Professional LCD Monitors: NEC LCD2190UX and Samsung XL20

Incorrect correct color reproduction is an issue with a lot of consumer LCD panels. Today we are going to take a look at professional LCD monitors that have been specifically optimized for work with colors. Please meet the three professional models from NEC and Samsung in our new detailed review!

by Oleg Artamonov
01/29/2007 | 02:22 PM

“This monitor is specifically intended for working in MS Office professionally”,
A speaker at a press-conference

 

The epithet “professional” is among the favorites of any hardware manufacturer, not only when it comes to computers. The customer is given to understand that professionals, i.e. people who a priori have a deeper grasp of the given matter than himself, would prefer this very product. But this epithet has almost lost any practical meaning as it is now being hung on every item that is somehow different from others in characteristics or price. There’s a lot of “professional” equipment, from frying pans to computers, in every shop.

So before trying to talk seriously about professional-class products, we should first define what we mean. I’d put forth this definition: a professional-class monitor is a monitor with such characteristics and capabilities that make it a perfect tool for performing narrowly-scoped tasks, but are excessive for common tasks. It’s like with vehicles: a bus is suited perfectly for transporting a large number of people from one place to another, but won’t do as a personal car.

If we take this definition, quite a large share of monitors that are called professional by their manufacturers fall out of our consideration. For example, ViewSonic’s Pro series differs from other product series of that company in using MVA or S-IPS matrixes (and not in all of the models even) and adjustable-height stands. I don’t think that ordinary users don’t need a convenient stand and good viewing angles those matrix types provide. On the other hand, such monitors won’t interest people who are professionally engaged in color correction.

Professional monitors can be different. It can be models with very high brightness intended for medical applications. There are models with black-and-white matrixes capable of displaying 1024 grades of gray (as opposed to the ordinary monitor’s 256) and also intended for medical applications – you don’t need colors to examine an X-ray photo, for example. There are models with high-resolution matrixes like the IBM T221, a 22” LCD monitor with a colossal resolution of 3840x2400 pixels.

Yet these monitors don’t meet the ordinary user’s needs. They are mostly intended for narrowly defined applications, their price is far from affordable, and they often put forth very specific requirements to the graphics card.

So I guess there is only one class of professional monitors that can be easily met in shops. I mean monitors optimized for work with color. As you know, the inaccurate reproduction of color is a problem of many consumer LCD monitors, so some manufacturers produce special monitors for applications that demand that the color on the screen was the same as that very color in real life.

It’s about such monitors I’m going to talk here. A couple of models from NEC, a well-known brand in this field, and a new SyncMaster XL20 model, which is the first attempt of Samsung to enter the market of monitors for professional color processing.

NEC MultiSync LCD2190UXi and LCD2190UXp

NEC is currently producing a few models of professional monitors varying in the screen diagonal (19, 20 or 21 inches) and in capabilities. There is a sharply defined hierarchy when it comes to the 21” line-up:

  1. The MultiSync LCD2190UXi and LCD2190UXp models are the basic models of the series and I will discuss them in this review. They differ from each other in the type of the matrix: the former uses an S-IPS matrix manufactured by NEC and the latter, an S-PVA matrix from Samsung. They cost about $1500 and $1200, respectively.
  2. The next level is represented by the SpectraView 2190 which differs from the MultiSync models in offering a hardware calibration option. What’s funny, this monitor is actually the same LCD2190UXi, but with a calibrator and appropriate software (which can be bought separately, though). The price of the SpectraView 2190 is $2000-2300.
  3. The premium sector is occupied by the SpectraView Reference 21 model (the model number, LCD2180WG-LED, indicates that it is based on the previous LCD2180 series). It differs from ordinary SpectraView monitors in using LED-based backlighting instead of cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL). This type of backlighting provides a broader color gamut: 103% NTSC as opposed to 72% NTSC of monitors with CCFL-based backlighting. The recommended price of the Reference 21 is $4999, but the real one varies between the dealers. This monitor isn’t selling in every shop, of course.

