LCD Monitor Buyer's Guide: Winter 2008-2009

In our today’s article we will try summing up everything we already know about LCD displays in order to answer the common question: what monitor shall I buy? This article is not another test session or a theoretical discussion. It will point out specific modules that could be interesting by certain criteria.

by Oleg Artamonov
01/19/2009 | 08:39 AM

In this article I will try to sum up my experience in testing LCD monitors and answering the frequent question, “what monitor to buy?” Our regular reviews can give you an answer too, but it is a daunting task to read through all of them and systematize that bulk of information in one’s head. Most users take a different approach. They somehow identify the models they may be interested in and then look for appropriate reviews.

 

So, the purpose of this article is to point out the most interesting (from my point of view) models of monitors in terms of technical parameters, exterior design and ergonomics without overloading you with technical information.

This article should not be viewed as a brief review of all monitors. It is beyond my power to describe all the available models even in two lines per each. Fortunately, most of them can be described as “yet another regular monitor,” so there is no reason why they should be somehow singled out in the crowd. If you need just a regular LCD monitor, you are likely to be satisfied with the very first model you see. Below I will try to give you a brief description of the current state of the market (so that you could get a notion of what is understood by a “regular monitor”) and name a few models I consider the most interesting and noteworthy. The choice of the specific model is up to you, of course.

Now that I’ve begun talking about the problem of choice, I want to spend some time answering another frequent question, “what should I look at when shopping for a monitor?” The answer splits in two: what to look at when choosing a particular model and how to check out a specific sample.

First of all, a good monitor must comply with some functionality and ergonomics requirements. I think this is even more important that the specifications such as response time and contrast ratio. A DVI interface is highly desirable even for models with low native resolutions and obligatory for resolutions above 1680x1050. A HDMI input will do, too. These interfaces are electrically compatible, so it takes just a cheap adapter to convert one into another.

The stand should provide screen height adjustment. If it does not, you must make sure that the screen is not too high. The eyes should be at the same level with the top edge of the screen to tire less. For example, ViewSonic’s monitors often have too tall stands.

Ideally, the monitor’s controls are located on the front panel of the case, their labels painted with contrasting color for good readability. Otherwise, you’ll have to find the necessary button by touch when you want to adjust brightness, for example. By the way, the option of quick brightness adjustment (with a press of a single button) is very handy, but most manufacturers combine it with some color enhancement feature. The good exception is Samsung with its two strictly separated technologies MagicColor (for higher color saturation) and MagicBright (for selecting different levels of brightness). It is also desirable to have quick access (with a press of a button) to the option of smooth adjustment of brightness.

As opposed to the buttons, the Power indicator must be inconspicuous. You won’t like a super-bright blue LED located in the bottom center of the front panel if you work under dim ambient lighting.

As for the specifications, you can follow this rule: if you don’t know exactly how the particular parameter is measured and what it means, you should just disregard it. Odd as it may sound, this rule works because the monitor makers often adjust the methods of measuring the parameters of their products in such a way as to produce prettier numbers. In one case, the practical difference may be inconspicuous while the specified values differ a lot, but in the other case, the difference may be big while the values are similar. Some parameters may refer to specific applications of the monitor only. So, unless you know exactly what the specific parameter means, you should trust your eyes rather than base your choice on the specification. You can also look up in our theoretical articles or consult with experienced users about a particular parameter if you think it important.

There are a lot of examples for that. Do you know that there are two methods of measuring the contrast ratio (static and dynamic), two methods of measuring the response time (GtG and ISO13406-2) and two methods of measuring the viewing angles (for a contrast ratio of 10:1 and 5:1)? And if the specified parameters of two monitors are measured in different ways, it is impossible to compare them. The comparison just won’t make any sense.

Trusting your eyes doesn’t work always, either. The shop window is not the best place for comparing monitors because they are not set up properly, work at different levels of brightness, and may have some color-enhancing technologies enabled. Here you can only evaluate the exterior design and ergonomics of the monitor while its color accuracy, response time and other parameters should be checked out in reviews or with users of the same model.

