The Eyes Have It

Choosing an appropriate display can often get very confusing, particularly if you don't know the terminology. We've covered this in our display reviews, so if you're not sure what the various specifications mean you can start there. One area that we didn't cover in that glossary is panel technologies, but once again we've discussed that elsewhere. For those that don't like to follow links, here's a recap.

Many LCD specifications are prone to inflation by the manufacturers or have become largely meaningless. Take contrast ratio for example. That's the white level divided by the black level, and if you could actually get pure black on any LCD contrast ratio would be "infinity". In practice, anything over 500:1 is sufficient, and 1000:1 is about the best you can see before the manufacturers start playing tricks. What sort of tricks? How about dynamic contrast ratio, where the backlight intensity changes according to the content currently being shown on the display. Now you can take the maximum white level at maximum brightness and divide it by the minimum black level at minimum brightness, which results in substantially higher contrast ratios. Unfortunately, in practice the varying intensity of the backlight can be distracting to say the least, and color accuracy greatly suffers because of the constantly shifting brightness levels. Our advice: ignore dynamic contrast ratios, and if your display supports the feature we recommend disabling it.

Pixel response times are another area that has been inflated -- or deflated in this case. We have looked at various LCDs boasting anywhere from a 2ms to 16ms response time; honestly, we would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between most of them. All of the comparison images we've captured show similar best/worst case scenarios for pixel response latency, with one or two afterimages present. A bigger problem these days is processing lag (aka "input lag"), which is the delay between the time a signal is sent to your LCD and the time the internal circuitry finishes processing it and actually shows it on the LCD panel. We have measured lag as high as 50ms, which makes gaming very frustrating and is even noticeable/irritating during general Windows usage.

The one item that manufacturers don't usually make a big deal about happens to be the aspect of any display that seems to matter most: the actual panel technology. There are three general categories of panel technology: TN (twisted nematic), MVA/PVA (multi-domain vertical alignment/patterned vertical alignment), and IPS (in-plane switching). Opinions about which technology is actually best differ somewhat, but there's no denying the fact that TN is substantially cheaper to produce whereas PVA and IPS are more expensive. These days, the vast majority of LCDs are once again using TN panels, largely because of the pricing advantage. If you want a higher quality panel using MVA, PVA, or IPS you will need to be prepared to pay anywhere from 50% to 300% more -- depending on overall quality and the target market. Here's a quick overview of the panel technologies.

Viewing angles on TN are substantially worse, particularly vertical viewing angles, and all TN panels are natively 6-bit panels that use dithering to approximate 8-bit color. Most people won't notice the difference in color accuracy, but imaging professionals would definitely prefer something better. The advantage of TN panels is that -- at least on the ones we've tested -- input lag is not a problem. Response times are usually lower on paper, but again it's difficult to actually see the difference between a 2ms panel and a 6ms panel, especially when the display refreshes every 17ms.

PVA and IPS are basically the exact opposite of TN: great viewing angles, very good color reproduction, and true 8-bit colors. However, pixel response times are a little lower (it's not something that has ever bothered us). The other big problem? At least on the S-PVA panels that we've tested, input lag has been a major concern, ranging from as low as 20ms up to nearly 50ms. Ouch! S-IPS panels don't seem to have a problem with input lag, at least on the models we've tested -- which all happen to be 30" LCDs. That said, Dell's 3008WFP is the exception, which seems to be caused more by the digital scaler than by the IPS panel.

A less common panel type is MVA, which in practice is similar to PVA but seems to perform better in regards to input lag. We've only tested one LCD that uses an MVA panel, the BenQ FP241VW (a review is forthcoming), and input lag appears to be equal to that of our reference LCD. Color quality and other aspects are also good, but pricing and availability is a concern, not to mention the fact that we're not super keen on the frame/stand for the FP241VW.

That was a really long-winded introduction to our display choices, but it's important to understand the above information before you start looking at the various options. Frequently, the choice will come down to getting something larger with a cheaper TN panel versus getting a smaller LCD with a PVA/IPS panel. Even among the same panel technology, however, there are wide variations in quality. Most LCD panels are manufactured by one of only a few companies, but similar to processors these panels are "binned" based on quality. The bottom line is that you often get what you pay for, so if you're wondering why LCD X seems to have the same specifications as LCD Y but costs significantly less, it's very likely that the panel doesn't meet the same quality standards. Color uniformity is one of the big differences between various LCD panels, with the best panels often ending up in displays that cost twice as much as LCDs that are otherwise equal in terms of specs. So now let's look at our various recommendations for the different price points.