Now that I am going to compare the Samsung XL20, equipped with LED-based backlighting too, with products from NEC, it may seem logical to take the Reference 21 with the same type of backlight. Well, I just took the price factor into consideration: the XL20 will come out this spring at a price of about $2000, which is comparable to the SpectraView 2190 models with ordinary CCFL-based backlighting and much cheaper than the Reference 21.

The MultiSync models are produced in two versions that have different types of the matrix. The LCD2190UXi has an S-IPS matrix from NEC (NEC calls this technology SA-SFT, but it’s just a proprietary variation of S-IPS), and the LCD2190UXp uses an S-PVA matrix from Samsung.

Many people associate different quality of color reproduction with different matrix types: the best quality with S-IPS, the worst with TN, and MVA and PVA are somewhere in between. This is not quite correct. The quality of color reproduction is formally described with the dE parameter which shows how much the displayed color differs from the etalon one. Not an integral parameter, dE must be calculated separately for each of those 16.7 million colors the modern monitor can show. The smaller dE is, the more accurately the color is reproduced.

It is accepted that the average person can easily see the difference between two colors at dE>3. For working with color seriously, the monitor must provide dE<1 after calibration. But theoretically, monitors on each matrix type can be calibrated to this accuracy. Moreover, the actual result of calibration depends on the monitor’s electronics and the calibrator you use, so if you take two specific monitors on TN and S-IPS matrixes and calibrate them, the dE parameter of the former may prove to be smaller than of the latter, and there would be nothing wrong about that.

However, no one tries to use TN matrixes for processing color. Why? It’s because the dE parameter describes the color reproduction accuracy as it is perceived with the line of sight being strictly perpendicular to the screen. Colors on modern S-IPS matrixes with viewing angles of 178 degrees suffer almost no distortion when the user moves his head to a side. On TN matrixes with their narrow viewing angles you don’t even have to move your head: colors look different just because you see different areas of the screen at different angles. Try to display a solid-gray background on a TN matrix and you’ll find it next to impossible to find a position for your head at which the background would really look the same on the entire screen. You move your head up – and the bottom gets brighter, you move your head down – and the top becomes darker…

So, the different matrix types suit differently for working with color not because of the numerically expressed color reproduction accuracy, but because of the matrix manufacturing technology, namely because of the viewing angles. A monitor whose output picture is noticeably distorted as soon as the user moves his head just a little does not suit for work with color however carefully you may calibrate it.

Comparing the viewing angles provided by different matrixes, we can easily see that S-IPS yields the broadest ones. S-IPS matrixes don’t distort colors even if your line of sight is deflected far from perpendicular, only the contrast suffers a little. A drawback of S-IPS is that black appears to have a violet hue when viewed from a side, but this effect isn’t very conspicuous on modern S-IPS matrixes.

MVA and PVA matrixes are second best, distorting colors somewhat more than S-IPS does. Moreover, these technologies both have one defect: they lose details in shadows when viewed at an exact perpendicular to the screen. But this defect is almost totally corrected in the last generation of such matrixes, called S-PVA.

Finally, there are TN matrixes with very poor vertical viewing angles. It’s hard to find a position for your head at which the same colors at the top and bottom of the screen looked identically. And if you try to move your head about, the colors are distorted wildly.

So when it comes to viewing angles, S-IPS matrixes suit best for work with color, *VA matrixes are somewhat worse but acceptable, and TN matrixes don’t suit for such work at all.

As I said above, the 2190 series includes two models on matrixes of different types, a more expensive and a cheaper model. Despite their identical declared viewing angles, it is exactly like described above: the more expensive model on an S-IPS matrix distorts colors less when viewed from a side.

Well, S-PVA has its own advantages like higher contrast, i.e. a lower level of black. In a dim room black is going to look darker on the LCD2190UXp than on the LCD2190UXi. The difference is not that great under daylight, though. *VA matrixes also have a smaller inter-pixel grid than S-IPS and individual pixels are less conspicuous on them.

The so-called crystal effect is often recalled in Web forum discussions of different matrix types. This effect can only be seen on S-IPS matrixes: solid-color areas seem to be shimmering or sparkling on them. But the extent of this effect is somewhat overstated. Firstly, it is well visible only from a short distance, like 30 centimeters, whereas it is recommended to sit at a distance of at least 60 centimeters from the screen. Secondly, it is most visible on matrixes from LG while the LCD2190UXi has a matrix made by NEC.

