Saturday, November 24, 2012

Adventures in monitors

Friday I broke with my usual habit of staying home on the big shopping days, and went to Best Buy. I had some store credit, and was (and should still be) working on a project where I'd get a pretty major benefit from having another monitor attached to my computer. Besides, while my current monitor was quite high-end when it was new (a LaCie 321), it was getting quite old -- something like 7 or 8 years, if I recall correctly. Over the last few years, nearly anytime somebody heard about my ancient monitor, they'd tell me about how much better monitors had gotten since then, so even a really cheap, entry-level monitor would be a huge improvement.

In terms of specs, almost an new monitor should be a pretty serious upgrade. Just for one obvious example, the LaCie is only rated at 500:1 contrast ratio. Definitely pretty unimpressive compared to the ratios claimed by nearly all new monitors (anymore, the bare minimum seems to be at least a few million to one, and five or even ten million to one isn't particularly hard to find). Granted, those are "dynamic" contrast ratios, but the static ratios are still better than my ancient LaCie

After looking around a bit, I found an HP W2071d, which is a 20" wide-screen monitor, that was marked down to only $79.95 (from a list price of $149.95, for whatever that's worth). Seemed like a decent enough deal, so I picked one up, brought it home, and connected it up. As usual for me, just about as soon as it was connected it up, I pulled out my trusty Eye-one display 2 and calibrated it so the brightness, contrast, color (etc.) should match up with the LaCie (in case anybody cares: 5200K whitepoint, 110 cd/m2 luminance, gamma of 2.2).

Anyway, let's get to the meat of things: just how big of an improvement did the new monitor bring? Well, let me show you a couple of pictures. The HP is on the left, the LaCie on the right:

Here, the two don't look drastically different -- the background in both is reasonably black (though in person, the background of the LaCie is definitely blacker). The picture on the HP is a bit dark, but not too terrible. But now look what happens when I quite crouching down quite as far, and aim the camera down at the screen at something like a 30 degree angle:

Now, especially toward the bottom right corner, the HP's background isn't even close to black. Despite a higher claimed contrast ratio (600:1 static, 5000000:1 dynamic) the contrast between the picture and the background on the HP is looking pretty minimal. Worse, while the picture looks pretty much the same from either angle on the LaCie, on the HP it's gone from a bit dark and shadowy to completely washed out -- to the point that the stripes on the sweater have almost completely disappeared!

My conclusion: both the specifications and people claiming current entry-level monitors have surpassed high-end monitors from yesteryear are basically full of crap1. The new monitor undoubtedly works for spreadsheets or word processing, but the LaCie retains a significant edge in contrast, color accuracy and ability to view from different angles.

1 No, I'm not accusing HP of lying in the specifications -- I'm sure under the right circumstances, it meets its specification. Nonetheless, even after years of regular use, the blacks on the LaCie look deep and rich, while those of the brand new HP look weak and wimpy at best.

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