This is a huge subject so I’m going to intentionally concentrate mostly one what we need for imaging, and list the information in a list order. 

I’ll start by saying there is nothing that will bring more personal satisfaction to your photography than being able to properly see the output of your camera whether it be on print or on screen.  And the better the screen, the more easy and more accurate your post processing will be and the more you’ll enjoy doing the work.  If you have to struggle on a small screen post processing will be a chore you’ll avoid rather than look forward to.  Put a decent imaging monitor on your list before your next camera or new computer and you’ll be well served.

 

Laptops

Most people these days are using laptops as their only computer.  Laptops have long been powerful enough to replace older desktops and you can’t beat the ease of putting a system together or lugging it around.  And it’s nice when it only occupies a small footprint on your desk. 

However, laptops have their drawbacks.  A standard laptop screen is only capable of displaying roughly 40-50% of the sRGB color gamut.  What is a color gamut?  A color gamut is like a box of Crayola Crayons.  Some boxes have 16 crayons, some 64, others 128 and more.  They come in different shades of colors.  A color gamut is the same.  The internet/web uses the sRGB color gamut as a default.   

 

Gamuts 

Look at sRGB has a box of 64 crayons.   There are bigger boxes, and smaller boxes.  However, if your laptop can only display 40-50% of those crayons, how can you possibly tell what the picture on the paper looks like?  You can see some of the lines and markings from the crayons you can see, but you can’t see what the other 40-50% have drawn.  You’re only seeing part of the picture. 

Some laptops such as the Dell Precision Mobile Workstations, Dell Studio XPS 16 (a great bargain for an imaging laptop both in power and it’s excellent wide-gamut screen), and the Lenovo W series have very good screens, ideally configured these models can display upwards of 97% of Adobe98 which is a larger gamut than sRGB.  

 

Viewing Angle 

However, these monitors are exceptions, and as nice as they are, gamut notwithstanding, they’re not as good for imaging as a standard desktop display.  They’ll get you by when on the road, but your final post processing should be done on a desktop display.  Also, laptop displays generally have uneven lighting which means the color and luminance will vary over different parts of the screen.  They also have much less of a viewing angle, often a laptop screen will require a very precise viewing angle to see the true colors, contrast, and brightness.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced having to tilt the screen to see the best display. 

Desktop displays are almost always better than laptop displays.  Even a low end 4000-5000 baht desktop monitor will be better suited to imaging than even the best laptop displays when you take all factors into account.  Laptop displays just don’t have the thickness necessary to evenly backlight the displays and this creates uneven color and luminance.  Even the new RGB LED backlit laptop displays suffer from this issue. What good is a full gamut if it’s colors and luminance aren’t uniform from one end of the display to the other? 

If you use a laptop I highly recommend purchasing an external desktop display to use for imaging purposes.  Also, keep in mind that most every laptop sold up until the last few months were incapable of suppling the LUT (look up table) from the video card, which is necessary to hold the color profile which then adjusts the colors/brightness/contrast on the monitor.  If you have a monitor which requires a video card LUT, and that would be over 98% of the models sold, then you can only assign one color profile to one monitor at one time when using a laptop.  A caveat would be the newest laptops with the ATI Mobility Radeon 5000 series video cards.  The specs are showing these can support two, but I haven’t tested one yet.  I hope to soon. 

 

Desktop Displays 

Panel Type 

These have several panel types.  There are two types we’ll talk about.  S-IPS and the others.   S-IPS are the preferred panels for image processing.  They used to be limited to the very expensive professional models, but recently we’ve seen some very reasonably priced S-IPS panels with the release of the Dell U2410, and U2711.  Viewsonic has also very recently released their VP2365WB S-IPS monitor and other manufacturers are announcing S-IPS equipped models for future release.   

The advance of S-IPS monitors are their 178 degree viewing angle and color uniformity.  They also tend to have wider gamuts approaching or exceeding 100% of sRGB and some even exceed 100% of Adobe98.  Other monitor types like my new Samsung BX2450 which I purchased for my travel uses, to have a better monitor than a laptop monitor while on the road, only displays roughly 75% of sRGB.  75% is very workable if you can’t afford an S-IPS equipped panel, so while it’s nice to have more coverage 75% will serve you well. 

So, if you can afford a S-IPS equipped desktop display, but all means get one.  The Viewsonic VP2365WB is $289 in the states but I can’t find one here.  The Dell U2410 is about $469 in the states and the U2710 about $740.  Both the Dells can be ordered from Dell Thailand.   But if you can’t find or afford an S-IPS monitor, look for a LED backlit matte screen model like the Samsung BX2450. 