The monitors have rectangular, strict-looking cases. This is a typical solution for professional-level models because this market’s customers are overall more conservative and don’t take kindly to any design whims.

Each model comes in two variants, white (or rather light-gray) and black. In either variant the case is all the same color without any contrasting combinations like “a white top plus a black bottom”.

The monitors’ stand allows to adjust the height of the screen (by 150mm), to tilt it, and to turn it around into the portrait mode. The stand is sturdy, steady and easily adjustable. My only complaint about it is that it lacks some kind of a lock in the bottommost position. When the monitor is standing on a desk, the necessary height of the stand is maintained by means of its mass. But as soon as you try to lift it up, the stand stretches out to its full length with a rattle. This may be somewhat shocking when you’re taking the new monitor out of its package, so the manufacturer even puts a paper in there with an appropriate warning.

If necessary, the native stand can be replaced with a standard VESA mount for fastening the monitor on a wall or desk.

The monitors have three input connectors: one DVI-D (digital), one DVI-I (universal) and one D-Sub (analog). The latter seems redundant to me. It is currently leaving both monitors and graphics cards while the universal DVI-I allows to connect an analog source via a very simple adapter.

On the left of the interface connectors there is a power connector for optional Soundbar 90 speakers. The monitor itself is equipped with an integrated power adapter.

The monitor’s controls are placed in the bottom left corner of the case. The LED of the power indicator and the ambient lighting sensor are located here, too.

As you can see, the buttons have no labels, except for the Input button that selects the video input. But on your entering the onscreen menu, the labels light up right on the screen next to the buttons. This is done for the portrait mode: the position of the labels changes depending on the screen orientation (the Up – Down and Left – Right buttons change their places at that). This solution is arguable. For me, it is still more convenient to deal with ordinary labels even if they are turned around by 90 degrees.

The menu of the 2190 series resembles the menu of NEC’s modern consumer monitors, but only visually. It is much richer in various settings. The first menu item offers you ECO Mode (quick switching between several levels of backlight brightness), black level adjustment and automatic brightness adjustment besides traditional brightness and contrast settings.

The auto-brightness option can be used in two ways: depending on the onscreen image (this is in fact the same feature as consumer monitors’ dynamic contrast) or depending on the reading of the ambient lighting sensor. The latter option is more interesting, of course, as it allows the monitor to keep track of the intensity of lighting in your room and to automatically adjust the screen brightness for it.

The auto-adjustment works fine. It works with a small delay and changes brightness smoothly, not irritating your eyes and not reacting to an accidental shadow falling on the monitor’s screen. Before you enable this feature, you can specify the range brightness should be varied within.

The color temperature section is interesting, too. Like on any other monitor from NEC, it offers a few preset values, all of which can be adjusted manually (besides sRGB, which always means 6500K, “N”, which corresponds to the matrix’s parameters without any additional adjustment, and “P”, which is set up by software from the PC). An important thing, it is the temperature that is adjusted, in all the available range stepping 100K. With ordinary monitors, you have to set up the color temperature by moving three sliders responsible for the levels of red, green and blue, which is not convenient. The discussed monitors offer this kind of adjustment, too. Just select the Custom item instead of a temperature value.

Moreover, the monitors allow to set up hue (by six color coordinates – the photograph above shows this option with respect to red), saturation (for each of the six colors, too), and brightness (not the same brightness as on the menu’s first tab, but the brightness of each basic color independently). All this provides exceptional opportunities for manual setting-up of the monitor even without a hardware calibrator. You need appropriate skills for that, though. Otherwise, the manual setup may as likely worsen the color reproduction as not.

An interesting option in the main menu is Colorcomp which enables compensation of the irregularity of backlight. The manufacturer doesn’t promise any great effect from it, and the two samples of monitors (an LCD2190UXi and an LCD2190UXp) I dealt with both proved to have a very uniform backlight I could hardly find fault with.

I said “main menu” in the previous paragraph because the monitor has a second, extended menu which is accessed by turning the monitor off with the Power button and then turning it on while keeping the Select button pressed.