If you have made up your mind as to the specific model, you must make sure the sample brought to you is free from dead pixels. To do this check, a special test program is launched displaying red, green, blue, white and black screens and you can see if there are any unwanted black or white dots. If you find a dead pixel, you can ask for another sample. It may be more difficult to replace the monitor if a dead pixel appears after a while because monitor makers do not usually consider a small number of dead pixels as a defect. Of course, the lack of dead pixels does not mean that they won’t appear in an hour, month or year, but you shouldn’t neglect this test. In some shops you can also ask to connect the monitor to a PC so that you could check it alive.

The rest of the monitor’s qualities are hard to test when shopping. Nonuniform brightness of the backlight can usually be noticed only under dim ambient lighting. A squeaking of the power adapter can hardly be heard in the noise of the shop. Color accuracy is perhaps the only parameter you can evaluate more or less correctly: colors must not be bluish. There should be little or no banding in color gradients, and the different levels of gray should have the same tone, without deflecting into red, yellow, pink or blue.

Talking about the visual qualities of the monitor, I can’t pass by the frequent question, “does this model strain the eyes?” In my opinion, supported by practice, almost every case of permanent eyestrain is due to the incorrect installation or setup of the monitor, particularly when the screen is set too high (your eyes should look downward in order to be half-covered with the lids and dry out less), when you work at nonnative resolutions or at analog connection with low signal quality, or when the screen brightness or color temperature is too high. You can refer to our general setup recommendations and specific example for details.

Before I proceed further, I want to say it once again: this article is the result of my personal experience of working with different monitors. The models mentioned below are those that I distinguish among others for some reason and recommend to people who ask my advice. If I don’t mention some model in this review, it means either that I don’t think it noteworthy (it is just a regular monitor like many others) or that I don’t know that model well enough to make judgments about it.

17 Inch Models

There is not much that I can say about this screen size. 17-inch monitors have ceased to develop, actually. Their prices have dropped to a very low level and they all have uniform parameters. Most of today’s 17-inchers have a TN matrix without response time compensation, a native resolution of 1280x1024, and an unassuming office-oriented exterior. The only model I know that deflects from the standard is the ASUS VW171D, but it differs in one point only: it is a widescreen model with a native resolution of 1440x900 pixels.

If you look among larger monitors, you will see widescreen models not only aplenty but dominating. They have almost ousted “classic” monitors with an aspect ratio of 5:4 and 4:3 from the market.

Widescreen LCD panels are more profitable to manufacture. The diagonal being the same, they have a smaller total area, which means that the manufacturer can cut one wafer into more panels. However, transitioning the LCD panel manufacture to a different size takes some effort. Thus, it also takes some time to bring in the profit. But the monitor makers seem to regard the 17-inch market as hopeless and do not try to do anything about it. I guess the model range of 17-inchers will shrink to a minimum in this year and will come to resemble the current state of the 15-inch LCD monitor market.

As for shopping suggestions, today’s 17-inch monitors are entry-level products for office work. They have neither high speed nor high color accuracy, and the only reason for you to buy one is that you lack the money for a 19-incher. You can choose among the available 17-inch monitors by their exterior design and functionality (DVI interface, integrated speakers, etc) and disregard the specified parameters altogether – the specifications don’t mean anything in this market sector.

19 Inch Models

Although this sector is far more interesting, I want to make it clear right away: if you want an all-purpose 19-inch monitor with good color reproduction and large viewing angles for reasonable money, you won’t find one. There are no such monitors anymore.

Strictly speaking, there are at least two relatively inexpensive 19-inch models based on matrixes other than TN. I mean the NEC MultiSync EA191M and Samsung SyncMaster 943T. Both are based on PVA matrixes and thus offer large viewing angles and a good contrast ratio, but their response time is declared to be 20-25 milliseconds. For PVA technology it means that the matrixes are very slow and no good for playing games (you can learn this from our review of the SyncMaster 943T). These models are good for work, passable for movies (if you don’t mind watching movies on a nearly square screen measuring 1280x1024 pixels), but not suitable for games. Thus, they are not universal.