 

Size and Resolution 

All else being equal, the bigger the display the more resolution it has, the better.  There’s nothing like a nice large 24 inch monitor to make post processing and image viewing enjoyable.  If you can possibly afford it, get some nice 26-27 inch displays.  30 inch displays are awesome in size, but there are only two out there worth owning.  They tend to have severe problems with color accuracy and luminance from one end of the screen to the other. 

24” screens will usually have 1920x1200 pixels of resolution.  My 25.5 inch NEC LCD2690uxi2’s also have 1920x1200 and I love them.  I’d rather have quality pixels than more pixels.  Most 27” monitors like the Dell U2711 have 2560x1440 and I’d stay away from anything less at this size.  30 inch monitors are 2560x1600.  Newer less expensive 24” monitors like my new Samsung BX2450 are geared towards multimedia so they have a 1080p geared display which means 1920x1080.   

 

Matte or Glossy? 

Matte screens are always far preferable to glossy screens.   Matte screens have much less reflection, more uniform color, and will appear sharper than their glossy counterparts.  Don’t let the high contrast and over saturated colors used to market monitors to those mostly interested in gaming or movie watching fool you.  They look impressive at first, but when you try to work with them for any length of time you’ll soon discover their faults.  If you have doubts, notice that not a single professional graphics or imaging monitor comes with a glossy screen.  The top end monitors sold to imaging and graphics professionals are 100% matte. 

 

Connectivity 

There are four major types of monitor connections.  VGA, DVI, Displayport, and HDMI.  

VGA -  This is an analog signal common on older desktops and most every laptop.  It’s a D shaped blue connector with 9 pins.  If your laptop only has a VGA output, then you’ll need a monitor which supports VGA. 

DVI -  This is a digital signal and is the connector you’ll find on most serious desktop displays.  It’s a D shaped 15 pin connector.  Very few laptops, 3 that I know of, ever came with DVI outputs. 

Displayport -  This is a relatively new connector and it has more capabilities than DVI.  It carries both sound and video information and you can even ‘daisy chain’ Display port capable monitors.  More and more new models will include a Displayport connector and they’re already standard on many video cards. 

HDMI -  This is a connector made popular with newer HDTV televisions, DVD players, and Blue-ray players.  It’s a multimedia type connector which is digital and it carries both sound and video channels.  These are great for television and work well for computers.  Current generation laptops often come with HDMI output ports instead of the older VGA ports, and virtually all newer cameras have mini-HDMI connectors so you can connect your device directly to your HDTV, of if so equipped a computer monitor. 

Which connectors to shop for?  If you’re shopping for high-end imaging monitors look for DVI and/or Displayport.    HDMI is nice but doesn’t really offer much advantage over the others because most computer monitors don’t have speakers.  If your laptop only supports VGA then get a monitor that supports both VGA (analog), or you might look for one that supports both VGA and HDMI so it will also support future laptops.  

Many models will support all three like my Samsung BX2450.    My new NEC dedicated imaging monitors have both VGA and DVI, but no Displayport or HDMI.  All the digital outputs (Displayport, HDMI, DVI) will provide the same level of image quality.  So basically, you buy to support the laptop, desktop, graphics cards you have now, and perhaps ‘future proof’ a bit by making sure it has a digital output, and if your future includes a new laptop make that a HDMI output.   I know that’s a lot to chew on, but those are the choices we have. 

Other monitor connectors like USB ports, speaker ports, card readers, aren’t necessary and I wouldn’t consider them a plus when choosing a monitor. 

 

On Screen Display (OSD) 

Look for an OSD that supports at least:  Contrast, Brightness, and the Red/Green/Blue channels.  The more useful features the better, but these are the minimum you should be looking for.  It’s possible to profile a monitor without these controls (as you would a laptop), but the profile won’t be nearly as accurate as if would be if you had access to these controls. 

 

Base/Stand 

There are many types, but what you want to look for is a stand that is heavy enough to solidly support your monitor, yet provides the full range of adjustability (as the screen is orientated to you) you’ll personally need.  The better displays will be able to easily tilt up/down, and rotate from landscape to portrait modes.  Personally I have no use for a screen that “rotates” but I find the tilt and angle adjustments mandatory. 

If you’re planning on using more than one screen, and if you have the space and budget this is another area I highly recommend, then you’ll want a nice multiple display stand.  These should have a curved bar (don’t get one that’s straight, you’ll hate it) that naturally angles the monitor in towards the viewer.  When you use this kind of stand you’ll have to remove the panel from the original stand and mount it on “VESA” mounts which come with the multiple display stands.  VESA standards are international and depict the spacing of the mounting screws, either 100mm or 200mm, necessary to attach the panel to a accessory stand or mounting arm.  Any high quality monitor will support both.  The lesser expensive displays like my new Samsung BX2450 won’t have VEGA support at all.  So take this capability into account when planning your purchases. 