Now you’ll see the following when you enter the menu:

The extended menu isn’t as pretty-looking as the main one, but offers much more settings. Besides the settings found in the main menu, there are:

Below are two-dimensional response time diagrams for both monitors, with RTC enabled:

My response time measurements on halftone transitions yielded an average of 11.8 milliseconds for the LCD2190UXi (with an average RTC error of 3.0%) and 12.0 milliseconds for the LCD2190UXp (and average RTC error of 0.6%). Although the average numbers are almost identical, the monitors behave differently on different color tones: the model with an S-PVA matrix is slower on very dark tones, but faster on all others.

The gamma curves of the monitors (the diagram shows the results of the LCD2190UXi at the default settings) are set up almost ideally with barely noticeable deflections from the theoretical curves. The monitors superbly reproduce the entire range of colors at any brightness and at a contrast of 0-50%. When the contrast setting is higher than 50%, details are lost in bright colors.

The color temperature setup is excellent, too. The difference between the levels of gray is comparable to the calibrator’s accuracy in most of the modes!

In my previous article called Contemporary LCD Monitor Parameters: Objective and Subjective Analysis I showed a picture composed of three photographs to illustrate a monitor with inaccurate color temperature setup. There were four squares of different levels of gray on each photograph (25%, 50%, 75% and 100%), but the gray balance was set up by the rightmost square in the first photo, by the third-from-left square in the second photo, and by the second square in the third photo. The color temperatures of the squares were different on that monitor, and the three photographs were different, too. On each of them there was only one really gray square (the one the gray balance was set up by), and the others were colored.

Here is the result of the same test on the NEC LCD2190UXp (the color temperature was set at 6500K in the menu):

This is an ideal picture: the squares are all gray. You can examine the squares with the color picker in Adobe Photoshop to make sure there is a negligible difference between them.

The brightness and contrast measurements give out expectable results that comply with the monitors’ specifications. The model on the S-PVA matrix has a higher maximum brightness as well as a higher contrast ratio.

I began this section of the review with a description of NEC’s line-up of professional 21” monitors, including SpectraView series. What puts it apart from the two tested models?

The SpectraView 2190 model is identical to the LCD2190UXi on the hardware level (but the LCD2190UXp doesn’t have a SpectraView counterpart). The only difference is the hardware calibration software.

Each LCD monitor has a so-called Lookup Table (LUT) which stores correspondences between the input signal and the signal that must be sent to the matrix to achieve the necessary color. The matrix’s own characteristic is S-shaped and it must be converted into an exponential gamma curve. It is the precision of values in the LUT and the accuracy of calculations performed over them (the monitor must not only convert one signal into another, but to take into account such settings as contrast, color temperature, etc) that determines the quality of color reproduction, i.e. the accurate shape of gamma curves, the difference of color temperatures between different levels of gray, the lack of banding in smooth color gradients, etc.

In a majority of monitors the LUT is written into memory at the factory and cannot be changed by the user. You can’t do anything about the monitor when its parameters begin to degenerate with time or if it turns out that the factory LUT doesn’t provide the necessary precision at the settings you want to use.

To correct the image in this case, you should use a hardware calibrator or spectrophotometer. This device has photo-sensors that are installed on the screen and different colors are then sequentially displayed under the sensors. The sensor measures what exactly color the monitor displays and, knowing which color it should be, determines the correction coefficient. But the monitor’s LUT being inaccessible, this coefficient is either written into the graphics card’s LUT or into an ICC file which can be used by software (programs like Adobe Photoshop) to correct the image they show on the display in accordance with the monitor’s parameters.

This approach has two drawbacks. First, both of them are software-dependent. Second, any additional transformation brings in its own distortions, even though small ones. To avoid this problem (which is, however, only important for applications that require an ideal reproduction of color), monitors with a programmable LUT are produced. It is not difficult to implement such a LUT.

The LCD2190UXi and LCD2190UXp are such monitors, formally. They have a rewritable LUT that can be accessed from the PC by means of the GammaComp program. But this is only formally. To write data into the LUT, you should first connect a calibrator to the PC and obtain those data. But calibrators create standard ICC profiles whereas GammaComp wants to have an ordinary table in CSV format that contains values that must be written into the monitor’s LUT. No table – no LUT. And calibrators cannot create such tables. Thus, these monitors have hardware calibration, but you can’t use it.

