Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Deep and Wide

In my previous two computer posts, especially "Build or Buy for 2007", I talked extensively about choosing monitors. Specifically I talked about how I was vacillating a bit about monitor choice.

Right now, I'm on a top of the line 19" LCD, at 1280x1024, and it's great. It's got a color corrected back light, 600:1 contrast ratio, 5ms GtG response time etc...

Now, I use my system for four visually oriented tasks

1. Photography
2. Video editing
3. Design (CAD, some 3D modeling, model and project plans etc...)
4. Gaming

All of those are very demanding on both monitor, and video card. They require correct color, great sharpness and definition, good response time, correct black levels etc...

Importantly though; all but gaming, also require something else...


(big monitors actually reduce gaming performance, because they need to be driven at higher resolution, which takes more horsepower and slows rendering down).

My friend Og (not his real name, but it fits him so well), is a specialty machines engineer, designer, and machinist (and many other things besides); and he's building a new dedicated design box. Being that I just bought a hybrid design/gaming box myself, and my previous computer items, he looked to me for a bit of advice.

Although video cards are important here (you've got to keep up after all), my biggest recommendation is that he buy a new 24" or 30" monitor.

Like myself, Og is currently running a high quality 19", and is quite satisfied with it; but he says that his primary concerns are image quality (especially sharpness to avoid eyestrain), and speed of workflow.

... and speed of workflow, is where big screens, and dual screens, really make a difference.

Let me tell you, either going dual head, or going to a 24" or larger widescreen, will greatly speed your workflow. Doing both is even better, if you've got the desk space; and here's why:

Just a single 24" makes a big difference over a single 19"; because you have the same screen height, and 4" of extra screen width.

If you're just used to word docs, you might not think the extra screen area would make that big a difference, but you'd be wrong. Oh, for you, it probably doesn't. If all you're using your computer for is text, and a few snapshots at home etc... Extra screen area doesn't do much for you.

For a designer though, the ability to view larger drawings without zooming and scrolling makes a HUGE difference in speed of work; and especially in reduction of fatigue.

Take a look at the actual screen areas of those monitors, and you'll start to see why:

A 30" 16:9 display is 26" x 14.7"
A 24" 16:9 display is 21"x 11.8"
A 19" 4:3 display is 15.4"x11.6" (4:3 is "standard", 16:9 is widescreen)

Importantly, on a 24" widescreen, it means you can fit the same sized drawing (same height and width) as on the 19", and then have 5.5" of screen space left over for your tools.

And of course the effect is only magnified as you go larger. With a 30" you can have the same size drawing as the 19", and have 10.5" of free space on the side, and 3" on the bottom.

This extra screen area is especially critical for video production where you can have a full, unzoomed and uncropped, native HD video window running at 1920x1080 (that's 1080p resolution), and still have 7" of width, and 5" of height left over on the screen for tools (or for uncropped zooming)

Ok, so the benefits of a single larger screen are clear; but why bother with two?

Double the desktop area for one; and having a full screen render, video, or display window going on one screen while you've still got your tools open on the other.

Going dual head lets you position a fully maximized drawing window on one screen, and have all your tools visible on the other; along with your email, office apps etc... This means less (and faster) context switching, and instant access to tool windows and other programs without waiting, or covering up a portion of the drawing.

One VERY cool thing you can do with dual head (if your system has the horsepower), is update your raw data on one screen; and have a full screen render reflect those changes in near real time on the other.

Of course the same advantages apply to all visual media; be it design, photography, or video.

Almost the entire visual design industry has gone dual head at this point; and they are starting to move wholesale towards 24" and 30" displays, just for those very reasons.

Of course their are costs associated with this. For one thing, the 24" displays are... big; and the 30" are downright huge. Typically, they're 28" wide. Although they are flat panel shallow; that's still a HUGE amount of desktop real estate.

