21 October 2010

True Colors

Anyone who uses a computer ten or more hours a day, like I do, appreciates two things above all else: a good chair and a good monitor. Chairs are easy. Just sell a kidney and buy yourself a Leap. Trust me.

Monitors are harder. Most people just want big and bright, and they want it cheap. The market has responded with a flood of 21.5" to 24" 1920x1080 ("full HD") LCDs. You can buy them any day of the week starting at $170 or less.

But LCD technology is not monolithic. All LCD monitors use the same basic technology, called TFT, but there are various subtypes. At work I use a 5 year-old Dell 2405FPW 24" LCD that has a PVA panel. When introduced, it was probably about $1200.

PVA technology is still used on some high-end monitors. Rather than the now-prevalent 1920x1080 (16:9 ratio), it is sized at 1920x1200 (16:10 ratio). This extra height makes two-page reading much more enjoyable. My old Dell also displays color at full 8-bit color depth (16,777,216 colors).

But all of the big, cheap LCD monitors you see today are based on TN panels. They are at most only 1920x1080, which is fine for movies but lousy for on-screen reading. I personally use my monitor more for reading than movies, but "Great for Reading!" is apparently an unconvincing marketing point.

TN panels are bright and fast, as well as cheap, but they achieve this by compromise: they only display 6-bit color (262,144 colors). They then "simulate" the full 8-bit color gamut with various dithering techniques, which compared side-by-side with true 8-bit color are immediately seen as unconvincing. They also have little stand adjustability, poor viewing angles, uneven backlighting, poor blacks, color casting, clouding and other problems. My cheap Acer monitor at home has all these problems at once.

The best monitors today use IPS panels. All IPS monitors are 8-bit true color (or higher) and have wide viewing angles. They also tend to have much better backlighting and, well, better everything. IPS monitors used to be much more expensive than TN, starting around $500. New IPS technology (e-IPS) has brought down the cost of entry-level IPS monitors dramatically, starting under $250. You still get more when you pay more (wider gamut, better performance, 1920x1200 or higher), but reviews of entry-level models have been positive.

In a post the other week I included a flower photo I made with a Canon EOS-1Ds MkII. It looked wonderful on my 8-bit work monitor, with perfect detail and great color. On my craptastic 6-bit monitor at home, though, the colors were smeared and garish, and some fine details obliterated.

Photographers spend big on great monitors. It's vital to both the
enjoyment of photography and the production of great photos. I'll never settle again for a cheap TN monitor. True color is a must.

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