Although the SpectraView 2190 is a copy of the LCD2190UXi on the hardware level, it features an important accessory, a GretagMacbeth calibrator with special software that can receive data about the monitor from the calibrator and write them directly into the monitor’s LUT. Thus, having selected necessary settings on the monitor, you can start the calibration process and get as accurate a color reproduction in a quarter of an hour as is possible at all on this model. And the necessary parameters are all written into the monitor itself.

I don’t think that many people need such a high accuracy, though. A majority of users are going to be satisfied with the factory setup of the 2190 series, which is almost ideal, as you have seen above.

But besides the SpectraView 2190 there is a more expensive model of the same series, SpectraView Reference 21 (LCD2180WG-LED). It is based on an S-IPS matrix with LED backlight which provides an enhanced color gamut (if you don’t know what the term color gamut means and why it is enhanced, refer to the previous article).

As the model number suggests, the Reference 21 is based on the previous platform, the 2180 series. It means it lacks some minor features the newer 2190 series has, like the automatic adjustment of brightness depending on the ambient lighting, or the option of disabling the Power indicator LED, etc. When it comes to image quality, the only drawback is that it uses 10-bit precision for internal calculations (and, accordingly, a 10-bit LUT) as opposed to 12-bit precision in the 2190 series monitors. Of course, the Reference 21 supports hardware calibration in full, although the calibrator has to be purchased separately (the calibrators included with the 2190 series are not recommended – NEC says there is a special model for the Reference 21 that is set up and tested for use especially with enhanced-color-gamut monitors).

An interesting feature of the Reference 21, which is missing in the 2190 series, is its 10-bit digital input. If you’ve got an appropriate graphics card (e.g. AMD/ATI’s X1000 series GPUs can give out 10-bit color via DVI), you’ll get a fully 30-bit graphics subsystem (three 10-bit colors) as opposed to the ordinary 24-bit one (three 8-bit colors). This is a useful innovation because the human eye can indeed perceive gradations of 8-bit color on a good monitor. So if the highest-accuracy color reproduction is the goal, the transition from 8 to 10 bits (or from 24 to 30 bits, if you count up all the three basic colors) won’t be excessive.

The main feature of the Reference 21 is its LED-based backlighting which endows it with a color gamut of 101% NTSC (105.7% AdobeRGB). It means the Reference 21 can reproduce saturated basic colors (red and green in the first place) which are unavailable on ordinary monitors with the sRGB color gamut, i.e. 72% NTSC. The reproduction of colors that lie on the borders of the color gamut triangle (blue-green and yellow) is improved, too.

This property cannot be underestimated. In fact, monitors have one of the worst color gamuts among all devices for obtaining and displaying graphical information. Today’s scanners, cameras and camcorders have long gone beyond the scope of the sRGB color space, and high-quality typographic printing can easily handle yellow and green, too, although these colors are far from being pure on an sRGB monitor.

The pros and cons of the enhanced color gamut are better discussed on real-life examples. And I can do so, now that our lab has received a Samsung SyncMaster XL20, a monitor with LED-based backlighting.

Samsung SyncMaster XL20

The SyncMaster XL20 is not only Samsung’s first attempt to enter the market of professional monitors (sticking to the definition I’ve given at the beginning of the review, I don’t regard Samsung’s P and T series as professional – these monitors are good, but without any exceptional qualities), but is also one of the first monitors with LED-based backlighting. It has only a couple of opponents with the same backlight technology: the above-mentioned NEC SpectraView Reference 21 and the EIZO ColorEdge CG221 (it is comparable to the NEC in both capabilities and price). The XL20 is expected to come to shops in March at a price of $2000 whereas the LED-highlighted monitors from NEC and EIZO cost as much as $5000-6000.

The SyncMaster XL20 also features a hardware calibration option, the calibrator being included into the monitor’s price. Introducing this monitor, last-year press-releases mentioned the X-Rite Huey calibrator (also known as Pantone Huey) and it is indeed included with our sample of the monitor. But some time ago Samsung decided to ship the XL20 with a more advanced calibrator GretagMacbeth Eye-One Display 2. This is the same calibrator as is recommended for use with EIZO’s ColorEdge and NEC’s SpectraView series. It’s not yet clear if there’ll be a version of the XL20 without a calibrator.

