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Four 24-in. LCDs widen your view

Four 24-in. LCDs widen your view

Big displays aren't just for professional designers, graphic artists, and video editors anymore. Anyone with a computer can benefit from a desktop that stretches even further. As found in at least one study, a 24-in. display can boost your productivity and change the way you work (and play).

The basic advantages of larger displays have always been evident. For instance, you can see much more spreadsheet data at once, making data analysis easier. However, 24-in. displays break new territory that 20- or even 22-in. ones can't handle.

Multi-taskers can keep their word processors and Web browsers running side by side with zero compromise in the viewing area. Even better, 24-inchers let document writers and editors view two full 8.5-by-11-in. pages side by side -- ideal for comparing different document versions or viewing the facing pages of a book layout.

The larger displays also have some sweet features for home users, video mavens and gamers. For example, more than a few manufacturers have included options like HDMI video inputs. In addition, most large monitors have a 16-9 aspect ratio, letting a 24-in. monitor do double duty as an HDTV.

With the ever-tumbling prices of LCDs, there has never been a better time to look at a 24-in. monitor to replace a smaller single LCD or a clunky two-display setup. However, even though prices have fallen rapidly and will continue to do so, 24-in. LCDs can still cost more than, say, a basic computer. But while it is tempting to put more money into a faster CPU or more RAM, the increase in productivity a 24-in. monitor can provide might prove to be a better investment.

Can you handle 24 inches?

Moving up to a large 24-in. display isn't without its drawbacks. For one, you need to have enough clear desk area to set one up comfortably. And if you opt for a display that can rotate to portrait mode, you also need to make sure that there's plenty of overhead clearance.

Of course, you also need to check if your current graphics card is capable of running a 24-in. display at the typical native resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels. You'll want a card that can run the full resolution and the maximum color depth, usually 24- or 32-bit, depending on the card manufacturer and model. Full-color depth isn't important just for graphics pros -- a full color spectrum can make Web and document viewing easier on your eyes and can help you match printer output much more easily.

For this roundup, we selected four displays from some of the top monitor manufacturers: Gateway, NEC, Samsung, and ViewSonic. We tested each using DisplayMate Multimedia Edition 2.1 and Pantone Huey Pro. (For more details, see "How We Tested" at the end of these reviews.)

While there is a bit of diversity in their rated specs, our comprehensive tests showed some interesting performance and character differences among the four displays that should make your purchasing decision easier.

Gateway FHD2400

It's easy to fall in love with Gateway Inc.'s FHD2400. Feature for feature, it nearly matches the competing Samsung 245T with a full suite of video ports, including component, composite, S-video, VGA, HDMI and DVI. It includes four USB connections as well. Gateway also scores big with a full-color quick-start sheet and a printed manual that's clearly written.

The FHD2400's official specs place it near the top with a fast 5-millisecond refresh rate and a 400cd/m2 brightness rating. It matches all the other screens in the roundup with a 1,000-1 contrast ratio. It offers a variety of inputs: HDMI, Analog (VGA), 15-pin mini d-sub VGA, Digital (DVI-D), 24-pin DVI-D, component, composite and S-video. You get all this for US$550, the second-lowest list price of the bunch, but there's only a one-year warranty.

The Gateway has a brushed metal base that's fairly large at nearly 12 inches across, but it's both rugged and attractive, and it has a clever slot for neat cable management. However, some users may be put off by the reflective coating on the FHD2400's display, which can cause unwanted glare in settings with uneven or variable lighting.

A very generous five inches of vertical adjustment and a good range of front-rear tilt let you get the monitor positioned. The display lacks a side-to-side swivel feature that would let you move the screen left and right, although it does vertically rotate to portrait mode for easy viewing of large-format documents.

The menu and control system for the FHD2400 are a showcase of excellent design. The main Menu LED stays continuously lit, but with the touch of a finger, a row of touch-sensitive LED icons on the right side of the display lights up while an on-screen menu appears right next to them. The genius of the system is that the on-screen menu works in perfect harmony with the LEDs. This makes setup and menu navigation much easier and more intuitive than typical monitor menu systems.

The FHD2400 comes with EZ Tune setup software that guides you through monitor calibration. It's straightforward and quite capable, and helps even a neophyte easily set up and precisely tune the monitor. The downside is that it installs Flashtrack.B adware too. While not dangerous -- you can choose to not install it or to uninstall it after your initial scan -- this "browser helper" program feeds you ads that you probably don't want.

