Buying a new monitor has never been more challenging. Purchasing monitors online can save you serious bucks, but it also puts you at the mercy of legions of challenging numbers and uninformed reviews. Since manufacturer specs are decidedly cooked, it takes quite a bit of time to understand which specs are fluff and which are substantial. (Hint: always ignore “dynamic” contrast ratio.)
Unfortunately, store shopping isn’t much more revealing. Between the fluorescent lights, the uninformed salespeople, and the wall of monitors sharing a signal over a 16-way VGA splitter, the quality you see in stores may not be the quality you bring home.
That’s where this story comes in. We’ve done the meticulous research and testing needed to guarantee you’ll find a lovely new monitor that suits you perfectly. After all, today’s monitors are thinner, faster, and better than they’ve ever been. Apple’s own line of Cinema Displays is gorgeous, but if you’re looking for luxury, the cost of admission is substantially lower than Apple’s $799 entry-level display might lead you to believe--and the expansion of DVI as a standard ensures that nearly any monitor will work with your Mac.
So we chose monitors from some of the biggest names in the industry--and all rested right under the $300 mark. (For all the specs and details on our monitors, click to the last page.) At that price, the monitors come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and even technologies, but one thing remains constant: $300 is that magical number at which a substantial jump in quality occurs. If you want to find a luxury display at a terrific price, look no further.
With monitors, prioritizing a good design can sometimes lead you away from the best picture. But nobody wants to stare at an obnoxious hunk of plastic all day, either.
Often, the form and function of monitors don’t play nice together. In fact, if our tests were any indication, we’d argue the uglier the monitor, the more functional its design. After all, a monitor can only look so sexy if you have to stack it on piles of books to achieve a proper viewing angle. Thin or tough, sleek or spinnable--in our tests we were nearly always forced to choose one or the other.
The least stylish monitor in our group test is clearly the industrial NEC, but it also boasts the most ergonomic design. The HP, NEC, and Dell each allow for height adjustments, tilting, swiveling, and 90-degree pivoting, which lets users spin the monitors from the typical landscape mode to portrait mode, making them ideal as second displays.
Conversely, the stylish and über-thin Samsung and Acer only allow for slight tilting (the maximum angle forward for the Acer is a measly 5 degrees). The base of the Samsung clearly would not remain stable at greater angles, despite its paper-thin design, and it is a creaky mess to adjust. The Acer comes with a sturdier stand, which accommodates all the buttons in high style. The asymmetrical base looks futuristic, but may be an eyesore for some and adds quite a bit of weight to the display.
Most of the monitors are only several pounds more than the feather-light 9-pound Samsung display, but the NEC nearly doubles its weight at 17.4 pounds. The HP is the only monitor with less than 22 inches of screen real estate, but it is still 2.5 inches deep sans stand and almost as heavy as the NEC.
The Samsung is the only monitor that has its adjustment buttons on the back, and though they are easy to use and kept attractively out of sight, pushing them causes pressure points on the screen, which could lead to dark spots and broken LEDs.
Surprisingly, the no-frills monitors, like the HP and NEC, succeeded with the least setbacks. Though neither monitor boasts a stunning design, we appreciated their emphasis on strength and flexibility. With the Samsung, you’ll eventually stop being enamored of its good looks, but with the HP and NEC, you’ll always be thankful you have something practical and efficient on your desk.
Testing a display is an unholy mixture of science and technique. Unlike most hardware, monitors require significant fine-tuning before proper testing can even begin. The Design & Build rating represents our subjective evaluation of each monitor’s form and function; here’s how we evaluated the monitors’ technical performance:
We hooked up two monitors side by side using identical DVI cables and, for the DVI-less Acer only, a connection adapter. We used them for several hours before testing because certain monitors have out-of-the-box hiccups that tend to fix themselves with a little time. Next, we calibrated the monitors with Apple’s built-in Display Calibrator Assistant running in Expert Mode. We then utilized low-saturation color tests (tests that reveal which monitors can’t display a full spectrum of lights to darks) to adjust the contrast and brightness to the right levels. After the monitors were (finally) well-calibrated, we put each monitor through a comprehensive 13-step test from the awesome (and free) www.lagom.nl.
Those tests revealed the majority of a display’s strengths and weaknesses, from gradient banding to subpixel layout. By doing side-by-side testing, monitor against monitor, we were able to determine where each display excelled and where each bombed. Take for instance, true response time tests. In them, squares flicker at 10Hz, and the slower the monitor, the darker the flickering appears. If the flashing for one row appears pale pink on one screen and darker on another, then the first monitor has a faster response time. There’s not a numerical value to assign to many of these tests, but by comparing display to display it becomes clear which monitors are performing the best.
Next Page: Viewing Angles & Light Consistency >>
Viewing angles and light consistency are exactly what they sound like: From what angles can you monitor your monitor without significant distortion? Does the monitor display a solid color without visual dark spots or light leakage?
