Panel Panorama (LCD Monitors Test)

By Team Digit Published Date
02 - May - 2007
| Last Updated
02 - May - 2007
Panel Panorama (LCD Monitors Test)
If seeing is really believing, there has been sharp appreciation in the performance of LCD's since our last test way back in April last year, and this trend will continue over the next few years as manufacturers are constantly innovating flat panel technology. Then there's the binary of declining prices. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it?

Consider this-a 19-inch LCD cost approximately Rs 25,000 last year, and sported a typical response time of 12 ms. Today, a 19-inch widescreen LCD will cost you around Rs 14,000, and sport a response time of 4 ms or thereabouts.

Domestic India has gotten onto the flat wave, and an increasing number of people have been replacing CRTs with LCDs. OEM PC manufacturers like HP, Dell, LG and Acer have been offering LCDs with their PC's for some time now. The latest craze to emerge in 2006, and continue this year, is widescreen monitors. Widescreen LCDs (with an aspect ratio of 16:10) have come out of the blue, priced lower than regular 4:3 LCDs, thanks to lower production costs. The reason for their quick adoption besides the attractive pricing is the growing adoption of multimedia PCs for movies and 3D games-all of which benefit from widescreens. DVDs and all HD sources, as you know, are typically wide aspect ratio sources, and viewing them on a widescreen monitor translates to a greater viewing area and smaller ugly black strips on the top and bottom of your screen.

Another trend we've noticed is the growing affection for larger panels-which is of course a function of their steadily declining prices. The proverbial hot cakes (15-inchers) have lost much of their fan following, and the entry level purchase has become a 17-inch LCD. The 19-inch category is sought after by enthusiasts and those heavily into Web browsing and multimedia; the 20.1-inch and above category is a favourite among demanding gamers and enthusiasts with fatter wallets.

Market trends generally reflect in our tests, which is why we received no 15-inch LCDs. What we did get was a bevy of 17- and 19-inch monitors-14 and 15 respectively. In smaller numbers were the bigger boys-the 20.1-inch (one from ASUS), 22-inch (three models) and one humongous 24-inch from BenQ. That's right-we got LCDs that are bigger than traditional TV's!

19-inch LCDs
Fluctuations were at their wildest with prices ranging from as low as Rs 11,300 (the Intex 1904w), to a wallet-busting 35,000 (the NEC MultiSync 1990FX). As expected, specifications were quite close to each other (at least on paper), though there were quite a few additional features here and there.

A 19-inch monitor represents the best possible price point for someone interested in multimedia, but wanting something larger than a 17-inch panel. The cost difference between an entry level 17- and 19-inch monitor is as low as Rs 3,000, and as you'll see a bit later, there were 17-inch panels that cost much more than many 19-inch ones. Once you go above 19-inches, prices go haywire as you approach the realm of 20.1-inch and above panels.

A 20.1 inch LCD will cost at least Rs 4,500 more than a 19-inch, though there is hardly a difference in resolution between the two (note that 17-inch and 19-inch monitors have the same native resolution). Also most of the high-end panels-S-IPS and PVA/MVA-fall in the 20.1-inch and above size categories-monitors sporting these panels will be costlier still.

If your usage is for multimedia-games, movies, etc.-skip the 17-inch category and invest that extra bit in a 19-inch screen; the sheer visual real-estate will be worth the extra cash. In fact, a 19-inch monitor will benefit even regular office applications-Excel, most notably.
Feature Rich, But Not Fancy-free
This category had the biggest price range, so it was natural to expect a lot of different features. If we were to choose a looker, it'd have to be the ASUS PG191-superb build quality, and a very classy looking buffed metal stand with a piano-black bezel topping things off. A pity the thing weighed about as much as a hippo. The stand also integrates a dedicated speaker driver unit, just behind the panel mount. Sound quality was very good-not tinny as one would expect from integrated speakers. Add to the kitty a good 1.3 Megapixel webcam that's better than the generic webcams in the market. Beauty doesn't come cheap though, and the TN panel-based PG191 costs Rs 28,000, and has touch-sensitive menu controls.