 

Look Up Table (LUT) 

Roughly 98% of monitors sold require the video card to provide the LUT.  I’ll explain in detail below why you would want the monitor to have its own LUT, but this is a compromise most people make based on cost.  Video card LUT’s are usually 8 bits.   Internal LUT’s (on the monitor) are 12 or 14 bits, which equate to a few million more shades of colors.  If a video card LUT and you want to run more than one color profiled monitor you’ll need a video card which can do this.  I’m not going to go into video cards other than to link you to my last two video card reviews   where I’ve went over this subject in detail.  The subject of internal monitor LUT’s vs. video card provided LUT’s is perhaps the most important choice you’ll make at the higher end of monitor purchases. 

Last week I responded to Rod C.’s feedback about LUT’s here.   Since I already explained the subject of internal and external LUT’s and how they relate to color profiling, I’m just going to repost the information here.

 

My Reply:

Sounds nice.  You won’t have any problems color profiling two U2711’s (they use the video card LUT’s) because you have two video cards.. your only problem will be choosing which color profile you want to use.  Every other purpose will be a compromise.  Let me give you an example.  I have 5 major profiles I use: 

  • sRGB for the web.  I want to process an image and have it appear 100% on the web, as I see it in Lightroom or Photoshop.  This means other people as well can see it the way you desire, because sRGB is the web standard.  This includes shops that make your prints.   Also, when set to this standard it allows you to see the work of others on the web as they designed it to be. 
  • CYMK   I use this for processing images used for advertising brochures and the such.  We call it pre-press. 
  • In house printing.  Here, I use the full color gamut with my own in house printers.  I want to be able to see output from my printer that looks exactly as it does in Lightroom or Photoshop.  This means the monitor will usually be very dim compared to sRGB, which means I’ll need to increase the exposure relative to sRGB to get correct prints.   If I sent out these files to an out of house printer who’s set up for sRGB.. they’d not only turn out underexposed, but the colors would be off. 
  • Out of house specialty wide-gamut printing.  This is a profile for when I want to process my images in Lightroom or Photoshop, at their widest possible gamut, and then pay a specialty print house who uses wide-gamut inkjet art printers.  This type of file printed on an sRGB printer, or viewed on an sRGB monitor.. will look severely oversaturated.. especially in the reds. 
  • And finally.. I want a profile less bright than standard sRGB but where the colors still look correct.. for my every day web viewing.    

This is five profiles.  With the NEC’s I can profile each of these on each monitor using my calibration software and hardware (in this case Spectraview II), and because the NEC’s use 12-14 bit hardware LUT’s, I can switch between them with the click of a mouse. 

In contrast, your U2711’s use 8 bit video card LUT’s (the difference between 8 and 12 bits is a few million shades of color).. This means when you profile your monitor, you’ll have to choose a single purpose, and during the calibration process you’ll need to manipulate the monitor controls (brightness, contrast, red, green, blue) on the monitor itself.. so the monitor will be set up to work ONLY with that one profile.  I did it this way for years.. and I learned that if I was profiled for one, I could get close to the others by upping/lowering the exposure, or increasing/decreasing colors.. but it was always a guess.. and I NEVER got the web part right. 

So.. while the U2711’s are S-IPS quality monitors.. they lack this major ability photographers really need.  I’ve only been fortunate enough to have this capability since I’ve had my new NEC’s.. but it’s like someone took the handcuffs off.. and I’m now 100% accurate on all profiles.. and I can do one kind of work now, ten minutes later another kind of work, and so on.. with no penalty.  It’s great.. 

 

Other Factors 

Keep in mind that monitors age.  Pixels go bad, backlighting grows dim, and the power supplies can go bad.  I recently replaced two high-end monitors which were 6-7 years old and had been repaired several times.  They had to be replaced because the backlighting (CCFL’s) had grown so dim over time they could no longer be profiled.  Laptop monitors are worse.  If  your laptop is just 18-24 months old, it’s monitor is probably less than half as bright and/or evenly lit/color accurate as when it was new.  Laptop display panels age much more rapidly than desktop display panels. 

 

Summary 

In a nutshell, laptops are ‘gamut challenged’, a desktop display is almost always preferable to any laptop display, look for a monitor 24 inches or larger, 1920x1080/1200 resolution, matching connectivity to your current system, matte screen, a decent stand, and if you can at all budget for an internal LUT monitor, then do so. 

Next week I’m going to go more in-depth about why you want and how to use different color gamuts, how color gamuts are related to what you see online in your web browser, which web browsers are color aware, what gamuts are suitable for which printing, and more.   Look for Part III of our monitor series next week.