Okay, we’re going to start off super-nerdy here, then translate it: with all TN monitors (TN and S-IPS are types of monitor tech; see below for details), the gamma curve of your monitor depends on the viewing angle. That mouthful is a techie way of saying that the angle at which you view a display directly corresponds to how much it distorts the color of the picture. And even when viewing head-on at a theoretical 0-degree angle from center, the TN monitors by Acer, Samsung, NEC, and Dell have significant color distortion at the edges. Because it uses S-IPS tech, only the HP doesn’t.
Though all TN panels suffer from significant distortion when viewed at an angle, especially a vertical angle--colors shift, and the screen becomes darker--it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever be viewing a monitor at a 160-degree vertical angle for prolonged amounts of time. However, some TN displays had significant distortion at much less extreme angles. By performing gamma-viewing angle tests, we discovered which monitors were the most sensitive to screen distortion when viewing from angles.
Checking viewing angles is one of the easiest tests consumers can perform with store monitors.
Almost immediately after leaving the head-on position, the Acer’s colors begin to warp substantially. This is a big problem for the Acer because it doesn’t allow for swiveling. Colors degrade immediately, rendering moot the viewing-angle claims of the manufacturer. The only other monitor with sparse movement capabilities, the Samsung, holds its colors and brightness to more exaggerated angles. The NEC had the worst issues with the vertical axis; slight angles nearly invert colors completely and dim the screen to unmanageable levels. In fact, just leaning in from your desk chair can distort up to a third of the screen.
In evaluating light consistency, we test whether a display is consistently lit without light or dark spots when viewing screens of a single color. Luckily, it wasn’t a considerable problem on any monitors. In most cases, when we did see instances of darker areas, they fixed themselves after several hours of testing. The NEC was the only monitor that still had light-consistency issues after several hours--and though the problems were almost imperceptible, there were slightly darker areas when performing a full screen test with a solid color (in this case, white). The Dell kept its shades well, but close scrutiny revealed a bit of light leakage and some discoloration (namely, darker spots on the screen).
Due to the HP’s S-IPS technology, colors on the ZR22w barely shifted, even at the most exaggerated angles. HP’s specs of 178 degrees horizontal and 178 degrees vertical viewing are actually accurate. Most impressive.
Samsung PX2370: 4 out of 5
NEC EA221WM-BK: 2.5 out of 5
HP ZR22W: 4.5 out of 5
Dell P2311H: 3 out of 5
Acer S243HL: 2 out of 5
All of the monitors we reviewed, with the exception of one, were TN panels. TN, short for “twisted nematic,” is the most common type of consumer display and the cheapest to build. Unfortunately, it also allows for quite a bit of visual distortion when viewed from angles. Looking at a solid color on TN panels will reveal a gradient effect in which a solid color varies, even from a head-on view.
The HP ZR22w was the only monitor in a different class. That class is S-IPS, or “super in-plane switching” (hey, we didn’t name it), and it allows for wide viewing angles with almost no color distortion and improved color representation. If you’ve seen an iPad, you’re already familiar with them; an IPS screen is what makes Apple’s tablet pretty from nearly every angle.
Next Page: Screen Test >>
Screen tests are all-encompassing and very important; they show us everything from response time to low-saturated colors. And this is where knowing your personal preferences becomes important since, for example, gamers will need something different from photographers and vice versa.
Every monitor requires a handful of adjustments to display a picture correctly. There are dozens of ways to do this with hardware, software, or even carefully crafted websites. No matter how you do it, it is imperative that you do it as soon as you bring a monitor home. A great first step is navigating to System Preferences > Displays > Color and clicking the Calibrate button to launch your Mac’s built-in calibrator. And you can go much, much deeper with the great resources at www.lagom.nl/lcd-test.
Which brings up a key point. Before you make your selection from the group of monitors in our test, consider these questions, which will help you pick the right display: Are you looking for colors that “pop” or for an accurate color representation? Are you using your monitor for movies or gaming? Are you looking for a primary or secondary monitor? Knowing your answers will help you choose wisely as you read on.
What you read isn't always what you get, so it's important to know which facts really matter.
Right out of the box, the Acer couldn’t distinguish a single shade of the 16 shades in our white-level saturation tests. There’s a delicate balance between displaying one end of the spectrum or the other, but after significantly tweaking the contrast ratio and brightness, the spectrum was still far from perfect on both the Acer and the Dell. For a work monitor, the NEC faired surprisingly well on differentiating deep blacks and low saturation colors, but didn’t look good with dark movies. The Samsung and HP did the best with our black, white, and low-level saturation tests.
If you look at text all day, hardcore tests may not affect your purchase decision. Text is most legible with contrast as high as possible, which would adversely affect photo quality. The NEC has the lowest native resolution at 1680x1080, and the HP is by far the darkest even cranked to 100 percent brightness, but both handle text extremely well. The Dell faired the poorest in differentiating shades of black.