In my last-year advisory on choosing an LCD monitor I recommended NEC’s 19-inch MultiSync LCD1970NX and LCD1990SXi, both based on S-IPS matrixes, for image-processing applications. Alas, both have almost disappeared from shops by now. And even if you find them, you’ll be unpleasantly surprised at their pricing.

Thus, photographers and designers should consider larger diagonals whereas numerous TN-based models can be bought for home and family. Is it bad? Well, it’s bad because the small viewing angles of TN matrixes, despite some progress, are still a drawback. The top of the screen gets dark when you take a look at such a monitor from below.

However, I don’t share the radical opinion that all TN technology is evil. I was using a Samsung SyncMaster T190 at my work for quite a long time and I can’t say that its viewing angles were a problem for me, even when I edited photographs.

TN technology is not good in two cases, I guess: when you need a monitor for professional processing of photographs and when you want to watch movies while lying on a sofa. A professional monitor has always been a serious investment – you can hardly hope to find one in the relatively inexpensive sector of the LCD monitor market. In the second case, you are looking at the screen from below and can feel the lack of viewing angles of a TN matrix. And while this problem is not crucial for 19-inchers (few people watch movies on a small screen from a distance), it is a problem indeed with larger TN-based monitors.

That said, TN matrixes are quite suitable for ordinary home/office applications. What characteristics should you take into account?

Response time. With modern monitors, this parameter can be 5 milliseconds and higher or 4 milliseconds and lower. It does not matter how much higher or lower. The separating line goes between these two numbers. The specified response time of 5 milliseconds is indicative of the lack of response time compensation whereas 4 milliseconds mean that RTC is present. The response time parameter is measured by two different methods in these two cases and 4ms monitors prove to be three or four times as fast as 5ms ones if the same method were used.

However, RTC is not impeccable. It is accompanied with visual artifacts that show up as light trails behind moving objects, rainbow patterns in a translucent haze, etc. Among the TN-based monitors we have tested so far in our labs only a few models from ASUS showed good response time without noticeable artifacts.

On the other hand, 5ms monitors are not very slow, either. They are good enough for games and more than enough for movies. Therefore I wouldn’t recommend you to search for a monitor with as low response time as possible. I know people who bought a 2ms monitor but then disabled response time compensation in its menu, thus transforming it into a 5ms model, because they could not put up with the RTC-provoked artifacts.

I don’t meant that 2ms monitors are bad, either. What I’m driving at is that low response time is not always an advantage. If you like some 5ms model, you should not worry about its specified response time. Most likely, you won’t feel much difference from 2ms monitors in practice.

Contrast ratio can be static or dynamic. The static contrast ratio is normally about 1000:1 whereas the dynamic contrast ratio can be somewhere from 2000:1 to 20,000:1. Sometimes the manufacturer specifies the latter contrast ratio only to impress the customer with the zeroes. In fact, you can disregard the specified value altogether. The difference between 800:1 and 1000:1 cannot be spotted with a naked eye (and it may even be nonexistent because the contrast ratio of an LCD matrix is measured under laboratory conditions and can be applied to the specific monitor with its settings with some reservations only). The dynamic contrast ratio is only useful for movies and its value of 5000:1 is already quite enough – a further increase won’t produce a big effect.

Color accuracy is not described in a standard monitor specification. Talking about color accuracy we mean the ability of the monitor to reproduce those colors that we expect to see, without distorting them. Alas, this parameter depends on the specific model or even specific batch of the monitor. You can’t tell how good the color accuracy is by the monitor’s specification.

Alas, most of today’s TN-based monitors have low color accuracy. They often have a strong deflection towards blue, and this drawback cannot be corrected fully with the monitor’s settings. You need to use a hardware calibrator or set your graphics card up by means of appropriate software.

Talking about color reproduction, the manufacturer may mean the color gamut which is expressed in percent of the standard NTSC gamut (a typical CRT or LCD monitor has a color gamut of 72-75% NTSC). A color gamut is the range of colors potentially available on the given monitor. However, it does not guarantee the correctness of reproduction of those colors (e.g. that you won’t get pink instead of gray).