Test Scores

To start with, the FHD2400 had perfect geometry and excellent text-readability scores. Further testing revealed a tendency to expand the very dark and very light ends of the spectrum in grayscale and color tests. Very dark and light hues were indistinguishable in some tests, while in other tests, the effect was noticeably less. On the other hand, the FHD2400 was the only monitor with a perfect gamma score in the roundup, showing even levels of brightness across the spectrum of colors.

Like the Samsung model, the Gateway FHD2400 has an overclocking mode that is designed to reduce ghosting and image blurring during video and movie playback. Your mileage may vary here. As with the Samsung, we couldn't detect any visual improvement in the movie test scenes.

However, the FHD2400 does have another video ace up its sleeve with built-in Faroudja video-decoding circuitry that is designed to reduce motion artifacts. There was a small improvement in playback smoothness in the Star Wars DVD test scenes when compared with the other monitors, but it didn't offer a dramatic difference over the other LCDs. Even so, the Gateway still posted the best motion video score of the bunch.

Gateway's FHD2400 has by far the best design, setup and documentation of the bunch, and its test scores were generally high. Even so, if you're looking for a reasonably priced do-it all monitor, the FHD2400 can get the job done, and done well. Just keep in mind the potential glare problem from the glossy display coating.

NEC MultiSync LCD2470WVX

The NEC Multisync LCD2470WVX sports nearly identical specs as the Gateway with 400cd/m2 brightness, 1,000-1 contrast and 5ms refresh rate. At $530 list, it's the lowest-priced display of the four tested and has a three-year warranty.

Getting the NEC Corp. display set up was frustrating, but in a much different way than the ViewSonic one. There is no CD or DVD included in the package -- instead, an insert sheet directs you to the main page of the NEC Web site to download its NaviSet software. From there, you have to hunt through the NEC Web site to find what you need. The sheet also doesn't tell you to download the monitor's driver or ICC profile for precision screen-to-print color management.

Thankfully, the NaviSet software slips neatly into the Windows XP Display Properties menu. It includes pretty extensive setup options with some helpful screen test patterns. However, you're once again left on your own to figure it all out -- the documentation is sparse at best, and the Help Guide is very limited. Getting the 2470 calibrated correctly is strictly a manual affair that can test your patience. With a bit more explanation, the NEC setup would've been cake.

The NEC model's physical adjustment options are pretty sweet. There's 3.5 in. of vertical adjustment and basic front/rear tilt. The portrait mode is also welcome for heavy-duty Web browsing and large document management. And the bonus is that the display can swivel a full 360 degrees on its base, making it ideal for presentations to small groups in an office environment.

The 10.5-in. round plastic base is absolutely rock-solid with zero play. I also loved the mini-joystick used to navigate the on-screen menus, conveniently located on the center of the bezel's bottom. The control buttons, located right next to the joystick, are large, clearly labeled, and have a nice feel.

NEC keeps video inputs on the 2470 limited to analog VGA and DVI, so it won't work as an HDTV replacement. However, it is HDCP-compliant (which is necessary for watching HD video sources like Blu-ray discs), and there are presets in the menu system for movies, photos, text, gaming and standard. All you need is an HDMI-to-DVI cable and you can connect the 2470 to virtually any high-definition video source.

Test Scores

The NEC had a round of test scores that showed some strengths. Color uniformity was excellent, and a perfect video bandwidth score was backed by top-of-the-pack text readability. However, there was also compression in the grayscale and color ramp tests with some washout at the very bright and very dark ends of the spectrum. I We also noticed some color artifacts in some of the grayscale tests.

Overall, the NEC MultiSync LCD2470WVX has very fine image detail and sharpness, but color precision came up short. Like the ViewSonic, it's better for general office tasks that don't require a superior level of color precision. The portrait mode and the sweet 360 swivel make it ideal for meetings or other situations where you want to show others your display. I'd pick it in a heartbeat for serious office use.

Samsung Syncmaster 245T

The specs for the Samsung 245T put it just below the NEC and Gateway monitors for speed at 6ms, but it matches the competition with a 1,000-1 contrast ratio, the standard for this roundup. On the other hand, the 300cd/m2 brightness rating puts it at the back of the pack.

The 245T has the second-highest list price at $719, but offsets that with a three-year warranty. Middling specs and a relatively high price? You might think that would be a disadvantage. You'd be wrong, as I eventually found out for myself.

At first glance, it's obvious the Samsung 245T is more than an ordinary PC monitor. The swath of inputs is impressive.

Literally every video input you could want is here, from RCA composite to S-video, component, DVI and HDMI. It also offers four USB ports and a mini 1/8-in. audio out. The polished black bezel may be a bit too reflective for some users' tastes, but it certainly looks classy. The 9.5-inch circular base is very stable and takes up relatively little room on a desk.