Among the others, the Intex 1904w and both the ViewSonic models looked quite sleek; the latter had better colour combinations while the 1904w had a slimmer bezel. Another beauty that caught our eye was AOC's 197S-very good build quality and top notch fit and finish. The quality of moving parts was also up there. The two big boys from NEC (MultiSync 1990FX and MultiSync 1970NXp) also sport excellent finish and supreme build quality.

The HP L1940T features height adjustment-a feature all other 19-inch monitors (besides NEC's duo mentioned above) missed out on. One welcome feature on the MultiSync 1990FX was the presence of portrait mode and you can actually tilt the screen to view web pages vertically, so there's less scrolling. The MultiSync 1990FX had one of the slimmest bezels of all, the only lament was the finish-while excellent in quality it looked rather plain.

The NEC MultiSync 1970NXp featured a very cell phone-like 5-way joystick for menu selection and navigation. It works very well, and reduces the time taken to tinker with the monitors settings-once you get used to it. Another nifty feature unique to this monitor is a trick horizontal swivel. The 1970NXp has a heavy metal base covered with plastic trim. Now when you attempt to turn the screen left and right the entire screen turns, while the metal base remains firm on the table. We say 'trick' because it doesn't appear at first to be able to swivel horizontally.

Exploring connectivity options the ViewSonic duo (VG921M and VA1912W) were in the limelight for the wrong reasons this time-they don't have DVI connects-very shocking for the 19-inch category. Also guilty of this offense by omission were AOC's 197S, HP's L1916, Intex's 1904w, LG's 1952S, and NEC's own LCD190V. None of the 19-inchers featured HDCP support, which means HDCP protected content will not work on these monitors.

Of Speed And Visual Quality
DisplayMate may be Jurassic to some, but it sure helps separate the wheat from the chaff as far as quality goes. One monitor that left the others wallowing in its wake with its sheer dominance in DisplayMate's colour and gray-scale tests was NEC's MultiSync 1990FX. It was the only LCD based around an S-IPS panel, and the difference in colour rendition shows clearly. If you're an image editing professional who wants accurate colour rendition when working with Photoshop or want accurate point-scaling when rendering, the MultiSync 1990FX is the monitor for you. Gamers will also notice the difference in colours, although S-IPS panels are plagued with slower pixel response times, and this may not be the best solution for games (cost considered). The 1990FX also performed commendably in the sharpness and resolution tests, just short of the MVA panel-based MultiSync 1970NXp.
ViewSonic VG921M A birds eye view

Though most people will prefer widescreen monitors for movie-watching, the wide viewing angles that S-IPS and MVA panels provide are much better than TN panels-meaning both these NECs are capable multimedia solutions. The bitter pill in both cases is the price.

A (hefty) notch lower in performance are the offerings from ViewSonic (VG921M) and HP (L1916, L1940T)-both monitors offered some very good results throughout the tests. These were very closely trailed by the LCDs from AOC, BenQ and ASUS. The PG191 had vivid and crisp colours, but the intensity of the colours seemed artificially rich-some tuning was in order. The dark horse was BenQ's FP92W. Despite the fact that it won no accolades it performed reasonably well in DisplayMate, it really came into its own with the movie and game tests. The HDR effects in Oblivion were literally eye-hurting-this smacks of a good contrast ratio-just what the doctor ordered for multimedia activities. The fact that this is a 16:10 (widescreen) monitor just adds to its appeal for the said audience.

HP's L1916 despite being a good scorer had one niggling issue-slight backlight bleeding. This killjoy makes its presence felt on a dark background.

There were no "really bad performers" this time round-all manufacturers are focusing on capturing the flat panel market, so they wouldn't dare introduce sub-standard stuff. However, there were those monitors which had minor issues, or performed consistently behind the others-sometimes both. Jetway's JM1941DF was one such monitor. We were unlucky to get a piece with an eyesore of a dead pixel. However, this is a one off issue, and dead pixels usually mean immediate replacements-so peace! There were also some issues with the black shift test-there were noticeable differences in the grey-coloured bar comparing the edges and the centre (this should not be the case).