Viewing angles of TN matrixes are traditionally small as I already wrote above. To be exact, this refers to one angle mostly: the vertical angle when viewed from below. The horizontal viewing angles of modern TN matrixes are quite wide and don’t become a problem in everyday applications. You may also have noticed that the manufacturers have been steadily improving the specified value. TN-based monitors with specified viewing angles of 170/170° can already be seen. Is there some kind of a trick here? Yes and no. On one hand, the TN technology has been improving over the years and the viewing angles have been getting wider indeed. But on the other hand, the measurement method is devised in such a way that the resulting value depends on the matrix’s contrast ratio. The higher the contrast ratio, the larger the specified value is. As the result, TN matrixes are still inferior to VA and IPS matrixes in terms of real viewing angles just like they were a year ago.

Thus, the specification gives you a notion of the monitor’s real parameters (whether it has dynamic contrast, response time compensation, an extended color gamut, etc), but it does not provide a full picture. And it wouldn’t be wise to buy a monitor basing on the official specification only.

Anyway, I will name a few models worthy of your consideration if you are looking for a 19-inch LCD monitor. I will discuss widescreen models only (mostly with a native resolution of 1440x900 pixels) because I think them more convenient for work and games, let alone for movies.

If you prefer classic design solutions with good ergonomics, you can take a look at Samsung’s B series. At the SyncMaster 943BW, to be specific. With its restrained exterior design, handy controls and height-adjusting stand, the 943BW is among the best office-oriented 19-inchers. The SyncMaster 943NW is cheaper but lacks screen height adjustment and a DVI input. Besides everything else, Samsung’s monitors traditionally have two advantages. In my experience, they are the most stable and predictable in operation and parameters. And second, their MagicBright feature is the best implementation of quick adjustment of brightness (with a press of a button) that I have ever seen.

You can also take a look at the business series from Acer represented by the B193W ymdh model (I wonder why they invent such hard-to-remember, hard-to-spell letter indexes). This one has a neat exterior design, a stand with height adjustment, and handy controls, too.

If you want a high resolution for little money, consider the ASUS VW198T that has a native resolution of 1680x1050 pixels. I wouldn’t recommend buying the cheaper VW198S because it lacks a DVI input, which may lead to problems with image sharpness.

Generally speaking, I strongly recommend using a digital connection even for a resolution of 1440x900. This will simplify the setting-up of the monitor and prevent any sharpness related problems. After all, monitors with a DVI interface are quite cheap nowadays.

As for home-oriented models with attractive design, the Samsung SyncMaster T190 comes to my mind first. It features a superb exterior as well as good setup quality. Unfortunately, the cheaper varieties, T190N and T190GN, are more widespread now, but they lack a DVI input.

ViewSonic tries to compete with Samsung with its VX1962wm model. I guess the designers have overdone it with the “stem-of-the-glass” stand: it looks elegant but holds the screen too high up. It strains the eyes when the screen is so high.

And if you equally dislike smooth outlines and simple square boxes, you may be interested in the Acer X193WSD and P193W Awd which share an original and remarkable exterior.

20-22 Inch Models

Like in the previous section, I have to begin with a piece of bad news. The era of inexpensive monitors based on S-IPS, MVA and PVA matrixes is over. The models I named and recommended in the last-year report – Dell 2007WFP, Philips 200WP7 and Samsung 215TW – are out of production, and there are no worthy substitutes.

The reason is obvious: the mass customer is satisfied with the quality of TN-based monitors and very satisfied with their pricing, so the demand for the more expensive monitors based on other manufacturing technologies is steadily declining.

The only alternatives I can mention are the Lenovo ThinkVision L220x which is based on an S-PVA matrix with a resolution of 1920x1200 pixels but it is expensive, rare, and some of its samples have a defect, low image sharpness. The 22-inch PVA-based Eizo S2231WSE and HP LP2275w are even more expensive and rarer.

