New Buyers’ Guide to Navigating the LCD Monitor Jungle

I bought my first LCD monitor some years ago, when the technology was in its infancy. Officeworks were advertising a special on 15 inch LG LCD monitors for the breakthrough price of $375, and replacing my old ADI CRT seemed like a good move – until I started using the LG. I found text hard to read and the general image quality disappointing. Within a couple of days I decided I hated it. I ended up taking the intruder back and getting a refund. Went to an auction and bought two second-hand Dell Trinitron 17 inch CRTs instead…for a mere $100 each!

This was the beginning of a blissful relationship, unfortunately truncated a few weeks ago, when one of my treasured twins died.

It didn’t take much investigation to realise that things had moved on in the world of LCD monitors since my unhappy encounter with the LG. CRT monitors are now all but obsolete, and LCD monitor prices have plummeted, especially in the last year or so. It made no sense to swim against the overwhelming LCD tide, so on the trail of the perfect LCD monitor choice I went.

After much web research – reviews, manufacturer websites and forums full of opinionated and mostly uninformed owners biased towards whatever LCD monitor they happened to own – I managed to confuse myself to a point of info-exhaustion. I developed the standard LCD buyer’s dead pixel paranoia, searching every corner of the web for buyer complaints on dead, dark or dull pixels for this, that and the other brand/model of LCD monitor. Laying my weary head to rest at night, I twitched and turned as terms like contrast ratio, dot pitch, HDCP compatible, response, brightness, dead pixel policy, TN panels and screen real estate paraded past like some abstract digital version of a merry-go-round. It was driving me nuts!

After one such disturbed night, I determined that I would not to do any more research on the Net. Rather, I would hit the local stores and trust my own judgement. It was time to see what all this theory and expert recommendation translated to in the real world.

It quickly became apparent that the range available locally was far smaller than that I had researched online. Further, most retailers were very slack in the presentation of their LCD monitors. Some, like Officeworks, didn’t even bother connecting their display models to power. Others had only one or two models plugged in for viewing and responded with expressions of extreme tedium when asked if they could demonstrate others they had in stock, but not on display. They filtered themselves out of contention with their attitude.

Harvey Norman had multiple connected monitors on display – a good store for comparison purposes. But their prices were exhorbitant: in some cases, $130+ higher than the smaller computer specialist stores. In the end, my bucks went to Austin Computers, of Osborne Park, for three reasons which are, in order:
1) they had a good range of monitors, and all models in stock were connected and operating side by side, running a loop of photographs that enabled direct comparisons of the images on display
2) their prices were amongst the lowest I could find and they have a price-matching policy
3) I’ve patronised them before and found them to be efficient and reliable.

So, what were my findings?

Owners of smaller LCD monitors might argue, but if you’re in the market now, don’t even think of buying anything smaller than 22 inches.

Why? 22 inches is the current price sweet spot. The monitor I ended up buying was $319. The cheapest 19 inch was only $65 cheaper – and the perceptual difference between 19 and 22 inches is formidable. 20 inch screens are betwixt and between, and many are more expensive than 22 inch monitors of equal or better quality. Further, my observations have led me to conclude that widescreen format does not work well in screen sizes less than 22 inches. In fact, if I had to go smaller than 22 inches, I would insist on the old 4:3 format (an endangered species, these days).

Next finding: there is bugger-all discernible difference in image quality between the most expensive and the budget 22 inch brands and models.

That is not to say there are no discernible differences at all – there are. The colour tones vary slightly, for example – and ALL are inaccurate. There’s a lot of guff bandied about on user forums and by reviewers who reverently refer to specs and technical tests that have no relevance whatever to actual viewing experience. Much fuss is made of the Samsung Syncmaster 226BW 22 inch monitor, for example, but I defy anyone to point out any visual aspects of the Samsung image that are superior to other, cheaper brands and models. Different perhaps, but superior? Not to my eyes.

There is a clear difference in the picture of a quality CRT compared with one of lesser quality. A Trinitron CRT, for example, is obviously superior to a run-of-the-mill model. You don’t have to be a buff with highly refined taste to notice – anyone can see the difference in an instant! The same does not apply to LCD technology. So why are LCD monitors like the Samsung 226BW “high-end” and priced accordingly? Partly branding. This thing is legendary. It will always appeal to people who want “the best”, and those people are well prepared to pay for the security and/or status of reputation. But that’s not the end of it.

