Time to buy new monitors. As a media programmer and web developer I am using a dual monitor setup for many years now. Is this still the way to go? Which type of monitors should I use? What budget will I need?
This is a quick review of the considerations during my latest purchase decision, of the solution I finally chose, and whether I got happy with it.
Single or dual monitor?
Single monitors are available in sizes and resolutions that match the total size and resolution of classical dual monitor setups. The price of a single 27 to 30 inch 16:10 monitor with IPS or PVA panel technology roughly matches that of two 21 inch 4:3 monitors, the latter tending to be a bit cheaper. As I am working on Windows I decided to stay with the dual monitor setup, mainly because with two screens it is easier to organize windows and palettes. Switching a window to fullscreen does put the window to fullscreen on only one monitor (which is usually what I want). Many programs allow to keep the editing environment on one screen while the live result is shown on the other (e.g. PowerPoint).
Another advantage of a 2 monitor setup is the fact that you can mount the panels not only in a flat plane, but each slightly rotated towards you, which reduces the maximum viewing angle towards the outer edges of the total display setup. Color and brightness shifts towards the rim of the display will be smaller.
Size and resolution
For quite some time now I am using a 16:10 and a 4:3 monitor side by side. The bigger one is used as the main working panel while the smaller one is used for palettes and side windows.
With my new setup I wanted to go for two equally sized monitors, both having at least the resolution of the current 16:10 panel (1680×1050), resulting in an increased total resolution of my system. I did not want to use panels that are too big as I don’t want to start moving my head all the time to see from one end to the other. For the same reason I did not want to put two 16:10 panels side by side, but rather two 4:3 panels – a combined 32:10 screen in front of me would not seem to be very ergonomic.
Anther consideration was that with my preferred monitor to eye distance (usually about 65 to 70 cm – rather large), I did not want to buy a dot pitch below 0.27 mm as OS details would get to small then.
After some calculation and comparison with my current setup I found that the optimum panels would be 21 to 23 inches with a resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels (or a bit higher towards 23 inches).
As a media and web design oriented programmer I do not want to go for TN panels. Their color and brightness varies with the viewing angle and thus shifts towards the outer edges of the display. PVA and IPS (and their derivatives) are the main upper class technologies that can be found on the market. These definitely are my target technologies.
I did not want to spend more than 1000 EUR per monitor – considerably less would be considerably better.
Matching models overview
With the above parameters I was faced with the problem to get a market overview that matched my demands. I found some really large monitor databases on the web that were of great help. The best source was the German PRAD website (available in English too) which I highly recommend.
On PRAD it is very easy to find all monitors matching your criteria from a database of over 6000 specimen (as of this writing). As I quickly found out the density of results for my specific parameters was astonishingly low. Most current monitors models use 16:10 or 16:9 panels. 4:3 models with better-than-TN technology are available in large quantities only up to 20 inch (majority is 19 inch). I actually found not a single 4:3 non-TN monitor from 22 inch upwards! Luckily the 21 inch class seems to be a target size for professional usage (I found PVA and IPS panels only!), and I had some luck here with models that matched my parameter range.
I finally short-listed the spectrum to two models:
- Eizo S2100 (approx. 820 € incl. tax, plus shipping)
- NEC LCD2190UXp (approx. 630 € incl. tax, plus shipping)
Both monitors are actually quite similar in their specs, the panels could even be identical:
21.3″, 1600×1200, matte finish, 300 cd/m², S-PVA by Samsung.
Reviews and tests that I found on the net attested excellent quality to both products. This did not really surprise me – for years most professional monitor tests that I read had been dominated by EIZO and NEC.
I finally decided for the NEC. Main advantages over the EIZO:
- 2 DVI inputs (EIZO: 1 input)
- 12 bit LUT (EIZO: 10 bit)
- about 25% cheaper with similar reviews and test results
The disadvantages of the NEC that I have to cope with are:
- 3 years warranty (EIZO: 5 years, this really hurts)
- No USB hub (EIZO has one, but I don’t care)
- No EIZO logo on the front (the reputation of EIZO is simply unbeatable and I would love to let it illuminate my office)
My old dual head solution used a digital (DVI) and an analog (VGA) connection. With the new monitors I wanted to change that to a dual DVI setup – it would be a pity to operate such fine monitors on analog signals. So I had to exchange my graphics card too.
My motherboard is able to hold a PCIe x16 card and I wanted to get a decent card without wasting money and without ruining my carbon footprint with a kilowatt graphics adaptor (besides I was not sure whether my PC’s power supply would support a PCIe slot based heating device).