Then there's the not insubstantial monetary costs, An absolute top quality 19" display runs $300-$400, and a middle of the road one $250 these days. The equivalent quality 24" display, costs between $400 and $600 right now; and add another $1000 on top of that for a 30".

$1400-$1600 is a lot of money for a monitor. In fact, it's a couple hundred more than the top of the line system built to drive it would cost; or as much as my quad core system would cost, if I added an $800 QuadroFX 3500 video card to it.

For me, I can easily justify the $400-$600 for a 24". The additional screen area, speed of workflow, and convenience over a 19" monitor is great; and I can use my existing 19" monitor in a dual head configuration with the 24".

A 30" though... $1000 more to get another 135sq in. of screen area is a hell of a lot. Though a 30" has about 50% more screen area than a 24" (and in fact more than double that of a 19"), I don't think the extra cost is a good value for me. Added to that, I personally can't fit a 30" and a 19" on my desk at the same time for a dual head configuration (I've only got a48" desk, that would take up almost all of it), so I'd be wasting my existing monitor, and wouldn't get the dual head advantages.

If I was a photography, video production professional; or if I worked with very large drawings all the time; there would be no question for me though: I'd buy a 30" and a bigger desk. The additional speed of workflow allowed by that extra screen area DOES provide value for those folks.

Now, I'm going to excerpt out the monitor section from my "Build or Buy" post, and reprint it here; for those of you who are in the market for a new monitor, but don't want to wade through 5000 words on building a new computer system.

On buying a monitor...

Firstly, I never count the monitor as part of the computer purchase. Oh yes, you need to budget for it; but it’s like counting your TV as part of your stereo. You don't want to economize on your monitor to get more computer; neither do you want to economize on your computer to get more monitor.

The monitor is the most important element of your human computer interface. Every interaction you have with your computer runs through that monitor; and how happy you are with your computer is to a large extent determined by how happy you are with your monitor.

Also, monitors are one area of computing where you get a decent return on your investment in a higher end piece of gear; because you are likely to keep your monitor for far longer than you keep the rest of the computer. Up until I moved to all LCD a few years back, I had monitors from 5 years, and even 10 years ago; and because I spent the money on top quality, they still looked and worked great.

The prices and deals on LCD displays change from day to day, so it's very hard to make specific recommendations.

Making it even harder, often brand is really little or no indicator as to quality, because there are only 6 fabs that make 19” and bigger LCD panels for computer displays anyway; it’s all the little extras like ports and warranties that make the difference.

I know lots of folks who think they’d never buy an LCD from Goldstar... except they don’t know that Goldstar and Samsung are two of the three leading manufacturers of LCD panels for computer displays (NEC are the third); and that almost every manufacturer other than Sony (who make their own), including Apple, HP, Dell, Planar and ViewSonic, all use Samsung, Goldstar, or NEC panels.

All that said, the extras really do make a difference. When you buy quality, what you're paying for TECHNICALLY is response time, different connectivity, better quality of signal processing, and better backlights (brighter, and with more accurate color spectrum).

More important though, you are also paying for a better warranty and fewer dead or stuck pixels. The better manufacturers all warrant against more than one or two stuck pixels, and most will replace the display if there is even one in a very noticeable spot. The lesser manufacturers offer little to no warranty.

Really, that IS worth the extra $50 or even $100 you pay for going to a higher end manufacturer; especially when buying a 24" or 30" panel.

Ok, now let's talk about the specific features to look for:

1. FOFO (full on/full off) response time of 4ms or less, and GTG (gray to gray) response time of 6ms or less (6ms and 8ms respectively are acceptable, 2 and 4 are ideal).

Unfortunately, most manufacturers are unclear as to what response time they are quoting. If you see 4ms (min) thats the Full On/Full Off response time. If you see 6ms(max) thats the GTG time. If they don’t specify FOFO, GTG, min, or max, then it’s either the average of the two (where they’ll usually note avg. or typ.), or they’re quoting a rise only time, which is actually twice as fast as the real number.