The response time on the Samsung and other higher-end monitors is 2ms compared with 5ms on the mid-range and budget offerings. This is important for gamers, who want zero motion blur and instantaneous mouse click response. Super-fussy DVD viewers also care about response time, because in fast action sequences a slower response can result in slight motion blur. It should be kept in mind, though, that only a couple of years ago 5 ms was a blindingly fast state-of-the-art response rate that attracted prices of $1000+ for monitors smaller than 22 inches. Going back over some of those reviews, gamers were extolling the virtues of 5ms monitors, claiming zero motion blurring and zero mouse lag. Yet now we have resident forum experts sneering at the prospect of anything slower than 2ms.

I am not a gamer – maybe there is a significant difference in gaming experience in monitors with 2ms response. But I can assure you as a computer user whose needs are simply to work on spreadsheets or in programs like Word, to browse the web, email, participate in forum discussions, watch/listen to music clips and view the occasional DVD movie, any differences between 5ms and 2ms are not discernible. For people with my computing needs, then, this 5ms vs 2ms response thingo is a non-issue. Forking out an extra $100 for a feature that is indiscernible in real viewing terms is throwing away money.

Another feature that forum denizens and – less so – reviewers seemed to harp on about was HDCP compatibility. Without elaborating technically, if you have any intention of watching Blu-ray or HD DVD on your PC now or at some point in the future, HDCP support is a requirement. I thought about it and decided I watch DVDs so infrequently on my PC that this was not an issue for me. It’s not hard to find a mid-priced 22 inch LCD monitor with HDCP compatibility (see table below), so if you decide it’s a feature worth shelling out a few more bucks for, go for it.

OK, let’s cut to the chase. What did I choose and why? Once I had decided that there was bugger-all difference between the image quality of any of the available 22 inch monitors, it came down to warranty (most notably, defective pixel policy), price and cosmetics, in that order.

That brought the focus on to two contenders: the BenQ FP222W on special at $319 and the Chi Mei 221D (a critically lauded giant-killer that has caused so much fuss among reviewers and users that I couldn’t ignore it – especially at its price tag of $309). The warranties were both the standard 3 years, but the BenQ had a slightly better defective pixel policy – I decided in favour of the BenQ for that reason alone.

I have had the BenQ for a few weeks now. The verdict? Good, but with reservations – and I have no doubt that these reservations would apply to any of the LCD monitors I researched.

So what’s the good news?

Nice to have a 22 inch screen. Nice, not orgasmic. You hardly notice it after a while. And with the widescreen format, it really doesn’t look that large because it is not much deeper than my Dell 17 inch Trinitron – most of the extra screen real estate is in the width. When you want to compare or work on two documents side by side, the widescreen format comes into its own. But for standard web browsing, the extra size is not a big deal. Many websites are not even programmed for dynamic width, so you end up with a couple of thick blank vertical strips down either side of your screen with the website looking rather narrow in between, appearing no larger than on your old 4:3 screen. Even those sites that do sport flexible width can’t really take advantage of the extra side room because they still have to cater for the majority of users with 4:3 format monitors. The best they can offer is a bit of superfluous decoration at the sides, but all relevant content must remain within the parameters of the site proper, as viewable in 4:3 format.

More room on your desk is also a plus. LCD monitors are flat and light. A 22 inch CRT would be a backbreaking weight, with an encased body of electronics projecting way out the back, using up a lot of desk space.

NO FLICKER! That’s a real advantage of LCD technology. Less strain on the eyes…

BUT…and here’s the start of the negatives…

The screen is much brighter than a CRT, and that is not good for your eyes. I haven’t finalised my assessment on this yet, but my current sense is that I experience as much eye fatigue spending long hours on the BenQ as with the Dell Trinitron. Of course, you can adjust the brightness, but if you drop it below a certain threshold you lose colour tone and shading subtlety. It is not possible to lower the brightness to the level of a CRT while retaining good image and colour.

Text is significantly more difficult to read. There is no doubt about this – although you do become accustomed to LCD text presentation in time. You can enhance readability using Microsoft’s ClearType Tuner and by adjusting the LCD settings, but whatever the tweaks you make, you can’t get close to the text-comfort quality of a top CRT.