I looked out for Nvidia and ATI/AMD cards. I did not find any Nvidia dual DVI cards. In the ATI spectrum there are several offers with ATI Radeon HD 4000 series GPUs, but (so far) none with HD 5000 or 6000 chips. I settled for an XFX ATI Radeon HD 4650 Graphics Adaptor (PCI-e, 1024MB GDDR2 Memory, Dual DVI, TV-Out, 1 GPU) with the highest Radeon HD 4000 chip that still does not need an extra power supply cable. It costs less than 50 EUR in Q3 2010.
The NECs are indeed very nice. I still would love to see them side by side with the EIZO models, but I can’t imagine that the EIZOs would perform any better. The display is bright, colors are wonderful and consistent over the whole display. The ATI card performs perfectly with these monitors and is a good choice too.
The only problem that kept me somewhat busy was with the automatic brightness control of the monitors. This could be ironed out by calling NEC tech support (see below).
Using the new monitors made me reconsider my color profiles and settings. For a web worker there is no such thing as a calibrated output as my products are seen on all kinds of displays. Never the less there is a common sense calibration target, which is the sRGB color space. While it is smaller than the Adobe RGB color space, it is a widely used default setup for many devices and can be reproduced by the majority of displays. It is the default color space for the Windows platform and far beyond it and even the majority of printers default to this color space when converting RGB data into their subtractive color system.
Of course the NECs provide an sRGB setting. You will find it in the OSD (on screen display) settings. It actually really hurts to use it, as the available color space of these great displays is harshly reduced and the colors appear much less vivid when the monitors are switched to sRGB. But there is no way around that as long as you want to see something that is at least close to what the majority of your customers will see. You should also activate the OSD setting which is called Color Compensation. It increases the overall homogeneity of the color display (at the price of reducing the overall brilliance another little bit).
If you still use Windows XP (as I do) you will want to use the Microsoft Color Control Panel Applet. This gives you a central place to control the profiles for all attached devices (some similar control panel item is available by default in Vista and Windows 7). In the Color Control Panel I activated the Windows default sRGB profile for the NEC monitors. NEC also provides a monitor driver that basically installs a profile for the monitors, but I could not find any visible difference between this NEC profile and the sRGB standard profile, so I kept the Windows default.
The advisable color settings in Photoshop CS4 are:
- Working Space RGB = Monitor RGB – sRGB IEC61966-2.1
- Color Management Policies RGB = Off
The multi monitor Auto Brightness problem
I also played around with the other OSD settings of the NECs. Beside the activation of the sRGB color space there are several other interesting settings, and not all of them are trivial to configure. What really gave me a headache was the interaction of the settings for brightness, auto brightness, and eco mode (the latter reduces the maximum brightness to save energy). Especially if you want to use the Auto Brightness function (monitor dims its backlight in sync with the light in the room) things are getting quite intransparent. At first I did not find a way to have both monitors dimming in sync with each other – as soon as the room light went down, one monitor was constantly brighter than the other one. I started suspecting a hardware problem with one of the monitors.
The worst part of the problem was that the key information to solve the puzzle is contained in the manual – but not in the printed one. I really wonder why NEC adds a thick printed manual that does contain only a part of the full information, without any hint that the PDF manual on CD is more complete. It took me a call to the NEC hotline to find that out.
Armed with the information from the CD manual I found this method to set up Auto Brightness to work in sync on both monitors:
- Auto Brightness = ON
- Eco Mode = OFF – it only sets the maximum brightness and this can be done by the Auto Brightness maximum settings as described in step 3.
- Now make sure the light in the room is really bright and then adjust the brightness setting to the level you want to use under that lighting condition (I set it to 80% which is a bit more than Eco Mode 1). Then shade the room to the lowest possible lighting and again set the brightness setting to the value that you fell is adequate for dimmed lighting conditions. I personally did not shade the room but covered the light sensor on the NECs completely with my finger and then set the brightness value to about 30%. With reduced lighting conditions in my room this results in a brightness of about 50%. I had to go through the process of setting max and min brightness several times until the monitors worked widely in sync under all lighting conditions.
More NEC tricks
You also should not miss the CD manual part about the advanced OSD menu (activated by pressing Power and Select together when switching the monitor on). This OSD contains a lot more menu items, including the possibility to feed many NECs with an identical video signal and set them up in a monitor wall setup. They isolate their part of the whole image themselves from the video signal!
The NEC LCD2190UXp are wonderful monitors at a reasonable price/performance ratio (Q3 2010: roughly 1350 EUR for 2 monitors, 1 graphics adaptor, and shipping). This solution provides about 35% more display surface than a 27″ 16:10 display. I had a problem to finetune my setup (in particular the Auto Brightness function) that was actually caused be an incomplete printed manual and could be solved by the PDF version of the manual on CD. A dual DVI graphics adaptor is a must to support the high potential of these monitors.