Important to note, if you see a time of 4ms or under quoted without a specific notation as to what they are quoting, and it’s on a less than top of the line display, they are almost certainly quoting rise time; so double it to get the real number.

2. Refresh rate of 120hz is preferred. Refresh rate may not be quoted; if the display has a GTG response time of 8ms or less, it’s probably 120hz. It's not absolutely necessary, but it helps.

3. Static (typical) contrast ratio above 600:1, 1000:1 or above preferred. Again, you may not be sure what number you're being quoted here.

4. dynamic contrast ratio of at least 3000:1, and 10000:1 preferred. Unfortunately, dynamic CR is a marketing number, but with many manufacturers, it’s all they give you.

Heres a tip: if you see a number above 1,000:1 on anything other than a top end display, it's dynamic; and if you see a number higher than 3000:1 on a display less than $2500, it’s a dynamic ratio.

5. A brightness of at least 300cdm^2/300nit at D6500K.

6. A color corrected backlight at D6500K. LED backlight if possible. This gives you better color accuracy, and longer display life.

7. DVI with HDCP, and possibly HDMI. Multiple inputs preferred. DisplayPort if possible. Basically, the more inputs the better. One should note that DVI and HDMI are electrically compatible, and you just need a $20 adapter to convert one to the other.

8. Pixel pitch of under .28mm; .25mm or under preferred. If pixel pitch isn’t quoted you can figure it by dividing the long dimension of the screen in mm by the long dimension of the native resolution in pixels.

Here's a trick for you. If the length and width of the display area are not quoted, you can figure them with the aspect ratio, the diagonal measurement, and the Pythagorean theorem.

A 19” diagonal screen at 4:3 is as follows:

4x3.85=15.4” width
3x3.85= 11.55” height

A 24” 16:9 screen is as follows:

(16^2)+(9^2)= 337
16x1.307=20.91” width
9x1.307= 11.77 height

Knowing this height and width spec is important in deciding between 4:3 and 16:9; because the diagonal measurements are not comparable. A 24” 16:9 actually gives you the same screen HEIGHT as a 19” 4:3; it just adds an extra 5.5” of width.

The smallest I’d personally go with right now would be a 19” 4:3 or a 24” 16:9. The smaller models are almost all considered “economy” models. Either are the minimum size to display a standard 8.5"x11" piece of paper at 100% scale in portrait orientation.

Personally, I happen to think the sweet spot today is in the 24” 16:9 displays. They give you a massive screen area, with great resolution and pixel pitch; but they’re down under $600 for even the best quality models, and around $350 for discount models. If you don’t feel like spending that much, then get a 19” 4:3. Don't bother going for a 20" or 22" 16:9 or a 17" 4:3 unless you are really looking to save money.

The next step up that’s worthwhile is the 30” now offered by Apple, HP, Dell, and Samsung (all using the same Samsung panel actually), and they’re incredibly gorgeous, huge, and spectacular… but they sell from $1300 to $1900. There are 26" and 28" models, but I really don't think they offer much advantage over 24" displays, or much price savings over 30".

As to brands, I like NEC, ViewSonic, Samsung, HP and Dell (usually Samsung), Apple (also usually Samsung), LG, and Planar.

Now, talking about specs. Some manufacturers are more honest than others. Most of the mass market manufacturers (even the good ones) vastly overstate their actual performance. Companies that cater to graphics professionals (Apple, Viewsonic, Planar etc...) on the other hand tend to report their specifications relatively accurately.

All of my recommendations above are based on the semi-reliable marketing numbers of the better mass market brands.

If the manufacturer is very specific, quoting GTG, typical contrast ratio instead of dynamic, exact pixel pitch etc… they are most likely at least reasonably accurate; so if they quote a spec thats good, but less than another brand, it’s likely that the more accurate number is going to be just as good, or even better than the “better”, but less accurate number.