So, what’s wrong with the Huey, anyway? It is an inexpensive (about $90 in retail) calibrator for home use whose main feature is the ability to measure the level of ambient lighting and adjust the screen brightness appropriately. Competing products, like the ColorVision Spyder2Express, do not offer this option.

The Huey spends most of the time resting on a special stand that should be placed near the monitor and tilted at the same angle as the monitor’s screen. The grey circle in the calibrator’s center is an ambient lighting sensor which is lit exactly like the monitor’s screen if you place the calibrator properly. By the way, the NEC monitors don’t need this function of the calibrator because they have their own sensor and automatic brightness adjustment whereas the XL20 has not.

There are two rows of suction cups on the reverse side of the device. You can use them to fasten the calibrator on the screen. The three small holes on the right are photo-sensors.

In order to calibrate the monitor, the Huey is fastened on the screen and its software lights up different-color fields under it, one after another. Then the calibrator measures the color displayed by the monitor and calculates the correction value.

The main problem with the Huey is that it calibrates the basic colors only, i.e. pure red, pure green and pure blue, all at the maximum brightness. Other calibrators, including the above-mentioned ColorVision Spyder2Express which is comparable to the Huey in price, works with a few grades of brightness of each of the basic colors, from near black to full brightness. In other words, the Huey takes the measurement in only one point of the gamma curve (in the rightmost point, to be exact) whereas other calibrators measure in several points, thus providing an opportunity to correct the shape of the curve.

The Huey can be considered only as a home user’s helper. It cannot correct the problems of a poorly set-up monitor, but simplifies and automates the process of setting up the screen brightness and color temperature. It also allows to automatically adjust brightness depending on the ambient lighting.

One would want to have a more serious tool for professional applications, and the XL20 is going be shipped with the more advanced Eye-One Display 2.

The Natural Color Expert software is included with the calibrator. It has three operation modes: calibration, emulation and backlight irregularity correction. In the first mode the program calibrates the monitor, and the user can specify the desired levels of white and black. In the second mode the program can use the monitor’s profile to create another profile with desired parameters (e.g. with another color temperature). In the third mode the screen is divided into 9 zones and the program measures the levels of black and white in each zone and corrects those levels if they differ between the zones. Well, our sample of the monitor had a uniform backlight to start with, so the correction results were hard to see.

The monitor is surprisingly compact. While the NEC LCD2190UXi is rather bulky and the NEC SpectraView Reference 21 is huge (with a very thick case and a weight of over 18 kilos), the XL20 is just one centimeter thicker than Samsung’s consumer models and weighs only 7.6kg.

Light-emitting diodes are very compact light sources, so why are the NEC and the Samsung larger than their counterparts with CCFL-based backlighting? It is actually the compactness of LEDs that presents a certain problem here. It’s more difficult to make a light-diffusing system for them that would ensure a uniform lighting of the entire screen. It is also more difficult to dissipate heat from them. The efficiency of a LED is comparable to the efficiency of CCFLs, but the lamp is large and is a kind of a heatsink for itself whereas the tiny LED crystal needs a separate heatsink. We don’t see heatsinks on ordinary LEDs only because they have relatively low power.

Otherwise, the design of the case resembles both the popular SyncMaster 215TW and the xx6 series, expected to come out this spring (SyncMaster 206BW and SyncMaster 226BW). The case is black and the front panel is dark blue (some people don’t even realize it has any tone at first – the color is very dark).

The monitor is based on an VA matrix, so everything I’ve said above about the difference in the viewing angles of S-IPS and VA applies to it, too.

The XL20 comes with a light-visor, very neatly made and padded with black velvet on the inside. Such visors are included with NEC’s SpectraView monitors and can also be purchased separately.

There is a shiny label on the monitor informing you that the monitor uses LED-based backlighting. Unfortunately, this label cannot be removed, although it is a common practice with monitors of this class to make any contrasting elements on the front panel easily detachable (for example, on EIZO ColorEdge monitors even the manufacturer’s name is not painted, but printed on a removable sticker).