The ASUS PW201 can still be seen in shops for some reason. It features an eye-catching design and a PVA matrix. Unfortunately, this is a rather mediocre model in its real parameters, being obviously inferior to the now-extinct models mentioned in the first paragraph of this section.

Cutting it short, there are almost no high-quality affordable 20-22-inch models with matrixes other than TN.

That said, it is no problem to find a professional monitor intended for image processing and color correction. It is the same UXi series from NEC that I wrote about in the last-year report. If you need a monitor with uncompromising color accuracy and you don’t mind paying a thousand bucks or more for it, you won’t be disappointed with the purchase of a MultiSync LCD2090UXi or LCD2190UXi.

The S-IPS-based NEC MultiSync LCD2070NX is cheaper but has simpler functionality.

There is also Samsung’s XL series, particularly the SyncMaster XL20 with LED backlight and a superb color gamut. However, this series occupies an ambiguous intermediary position. Its monitors are somewhat too expensive and unhandy for home (because they are optimized for specific applications) but are not set up well enough for professional processing of images, being inferior to NEC’s UXi series. Samsung should either improve the setup quality to compete with NEC or orient the series at the home market, especially as the LED backlight and lush colors can be a strong argument in marketing battles.

What to do if you don’t have that much money to spend? As usual, you can go TN, especially as TN-based monitors start from a very low level, about $200. I mean monitors with a DVI interface. Buying a monitor with a native resolution of 1680x1050 and an analog input only is unwise.

Everything I wrote about the specified parameters of TN-based 19-inch LCD monitors can be applied to their 20-22-inch counterparts. So, I won’t repeat myself. I will just name a few specific models that stand out among the others for some reason and thus may be of some interest to you.

Acer produces a good series of business monitors. The B203 ymdr and B223 ymdr feature a neat exterior design and good ergonomics. Take a look at them if you need monitors for your office.

Samsung’s business monitors are labeled with the letter B, and you may want to consider the SyncMaster 2043BW and 2243BW that have a restrained design and good ergonomics.

Acer’s home-oriented series is more interesting at 22 inches: the P223W has got a rather elegant stand. It is going to look good on your desk.

Acer has a lot of opponents when it comes to exterior design, though. First of all, it is Samsung with its SyncMaster T200 and T220. The Touch of Color series is remarkable for beauty as well as good setup quality.

The SyncMaster T200 and T220 are the basic models of the series and I think them the most reasonable buy. The modifications include models with the suffixes N (without a DVI input), G (glossy matrix coating) and HD (with an integrated TV-tuner).

The ASUS LS221H is an expensive but beautiful monitor, too. It has leather-like trimming of the bottom of the front panel and its matrix is covered with a sheet of protective glass (ASUS claims this glass to be very robust), creating an impression of the screen being flush with the front surface of the case. This looks just fascinating. I guess you should take a look at the LS221H alive if you base your choice on the exterior design (this is reasonable enough considering that most models share the same or similar specs).

Winding up my review of interesting 22-inchers, I must say a few words about the ViewSonic VLED221wm, the cheapest available model with LED backlight based on RGB triads. Unfortunately, there can be some confusion about what this monitor really is and does. Being an extended-gamut model, it is advertised as a monitor with "astounding color and precision".

But what does the LED-based backlight provide? It endows the monitor with an extended color gamut, i.e. the ability to display very saturated, very pure green, red and blue. An ordinary monitor will look pale in comparison, its red and green having a noticeable tincture of yellow.

What does it not provide? Color accuracy. Color accuracy does not depend on the monitor’s color gamut. It depends only on the quality of the LCD matrix and the monitor’s setup. But when it comes to that, the VLED221wm proves to be a typical home TN-based monitor with the ensuing consequences. Yes, it can display very lush green and red, but it is far inferior to professional monitors in the accuracy of halftones (even if we don’t count in the rather serious problem of adaptation of images for the extended color gamut). The VLED221wm is rather expensive and you must realize that this money buys you more saturated colors than with an ordinary 22-incher, and nothing more. The VLED221wm can create an impression in games and movies, but it is wrong to regard it as a monitor with high color accuracy.