LCD Recommendations
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  • DorkMan - Saturday, December 20, 2008 - link

    First, settle on a size. I love my 24" panel for all my video editing.

    Okay, not settle on a technology. Very, very, simple rule of thumb: ANYTHING is better than TN, though TN usually has faster response times. Better how? Look at a beautiful color photo on the panel. Now move your head down a couple of feet, not up a couple of feet. The fancier panels will look the same, the TN panel image will change dramatically. But hey, if you don't mind, go for TN, which is significantly cheaper.
    BTW I was lucky to get one of the $299 P-MVA Soyo panels a little over a year ago. Fantastic image, saturated color, no black level shift as you move around. Wonder where Soyo found these Optronics panels when all the other guys didn't have them?
    Reply
  • DorkMan - Saturday, December 20, 2008 - link

    Sorry, guys, grease on my fingers from dinner. Replace "not" with "now" in the above post. Reply
  • Gunlance - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    I always enjoy browsing the LCD suggestion thread on the anandtech forums. The best place for really narrowing down your options.

    I'm still rocking my Samsung SyncMaster 215TW :)
    Reply
  • MalVeauX - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Heya,

    If you need a display larger than 28", it's time for you to just go up to an HDTV plasma with 1080p native res. It'll cost less than $2,000 that the 30" listed dream setups do. I have a 42" plasma that is 1080p and the text is actually crisp. No point in being limited to a small real estate screen size when a quality 1080p plasma can do the same thing for you.

    If you're using your display to code all day, literally, then stick with LCD's (in fact, get a wide screen that does portrait mode and then use it like that so you can see more of your code). But if you're using your display for casual use, gaming, and even video watching, you don't need a little LCD. Get something big. Make those high end machines and graphics cards do something wonderful that fills your face, not just a $4,000 machine on a tiny little 22" box that display all it does.

    Very best,
    Reply
  • RagingDragon - Sunday, December 21, 2008 - link

    The maximum resolution for an HDTV is 1920x1080 (1080p), while the 30" displays are all 2560x1600. Generally buyers of 30" displays are looking for the highest possible resolution at a reasonable pixel size (high cost, tiny pixels, and iffy hardware and software suppport make the 23" 3840x2400 displays impracticle for most buyers). Reply
  • Inq - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Actually the HP LP2475 does not have an S-IPS panel but an H-IPS one just like the 26 NEC. Great display btw, it beats the 2408WFP IMO. Reply
  • rdh - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    My Westinghouse L2410NM was pretty well panned by everyone. But, you know, I have been using it as a monitor and an HDTV now since April and I love it. It has the real estate do serious Software development, and has HDMI/Component inputs for HDTV from my Dishnetwork HDDVR. My son's xbox360 looks great on it. It has a 1080p MVA screen, and a 1920x1200 base resolution.

    The time for Monitors + HDTV inputs and resolutions has come.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Monday, December 22, 2008 - link

    We have several of these for work. If you need the VGA input the scaling can be weird, one had a broken menu/input select button, and at least one has a dead pixel, and there is the really annoying fact that it goes to a blue screen instead of shutting off when using the HDMI input. But for the price they were ($350-400 at Newegg) the image quality is great and the selection of inputs nice. Too bad Newegg no longer has them and everywhere else seems to be more expensive. Reply
  • Kairos - Thursday, December 18, 2008 - link

    I bought a Samsung SyncMaster 2443BWX about five days ago, from Costco. It was marked down to $279, and since I got the last one in the store (apparently Samsung is phasing the model out), the display model (never turned on, just sat on the shelf), I got a 10% discount off of it. Actually, I didn't, because no one working at the store could figure out what 10% off of $279 was, so they ended up giving it to me for $200.

    It's a fairly bare-bones monitor (a panel on a stand with a DVI port and a VGA port, basically), but the panel quality is pretty good, and for $200 it's an amazing deal. I'm very satisfied with it, overall. Costco, in my experience, has always been a great place to shop for monitors. They'll often run really good clearance deals on old models, so you can get something nice for not much money.
    Reply
  • Wineohe - Thursday, December 18, 2008 - link

    Just received my 2408WFP today, although I paid a little more when I purchased it late Monday night.

    I set it up in a dual display configuration with the 1901FP it replaced, which is almost exactly 5 years old. I am shocked by how dim and off the colors are on the 1901FP. And to think I was debating the purchase. I can't believe I was actually editing family photos with it.
    Reply

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