The monitor’s base allows to adjust the height of the screen (in a range of 100 millimeters), to tilt it, to turn it into the portrait mode, and to rotate it around the vertical axis. The stand can be replaced with a standard VESA-compatible mount.

By the way, the photograph above shows a 1cm wide insertion between the monitor’s front and rear panels. It is this insertion that makes the monitor thicker in comparison with consumer models.

Another peculiar feature, related to the problem of cooling the LEDs, is that the monitor has a small fan you can see through the rear-panel grid. This is perhaps the reason why the monitor is smaller than the SpectraView Reference 21 – the latter is cooled passively. I should confess I only found the fan on a very close inspection of the monitor – it works absolutely noiselessly.

The monitor has two DVI connectors, a digital DVI-D and a universal DVI-I (you can connect a graphics card’s analog output to this input via an appropriate adapter), and an integrated two-port USB hub on the side panel. This hub is mainly intended for the calibrator which has a rather short cable.

The XL20’s controls resemble those of Samsung’s modern home models, but the order of buttons is somewhat different (by the way, they should have made the button labels gray instead of a contrasting white). The Up and Down buttons provide quick access to the brightness and contrast settings (in home monitors the former provides access to the MagicBright feature), and the Menu button has moved to the left. Its place is now occupied by the Mode button, which does not switch between MagicBright modes as you might have supposed. Its function is different:

One problem the enhanced-gamut monitors are bringing about is how to make them correctly reproduce images prepared for older, sRGB, monitors. Widespread graphics file formats encode color not with some absolute values (e.g. with CIE diagram coordinates), but with some relative units. It means such files are going to be displayed differently on monitors with different color gamuts. For example, a pixel with a color of RGB:{0;256;0} corresponds to pure green, but one glance at the color diagrams is enough to realize that the notion of “pure green” means different things for monitors with different color gamuts! Thus, the pure green of a standard sRGB monitor corresponds to the CIE color of {0.3;0.6}, but on the XL20 it corresponds to the CIE color of {0.210;0.698}!

So, a picture prepared for an ordinary sRGB monitor is going to have extremely saturated colors on the screen of the XL20. It can be said that its color gamut is forcibly stretched out from its native sRGB (72% NTSC) to the XL20’s color gamut (114% NTSC).

There are two ways to solve this problem. First, an ICC profile is created after calibration and each program that has color management options can learn the monitor’s color gamut from it and correct images appropriately. Second, the XL20 monitor can emulate any color gamut smaller than the monitor’s own color gamut. This is offered by the Color Mode option. When you press that button, a menu with five modes opens up:

I should note here that the above-mentioned NEC SpectraView Reference 21 offers the same operation modes, too.

The selected operation mode is indicated on the panel under the buttons. If this distracts you, you can disable all the illumination (the current mode and the LED in the Power button) in the monitor’s menu.

Otherwise the SyncMaster XL20’s menu isn’t impressive, especially after the settings-rich menu of the NEC monitors. It looks like the menu of an ordinary home monitor with its typical settings like brightness, contrast and color temperature…

The monitor offers 12 preset color temperature values, but they are all denoted like Warm2 or Cool3 rather than by specific numbers as in NEC’s 2190 series. I’ll get back to the color temperature later.

Right now let’s check out the monitor’s main feature, its enhanced color gamut.

In the Custom mode, when the monitor shows all the colors it can show, it is indeed superior to AdobeRGB, yet doesn’t fully cover AdobeRGB. The latter reproduces green and yellow better, but the XL20 is superior at reproducing red and blue-green. However, I have to admit that our ColorVision Spyder Pro calibrator doesn't guarantee high precision when working with monitors featuring broad color gamut, therefore, the green may not be measured correctly.

Alas, the XL20’s color gamut proves to be smaller than it should be to cover the AdobeRGB gamut in the AdobeRGB emulation mode. What’s sad, it is blue and red colors that are cut off, although you have seen in the previous diagram that the XL20 surpasses AdobeRGB exactly at reproducing red! It means the problem is only about the way the emulation is set up.