Accuracy of colour rendition on LCD computer monitors is way inferior to that of quality CRTs. This applies to the top-end as well as the budget end of the range. You won’t notice unless you are used to working with graphics programs on a CRT (as I am), but it can be quite disconcerting to view a website you’ve designed on a CRT and find that the colour shades aren’t even close to those you chose in your web design or graphics program. Not an issue for most people, though.

That’ll do. I could go on, but my purpose has been served, which was to provide a guide for folk who are looking to purchase a new LCD monitor and are feeling a little daunted by the mass of information on the web and confronted by the choices ahead of them, such as range of sizes, brands, models and prices.

In summary:

  • don’t go smaller than 22 inch
  • carefully consider your needs and don’t pay for features or specs you won’t use
  • have an initial read-up of current reviews if you must, but my recommendation would be to forget all the tech talk, which has a high toss content – trust your own perception
  • go for the best-priced monitor with the best warranty (and pay attention to the defective pixel policy)

Some words in parting…

LCD monitors made for the domestic computer market all use TN panels, which are built for speed, rather than image quality. For all the claims and counter-claims, many of them use identical panels, and the Taiwan-based Chi Mei company is one of the main panel manufacturers, servicing companies world-wide.

So the points of differentiation between top-end brands and models and those at the budget end are the features they offer, not the quality of the panels. ALL models of LCD monitors made for the domestic market come with the same image quality ceiling. Any differences in image you see are due to variations in the default settings of each brand/model (which are generally too bright, designed to impress in-store), lighting conditions in the store, the demo material being displayed and generally minimal differences in specs (contrast ratio etc).

It’s fair to say that the current models of the well-known brands – and some of the lesser-known ones, for that matter – are about equal in image quality. They’re all fine for most user purposes, and all flawed in the ways outlined above. Read the reviewers by all means, but just be aware that most of them belong to the same masturbatory gaggle as wine critics and audiophiles.

Specs and technical tests do not necessarily translate to a superior image in the real world. Trust your own perception and you’ll likely save yourself some bucks without compromising your PC viewing experience. My bet is that LCD computer monitor technology will improve dramatically in the next few years, or will be replaced by a superior new technology (laser, anyone?). You’re not buying for a lifetime, then, and at today’s prices you are not making a big financial commitment anyway. So don’t get yourself into a frazzle researching, as I did.

Finally, my strong hunch is that the angst about dead pixels you come across on web forums is largely paranoia. Earlier LCD monitors did have defective pixel issues, but according to my information, current technology has all but resolved the problems. I’ve run a test on my BenQ FP222W and it passed with flying colours – NO dead, dull or dark pixels. I don’t think I’m lucky – I believe this is now the norm.

It speaks volumes that the two leading brands, Samsung and LG, offer a zero dead pixel policy for the entire 3 year life of their LCD monitor warranties. The rest are pretty good, also, with all reputable stores offering a minimum 14 day return policy for any new monitor with dead pixels. Since defective pixels usually show themselves within days of a monitor’s first use, this means you can buy with confidence. There will always be unfortunate exceptions, but these days I believe they are quite rare. Sleep easy!

16 thoughts on “New Buyers’ Guide to Navigating the LCD Monitor Jungle”

  1. Hi, we use BenQ monitors at my work. They are not great, but they are workhorses. If I was to buy for home right now, I’d prob’ly go LG. You mention brightness/colour problems. The BenQ you bought has a low contrast ratio (700:1), that might explain why? Also I would recommend investing in one of those “spiders” that will calibrate your monitor properly (forget that “Adobe Gamma” rubbish). You can get one for just $50-$60. I’m wondering tho’ why you chose the BenQ over the Chimei?

  2. I was wondering why you thought the BenQ had a low contrast ratio, Grungely – then I noticed I’d made an error in the table. Added an extra zero in three cases. Fixed now.

    So, the BenQ and Chi Mei actually have the same contrast ratio – and 700:1 is not really low. (All the CRs in the tables are static, not dynamic, by the way). 700:1 static CR is typical of the mid-priced range of 22 inch LCD monitors. The contrast ratio is not the only thing the BenQ and the Chi Mei have in common: they have exactly the same panel!! (There’s a site I came across that identifies the panels many of the monitors use – will see if I can dig it up and post the link…but BenQ themselves also gave me the info about the panels of the Chi Mei 221D and FP222W being the same).

