ propensity for using different methodologies and unstated variables in their measurements has effectively rendered this specification meaningless. The industry has further muddied the waters by introducing entirely new variations of this measurement, such as dynamic contrast ratio. We recommend you ignore this spec when comparing LCD monitors.

Inputs

Nearly all the monitors in this roundup support the two most common digital video interfaces, DVI and HDMI (with HDCP copy protection, so you can watch Blu-ray movies at full resolution using either one). None of them, however, use the DisplayPort digital interface. In terms of analog display interfaces, every monitor has an old-school VGA port, but the Samsung P2370HD is the only monitor to also feature composite and component video inputs (useful for connecting such analog sources as VCRs and older set-top boxes and DVD players). None has an S-Video input.

Panel Type

Virtually every consumer LCD monitor uses thin-film transistor (TFT) technology these days, but it’s important to consider the subsets of that classification. Twisted nematic (TN) is the most common because it’s the easiest and least expensive to produce (all the displays in this roundup are TN panels). TN panels boast very fast response times, but are typically limited to six-bit color depth. The next two most common subsets are super in-plane switching (S-IPS, developed by Hitachi, although LG also uses it) and super patterned vertical alignment (S-PVA, jointly developed by Samsung and Sony). Both S-IPS and S-IPA panels support eight-bit color, but have much slower response times than TN panels.

Response Time

Response time measures how long it takes an LCD monitor’s pixels to transition from one state to another and is measured in milliseconds. A monitor with a low response time will display fewer motion artifacts with movies and games. In order to make apples-to-apples comparisons, we asked each manufacturer to report its display’s gray-to-gray response time, because that is the most common real-world transition.

Stand Functions

The LCD monitor manufacturers in this roundup have all but abandoned ergonomic considerations. Each display in this roundup has a stand that tilts, but only three of the eight swivel left to right and only two offer a height adjustment. NEC’s EA241WM is the only monitor we reviewed that pivots to enable you to switch between landscape and portrait modes.

Calibrating Your Monitor

Even the best screens can use a little help in achieving peak performance

Calibrating your monitor will make certain your photographic prints match what you see on your display. It will also ensure that the games you play and the movies you watch will look as their creators intended. The most foolproof means of calibrating your monitor is to use a colorimeter, an instrument you attach to the front of the display and control with related software running on the host PC. The software sends various colors, shades of gray, and brightness levels, to the display, and the sensor analyzes and evaluates them. These devices used to be quite costly, but we’ve achieved terrific results with Pantone’s inexpensive HueyPro . This colorimeter/software combo is currently street-priced at less than $100.

Free Alternatives

If only a free solution will do, there are several excellent options. Tom Niemann, of ePaperPress.com, has produced an online application that can step you through the monitor-calibration process by making adjustments to your display’s brightness and contrast settings. He’s also developed a tool for determining your monitor’s gamma setting. Niemann has also developed a free tool for calibrating your printer. You can find his tools at http://epaperpress.com/monitorcal/index.html .

Torben Rasmussen, of Flatpanelshd.com, has developed a larger collection of test images for evaluating backlight contamination, defective pixels, color uniformity, banding problems, text reproduction, and lots more. You’ll find his online monitor tests, including a downloadable executable version, at http://tft.vanity.dk .

Calibration Preparations

Whether you calibrate your monitor using a hardware colorimeter or one of the free alternatives we’ve described above, it is essential that you first prepare your display and your work area to achieve the best results.

1. Set the monitor to its native resolution, and make sure your videocard is operating in either 24- or 32-bit mode.

2. Clean your monitor thoroughly. If the manufacturer doesn’t provide cleaning instructions, try this: Turn it off and let it cool. Remove any surface dust and loose contaminants with a can of compressed air, and then wipe the surface with a soft, clean cloth. Now, mix a little isopropyl alcohol with tap water (the alcohol will help dissolve grease and fingerprints), sprinkle a little onto the cloth, and wipe the screen. Never spray liquids directly onto the display.

3. Turn the display back on and let it warm up for 15 to 30 minutes, but turn off any screensaver or energy-management utilities you might be running, so that the calibration process won’t be interrupted.

4.
Remove any color profiles you might have previously created for the display. In Vista, right-click on the desktop, select Personalize, choose Display Settings, and then Advanced Settings. Click the Color Management tab and then the Color Management button, select any color profile listed, and click Remove. Restart the computer.


Flatpanelshd.com has a very useful online collection of test images for calibrating and measuring the performance of your display for free.

5. Set up your ambient lighting so that it’s consistent with the environment you typically work in. Make sure the display is not reflecting light from a window or other strong source of illumination. Close any drapes or angle the monitor to eliminate reflections.

Move any brightly patterned, shiny, or colorful objects off your work surface, or at least out of your direct line of sight, so they won’t compete with the display for your attention.

6. Launch your calibration tool of choice and follow its instructions.

7. Primarily interested in calibrating your display so that the colors in your digital photos match those you print out? Here’s one quick-and-dirty solution: Find a photo you really like, print it out as an 8x10, and place it next to your display. Tweak your monitor’s brightness, contrast, and color values until the image on your screen looks as close to the print as you can make it.

Winging it this way won’t produce results as accurate as you’d achieve with a colorimeter, but it’s certainly better than nothing. You should also be aware that your monitor’s performance will change over time and decline as it ages, so you can’t just set it and forget it. A good rule of thumb is to recalibrate your display once each month.

Next, on to the reviews!

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