Samsung Electronics Co.'s 14-language Quick Start guide is extremely concise, almost too brief, but the included CD has extensive documentation as well as the monitor driver, Samsung's excellent Natural Color Pro software for automated calibration and MagicRotation for rotating the display image to portrait mode. There's also 3.75 in. of vertical adjustment so you can center the display at eye level along with tilt and swivel functions.

The 245T's built-in menu options are superb. There are settings for HDMI black level, picture in picture, and a host of other options including the usual color and contrast controls. International users and video editors who do work for clients worldwide will also appreciate the 245T's support for PAL and SECAM video standards. All of these are accessed through clearly labeled buttons on the bezel front.

Overall, the 245T has a big feature set, excellent setup options, solid software and sweet ergonomics. The 245T's performance didn't disappoint either.

Test Scores

Across the board, the Samsung scored very well in DisplayMate video tests. Color reproduction was very precise. The 245T reproduced very smooth color gradients with only a couple of hiccups in the darker green and red parts of the spectrum. While there was good color uniformity across the screen, the 245T showed some brightness issues with light bleeding from the screen edges, most noticeably when the monitor was set to all black. To be fair, all the monitors in this roundup did leak a bit of light near the bezel, but it was strongest on the 245T.

There also was some trapezoid distortion: The screen image edge was compressed about 1/16 of an inch in the upper corners of the screen and was slightly more pronounced on the left side than the right side of my test display.

The 245T sports MPA Motion Picture Accelerator technology that can be toggled on or off via a dedicated button on the bezel front. I'm all for anything that can smooth out movie watching on an LCD, but to be perfectly honest, I was hard pressed to notice a difference after repeated watching of the same few scenes in Star Wars Episode III . Even so, it scored very well in the motion video test.

Samsung has another hit with this 24-in. wide-screen display. A plethora of video inputs, good software, and excellent color and video performance make it a very tempting choice for anyone who needs a higher level of color precision, wants a variety of video inputs, and requires good ergonomic design and adjustability.

ViewSonic VX2435wm

The ViewSonic VX2435wm has a number of highs and lows when it comes to reading the specs. It boasts a 500cd/m2 brightness rating, the highest in the roundup; in contrast, it rates the lowest for speed at 8ms. It also has the highest list price of $779, but the company backs the monitor with a three-year warranty.

The first thing you'll ask yourself when you unpack the VX2435wm is, "Where are the all the inputs on this thing?" You'll find them hidden behind a large removable panel -- which you'll have to figure out on your own, since there aren't any instructions on how to remove the panel. Users wary of breaking their fancy new monitor would be well served by an instruction card. Thankfully, ViewSonic Corp. did include instructions on how to attach the display to the base.

Once you get the back panel off, you may then wonder where the company hid the DVI port. Actually, there's only an HDMI port on the back -- but the monitor comes with a DVI-to-HDMI cable so you can easily hook up to any standard PC video card. However, you're not out of the woods yet -- the HDMI port is wedged into a very tight corner on the back of the monitor, and it's fairly awkward trying to fit the cable into the port. Be forewarned -- if you want to use a third-party HDMI cable with a larger connector or stiff cable jacket, it may not fit.

You'll also find an assortment of additional video ports similar to the Samsung and Gateway displays in this roundup: S-video, composite, component and VGA. Unlike the other monitors, there are additional RCA and mini-RCA stereo/audio ports so you can hook your AV electronics to the 2435 and hear sound through the built-in speaker. It offers pretty good sound for business, communications and basic multimedia, but for serious music, video or game playing, you'll want to invest in a separate speaker system.

The VX2435's plastic base is very stable and solid, but it's a beast, measuring 13 inches across. It's too bad there is no height adjustment, swivel or rotation to portrait mode, but the display will tilt forward and back. You're pretty much stuck with the monitor hovering 3.5 inches above your work surface unless you add a riser to your desk.

ViewSonic's Wizard setup CD is very straightforward: nothing fancy, just a simple installation of the monitor's driver and the manual in PDF. There's no guided or automated setup, although the electronic manual does a good, if fairly brief, walk-through of the 2435's on-screen menu system. The on-screen menus are basic, without any of the fancy options of the Gateway or Samsung monitors, but they do what you need them to.

The four buttons on the display bezel that control the menus are sleek and unobtrusive, but they're not well labeled, and you'll find yourself hunting and pecking if you want to change settings.

While the ViewSonic VX2435's installation and controls are Spartan, performance is where the rubber meets to road, and the results turned up a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses.