    So, essentially, there is no difference between the BenQ FP222W and the Chi Mei 221D apart from cosmetics, except that the BenQ has a slightly better pixel policy in its 3 year warranty.

    That is, for the FP222W, BenQ has a zero defective pixel policy for the central third of the screen over its 3 year warranty period, plus max 2 bright pixels, 3 dark, or 5 combined.

    The Chi Mei defective pixel policy is 3 bright, 3 dark or 5 combined, with no central screen policy.

    BenQ’s slightly better warranty was the only deciding factor for me.

    Yeah, LG and Samsung are pretty well globally acclaimed as the two leading LCD monitor brands. Both have a zero defective pixel policy for the 3 years of their warranty, and that’s a plus. But honestly, I thought the difference in image quality between the top brands like Samsung and LG and less expensive stuff like the BenQ and Chi Mei was not only minimal – it was insignificant. As I wrote in the article, IF you think the zero dead pixel warranty and the 2ms response time is worth paying an extra $100 for (I don’t, but it might be if you’re a gamer), that’s your call – it’s not a hell of a lot of money, I guess.

    Me? I’m anticipating a far better product in 3 years time or so, so I felt I’d rather save $100 and see what transpires in the future, knowing that I’m covered for 3 years by the warranty, and content in the strong belief that there is really very little – if any – discernible difference in image quality between top-end and budget models. They all have TN panels, and thus all have a ceiling on the quality of their displays, none of which are truly excellent.

    In summary, all are pretty good, and all are flawed. In terms solely of image quality, then, I see no justification in paying the extra $100 or so for the current top-end models.

    Your calibration hardware recommendation is a good one, I think. I suppose it comes down to one’s level of satisfaction with the image as it is currently. Certainly, it’s a pain in the arse and quite difficult manually tweaking LCD monitors while eyeballing test sites and trying to work out whether you’ve got the settings as good as they’re going to get. The task of optimising the settings is always going to be doomed to a less than perfect outcome, anyway, because the technology is flawed; get the extreme dark tones right, and you lose differentiation between the bright extremes…and vice versa. Change to a mode of display that best suits DVD movie viewing and it ends up too bright for general computer use. AAAAAARRRGGHH! Meanwhile, when I test my CRT Trinitron against the same criteria, it’s faultless!

    I maintain, TN panel LCD technology has a way to go, and based on my research and observations, I’m confident that applies to top-end models as well as the budget range. You just can’t get a Ferrari performance out of a Holden Commodore engine (which doesn’t mean you have to settle for anything less than a very comfortable ride).

  3. Logan,

    You’re referring to the DYNAMIC contrast ratio, which means bugger all. The manufacturers make all sorts of extravagant claims about their dynamic CRs, which do not necessarily translate to better viewing.

    The CRs I have listed in the table, including that for the LG L226WTP, are STATIC contrast ratios. These are the ones you need to take most notice of. I confirm that the static CR I have down for the LG L226WTP is correct.

    Check your facts, please, and make sure you’re comparing apples with apples.

  4. Rolan, thanks for your thoughts. I am considering buying an LCD to replace my trusty CRT. I have spent some time using a friend’s LCD and I too found the screen too bright for normal usage; it was as if I needed sunglasses to work comfortably. I am glad to know it is not just me. I see some new Viewsonics come with presets for Text, Cinema etc. Does anyone know if these effectively counter the brightness problem? Has anyone found any other solution?

  5. Many thanks for a very interesting insight into LCD. I have also been looking this past week at changing one of my two DELL Trinitron 22″ crt’s with an LCD however as I use Photoshop a bit I might hold off as having viewed some LCD’s in stores I dont think their 6bit panel colour is good enough and 8bit panels are a little pricey.

  6. Hi Glauco (luv your nick, given the content of your Comment).

    The brightness issue is easily remedied just by adjusting the brightness, contrast etc of your LCD monitor. It took me a while to arrive at settings that suited me, but with a bit of effort it is very doable.

    As suggested in my post, the default brightness settings would appear to be optimised to impress clients browsing and comparing monitors in stores, but are inevitably too bright for the domestic environment. I can post my current settings if you like, although I guess they will only be useful as a starting point for someone who has my monitor (the BenQ FP222W).