Intex's 1904w performed even worse than the JM1941DF. While calibrating using DisplayMate, we were unable to get many grey blocks on a black background. The purpose of this particular screen is to check the monitors black levels, and contrast ratio. Tuning the monitor to make more invisible grey boxes appear was only possible if we sacrificed background black levels. There were also issues with colour intensity tests-especially for blue. We don't recommend this monitor for gamers, and image editing professionals should avoid this like the plague. However, the price (Rs 11,300) makes it attractive for those working with documents and online content. It is aesthetic enough for an office monitor, and casual home users will be interested to note that many 17-inch monitors cost as much as this one-you're virtually getting 2 inches free!

The ASUS VW192T suffered in the reverse video and reverse text tests-green, yellow and cyan weren't visible on a grey background, and that's not the end of it. There is a contrast ratio problem with the VW192T that's a mile wide, and quite noticeable with colour gradations in movies. This panel also has slightly lower brightness levels due to which the HDR effects in Oblivion seemed a little less bloomy than we're used to. This last point however is not really a contrast ratio problem as we mentioned, but a luminance problem-not enough nits (lower Cd/m2 spec).

Decision Time
The 19-inch category was closely fought, no quarters taken and none given. AOC took home gold with Digit's Best Buy Gold Award-its performance and the brilliant pricing saw it in good stead. The Silver was bagged by the ViewSonic VG921M, as it out-did its widescreen sibling (VA1912W) by some margin. However, take a look at the raw performance scores and you'll see both the 8-bit panels NEC's far ahead in this regard. The MultiSync 1990FX and 1970NXp are the only options for discerning professionals with no price constraints.

17-inch LCDs
The 17-inch LCDs represent the new entry level for anyone looking for flat-panel PC monitors. They've successfully taken over the mantle from the 15-inchers as the face of value in the Indian market.

The 17-inch LCD is an ideal purchase for home and office users. Better, in fact, than 19-inch monitors if heavy multimedia usage is not your cup of tea. In fact, 17-inch monitors offer the same resolution as 19-inch-1280x1024 and 1440x900 in case of widescreens.

Don't expect to see much of the costlier S-IPS, MVA or PVA panels here-with value taking priority, regular 6-bit TN panels are used. You'll still get 24-bit colour however, courtesy Dithering (see box Are 8-bit Panels Worth It?).

Features? What Are Those?
Any entry level product is mainly focused on pricing, and features are a luxury most manufacturers decided they could do without. As testament to this, none of the 17-inchers sport advanced features like height adjustment and portrait mode. In terms of aspect ratios, ViewSonic's VA1703w was a shocker-the only 17-inch monitor sporting widescreen dimensions. It's compact and offers the same ultra wide 1440x900 pixel resolution that a 19-inch widescreen offers-that's a lot of horizontal viewing space for your eyes! However, the bright green power LED disturbs especially when working in the dark-it's simply too bright; thankfully, it's not red or even blue! This is common to nearly all ViewSonics.

Acer's AL1706 attracted attention, and held it-it's built on the same slim, ultra narrow bezel, attractive lines as the AL1906 but unlike its larger sibling, there weren't as many show stoppers.

Visually, Dell's 1707FP has to get top honours-the stands are absolutely amazing, and we couldn't figure out how such a slim stand could hold the monitor stably. And stable it was-even more so than some models with bases that occupied double the surface area. Dell also has some of the narrowest bezels around-and this makes for great dual-monitor setups with hardly any gap between screens. Samsung's 740N also has a narrow bezel, though the round stand is a bit ugly.

Intex also makes attractive monitors and their 1703 is no exception, but it sports a bulky power adapter. This is an unnecessary headache-why bundle an adapter when it can be built in? It certainly doesn't add too much bulk, as we've seen from the other LCDs. Samsung's 713BM Plus has its menu buttons positioned on the bottom of the monitor's bezel, and accessing them is a royal pain.

The Numbers Game
When it came to pure performance, figures were close, but two monitors fought harder than the rest for pole position. The position for top performer jockeyed back and forth between ASUS' PM17TX and Samsung's 713BM Plus, with Dell's 1707FP watching from a close third.

