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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  • silvajp - Wednesday, December 31, 2008 - link

    In our home we went with a 25.5" from Samsung, native resolution 1920x1200. It's larger pixels were much easy on our eyes compared to a highly recommended 24" from Dell offering the same resolution. Reply
  • silvajp - Wednesday, December 31, 2008 - link

    FYI We have the Samsung 2693HM.
    Also note this model seems to our eyes very bright and colorful. In fact one of us is a Graphic Artist and find the color range very satisfactory.
    Reply
  • kondor999 - Saturday, December 27, 2008 - link

    As someone who was very confused about the "Contrast Ratio War" going on in Retail, this was super-informative.

    I'll officially stop perseverating on this meaningless spec now.
    Reply
  • gochichi - Tuesday, December 23, 2008 - link

    Dear Anandtech,

    This is your job. It is truly disappointing to see so little help coming from the review sites. Dell has 31 LCD monitors. That's one brand, one brand that has some of the best LCDs and surely must have some bad ones too.

    I've never seen a review of Dell's new high-RES 23" LCD. You guys mention it in passing. You guys also throw Acer a bone as an "overall good value", if you've never seen it, I certainly have. I purchased a 24" Acer LCD and returned it the next day. I preferred my old 17" MAG LCD (OLD! REALLY OLD!) to the junkiness of that Acer.

    I currently have a 24" LCD, a 17" LCD, a 21.5" LCD, a 32" 720P HDTV (as a computer monitor) , and I totally disagree with your assumption that bigger is better (it's not worse either)because most of the monitors you mentioned are below $500.00, they are all affordable. Some other criterion must be used.

    I think most people don't need as much help with the obvious things such as size. I don't need you to tell me that you prefer 24" screens, different sizes have different uses OBVIOUSLY. Can you instead tell me about the non-obvious, the performance, and so on?

    Because I would absolutely be interested in a high performing 17" LCD as well as a high performing 20", etc. etc. The brick and mortar stores are little help, 90% of the time they have useless setups with the resolutions garbled up.

    Every single Acer monitor I've seen I strongly dislike because of the image quality. Yet I've seen some very nice monitors in other sizes that I'd be happy to own, though I don't know the model numbers there are 4:3 ratio smaller Dells that are a pleasure to work on. (17" or 19" both).

    Obviously, it's absurd that Dell has decided to release 31 models of LCDs, and that every other manufacturer does similar things. Samsung is not much better, they have 20" models, 21.5" models, 22" models many of which (most of which really) are impossible to differentiate from one another.

    You guys could take a leadership role on this and really start untang ling this mess. Instead of this obscure, incomplete, biases guide (you yourselves called it biased, you said "bigger is better"). What are the 17" LCDs to look for? What are the 19" LCDs to look for? Etc etc.

    Even more importantly is, which models should we avoid? But then again, I'm not exactly trusting your judgment too much since the only brand that received a blanket endorsement (Acer) is one of the very worse in my personal experience.

    Other ways to divide LCD monitors: Glossy vs matte displays. From time to time I see glossy desktop displays and some of them are good, some of them not so much. For example HP's 20" glossy display is high quality. I would even appreciate a list of the brands and models that offer glossy displays (e.g. Dell's coating would be "TrueLife")as well as overall impressions on this.

    I think my job is to come here, click on Ads and buy stuff and I do that. Your job is to give me some reason to come and do so. These articles aren't as useful as they could be and I'm tiring of it.
    Reply
  • gammaray - Friday, December 26, 2008 - link

    I totally agree with you. Bigger isn't better even if it's just 20$ more.
    i WANT to know which 19" or 20" LCD monitors is the best right now.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    Why not? How many people are space constrained enough to need a 17" if you can get a $19 for the same (or $20 more)?

    My only experience with Acer is a 17" I bought for my parents last Christmas. It is a TN panel, so it has all the TN panel problems, but otherwise has been flawless.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, December 24, 2008 - link

    You dislike Acer that much, eh? I've tested three of their displays; for the price, they're all good displays -- as in good performance with some drawbacks that are totally overcome by the very affordable price. And you still get a 3-year warranty (which I've used on at least one Acer display over the years) -- unless that changed? I've also used many of their other displays, and never had any serious complaints.

    The same goes for most LCDs though. If you don't want backlight bleed, you'll need to shop around more; if you want better color reproduction, again you'll need to shop around (or at the very least pay for a more expensive LCD). There can be a pretty significant difference between $320 24" LCDs and $1000 24" LCDs in terms of color quality, but will most users notice or even care? I don't think so.

    I'm working on other LCD reviews, but it takes time to get them and then run all the tests. At the end of the day, if you want a high quality LCD, you pay a high quality price. In most cases, you can tell a lot about the display quality just by finding out if it's a TN, PVA, or IPS panel. I'd take the latter every time given the option, but they invariably cost about twice as much as the same size with a TN panel.
    Reply
  • jackylman - Monday, December 22, 2008 - link

    No non-TN panels for under $400?! Man, I should've filled my garage with a bunch of ViewSonic Vx2025wm (20" widescreen PVA) when they were in the $300 neighborhood. I could be making a lot of loot selling them for ~$400. Reply
  • geok1ng - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    I feel sad with the state of the LCD market today. Aside from the DS with 30 inches of S-IPS glory for $900 there are no options today that can rival the good old ones...
    A- My 5 years old Apple Cinema HD 30 inches is still on the top 10 of the planet. What 5 years old hardware can manage that much time on top!
    B- My previous LCD , an Acer 2616w , 26 inches of high coplor gamut S-MVA with decent input lag and HDCP simply has no similar on the USA market...i feel really good about the $600 that i payed 2 years ago
    C- The Soyo 24 inches SMVA is a fast nononsense sub$300 panel, and it is pretty much the only non-TN panel at 1920x1080 that does not costs an arm and a leg.

    But i agree with the directions that the low end market is taking, higher resolutions TN panels, instead of huge 28 inches TN panels. Today 22 inches TNs are the way to go for non professional uses, but we still need better and cheaper non-TN options for the quality oriented consumers.
    Reply

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