There are problems that even casual computer users will want to be aware of, however. Many monitors are unable to display small steps or dark shades, so to correct that, LED pixels flicker lights on and off at tremendous speeds to display various shades. This is often imperceptible to the eye, but at times you can see a drifting pattern of light onscreen. It’s called temporal dithering, and the Acer had it in several shades of gray. For certain users, especially photographers interested in black-and-white photography, this alone could be a deal-breaker.
The Dell had a still more serious issue: no matter how many adjustments we made, there was always a tint on the screen. The monitor was preloaded with different graphic modes, which you can’t turn off, and they made accurate color representation egregiously off-base.
The Samsung has a tad more screen real estate than the HP and was loads brighter. Movies and gaming looked kickass on both, but a heads-up to serious gamers, who will likely notice ghosting on all monitors operating at a 60Hz refresh rate, as all the monitors in this test do.
Samsung PX2370: 4 out of 5
NEC EA221WM-BK: 3 out of 5
HP ZR22W: 4 out of 5
Dell P2311H: 2.5 out of 5
Acer S243HL: 3 out of 5
Whether you’re a newcomer in the market or a seasoned shopper, one rule remains the same: always be wary of manufacturers’ stats. Here’s what to look for:
Viewing angles are often stated at 170 horizontal/160 vertical, but most screens will be significantly distorted at such extreme angles. The method that manufacturers use to determine the line between an acceptable and an unacceptable angle is…ambiguous at best, so pay little attention to this stat.
Then there’s a statistic called “dynamic contrast ratio,” which makes it possible for manufacturers to claim their monitors have larger-than-life contrast ratios. Our Acer claimed 8,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio and only 1,000:1 contrast ratio. Dynamic contrast ratio is a throwaway spec, so pay closer attention to smaller numbers when they’re offered.
Response times only measure the fastest color transitions a monitor offers (often gray-to-gray). Certain transitions are significantly faster than others; those transitions are reported as if they’re typical. They’re not, so be aware of that bluff.
All monitors we reviewed had a refresh rate of 60Hz, meaning even if the manufacturer claims a 2-millisecond response time, the screen wouldn’t refresh for 17 milliseconds. It’s a goofy stat, but because true response times are usually much less impressive than advertised, it’s still possible that certain transitions would be visibly slower than the refresh rate. Yup, it’s a wild west out there in monitor land, but by knowing what you know about these three “stats,” you’ll be able to choose much more wisely.
Next Page: And the Winner Is... >>
It’s no surprise that the HP swept the competition when it came to picture quality; S-IPS technology is in a completely different league than TN. But superior build quality was anyone’s game, and HP’s insistence on versatility and competitive pricing made this one a no-brainer. The HP is a perfect primary monitor, and due to its pivot capabilities and relatively small footprint, it also makes an excellent secondary. S-IPS monitors are the industry standard for graphic designers and those with complex color needs, but it was also a boon when reading text.
Though it had the slowest response time, ghosting (when extremely fast graphics are visible in transition) will be found in similar levels on each monitor. Serious gamers may opt for a bigger and faster monitor than even the silky-smooth Samsung. But if you’re willing to take a minor hit on screen real estate and speed, we recommend the HP ZR22w. It’s a very solid and extremely affordable ticket into a world of S-IPS displays.
|Model||Samsung PX2370||NEC EA221WM-BK ||HP ZR22W ||Dell P2311H||Acer S243HL|
|Rating||Great: 4 out of 5||Solid: 3 out of 5||Awesome: |
5 out of 5
|Solid: 3 out of 5||Okay: 2.5 out of 5|
|Connectivity||DVI-I, HDMI||DVI-D & VGA 15-pin D-Sub||DisplayPort, DVI-D, VGA||VGA, DVI-D||VGA, two HDMI (HDCP)|
|Panel Type||TN LCD with LED backlight||TN LCD||TFT LCD with S-IPS||Twisted nematic / LED||Twisted nematic / white LED backlight|
|Response Time||2ms (gray to gray)||5ms (black to white)||8ms (gray to gray)||5ms (black to white)||2ms (gray to gray)|
|No. of Colors||16.7 million||16.7 million||16.7 million||16.7 million||16.7 million|
|Viewing Angles||170° horizontal, 160° vertical||165° horizontal, 165° vertical||178° horizontal, 178° vertical||170° horizontal, 160° vertical||170° horizontal, 160° vertical|
|Stand Positions||Tilt||Height, pivot, tilt, swivel||Height, pivot, tilt, swivel||Height, pivot, tilt, swivel||Tilt|
|Built-in Speakers||No||Yes, with 3.5mm headphone jack||No||No||Yes|
|Dimensions||21.9"x17.1" x 9.2"||20" x 13.1" x 8.7"||20" x 18" x 9.1"||21.57" x 14.02" x 7.25"||22.4" x 16.7" x 7.6"|
|Weight||9 lbs||17.4 lbs||21.3 lbs packaged||13.32 lbs||9.5 lbs|
|In a word||Slim||Industrial||Elegant||Conventional||Futuristic|
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