24-27 Inch Models

This market sector is not as hopeless and uniform as the lower ones, but TN technology has already ensured a majority here, too. Still, there are PVA and S-IPS based models available.

To be specific, the Samsung SyncMaster 245T and Dell 2408WFP are good S-PVA based monitors with a native resolution of 1920x1200. It’s hard to choose the better one because the Dell looks prettier while the Samsung is handier thanks to its good onscreen menu. You should take a look at these models if you want to buy a 24-inch monitor with good viewing angles for reasonable money.

The PVA-based FP241W from BenQ is somewhat cheaper. It is inferior to the models from Dell and Samsung in exterior design, ergonomics and setup quality, but makes up for that with its lower price.

The choice is more limited among 26-27-inch monitors with matrixes other than TN: Samsung’s 275T and Dell’s 2707WFP are quite rare, so there is only NEC’s MultiSync LCD2690WUXi left if you need a large monitor. This monitor also suits for image processing, retouching and color correction applications, but the smaller pixel pitch of the 24-inch NEC MultiSync LCD2490WUXi makes it even more suitable for such jobs.

The 24-inch Apple Cinema Display with LED backlight is an interesting product, too, but its price is far from affordable and it has a mini-DisplayPort as video input. Although graphics cards and even mainboards with a DisplayPort interface sell already, I haven’t yet seen DisplayPort → mini-DisplayPort adapters.

Otherwise, the shops are full of TN-based models which differ from the smaller monitors with an almost total lack of response time compensation. BenQ’s E2400HD and ASUS’s MK241H and VK246H are the only models I can remember that have a specified response of 2 milliseconds (GtG). You may be interested in these two models if you need a fast monitor for dynamic games, but I have to confess that they don’t have any other special advantages.

The range of available 24-inchers is overall rather limited, anyway. The Samsung SyncMaster 2443BW is a home/business model with restrained design and good ergonomics. The SyncMaster 2433BW is almost the same but in a glossy case. The more expensive SyncMaster 2493HM differs with the exterior design only. So, if you are satisfied with the appearance of the 2443BW, there is no sense in paying extra for the 2493HM.

If design is important for you, the SyncMaster T240 may be your choice. Oddly enough, Samsung released the T240N model without a DVI interface. Of course, I don’t recommend it because image quality problems are very possible for analog connection at 1920x1200.

26-inch monitors are generally the same, except that there are no inexpensive products among them. For example, Samsung offers the SyncMaster T260 and 2693HM but there is no glossy and cheaper 26-inch counterpart to the 2443BW.

30 Inch Models

It will take even less time to discuss the 30-inch than the 17-inch sector. The most notable change was the release of the Dell 3008WFP model equipped with a high-performance processor, a scaler for working at any resolution with interpolation, an onscreen menu and a full selection of inputs including analog S-Video and YPbPr. This had not been possible before because monitor processors had not been able to process a stream of data at 2560x1600x3x60 bytes-per-second in real time. The 3008WFP is quite costly at over $2000, though.

Besides, there has appeared a monitor that is positioned as professional even among the other 30-inch models. It is the NEC MultiSync 3090WQXi that features highest color accuracy and offers DICOM calibration for medical applications. Its high price is just as impressive as its capabilities.

But if you are satisfied with DVI connection at a resolution of 2560x1600 and think it normal for the onscreen menu to have only one option (Brightness), you may be interested in the cheaper Samsung SyncMaster 305T Plus.

There are other 30-inchers available, of course, for example the HP LP3065, but they differ little from each other. This is the opposite of the situation in the 17-inch sector: there is yet no need to cut the manufacturing cost in the 30-inch sector, so all such monitors are based on S-IPS and S-PVA matrixes and feature neat setup.

Take note that you need a graphics card with a dual-link DVI interface to work at a resolution of 2560x1600! All modern discrete graphics cards comply with this requirement, but it is unlikely that you’ll be able to make a 30-inch monitor work together with the graphics core integrated into your mainboard or notebook.