Alas, there is the same problem with the sRGB emulation: red and green are “suppressed” too much and the monitor’s actual color gamut in the sRGB emulation mode proves to be smaller than it should be. This can even be perceived by the eye, especially with red color.

Thus, the only reasonable way to achieve a precise emulation of the sRGB or AdobeRGB color space on the SyncMaster XL20 is to use the appropriate option of the Natural Color Expert program and write the result into the Emulation item of the Color Mode menu. Unfortunately, there is only one such item there, so you can emulate one mode only.

But I hope that by the moment the monitor is released to the market – this is expected to happen in March – these drawbacks will have been corrected. As the first diagram shows, the monitor has no problems on the hardware level. It indeed covers a much wider range of colors than sRGB.

But let’s move on to other, more trivial, parameters of the monitor.

The gamma curves are acceptable, but only for home applications. The XL20 is much worse than NEC’s 2190 series monitors in this respect. By the way, the X-Rite Huey is unable to correct the shape of the curves because it does not actually measure that shape. But the Eye-One Display 2 calibrator solves this problem.

With all the abundance of color temperature variants, the setup is rather inaccurate. The temperatures of different levels of gray vary greatly, by over 1000K in some modes. The calibrator is needed once again.

The photographs of gray squares on each of which the gray balance is set up by a different square show the problem: if you base the balance setup on white (the first row), the grays become noticeably bluish, but if you base the balance on gray (the second and third rows), white becomes too warm.

By the way, the LED-based backlight provides new opportunities for color temperature setup. This backlight consists of blocks of LEDs of three different colors (red, green and blue) as the use of white LEDs makes no sense due to an inappropriate design and spectrum of such LEDs. So, the color temperature can be regulated by the LEDs, rather than by the matrix. It can be regulated by adjusting the brightness of LEDs of each of the three colors. This provides a larger dynamic range at high and low color temperatures and a higher accuracy of temperature regulation. The color temperature is indeed regulated in this way in the NEC SpectraView Reference 21, but I couldn’t find out definitely how this is implemented in the XL20.

I could only measure the monitor’s response time on black-gray transitions. I couldn’t measure halftone transitions due to the pulse-width modulation of the power of the backlight LEDs at a frequency of 625Hz (like with CCF lamps, other control methods have low efficiency and offer a small range of brightness adjustment).

I can say, however, that the monitor has an average response time by today’s measures, with slower transitions on dark tones as is usually the case with *VA matrixes. The XL20 is not intended for games, after all, whereas its speed is quite enough for work. I didn’t feel any discomfort due to image fuzziness while working with the XL20.

The monitor’s contrast ratio isn’t high. It’s comparable to that of the above-described LCD2190UXi with an S-IPS matrix. The maximum of brightness is ordinary enough, a little over 200 nits. This is more than enough for work.

Conclusion

The monitors described in this article can’t be considered as direct rivals. They rather offer you some freedom of choice between models each of which has its own pros and cons.

If the SyncMaster XL20 cost $5000, there wouldn’t be any competition because NEC and EIZO offer professional monitors with the same LED-based backlighting, but broader capabilities and much better setup in this sector. But the XL20 costs less than half that money and is thus a competitor to the NEC SpectraView 2190.

Compared to it, the XL20 has drawbacks:

And it has one big advantage:

Thus, the problem of choice between NEC’s 2190 series (MultiSync or SpectraView, depending on whether you need the calibrator or not) and the XL20 comes down to what’s important for your personal needs, accurate and rich settings or a larger color gamut. I can’t say that the NEC or the Samsung is definitely better. Either of them can be preferable, depending on the particular requirements. I also hope that Samsung will have corrected most of the mentioned drawbacks by the release date as they are all related to the monitor’s setup and software rather than to its hardware capabilities. They’ve already decided to change the included calibrator, replacing the X-Rite Huey with the more advanced Eye-One Display 2.

I also want to draw your attention to the fact that Samsung has proved that the LED-based backlight isn’t that expensive by itself. It is quite possible to make a monitor with such backlight that would have a high, yet more or less affordable, price. I am sure there will soon appear new monitors with LED-based backlight at prices comparable to the XL20. Without doubt, such models will eventually oust all others in the sector of professional monitors.