With getting a new Mac Pro, I was skimming the market for a good, affordable TFT screen that had some decent specs for designing. The most obvious choice that I see a lot with Mac Pro’s is the Apple Cinema Display, of course, the most iconic display Apple’s made to date. It’s also perhaps the least updated Apple product in the last 5 years, with only a few price drops in recent years.
I thought it would be nice to share my process of finding my perfect monitor; make a little comparison of the specs of all sorts of displays that would fit into my price range, regardless of brand or appearance, and draw my conclusions. My requirements are very simple; I’m not going to get a screen over € 700,-, it should be able to be reasonably good in delivering a full color gamut (high contrast and gamut), it has to be a TFT (LCD) screen, and it would be nice if it doesn’t look awful.
Edit: It’s wise to read the comments of this entry to get a balanced view of things. I am no expert on LCD panel types, and for a the type of panel the Cinema Display carries, it’s a very affordable display.
First of all, a word on color fidelity. You can get very expensive with TFT screens very quickly if you demand full color fidelity. In that case, I can recommend you just go for the cream of the crop EIZO and LaCie displays, which although offering poor response times, have near perfect color fidelity for working with photographs, and most importantly printing. As a screen designer, I am happy enough with a screen approaching 90% of the Adobe RGB color range (the ‘gamut’, as it is called), and every percent extra is a bonus, not a requirement. To illustrate the difference between my current Macbook Pro’s screen, a standard model TFT using sRGB, and a screen I am after, I’ve made a 3D overlay comparison of the gamut of these profiles.
Now, here you can see the gamut of three screens; the large shape you see is the ‘range’ of the colors, and the maximum range of Adobe RGB is delineated by a red line. You may be able to see it, faintly. When you see specifications of a monitor and they mention ’93% color gamut’, they most likely mean that the monitor can deliver about 93% of the colors that sit in the Adobe RGB profile.
Within this shape, you can see another range of colors, bordered by a green line. The area you see inside of the green line is the gamut of sRGB, a more narrow profile that’s used on a lot of monitors, and I believe (feel free to correct me) Photoshop’s standard RGB profile.
Within that already limited color space lies Color LCD – delineated by the blue line – my final profile, and that’s the limited amount of colors a Macbook Pro screen can produce. It’s rumored that in reality, the display can render a lot less colors than that; some people say the screens of Apple laptops and sub-24 inch iMacs dither 6-bit colors to attain 8-bit effects (making a difference between ‘thousands’ and ‘millions’ of colors), and thus, are truly very bad monitors. As I’ve designed most of my icons on my Macbook Pro, I’d wager to say it doesn’t really matter for me, apart from intensive gradient work; making subtle gradients in Photoshop using my display’s native profile will result in banding and unusable graphics.
Thus, the search raged on for a good, affordable display, preferably near-Adobe RGB quality like the new iMac 24″ screens. I found a few candidates that I liked, because they are in the same range of color fidelity, price, and inch size.
My eventual candidates are the Apple Cinema Display 23″, the HP W2408 Vivid Color 24″, the Samsung SyncMaster 245BW 24″, the Dell E248WFP 24″, the LG L246WP-BN 24″ and finally the Acer AL2416WBSD 24″. There’s a lot in common with these displays; they all have a resolution of 1920×1200 (full HD, if you’re interested) and are roughly 24 inch (with the notable exception of Apple’s display, which is 23 inch). They also have the same brightness levels, around 400 nits (some have 500, more on that later). The price range for all these displays is € 500-600, with once again the notable exception of the Apple display, which comes in at € 700. Looking at Amazon, these prices seem to be about 1:1 with dollar prices, just in case you’re American and curious.
The big differences pop up once we compare color gamuts, contrast, and response time. When looking at response times, you must bear in mind that for all TFT screens, there is a tradeoff between color fidelity and response time. Most, if not all panels that react very quickly have very bad color fidelity, so ideally, make up your mind as to what you want before getting one. Color fidelity does not necessarily mean better colors for you if you play games, watch movies, or enjoy your Mac; it just shows the colors -as they are-, which could very well be ‘uglier’ than a color-distorted image.
Apple’s screen reacts at a speed of 14 milliseconds (ms) – showing it’s not a fast screen at all. I found a review from 2005 calling it a bad response rate, so pardon me calling this outright embarrassing in the year 2008. All the other panels that I am comparing here are cheaper, but don’t go higher than 7 ms response time. The contrast level of the Cinema Display is nowhere to be found on Apple’s website, and for good reason; after doing some research, it seems the figure is 400:1. Let’s put that in perspective, and you too will start to wonder why exactly people are still buying this pre-2004 panel screen. Here’s a comparison with the screens from my survey; (which are, mind you, still 200-100 dollar / euro cheaper)
Ouch! And to boot, some of these screens, like the HP*, can deliver a dynamic contrast ratio of 3000:1 (when active circuits help improve contrast for dark colors, that TFT’s typically have trouble reproducing). That’s almost ten times Apple’s. While I first thought its bad response time meant some good colors, this case proves it’s not always the case. This basically means your standard Apple display isn’t even half as capable as cheaper, bigger displays in delivering bright white and dark black.
Now that I’ve slaughtered the Cinema Display as a choice – wow, isn’t that a bad screen? – I will move on the factors that helped me decide between these screens. I already mentioned the striking dynamic contrast of the HP screen, which certainly helps design work and dark horror movies (both of which I love). This is a feature that helps you effectively render more colors onscreen. Then there’s the color gamut of the screens; HP W2408 comes in first with 93%, a shared first place with the Acer AL2416WBSD. The HP deserves a good mention here, since the Acer can’t hold a candle to the HP’s contrast ratio. The other screens are all at a very decent 92% (apart from Apple’s – although the Cupertino giant once again hid this detail from their website, I heard from a reputable source that the gamut’s not that great either).
We can come to some interesting conclusions; I’ve always heard that Dell displays use the same panel as Apple’s, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Not only is the panel better, but to make a choice for Dell after dismissing Apple seems silly, given these specs. Dell displays are comparatively expensive, and seeing that I won’t buy one for their looks, I’d simply but a more aesthetically pleasing LG or Acer screen. However, if you want to pay a very small bit extra for color fidelity and features, I’d go for the HP. The HP W2408 has HDMI connectivity, USB ports, and a 90° pivot function for portrait mode, which is matched by some of the displays here, but not in TFT panel specs. And that’s what it’s all about!
Am I gruesomely wrong? Terribly right? Do you have a dream TFT that you can recommend? Sound off in the comments to help me find my screen!
Turned out I was very wrong in a sense; since the panels vary wildly across models, as Cody mentioned in the comments, the Apple Cinema display still has a pretty good bang to buck ratio. Contrast ratio’s and gamut are meaningless if the contrast is only in a single area and the color reproduction on screen is bad. I recommend reading the comments for more information.