How To

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.


Price wars are bad for everyone

I believe a lot in equitable pricing. A product’s price should be able to net its creator a decent profit — not a huge profit, not a tiny profit, because that makes it hard to go on, and certainly not a loss. That’s why I’m really annoyed with the recent price wars in the hardware industry. Scoble reports tonight on his blog that Seagate didn’t meet its projections in this last quarter because of horrendous price wars among hard drive manufacturers. An unnamed manufacturer was willing to lose over 100 million dollars just to maintain their foothold in the market. Beta News reports that AMD lost half a billion dollars in this last quarter, and that’s directly related to its price war with Intel.

This is bad. In the end, what was gained by the price wars? Companies lost money, their employees were overworked (to meet R&D and production deadlines), and everyone ended up stressed out. Did any company emerge as a winner? No, they didn’t.

I would love to see the frenetic pace of business and competition slow down to something more rational, more sustainable. I for one can imagine how stressful it must be to work in companies where you’re constantly pushed to meet deadlines, and more deadlines are coming at you down the pipe. I treasure the sense of accomplishment that I feel when I’ve just finished a project and know I’ve got a lull before the next one lands on my desk. No such thing goes on at these companies. Not only do they constantly have to find ways to tighten their belts and “restructure” by firing people, but at the end of the day, their bank accounts don’t really show the results of their efforts. What’s worse, they may even end up in the red.

I for one am willing to pay a little extra for my hardware, if I know that the pace of work at these companies is rational, and that employees there are treated well. Remember, we are all employees in one way or another. How would we like it if we had to work extra every day or got fired just so some Joe Blow can brag that he got his hard drive for $20 less?

[Added 4/20/07] Lest you think the consumer wins, think again. What we as consumers get out of this is bad design or bad quality control or bad customer service and support, or any combination of these three. The companies cutting prices have to skimp on something. You can’t rush things, cut prices AND provide a wonderfully designed and reliable products with great customer support. If you don’t believe me, see Julie’s comment below.


Free shipping worth more than a big discount

From TechDirt:

“For years, there have been controversies (especially among financial types) over whether or not e-commerce shops should offer free shipping, especially as some fear that it takes too big a bite out of the bottom line. However, there’s more to free shipping than just the saved money. Researchers are finally starting to look at the psychological draw of free shipping deals. It turns out that people are much happier with free shipping deals than if they just got a discount. There’s just something about getting free shipping that feels right — which could explain why some people get upset when they feel the free shipping is really a bait and switch offer. This points at an issue that isn’t really covered in the original article. One of the reasons why people like free shipping so much is that they don’t feel tricked at the end of a purchase. Too often, online retailers hide excessive shipping and handling fees and only make them show up at the end. This makes people feel tricked…”

Here is the link.


Local coupons at Zixxo

A website called Zixxo has launched to allow coupon creation and distribution via RSS feeds. Businesses can log on and create coupons, specify local or national distribution, and consumers can access and use them. Nice! See link for details.