Discerning among LCD monitors

I’ve been looking at various LCD monitors lately, because I’d like to get one for my laptop. Truth be told, I’m more confused than when I started. There’s a dizzying array of prices among various brands, in the same size display, and not a whole lot of explanation as to why that is. Sure, every company touts their higher contrast ratio, higher brightness, more resolution, more inputs, etc., but that still doesn’t explain why the prices differ so much.

I’m looking at 20-22″ LCD monitors, and in that range, I’ve managed to find monitors in three price groups:

  • Around $250, I can buy this Sceptre or or X2gen (brands I haven’t heard of). I can also find similar prices from brands like ViewSonic, Samsung, Dell and HP.
  • From $600-900, I can get the 20″ or 23″ Apple Cinema Displays. The thing is, other than the distinctive design, the specs are actually less impressive than those of the much less expensive monitors in the first group.
  • Then, of course, there are brands like LaCie, with their professional LCD displays that start [*cough*] around $1,800 for the sizes I’m interested in.

So I did a lot of searching, and found out that manufacturers can fake the contrast and brightness measurements, so even though everyone touts their higher specs, you can’t trust them. Many of the monitors also don’t list a measurement that’s harder to fake, the gray-to-gray response time. I wanted to compare apples to Apples, if you will.

After a little more spec comparison, I found that the top of the line LaCie monitors list a spec that no one else seems to list, and that is the “gamma correction”. For example, their 321 LCD has 12-bit gamma correction. Less expensive models have 10-bit gamma correction. And that got me thinking: if, at least for LaCie, the price is proportional to the gamma correction bit depth, a higher spec there might be a good thing. But the less expensive monitors didn’t list it, and Apple didn’t list it either. What was I to do?

I gave Apple a call. After about 15 minutes of alternate talking and holding on the line for a sales rep while he consulted with the engineers, I got nothing but smoke and mirrors. Not that I think it was intended. I just think the rep didn’t have the info. He didn’t know what gamma correction was, and the bit depth of the gamma correction on Apple’s displays isn’t listed anywhere in the specs. The person he spoke with in engineering either didn’t know this or didn’t feel like sharing that bit of data. So the rep kept coming back to me with 16.7 million colors, which works out to 24-bit color.

I kept thinking, that can’t be right! Here LaCie is charging over $1,800 dollars for 12-bit gamma correction and Apple claims 24-bit on that spec at less than half that price? They would be an absolute bargain if that were true! But it’s not, at least not for that spec. I don’t doubt the Apple displays can show 24-bit color overall. But I still don’t know whether their gamma correction engine outputs 8-bit (the normal spec), 10-bit (the higher end), or 12-bit (the really high end), and this determines how well that 24-bit color gets displayed. This is important because the higher the bit depth, the smoother the color is. I’m a photographer, and I shoot in RAW. The files I get are either 12-bit or 16-bit color, and I can see some dithering in color tones when I look at the photos on my laptop’s screen. That means that even though my video card can display 32-bit color, my laptop’s effective display is less than 16-bit.

I have a feeling that given their price range, the Apple Cinema Displays are either 8-bit or 10-bit when it comes to gamma correction. If they’re 8-bit, then they’re overpriced given their specs, and they’re charging hundreds more based purely on design. If they’re 10-bit, that’s interesting, and it warrants a closer look.

So, as you can see, I’ve gotten nowhere. I’d love to have a reason to buy an Apple Cinema Display, but it’s got to be a good reason, based on facts, not sales fluff. I like Apple but I’m not a fanboy. At this point in time, I can’t see why I should spend more than $1,000 on an external monitor, so that rules out the LaCie LCDs and the other high end displays. That means if Apple can’t offer me a compelling reason for their higher price, I’ll go with one of the less expensive monitors and see how things work out. If and when I do, I’ll blog about it, so stay tuned. And by all means, if you’ve got some ideas about this, do let me know.


7 thoughts on “Discerning among LCD monitors

  1. Julie, Jimmy, thank you both! I guess I’ll need to make a few trips to the brick and mortar stores in my area and see what they’ve got. Problem is, in order to judge the various monitors properly, I’d need to edit RAW photos on them, and I don’t think the stores will let me install Lightroom and get to work on a few of my photos while the monitor’s still on the shelf… 🙂 I’ll see what can be done. Thanks again!

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  2. I have a 19″ Hanns.G widescreen that has done nothing but impress me. It has a bright screen and brilliant colors. The specs were good and the price was outstanding (Newegg, baby!). Honestly, I think I got pretty lucky as I never actually heard of the brand before, let alone seen one in person. So I’d totally agree with Julie. Feast your eyes on a few monitors at CompUSA and make your decision from there. You’d probably be surprised at what you end up getting…

    Good luck!

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  3. I do some copywriting for a tech retailer and I get asked about monitors (and other equipment) all the time. What it boils down to is that you do need to go into the stores and look at monitors for yourself – even if you end up ordering online. YOUR eyes are the final arbiter. My husband and I can look at the same monitor in the store and one of us will scream “yes!” and the other will cry “yuck!”

    I’m actually pretty happy with the 19″ Envision display I’m using now. I purchased it to replace a 21″ Viewsonic CRT monitor and I’m not missing the real estate at all. I thought I would, but this display was too good of a deal to pass up.

    Rather than the Apple Cinema display I’d go for their HD display if money were no object. One of my clients has one and the output is simply stunning.

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