Right on the 1707FP's heels snapped Acer's AL1706, BenQ's FP71G , LG 1732S and both the ViewSonics. Despite its success, the PM17TX from ASUS wasn't without issues-there was moiré present in the coarse grained tests. The Samsung 713BM Plus didn't have any issues; unfortunately the price (Rs 19,000) will scare away most customers before they even switch it on! Considering it's a TN panel-based monitor, Samsung should seriously consider revising its price.

Samsung's other offering in this category-the 740N-was way behind the leaders' line of sight. Though priced well, it has issues with black levels and contrast ratio. This was noticeable with improper transitions in shade intensity in the 256-colour test. Certain shades of gray had some noise as well-minute, but noticeable. We don't recommend this monitor for anything more than browsing and office work like documents and spreadsheets.

Both Acer's AL1706 and BenQ's FP71G caused us no concern throughout the tests. While they weren't the best monitors performance wise, they didn't have any mentionable issues, and if the price of the Samsung 713BM Plus and the ASUS PM17TX is a cause for concern, these two are for the frugal at heart-Rs 11,000 and Rs 10,800 respectively.

Shockingly, one of the cheapest monitors in the test also performs quite well, closely tailing its betters. We're talking about the AOC 177V, which at Rs 9,800 breaks the 10,000-Rupee barrier. Other sub-10,000 models weren't so hot on performance-especially Jetway's 1741S and Intex's 1703. ViewSonic's VA1703W is sub-10,000 in the strictest sense of the word (Rs 9,999), and also performed commendably. In fact, it managed to out-distance its non-widescreen sibling, the VA703M, reversing the results of the 19-inch tests, where the non-widescreen VG921M kayos its widescreen sibling (the VA1912W) with no apparent effort.

Decision Time
If anything, the contest here was even more fiercely fought than in the 19-inch category; victories weren't clean, and all sides drew blood. AOC made a clean sweep with top honours and takes Digit's Best Buy Gold in the 17-inch category as well. Their champion, the 177V, is a winning combination of price and performance. The Silver goes to the sole widescreen in this category-the ViewSonic VA1703. 

How We Tested
The Test Bench
Processor: Core 2 Extreme X6800
Graphics Card: Geforce 8800GTX
OS: Windows XP Professional SP2

All tests were performed at the LCD's native resolution, and monitors have been categorised according to panel size.

We calibrated all the LCD's using Display Mate Video Edition calibration suite. Once calibrated, no adjustments followed.
Display Test Software
1. DisplayMate Video Edition
2. PassMark's MonTest

Real World Tests
1. Animated Video file (HD 1080p clips)
2. HD movie clips
3. Game tests
    a. Oblivion (game played in three different environments-dungeon, outdoor and planes of Oblivion)
    b. F.E.A.R (fixed length demo)

Parameters Tested
DisplayMate Video Edition
1. Sharpness and Resolution Tests
2. Pixel Resolution Tests
3. Colour and Greyscale Tests
4. Miscellaneous Tests

PassMark's MonTest

Although most of the MonTest suite is similar to DisplayMate, there was one important test that it adds-the Pixel Persistence test. Here, the monitors' ability to draw and redraw a pixel is checked, which basically gives us an idea to its response time, and hence its suitability for gaming and movie-watching.

download this LCD Monitor Test PDF

Multimedia Tests
The movie clips give as an idea of the test subjects' suitability to multimedia, by testing and judging on parameters like brightness levels, contrast, pixel response, and colour rendition.

The Game Tests allow us to ascertain the suitability of the display to playing games. We play identical timed benchmarks across all the screens and look for input lag, ghosting, brightness and contrast, rendition of special effects like HDR, explosions, bullet time effects (in F.E.A.R). Oblivion provides us a good opportunity to judge these monitors rendition of outdoor scenery as the game has one of the best environments (graphically) in the business.

Jargon Buster
Backlight Bleeding:  The surface of an LCD is backlit by CCFLs (Cold Cathode Fluorescent Lamps). The liquid crystals inside the panel orient themselves to block out all light when off, and re-orient so to allow light to pass through when on. The angle of this orientation determines the colour of the light we see.