    Hi David, and thanks for your comment. I can state with certainty that no 6 bit panel LCD monitor is going to get near your Trinitrons for accuracy of colour rendition. You can invest in calibration hardware to get the best possible colour on LCD monitors, but you still won’t approach the quality of your Trinitron CRTs for Photoshop work.

    I can’t comment on 8 bit panels because they are way out of my price range. I believe they’re pretty bloody good these days, though. Still, you’d have to think long and hard, since Trinitrons remain state of the art for accuracy of colour rendition. You already have the best!

    Now that I’m used to the LCD monitor qualities and extra screen real estate, I reckon they are good for general computing. The absence of flicker is a plus, cheaper to run, no radiation, and you get used to the colour and the inferior readability of fonts.

    For serious graphics work, though, Trinitrons are still far superior.

  7. Hi again. Amusingly, Glauco is not my nickname, it is my real first name and just happens to be ironic in this context. 🙂

  8. Good informative article and it’s the first bit of sensible information I’ve come across for awhile.
    I’m in the death throes of a LCD hunt and I’m sick of 2ms and 10000.1 and prices that jump all over the place and people telling you one thing and then telling you something completely different and the literally hundred’s of online stores advertising prices that seem unbelievable(and probably are) and then don’t back it up with any information.
    Yet I’ll have to buy sight unseen off the Net as I live in Woop Woop and there ain’t any choice here(there isn’t any store full

    I’m leaning towards a Samsung merely because of it’s reputation not because of the bells and whistles. I watch a lot of Anime on my PC and other tasks are just normal stuff, Word, surfing, mucking about with things you don’t know about..”Start/Run/type this in/ thisway/” Oh really! It’s that easy is it….Boom!

    24″ is the size I think I’ll go for after initially going for a 22″. I’m sure it’s akin to penis envy and I feel I need to purchase quickly before 26″ or 27″ impinges on my mind.

    I will be watching Blu ray or true HD at some time as more an more Anime is coming out in that format but I’m really still at a bemused state as to which way to go.

    Thanks again for clearing the waters just a tiny bit.

    Cheers Matt

  9. Thanks for you acknowledgement, Matt. Appreciated.

    Good luck with your choice. I really think you can’t go wrong if you stick to the well-known brands. That will do little to ease the enfevered mind of an obsessive as you go about determining your choice, though! I speak only for myself, of course.

    I’m perfectly happy with the BenQ, BTW. It will do fine until a better technology comes out at the same price! Then again, my computer uses are not the same as yours.

    Laughed at “mucking about with things you don’t know about..”Start/Run/type this in/ thisway/” Oh really! It’s that easy is it….Boom!”

    But it was a laugh that strayed towards the hysterical and could easily have tipped over into most unmanly blubbering if I was to relate your comment too closely to my own experiences.

  10. I have just chased up a new monitor, and after much deliberation I chose a LG 2252TQ because the aspect ratio was the best for a program I use.
    I think this should be taken into acount when comparing.
    4:3 or 16:12,16:10 and 16:9 are considerably different if buying online.

  11. Good point, Joe.

    When I wrote the post, there were only two choices – at least around the stores in Perth: 4:3 and 16:9.

    I did make the point that IMO screens smaller than 22 inches did not work well for the “wider screen format” (16:9).

    Thanks for bringing us up to date with the variations in “widescreen” aspect ratios commonly available now.

    Just wondering, what’s the aspect ratio of the LG 2252TQ and the program you’re using?

  12. Rolan
    The ratio is 4:3 as this allows for a toolbar along the top without making the screen area narrower.
    Its for trading shares, or actually sharetrading software. You can view 4 charts at once with 4:3.
    I made this point as a friend received a 21.5 inch with a 16:9 ratio, after buying on line.
    I was not impressed with the ratio, but it had a HD screen which was quite sharp.
    As one chap mentioned he had to buy online and could not view the product.

    I think your comparison was great.

    My next computer maybe a Dell XPS 430
    with a 23 inch HD screen.

  13. I am a gamer, and quality rendering of high end graphics is important to me. That said, even using a high end PC at high resolution, I’ll be damned if i can spot the difference between 5ms and 2ms response times. I wouldnt accept a monitor with anything over 5ms mind you, but my partner has a 5ms BenQ monitor and I have a 2ms Samsung. Good lick to anyone who can spot the difference.

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