Test Scores

Text was readable down to 7.5 points, but there was a slight drop-off in sharpness. Color uniformity tests showed three distinct bands across the screen in some hues where there should only be one value. Like the Gateway device, the VX2345 had some trouble resolving the very dark and very light ends of the spectrum.

On the positive side, video bandwidth was the best of the bunch, scoring a perfect 100, and there was excellent brightness uniformity across the whole screen. For general computing tasks, the ViewSonic would do well.

However, keep in mind that the VX2435wm's setup and installation was difficult given the lack of instructions, automated software and the design of the display itself. You'd have to take time to calibrate it manually, and while it does have an integrated speaker and audio inputs, a standout feature compared with the other screens in the roundup, the trade-off is very limited ergonomic adjustability and a higher price.

Conclusions

The search for perfection continues. Each of the monitors in this 24-in. roundup has its own drawbacks and strengths in setup, features and performance, but overall, each offers good viewing quality.

As borne out by testing, rated specs often don't translate into a better user experience. You should also keep in mind that the difference in list prices narrows a lot when you search for retail prices online.

I loved the Gateway's setup, documentation and attention to detail. The ViewSonic had superior brightness and contrast scores, while the NEC blew me away with superior sharpness and adjustability.

However, when choosing the best of the bunch, Samsung's 245T edged out a field of very strong contenders with the best overall video scores. It handled pretty much everything I threw at it with confidence. Even though the rated brightness was the lowest in the bunch, the 245T was able to reproduce very deep blacks and still maintain pure whites at the same time. The 245T also has excellent adjustability with a portrait mode, as well as a slew of inputs for virtually any video gadget in your arsenal.

One significant note: All the monitors scored very high in overall motion video reproduction. Each was able to display even the fastest transitions in Star Wars Episode III without noticeable ghosting or flickering. There were small differences in color reproduction, but they were not significant.

One reason for the video improvement is that, in general, response times have gotten much faster, even for these seriously large displays. The difference between the ViewSonic's 8ms refresh rate and the Gateway's 5ms rating is marginal in the real world. In addition, manufacturers have added extra video-processing technology. We're starting to see some feature creep from the HDTV market.

In fact, you could call these LCD displays small HDTVs. Most displays have a variety of video inputs, and they're all HDCP compliant, so any one in the bunch can display content from virtually any of the latest high-definition media, from the latest Blu-ray discs to Xbox and PlayStation 3 games.

No doubt, these latest big-screen LCDs are a quantum leap ahead of monitors from just a few years ago. With more features, better performance, higher resolutions and plenty of desktop space, it's difficult to go wrong.

How we tested

As a test system, I used a custom-built PC equipped with an Intel Dual Core 6600 Processor, 2GB RAM, an ATI Radeon X1950 Pro video card with DVI port and Windows XP Pro. For all tests, the Radeon video card settings were set to default.

Each monitor's color calibration was initially set using the monitor's included software (if any) and DisplayMate Multimedia Edition 2.10 software for more precise manual calibration.

The first round of DisplayMate LCD tests was then run.

After the first test, each monitor was then reset to factory settings, and automatically calibrated using a Pantone Huey Pro. Manual viewing options in the Huey software were set to 7,500 degrees Kelvin with a gamma setting of 2.4. I then ran a second round of DisplayMate LCD tests.

Lighting conditions for testing were limited to indirect fluorescent illumination to minimize glare and to mimic the typical office setting. Natural sunlight was completely shut out to eliminate any testing discrepancies due to lighting variables.

For the movie test, I used Star Wars Episode III , which was filmed on digital media. This minimized the video artifacts that usually result from an analog to digital transfer.

It pays to calibrate

The differences in test scores proved to be marginal for the monitors that had more automated setup processes. However, for the monitors without automated setup, calibrating with the Huey Pro did boost some of the test scores.

Lesson learned: If your monitor doesn't come with comprehensive setup software, your LCD's performance can gain a great deal from third-party color calibration software or hardware. Unfortunately, most folks simply unpack their monitors, hook them up and never dig into the setup menus. And if they do, chances are they're still getting less than optimal performance from their display.

Precisely calibrating a monitor by eye, even with excellent software like DisplayMate, takes a lot of patience and a keen eye for detail. DisplayMate can get very technical and it offers no automation, but it can school anyone in the nuances of their monitor's capabilities. There's no other program like it.

For the rest of us, there are a variety of hardware-calibration tools, like Huey, that can help anyone get their monitor looking good very quickly with more accurate color and precise brightness and contrast.


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