Backlight bleeding occurs when this light is not completely blocked out, allowing some it to "bleed" through. It's noticeable on a black background, where some areas will have lighter flecks or bands than other areas. It's a problem that plagues a majority of LCDs out there. The good thing is that it's not very visible during regular work.

Pixel Response Times: This is the time taken for liquid crystals to switch on and off. Liquid crystals orient themselves to switch on and off by application of an electric current, and the time taken for this orientation is called Pixel Response Times.

Dithering: Dithering is nothing but digital noise introduced to simulate many shades of colour, starting with fewer shades. In LCDs, 6-bit panels (262,144 colours) are dithered to display 16.7 million colours (8-bit). Dithering is, simply put, interpolation and will never be as effective as true 24-bit colour. However, 6-bit panels are cheaper to manufacture making it a price-performance trade-off of sorts.

Nits: Nits is better known as candela per square meter. It is a measurement of screen brightness for all displays. Mathematically, Nits is Cd/m^2.

HDCP & LCD Monitors
High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) is a data encrypting system initiated by Intel Corporation and developed by Silicon Image. As the name suggests, HDCP protects digital video and audio content by encryption at every stage of transmission as it moves across digital connects-namely DVI and HDMI-to, ultimately, your screen. This protection is necessary to combat the oldest evil known to digital content-piracy or unauthorised access and duplication.

A PC or a DVD player has to be licensed with HDCP controls before it can play HDCP-protected content. All upcoming standards including Blu-Ray and HD-DVD feature this form of content protection.

What you do need to know is HDCP is built into a few LCD monitors, which you will need to invest in if using such High-Definition content-especially on Windows Vista.

Do also note that when using analog connectivity i.e. D-Sub, it's possible to bypass encryption completely, and display HD content without HDCP. Microsoft has an answer to this-drivers will either constrict resolutions or disable output completely when HDCP content is routed through analog sources instead of digital sources.

Decision Maker
 Your Usage
    What to Buy
Home, Internet, Basic Multimedia  
 AOC 177V, VA1703w, AOC 197S
Office Use, Browsing
 AOC 177V, AOC 197S, ViewSonic VG921M
Average Gaming
 BenQ FP92W, Acer AL1916, BenQ FP71G
Hardcore/Enthusiast GamersASUS PW201, ASUS MW221u
Design Professionals 
 NEC MultiSync 1990FX, NEC MultiSync 1970NXp
Multimedia AficionadosBenQ FP241W, ASUS PW201
Large Screen, aesthetic consciousDell E228WFP

Are 8-bit Panels Worth It?
As we mentioned in Enter The Matrix, Digit March 2006, there are four types of LCD panels being mass produced (though not in equal numbers) today-TN, S-IPS, MVA and PVA. TN panels are by far the cheapest to produce and to buy. These are typically 6-bit panels-6-bits for each colour, which translates to a total of 262,144 colours. However, by a method called dithering (basically interpolation) manufacturers reach the magical figure of 24 bits i.e. 16.7 million colours.

S-IPS and PVA panels are native 8-bit panels, so colour rendition is always superior. MVA panels are the middlemen-they can use dithering, or be native 24-bit.

We have already established that professionals working with images and rendering should avoid 6-bit panels. Another problem inherent to TN panels is the inferior viewing angles. Manufacturers' quotes for viewing angles are not always accurate, simply because the methods employed to measure viewing angles differ.

In our test, we noticed severe issues with viewing angles (vertical in particular) with almost all the 6-bit TN panels.

As the adage goes, all major problems are solved by financial convenience. This is true here as well-TN panels are available in abundance and cheaper by a fair amount than MVA or PVA panels of the same size (S-IPS panels are the costliest). In India, more than 90 percent of all LCD models available are 6-bit panels-8-bit panels are mostly reserved for the 20.1-inch and larger categories. This means that anyone for a 17- or 19-inch LCD will have no option but to go 6-bit.

This said, the difference in price is worth the premium you pay for these higher-quality panels, but if (and only if) you plan on using your monitor for digital entertainment or for professional graphics work.

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